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January 19: Susan Mills (MacEwan University, Edmonton)

3:30 pm to 5:00 pm in KTH B124

“The ‘best system’: Descartes on natural sensory error and God’s goodness”

Abstract: Immediately following Descartes’s statement in Meditation Six about the “proper purpose” of sensations, Descartes recognizes a serious problem with the fact that, on occasion, our senses do not fulfill their purpose and sensory error occurs. If this were a problem of wrong judgement, Descartes could explain it as an error on our part, that is, as a misuse of our faculties. But it is not that kind of error. Rather, it is an error in the nature that God gave us, and that is a problem. On pain of contradiction with God’s perfection, natural sensory error should never happen, and yet it does.; thus, Descartes needs a theodicy. So it is that near the end of Meditation Six, Descartes declares that our God-given sensory system-with its occasional errors and all-is the “best system that could be devised.”

In this paper, I will unpack what “the best” means in this context and how this defense of God’s goodness is supposed to work as a solution to the problem of natural sensory error. Subsequent to that analysis, I will argue that this defense is inconsistent with the freedom of Descartes’s God. In particular, I will argue that Descartes’s God is not an architect in the sense of creating within the constraints of a fixed end. For this reason primarily, I maintain that Descartes is not at his own best when it comes to resolving the problem of natural sensory error. Nevertheless, with an eye to Descartes’s medical ambitions, I will add that the problem is not all that devastating-indeed, it is complementary-to his philosophy beyond the Meditations.


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Date(s) - January 19, 2018
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

McMaster University, Kenneth Taylor Hall B124


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