Malebranche’s Vision in God
Fr. Nicolas Malebranche held the view that we “see all things in God,” a view which is typically held, like his occasionalism, to simply be a bizarre ad hoc theory to patch up Cartesian problems that is far too theologically motivated to be an interesting philosophical position in the 21st century. Sadly, few take Malebranche seriously enough to see why this stereotype is false. Here I will offer, in a very condensed manner, a summary of Malebranche’s motivations and reasons for defending such a seemingly strange philosophical position. Malebranche, I think, has one of the most sophisticated accounts of perception and intentionality in the history of philosophy, and his view is a sharp contrast to the various positions of his numerous Cartesian contemporaries.
In the Search After Truth Malebranche writes: “It is certain that nothingness or the false is not perceptible or intelligible. To see nothing is not to see; to think of nothing is not to think.” (SAT IV.11; LO 320) Malebranche strictly holds that any perception must have an object. He writes at the end of this paragraph: “But there is a contradiction in saying that we can immediately see what does not exist, for this is to say that at the same time we see and do not see, since to see nothing is not to see.” (SAT IV.11; LO 320) Since ideas must be the objects of direct or immediate perception, there is no distinction between appearance and reality in the case of ideas. However, there is a distinction between ideas as the immediate objects of perception and bodies as the mediate objects of sense perception generally.
Malebranche holds that bodies can’t possibly be objects of immediate experience for metaphysical reasons.
I think everyone agrees that we do not perceive objects external to us by themselves. We see the sun, the stars, and an infinity of objects external to us; and it is not likely that the soul should leave the body to stroll about the heavens, as it were, in order to behold all these objects. Thus, it does not see them by themselves, and our mind’s immediate object when it sees the sun, for example, is not the sun, but something that is intimately joined to our soul, and this is what I call an idea. Thus, by the word idea, I mean here nothing other than the immediate object, or the object closest to the mind, when it perceives something, i.e., that which affects and modifies the mind with the perception it has of an object. (SAT III.2.i; LO 217)
This passage is somewhat easy to misunderstand, especially since Malebranche admits to Arnauld that his characterization here was a kind of joke to describe the absurdity of the position he is refuting. It’s not spatial distance that’s important here, but rather ontological and causal considerations. Malebranche holds that causation requires an intelligible relation between cause and effect. Like Descartes, Malebranche holds a ‘causal likeness principle’. Malebranche argues that the direct and immediate perception of the sun by the soul would violate the causal likeness principle because there would be causation without any intelligible connection. Bodies can’t cause perceptions in the soul because bodies, qua extended, are necessarily causally inefficacious. All extended things are essentially passive, and thus not capable of causing any modifications in any thing whatsoever, material or immaterial. It follows from the clear and distinct idea of extension that while the nature of body has the passive faculty of “receiving carious figures and movements,” (Dialogues VII.1-2; JS 106) an active causal power is not compatible with the nature of body. Further, Malebranche gives a very Augustinian argument from an ontological hierarchy. Augustine held that while the soul, which is more perfect, can act on the body, the body can’t act on the mind. It is an axiom for Malebranche that “nothing can act immediately upon the mind unless it is superior to it.” (SAT III.2.vi; LO 232) But since the soul is a simple substance, it is more perfect than bodies, which are compounds. Even if extended bodies were active, they still couldn’t in principle be immediately present to an immaterial soul. When I see the sun, then, my immediate object is an idea, and so whatever ideas are, they must be such that they can act on an immaterial soul. Though there is some disagreement among scholars, Malebranche is generally held to be an indirect realist about perception of bodies. That is, he holds that the mind perceives mind-independent ideas directly, immediately, and in God, and perceives material objects indirectly by representations via ideas. Consider the following ‘annihilation passage’ from the Dialogues, where Theodore says to Ariste:
Let us further suppose that God impresses on our brains all the same traces, or rather that He presents to our minds all the same ideas we have now. On this supposition, Aristes, in which world would we spend the day? Would it not be in an intelligible world? Now, take note, it is in that world that we exist and live, although the bodies we animate live and walk in another. It is that world which we contemplate, admire, and sense. But the world which we look at or consider in turning our head in all directions, is simply matter, which is invisible in itself and has none of those beauties we admire and sense in looking at it. (Dialogues I.5; JS 10-11)
