From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, by Alexander Koyré, , at sacred-texts.com
Descartes & Henry More
Henry More was one of the first partisans of Descartes in England even though, as a matter of fact, he never was a Cartesian and later in life turned against Descartes and even accused the Cartesians of being promoters of atheism.1 More exchanged with the French philosopher a series of extremely interesting letters which throws a vivid light on the respective positions of the two thinkers.2
More starts, naturally, by expressing his admiration for the great man who has done so much to establish truth and dissipate error, continues by complaining about the difficulty he has in understanding some of his teachings, and ends by presenting some doubts, and even some objections.
Thus, it seems to him difficult to understand or to admit the radical opposition established by Descartes between body and soul. How indeed can a purely spiritual soul, that is, something which, according to Descartes, has no extension whatever, be joined to a purely material
body, that is, to something which is only and solely extension? Is it not better to assume that the soul, though immaterial, is also extended; that everything, even God, is extended? How could He otherwise be present in the world?
Thus More writes:3
Having thus established that the concept of extension cannot be used for the definition of matter since it is too wide and embraces both body and spirit which both are extended, though in a different manner (the Cartesian demonstration of the contrary appears to More to be not only false but even pure sophistry), More suggests secondly that matter, being necessarily sensible, should be defined only by its relation to sense, that is, by tangibility.
[paragraph continues] But if Descartes insists on avoiding all reference to sense-perception, then matter should be defined by the ability of bodies to be in mutual contact, and by the impenetrability which matter possesses in contradistinction to spirit. The latter, though extended, is freely penetrable and cannot be touched. Thus spirit and body can co-exist in the same place, and, of course, twoor any number ofspirits can have the same identical location and "penetrate" each other, whereas for bodies this is impossible.
The rejection of the Cartesian identification of extension and matter leads naturally to the rejection by Henry More of Descartes denial of the possibility of vacuum. Why should not God be able to destroy all matter contained in a certain vessel withoutas Descartes assertsits walls being obliged to come together? Descartes, indeed, explains that to be separated by "nothing" is contradictory and that to attribute dimensions to "void" space is exactly the same as to attribute properties to nothing; yet More is not convinced, all the more so as "learned Antiquity"that is Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretiuswas of quite a different opinion. It is possible, of course, that the walls of the vessel will be brought together by the pressure of matter outside them. But if that happens, it will be because of a natural necessity and not because of a logical one. Moreover, this void space will not be absolutely void, for it will continue to be filled with God's extension. It will only be void of matter, or body, properly speaking.
In the third place Henry More does not understand the "singular subtlety" of Descartes negation of the existence of atoms, of his assertion of the indefinite divisibility
of matter, combined with the use of corpuscular conceptions in his own physics. To say that the admission of atoms is limiting God's omnipotence, and that we cannot deny that God could, if He wanted to, divide the atoms into parts, is of no avail: the indivisibility of atoms means their indivisibility by any created power, and that is something that is perfectly compatible with God's own power to divide them, if He wanted to do so. There are a great many things that He could have done, but did not, or even those that He can do but does not. Indeed, if God wanted to preserve his omnipotence in its absolute, status, He would never create matter at all: for, as matter is always divisible into parts that are themselves divisible, it is clear that God will never be able to bring this division to its end and that there will always be something which evades His omnipotence.
Henry More is obviously right and Descartes himself, though insisting on God's omnipotence and refusing to have it limited and bounded even by the rules of logic and mathematics, cannot avoid declaring that there are a great many things that God cannot do, either because to do them would be, or imply, an imperfection (thus, for instance, God cannot lie and deceive), or because it would make no sense. It is just because of that, Descartes asserts, that even God cannot make a void, or an atom. True, according to Descartes, God could have created quite a different world and could have made twice two equal to five, and not to four. On the other hand, it is equally true that He did not do it and that in this world even God cannot make twice two equal to anything but four.
From the general trend of his objections it is clear that the Platonist, or rather Neoplatonist, More was deeply
influenced by the tradition of Greek atomism, which is not surprising in view of the fact that one of his earliest works bears the revealing title, Democritus Platonissans. . .4
What he wants is just to avoid the Cartesian geometrization of being, and to maintain the old distinction between space and the things that are in space; that are moving in space and not only relatively to each other; that occupy space in virtue of a special and proper quality or forceimpenetrabilityby which they resist each other and exclude each other from their "places."
