Freedom and Necessity in Pascal, Leibniz, and Kant

A Leitmotiv of the Pensees is Pascal’s Augustinian reflections on the conversion of the nations as a providential fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Late in the work, he takes up this theme to argue that the Church outdoes the pagan philosophers, not merely in the depth of its knowledge, but in the breadth with which it distributes it: “What men by their greatest lights had been able to work out, [Christianity] teaches to its children” (§230, 530b). Later, he reprises this theme: “What Plato was not able to persuade some few chosen and so instructed men of, a secret power persuades a hundred thousand men of, by the power of precious few words” (§338, 543b). The poor widow who recites the Creed, as Aquinas reminded us, knows more about God than Plato or Aristotle did.

Reflecting on the significance of the great unwashed embracing the philosophic life that Plato and Aristotle had reserved for the privileged few prompts one of the most interesting discussions in all of the Pensees. Pascal offers a threefold typology of humanity, roughly ordered to the threefold epistemology offered earlier: there are those of the flesh, of the mind (esprit), and of wisdom (§308, 540a). He comments, “There are some who can only admire fleshly goods, as if there weren’t mental goods; and there are others who only admire mental goods, as if there weren’t some that were infinitely higher in wisdom” (§308, 540b). The former class, surely comprising most people most of the time, are interested in the mundane, in matters of production and of power. The second class is composed of “great geniuses,” who, Pascal maintains, “have their empire…they have no need of fleshly greatness.” As an example, Pascal mentions Archimedes, who “has not given battle for the eyes, but has furnished his inventions for all minds” (§308). In the kingdom of the mind, the only currency that matters is demonstrated truth.

Without at all diminishing the value of the life of the mind, Pascal identifies a higher order yet, that of “wisdom,” which belongs to “the saints,” who “have their empire…and have no need of any grandeur, whether fleshly or mental (spiritual?)…They have seen God and angels, and not bodies nor curious minds. God suffices for them” (§308, 540a-b). Unsurprisingly, Jesus serves as Pascal’s prime example of the order of wisdom, a man “without goods, and without any production outside of knowledge, is in his order of sanctity. He has not given inventions…but he has been humble, patient, holy” (§308, 540b).

Pascal emphasizes that the order of flesh cannot act upon the order of mind: “From all bodies together one could not succeed in making a single thought. This is impossible, and of another order” (§308, 540b). And the converse seems to be true as well: in the order of flesh, “concupiscence and force are the source of all our actions,” concupiscence of voluntary, force of involuntary (511b). Likewise, “from all bodies and minds one could not draw a movement of true charity, this is impossible, and of another, supernatural order” (§308, 540b). The life of Christian charity, that is, belongs to another order altogether than that of the life of the mind. This is why he insists that we ought not “be surprised to see simple people believing without reasoning. God gives them love of himself and hatred of themselves. He inclines their heart to believe,” which is both the necessary and sufficient condition of such believing — reasoning simply doesn’t enter the equation (§380). “How far it is from the knowledge of God,” Pascal insists, “to love him” (§377, 546b).

In characteristically terse and understated fashion, Pascal sketches a theory for relating three apparently distinct orders: natural, causal necessity; rational freedom; and grace. Underlying his discussion is, presumably, something like the “substance dualism” of Descartes, combined with a strong commitment to the impossibility of one substance’s acting on another, analogous to the views held by his contemporaries Malebranche and Spinoza. (No comment here on possible genetic influences in any direction.)

Interestingly, a generation later, Leibniz later developed a similar (though not identical) approach to integrating these three orders. (Again, no comment on possible genetic influence.) Consider this passage from the Monadology: “As we have established a perfect harmony between two natural kingdoms, the one of efficient, the other of final causes, we should also notice here another harmony between the physical kingdom of nature and the moral kingdom of grace; that is, between God considered as the architect of the mechanism of the universe and God considered as monarch of the divine city of spirits. This harmony makes things progress toward grace by natural means” (§87-88, in Modern European Philosophers, p. 300).

Here again, we have three orders: on the one hand, the order of “efficient causes,” which determine the course of all bodies, including those of human beings. Viewed from this perspective, all human action is explicable in terms of causal necessity; for any action p, reasons can be given (environmental, social, physiological, neurological, etc.) sufficient to account for that action. And yet, Leibniz, like Pascal, recognizes that this sort of Hobbesian determinism screens out a huge range of human belief and action — we act, not simply on the basis of causes, but also on the basis of reasons. We refuse to tell lies, not simply because we were subjected to a certain kind of moral formation, but because telling lies is wrong. We conclude that 1 + 2 = 3, not simply because we have been initiated into the socially- and indeed evolutionarily-beneficial language-game of addition, but because we perceive a relationship of entailment, of rational necessity, between the subject and the predicate of that sentence. Leibniz relates these two orders by appeal to a “pre-established harmony” between soul and body, by means of which “everything which happens in one corresponds perfectly and automatically to everything which happens in the other” (First Truths in MEP 248). The soul’s reasons correspond, by divine ordination, to the body’s operations (at least, insofar as the soul relates to those operations as actions on its part, rather than passions, for which, cf. Discourse on Metaphysics 33, MEP 283).