Malebranche’s thesis notably runs counter to what the majority of his Cartesian contemporaries held about the ontological status of ideas (i.e., Arnauld, La Forge, Régis, etc.), namely that ideas are modes of the soul, which by their nature represent possible external objects. Malebranche breaks from this position in holding that ideas can’t possibly be modes of the soul. The Vision in God doctrine is brought in to remedy what Malebranche saw as inexplicable errors among his contemporary Cartesians concerning causality and intentionality. Malebranche offers a specific method of establishing the Vision in God doctrine, namely his ‘eliminative argument’. Here Malebranche lists all of the various positions that could explain how the mind knows external objects, and eliminates them all except the Vision in God doctrine. The following are the possible positions to explain how the mind knows external objects:
- External objects cause ideas in our minds by impressing their image or likeness on the mind. (Aristotelian theory)
- The mind creates its own ideas when the sense organ receives an impression.
- The mind innately has all the ideas it needs, created in the mind by God.
- Ideas are produced in the mind by God on the occasion of impressions on the sense organ.
- The mind has all the perfections of external things, and can innately know their properties through introspection in virtue of its own nature.
- We see all things in God.
Malebranche is often charged with being uncharitable to the Aristotelian position in his characterization of (1). Nevertheless, from what has already been said it can easily be seen why he would find (1) to be completely implausible. That external objects merely impress ideas in the passive mind betrays the intelligibility of causes and ontology. The difference between (1) and (2) is that the Aristotelian position is one in which the mind is completely passive, and external material bodies are active in the process of forming ideas in the mind, and (2) is a position where the mind is active in forming its ideas when a sense organ receives an impression. Note that (2) isn’t at face value inconsistent with traditional Cartesianism. However, Malebranche thinks this view must be wrong because it gives the human mind powers far too great. Drawing again on the ontological hierarchy, Malebranche says that ideas are vastly more perfect than bodies, and thus this view amounts to saying that the human mind has the power to create something better than God’s creation itself. Also, it isn’t clear how the mind could create an idea from material impressions, since this is causally unintelligible. It is important to note that (2) is a view that doesn’t introduce innate ideas, so if the mind were to create ideas, it would, in this case, create them from nothing without any knowledge of the object which it will represent, which is absurd. It isn’t clear who actually defended (3), but Malebranche argues that (3) is absurd because it amounts to saying that the mind has ideas of an actual infinity of ideas, created in the mind by God who always acts in the simplest way. Malebranche argues that (4) is not compatible with our ability to think at will. He argues that this position (which Nadler attributes to Cordemoy) must be false because “we must at all times actually have in us the ideas of all things, since we can at all times will to think about anything—which we could not do unless an infinite number of ideas were present to the mind; for after all, one cannot will to think about objects of which one has no idea.” (SAT III.2.iv; LO 227) In order to think at will, the mind must have an infinite stock of ideas available to it (though not actually present in the mind itself, as the previous position held). When we think about the idea of limitless space, a circle in general, or indeterminate being, the immediate object of our mind necessarily is nothing created, since no created reality can be infinite or general. Malebranche rejects (5), which he attributes to Arnauld and Régis, because though the mind sees sensations in themselves and directly (because they are perceived without ideas in virtue of being modes of the soul), the mind, as Augustine says, is not a light unto itself. Malebranche writes that prior to the creation of the world, nothing existed except God, and so God necessarily produced the world by ideas, and thus the ideas he had were not different from himself, so it follows that God sees all beings within himself by considering his own perfections, which represent them to him. But while God sees all other things by his own perfections, this can’t be the case with created minds. Malebranche writes:
But such is not the case with created minds, which can see in themselves neither the essence nor the existence of things. They cannot see the essence of things within themselves since, given their own limitations, created minds cannot contain all beings as does God, who might be termed universal being, or simply, He Who is, as He calls Himself. Therefore, since the human mind can know all beings, including infinite beings, and since it does not contain them, we have a sure proof that it does not see their essence in itself. For the mind not only sees things one after another in temporal succession, but it also perceives the infinite, though it does not comprehend it, as we have said in the preceding chapter. Consequently, being neither actually infinite nor capable of infinite modifications simultaneously, it is absolutely impossible for the mind to see in itself what is not there. It does not see the essence of things, therefore, by considering its own perfections or by modifying itself in different ways. (SAT III.2.v; LO 229)
Since (1)-(5) have been ruled out, Malebranche holds that the Vision in God is the only viable position to account for the intelligibility of perception of external objects. Malebranche refers to his theory as an account of perception that amounts to ‘revelation’ by God, which at face value seems peculiarly mystical, but given his reasons for defending this position, such a claim makes sense. We see what in God represents created beings, and “the mind can see God’s works in Him, provided that God wills to reveal to it what in Him represents them.” (SAT III.2.vi; LO 230) A further point should be emphasized to reinforce this point. Malebranche writes:
But the strongest argument of all is the mind’s way of perceiving anything. It is certain, and everyone knows this from experience, that when we want to think about some particular thing, we first glance over all beings and then apply ourselves to the consideration of the object we wish to think about. Now, it is indubitable that we could desire to see a particular object only if we had already seen it, though in a general and confused fashion. As a result of this, given that we can desire to see all beings, now one, now another, it is certain that all beings are present to our mind; and it seems that all beings can be present to our mind only because God, i.e., He who includes all things in the simplicity of His being is present to it. (SAT III.2.vi; LO 232)
Malebranche’s positive case for the Vision in God centers around the necessity of all objects being present to the mind in thinking an external object, which can only happen by a union of our mind with God’s omniscient mind. We might call this a necessity of the ‘omnipresence’ of ideas. The point here is that we have an infinite capacity to think of things, and this capacity is only metaphysically possible in virtue of Vision in God.
Malebranche gives a further argument for the Vision in God from properties. His Cartesian contemporaries generally held that ideas are identical with perceptions as modes of the soul which are by their nature representative. For these Cartesians, it is simply a brute fact that intentionality is the mark of the mental. There is no further explanation that illuminates why mental properties are intentional. Malebranche adamantly disagrees that intentionality is simply a brute fact because he doesn’t think that ideas can be identical with modes of the soul. Malebranche argues that a real distinction can be demonstrated between ideas and perceptions from their properties. To establish a real distinction, all he must do is show that one has a property that the other doesn’t have and is incompatible with the other. Essentially, Malebranche argues that perceptions are modes of the soul which are contingent, changeable, and finite. On the other hand, ideas are eternal, immutable, and necessary, and infinite. In fact, Malebranche takes Augustine’s notion of ideas, which was strictly applied only to eternal and necessary truths, but applies this to all ideas (archetypes in the mind of God), which are distinct from perceptions (modes of the soul). For example, Malebranche thinks it is evident that sensations, which are certainly modes of the soul, are quite distinct from ideas. When we are aware of the ideas, however, we have what Malebranche calls ‘pure perceptions’, which are also modes of the soul. Sensations by their very nature represent nothing beyond themselves, and ideas by their nature represent objects. Pain serves as a clear example here, for pain is a mental event which isn’t about anything. Malebranche thinks this is lack of representational content is true of all secondary qualities, and all sensations. Intentionality, therefore, can’t be the mark of the mental because not all mental states are intentional. When the mind has a sensation, all that is represented is that the mind is capable of being modified in a certain manner. Contrary to Descartes, Malebranche argues that no modes of the soul, as such, are representational, but are only representational in virtue of being related to ideas, which can only be in the mind of God.
 It has been argued that Malebranche is influenced by Suárez’s De Angelis in his ‘eliminative argument’.