Grosso modo, these are Democritian conceptions and that explains the far-reaching similarity of Henry More's objections to Descartes to those of Gassendi, the chief representative of atomism in the XVIIth century.5 Yet Henry More is by no means a pure Democritian. He does not reduce being to matter. And his space is not the infinite void of Lucretius: it is full, and not full of "ether" like the infinite space of Bruno. It is full of God, and in a certain sense it is God Himself as we shall see more clearly hereafter.
Let us now come to More's fourth and most important objection to Descartes:6
[paragraph continues] Having thus impaled Descartes on the horns of the dilemma, More continues:8
by arguments that Descartes would be bound to accept.9
To the perplexity and objections of his English admirer and critic Descartes replies10and his answer is surprisingly mild and courteousthat it is an error to define matter by its relation to senses, because by doing so we are in danger of missing its true essence, which does not depend on the existence of men and which would be the same if there were no men in the world; that, moreover, if divided into sufficiently small parts, all matter becomes utterly insensible; that his proof of the identity of extension and matter is by no means a sophism but is as clear and demonstrative as it could be; and that it is perfectly unnecessary to postulate a special property of impenetrability in order to define matter because it is a mere consequence of its extension.
Turning then to More's concept of immaterial or spiritual extension, Descartes writes:11
Nothing of that kind applies to God, or to our souls, which are not objects of imagination, but of pure understanding, and have no separable parts, especially no parts of determinate size and figure. Lack of extension is precisely the reason why God, the human soul, and any number of angels can be all together in the same place. As for atoms and void, it is certain that, our intelligence being finite and God's power infinite, it is not proper for us to impose limits upon it. Thus we must boldly assert "that God can do all that we conceive to be possible, but not that He cannot do what is repugnant to our concept." Nevertheless, we can judge only according to our concepts, and, as it is repugnant to our manner of thinking to conceive that, if all matter were removed from a vessel, extension, distance, etc., would still remain, or that parts of matter be indivisible, we say simply that all that implies contradiction.
Descartes attempt to save God's omnipotence and, nevertheless, to deny the possibility of void space as incompatible with our manner of thinking, is, to say the truth, by no means convincing. The Cartesian God is a Deus verax and He guarantees the truth of our clear and
distinct ideas. Thus it is not only repugnant to our thought, but impossible that something of which we clearly see that it implies contradiction be real. There are no contradictory objects in this world, though there could have been in another.
Coming now to More's criticism of his distinction between " infinite " and " indefinite," Descartes assures him that it is not because of12
Thus I am surprised that you not only seem to want to do so, as when you say that if extension is infinite only in respect to us then extension in truth will be finite, etc., but that you imagine beyond this one a certain divine extension, which would stretch farther than the extension of bodies, and thus suppose that God has partes extra partes, and that He is divisible, and, in short, attribute to Him all the essence of a corporeal being.
Descartes, indeed, is perfectly justified in pointing out that More has somewhat misunderstood him: a space
beyond the world of extension has never been admitted by him as possible or imaginable, and even if the world had these limits which we are unable to find, there certainly would be nothing beyond them, or, better to say, there would be no beyond. Thus, in order to dispel completely More's doubts, he declares:13
But I think, nevertheless, that there is a very great difference between the amplitude of this corporeal extension and the amplitude of the divine, I shall not say, extension, because properly speaking there is none, but substance or essence; and therefore I call this one simpliciter infinite, and the other, indefinite.
Descartes is certainly right in wanting to maintain the distinction between the "intensive" infinity of God, which not only excludes all limit, but also precludes all multiplicity, division and number, from the mere endlessness, indefiniteness, of space, or of the series of numbers, which necessarily include and presuppose them. This distinction, moreover, is quite traditional, and we have seen it asserted not only by Nicholas of Cusa, but even by Bruno.