The most important difference betweenPascal and Leibniz on this subject seems to me to be that the former emphasizes the discontinuity between the three orders, and the latter the continuity. For Pascal, the substantial (ontological) split among flesh, mind, and charity corresponds to a logical split as well — our ordinary actions don’t in fact have much to do with reason, and neither has much to do with the virtue of supernatural charity for God and neighbor. For Leibniz, that substantial split is integrated within an overarching harmony; the orders complement one another, are made to serve one another.

It seems to me that part of this threefold distinction survives into Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, in his distinction of the “transcendental” from the “empirical subject.” (The transcendent “kingdom of grace” is, in all likelihood, simply obliterated, as religion is subjected to the bounds of mere reason). Kant asks with a question similar to the one that prompted Pascal and Leibniz to account for the three orders: is “freedom possible at all, and if it be possible, whether it can exist along with the universality of the natural law of causality”? (MEP 442) His answer turns on the distinction between noumenon and phenomenon that he had developed in the “transcendental aesthetic”:

If appearances are things in themselves, freedom cannot be upheld. Nature will then be the complete and sufficient determining cause of every event…If, on the other hand, appearances are not taken for more than they actually are; if they are viewed not as things in themselves, but merely as representations, connected according to empirical laws, they must themselves have grounds which are not appearances…While the effects are to be found in the series of empirical conditions, the intelligible cause, together with its causality, is outside the series. Thus the effect may be regarded as free in respect of its intelligible cause, and at the same time in respect of appearances as resulting from them according to the necessity of nature. (443)

Causal necessity, Kant cautions, belongs to the world of appearances; it is a concomitant of the mind’s categorical structuring of experience within a spatio-temporal manifold. And so, insofar as they are viewed empirically, of course all experiences are causally determined — events can only appear within that manifold insofar as they are fitted within some causal sequence. And yet, Kant recognizes, “That our reason has causality, or that we at least represent it to ourselves as having causality, is evident from the imperatives which in all matters of conduct we impose as rules upon our active powers. ‘Ought’ expresses a kind of necessity and of connection with grounds which is found nowhere else in the whole of nature” (446). And so “reason does not here follow the order of things as they present themselves in appearance, but frames for itself with perfect spontaneity an order of its own according to ideas, to which it adapts the empirical conditions, and according to which it declares actions to be necessary, even although they have never taken place, and perhaps never will take place” (447).

Here is Leibniz’s insight about the limitations of a thoroughgoing materialism w/r/t human action: we know that we act, not merely as caused, but also for reasons. Kant, however, perhaps because of his metaphysical parsimony, doesn’t adopt Leibniz’s notion of two complementary but causally-insulated orders. Instead, he simply notes that we characterize a single action from two distinct, and indeed incompatible vantages. Consider “a malicious lie”:

Although we believe that the action is thus determined [by “defective education, bad company,” etc.], we none the less blame the agent, not indeed on account of his unhappy disposition, nor on account of the circumstances that have influenced him, nor even on account of his previous way of life…our blame is based on a law of reason whereby we regard reason as a cause that irrespective of all the above-mentioned empirical conditions could have determined, and ought to have determined, the agent to act otherwise. This causality of reason we do not regard as only a cooperating agency, but as complete in itself, even when the sensuous impulses do not favor but are directly opposed to it (449).

In some ways, Kant takes a step back towards Pascal, emphasizing the radical distinction of the kingdom of nature from the “kingdom of ends,” of the “given” from the “space of reasons” (as Sellars would later term it). Leibniz’s account is Aristotelian by comparison, emphasizing the mutual intelligibility of passions and reasons.

Kant surely viewed his metaphysical parsimony as a great strength of his account of freedom, but I see it as rendering that account inherently unstable. For instance, he writes, “These requirements [of empirical causal necessity] are not in any way infringed, if we assume, even though the assumption should be a mere fiction, that some among the natural causes have a faculty which is intelligible only” (445). And at the end of this section, he can only claim that “causality through freedom is at least not incompatible with nature” (449). But that reticence serves to render problematic and dubious something that we all know to be luminously true: human persons act for reasons and so can be morally praise- or blameworthy; they also have know necessary truths, and so belong to a realm that stands outside the merely contingent. This is part of the data of common sense which philosophy ought to interpret, not explain away.

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