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Causal and Logical Necessity in Malebranche's Occasionalism

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 41, Number 4, December 2011
pp. 523-548 | 10.1353/cjp.2011.0043

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The famous Cartesian Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715) espoused the occasionalist doctrine that 'there is only one true cause because there is only one true God; that the nature or power of each thing is nothing but the will of God; that all natural causes are not true causes but only occasional causes' (LO, 448, original italics). One of Malebranche's well-known arguments for occasionalism, known as, the 'no necessary connection' argument (or, NNC) stems from the principle that 'a true cause... is one such that the mind perceives a necessary connection between it and its effect' (LO, 450). I formulate this principle as follows:

(NC) c is a true cause of e iff the mind perceives a necessary connection between c and e.

This principle permits one to undermine a purported causal relation between c and e (where c is the purported cause, and e is the purported effect) by conceiving of a case where c occurs and e fails to follow. If the mind perceives a necessary connection between c and e, then it is impossible to conceive of c's occurring without e's occurring. For Malebranche, 'the mind perceives a necessary connection only between the will of an infinitely perfect being and its effects. Therefore, it is only God who is the true cause and who truly has the power to move bodies' (LO, 450). This argument regards causation as some sort of 'necessary connection' between cause and effect, where the cause is a necessary and sufficient condition for the effect and/or the effect is a necessary consequence of the cause.

Malebranche's other main argument for occasionalism is known as the 'conservation is but continuous creation' argument (hereafter, CCC). CCC attempts to undermine the causal efficacy of minds and bodies by arguing that God's causal power is necessary (and sufficient) for the existence of substances and their determinate modes. God cannot create/conserve some body call it A through his will or volition without locating A somewhere, 'here, there, or elsewhere' (D, 115). Necessarily, if God creates/conserves some A, then A is created/conserved at some location l. Theodore, on Malebranche's behalf, remarks,

Now it is a contradiction that God wills this armchair to exist, unless He wills it to exist somewhere and unless, by the efficacy of His will, He puts it there, conserves it there, creates it there.

(D, 116)

Now suppose God wills ball A at l. Suppose further that A is moved such that A hits ball B which is at rest. For Malebranche, A does not move B. The motive force at work here does not belong to the body, but rather the force of the moving body is simply the will of God conserving each body successively in different places.

There are two main competing interpretations of the status of NNC and its relationship with CCC. The first interpretation regards CCC as the 'most powerful and sweeping argument for God as the sole agent in the universe' (Nadler 2000, 126), and regards NNC as the 'thin' argument that is trivial and stipulative in character (Pyle 2003, 97-8). Sukjae Lee (2008) goes so far as to claim that Malebranche himself was unhappy with the argument and proceeded to lessen its prominence in the Dialogues on Metaphysics and on Religion (hereafter, Dialogues) (Lee 2008, 540). This interpretation further claims that the 'necessary connection' principle behind NNC was deeply controversial and rejected outright by Malebranche's contemporaries (Lee 2008, 544; Pyle 2003, 100-1). Call this the Lee-Pyle interpretation.

The opposing interpretation regards NNC and not CCC as 'the most powerful and intriguing argument for occasionalism' (Jolley 2006, 119), and 'if one grants the premise that cause and effect are necessarily connected, the argument is ingenious and even persuasive' (Loeb 1981, 205). This interpretation is further strengthened by the fact that Malebranche's contemporaries were also committed to the premise that God's will is necessarily efficacious. Call this the Jolley-Loeb interpretation.

The outline of this paper is as follows. I explicitly lay out NNC and articulate some of its prima facie strengths (§I). I then critically discuss what I take to be the two...

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