Henry More does not deny this distinction; at least not completely. In his own conception it expresses itself in the opposition between the material and the divine extension. Yet, as he states it in his second letter to
[paragraph continues] Descartes,14 it has nothing to do with Descartes assertion that there may be limits to space and with his attempt to build a concept intermediate between the finite and the infinite; the world is finite or infinite, tertium non dater. And if we admit, as we must, that God is infinite and everywhere present, this "everywhere" can only mean infinite space. In this case, pursues More, re-editing an argument already used by Bruno, there must also be matter everywhere, that is, the world must be infinite.15
[paragraph continues] Nor is it absurd or inconsiderate to say that, if the extension is infinite only quoad nos, it will, in truth and in reality, be finite:16
As for Descartes contention that the impossibility of the void already results from the fact that "nothing" can have no properties or dimensions and therefore cannot be measured, More replies by denying this very premise:17
We have seen Henry More defend, against Descartes, the infinity of the world, and even tell the latter that his own physics necessarily implies this infinity. Yet it seems that, at times, he feels himself assailed by doubt. He is perfectly sure that space, that is, God's extension, is infinite. On the other hand, the material world may, perhaps, be finite. After all, nearly everybody believes it; spatial infinity and temporal eternity are strictly parallel, and so both seem to be absurd. Moreover Cartesian cosmology can be put in agreement with a finite world. Could
[paragraph continues] Descartes not tell what would happen, in this case, if somebody sitting at the extremity of the world pushed his sword through the limiting wall? On the one hand, indeed, this seems easy, as there would be nothing to resist it; on the other, impossible, as there would be no place where it could be pushed.18
Descartes answer to this second letter of More19 is much shorter, terser, less cordial than to the first one. One feels that Descartes is a bit disappointed in his correspondent who obviously does not understand his, Descartes, great discovery, that of the essential opposition between mind and extension, and who persists in attributing extension to souls, angels, and even to God. He restates20
If there were no world, there would be no time either. To More's contention that the intermundium would last a certain time, Descartes replies:21
Indeed, it would mean introducing time into God, and thus making God a temporal, changing being. It would mean denying His eternity, replacing it by mere sempiternityan error no less grave than the error of making Him an extended thing. For in both cases God is menaced with losing His transcendence, with becoming immanent to the world.
Now Descartes God is perhaps not the Christian God, but a philosophical one.22 He is, nevertheless, God, not the soul of the world that penetrates, vivifies and moves it. Therefore he maintains, in accordance with mediaeval tradition, that, in spite of the fact that in God power and essence are onean identity pointed out by More in favour of God's actual extensionGod has nothing in common with the material world. He is a pure mind, an infinite mind, whose very infinity is of a unique and incomparable non-quantitative and non-dimensional kind, of which spatial extension is neither an image nor even a symbol. The world therefore, must not be called infinite; though of course we must not enclose it in limits:23
Once more Descartes asserts that God's presence in the world does not imply His extension. As for the world
itself which More wants to be either simpliciter finite, or simpliciter infinite, Descartes still refuses to call it infinite. And yet, either because he is somewhat angry with More, or because he is in a hurry and therefore less careful, he practically abandons his former assertion about the possibility of the world's having limits (though we cannot find them) and treats this conception in the same manner in which he treated that of the void, that is, as nonsensical and even contradictory; thus, rejecting as meaningless the question about the possibility of pushing a sword through the boundary of the world, he says:24
Henry More, needless to say, was not convincedone philosopher seldom convinces another. He persisted, therefore, in believing "with all the ancient Platonists" that all substance, souls, angels and God are extended, and that the world, in the most literal sense of this word, is in God just as God is in the world. More accordingly sent Descartes a third letter,25 which he answered,26 and a fourth,27 which he did not.28 I shall not attempt to examine them here as they bear chiefly on questions which, though interesting in themselvesfor example, the discussion about motion and restare outside our subject.
Summing up, we can say that we have seen Descartes, under More's pressure, move somewhat from the position he had taken at first: to assert the indefiniteness of the world, or of space, does not mean, negatively, that perhaps it has limits that we are unable to ascertain; it means, quite positively, that it has none because it would be contradictory to posit them. But he cannot go farther. He has to maintain his distinction, as he has to maintain the identification of extension and matter, if he is to maintain his contention that the physical world is an object of pure intellection and, at the same time, of imaginationthe precondition of Cartesian scienceand that the world, in spite of its lack of limits, refers us to God as its creator and cause.
Infinity, indeed, has always been the essential character, or attribute, of God; especially since Duns Scotus, who could accept the famous Anselmian a priori proof of the existence of God (a proof revived by Descartes) only after he had "colored" it by substituting the concept of the infinite being (ens infinitum) for the Anselmian concept of a being than which we cannot think of a greater (ens quo maius cogitari nequit). Infinity thusand it is particularly true of Descartes whose God exists in virtue of the infinite "superabundance of His essence" which enables Him to be His own cause (causa sui) and to give Himself His own existence29means or implies being, even necessary being. Therefore it cannot be attributed to creature. The distinction, or opposition, between God and creature is parallel and exactly equivalent to that of infinite and of finite being.