On Dialogues on Metaphysics and Religion (1688), dialogues 1-4, featuring Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth. Malebranche presents a rationalist epistemology that is more like an early modern version of Plato than anyone else we've read. He comes chronologically between Descartes and Leibniz, and provided some foundational insights for Hume's take on causality, Berkeley's idealism, and Leibniz's theodicy.
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This is the first of 2.5 episodes we're doing on this book. In the second episode, we'll deal with his famous doctrine of occasionalism about causality, which says that nothing actually ever causes something else directly. Instead, God is responsible for all instances of causality. This doctrine actually dates back to the Islamic theologian Al-Ghazali, who reasons that only God make something happen necessarily, and since causality involves not just one thing succeeding another (as Hume concluded) but something necessarily following something else, it must be the work of God, not something that individual material objects could bring about.
Malebranche's more immediate motivation is Descartes' notorious trouble with interactionism. Malebranche agrees that mind and body are fundamentally different, and also buys Descartes' vision of material substance, where this is only extension, which means something that takes up space and moves around. Apparently, this idea actually came from Galileo, and very much informs Locke's take on primary qualities: What is really in physical objects is only shape and motion, and not colors, sounds, etc., which are in the mind.
Given that notion of substance, Malebranche thought that there's no way that it could exert causal powers on the mind or vice versa, since mind is just for these guys a floating repository of ideas. This is the main reason for God to get involved with causality: so we don't have to worry about how mind-body interaction is possible.
For Malebranche, like Plato, mind (Reason in particular) is also a route to everything that is clear and true, whereas the bumpings among physical objects (including our eyes, nerves, and brains) that (via God) cause our sensations don't yield anything like true knowledge. In fact, Malebranche said we don't actually perceive the physical world at all. It is strictly speaking invisible. Instead, our mind contains sensations (which are confused) and ideas, which come from reason. So, for instance, we get that idea of substance from Reason, and that's all we really know about the physical world. We don't even know for sure that there is a physical world based on our sensations and this idea of substance, though Malebranche said we can reasonably have faith in that due to the Bible talking about physical objects.
Also in this section of the book is Malebranche's proof for the existence of God, which provides some insight into what this intelligible world that Reason accesses is like. All ideas, Malebranche said, contain within them the idea of infinity as a fundamental component. So if I have an idea of "chair," then I also have the idea that this concept can apply potentially to multiple, and in fact countless, objects. Malebranche stressed that this is not merely a negative idea of infinity, like if we had the idea of counting, and stopping counting, and then just said, "what if we didn't stop counting?" Instead, he thought that even the idea of "never stopping" contains infinity.
But the idea of infinity is transcendent. It doesn't fit entirely in our minds. It is a positive idea, yet we as finite beings can't fully grasp it. Well, God is the idea that contains (embodies?) this idea of infinity, so just through having ordinary conceptual thought about chairs and things, we for sure have this idea of God and know that God must exist, because in seeing the intelligible world, we're seeing God's substance directly.
However, just as our idea of infinity is not fully adequate, because we only can think part of it (can't fit all of infinity in our minds), the same goes for God. So yes, we directly perceive God, but we only perceive that God exists, not what God's essence is. We can figure out through Reason that God is simple, and that's going to be very important for how we understand the character of God's causality, i.e. scientific relations between things in the world, but we don't perceive God's simple essence directly, just God's existence.
Continues with Part Two.