Voluntarism, Skepticism, and the Unveiling of Nature

Medieval ClockPierre Hadot distinguishes between what he calls a Promethean and Orphic concept of nature in the history of philosophy. Both groups see the inner workings of nature as secretive and hidden from mankind. However, these secrets may be discovered by man by the use of certain methods. The Promethean method seeks to do violence to nature in order to force her to confess her secrets. The Orphic philosopher sees nature as somewhat divine and seeks to woo her through poetry and art, believing that the secrets of nature must be given voluntarily by Nature herself. According to Hadot, the Christian theology of voluntarism contributed to a more Promethean concept of nature and her secrets (Hadot also erroneously charges all Christians with a Promethean theology). Where Augustine held that God’s will and goodness are one and simple, voluntarists believed that God was more free and could do that which was contrary to his revealed will and even things contradictory. This view of God’s will led to an agnosticism about the secrets of nature, and Nature herself became more like a clock than a personality. Hadot explains, quoting Descartes:

According to theological voluntarism … if two plus two are four, it is because God so willed it. There is no intelligible necessity to impose itself on God’s absolute power: “The mathematical truths that you call eternal have been established by God and depend entirely on him, as do all other creatures. Indeed, to say that these truths are independent of God is to speak of him as a Jupiter or a Saturn, and to subject him to the Styx and the Fates.” [Oeuvres philosophiques, 1:259-260] (Hadot, The Veil of Isis, p. 133)

Hadot is not accusing Descartes of using God’s absolute will as a first principle of knowledge or speculative investigation. Rather, Descartes’ philosophy dealt violence to speculative science by attributing to God a virtually unknowable will and to nature, an unpredictable set of laws, and assumed an opposition between God’s will and the nature of things. Hadot continues:

God has established these truths “as a king establishes laws in his kingdom,” as Descartes wrote on April 15, 1630, to Father Mersenne. This doctrine of complete divine freedom had two consequences. First of all, it is possible that phenomena, or that which appears to us, may be produced by processes different from those we can construct mathematically and according to the laws of mechanics. We must renounce the idea of an absolutely certain science that knows genuine causes. The result is that we can observe and measure natural phenomena, but we cannot truly understand their causes. Seventeenth-century scientists found a sufficient motive for renouncing worries about the finalities and essence of phenomena in theological reasons; it was enough for them to determine how these phenomena occur according to the laws of mechanics. (ibid. p. 133)

Thus, the voluntarist concept of certain possible worlds that God may will to create, worlds that function completely different from ours, led to the birth of a minimalist science of phenomena that reduced the organic and dynamic Nature of things to a mechanical nature that is identical with man’s own art. In this system, the secrets of nature that were once only thought to be discoverable by imitation can now be known by reduplication via the art of mechanics. If the universals of Nature can be other than man is able to know, then Nature will be reduced in value to predictable physical phenomena, thus losing her personality, volition, and mystery. Thus, by reducing Nature’s value the Promethean project was furthered.

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