Efficient causation and volition in Malebranche and Berkeley

In the early modern period, explicit consideration of how causation itself should be understood and characterized is fairly rare, and this despite the fact that questions about the causal structure of the world are being asked with a new urgency and are receiving new answers. Two figures who cannot entirely ignore this question, however, are Nicolas Malebranche and George Berkeley. And this is for an obvious and pressing reason: for both of them it is an important component of their metaphysics that the domain of real causes is severely restricted. More specifically, they both hold that, appearances to the contrary, ordinary physical objects are not efficient causes. Note that in doing so they are not just contravening what we might reasonably take to be common sense (though Berkeley will disagree). They are maintaining that what was becoming a paradigmatic example of efficient causation—body-body causation at impact—is in fact not that at all. On some prominent recent interpretations of each philosopher, they accomplish this restriction by maintaining that only volitions, or beings with wills, are legitimate candidates to be efficient causes. Although these interpretations are well-motivated, it is a central concern of this paper to argue against them. I will argue that neither Malebranche nor Berkeley rules out corporeal causes by fiat. More specifically, they do not rule out corporeal causes by simply appealing to a notion of efficient causation that is inflected with finality and which therefore allows only volitions to be causes. Other things being equal, this is surely the more charitable interpretation: it ought not to turn out to be a simple category mistake to suppose that bodies (particles, billiard balls) are genuine causes. To assume that it is would be to ignore some of the most significant metaphysical issues raised by the new science, with which both philosophers were actively engaged. In fact, I will show that Malebranche sees impact as a serious challenge (or, at any rate, he is brought to so see it by Fontenelle’s critique of occasionalism), and is thoroughly engaged with it, though it turns out to be a persistent trouble spot in his philosophy. Although Berkeley engages less with the question of the status of impact, this is not because impact isn’t a candidate for causal efficacy, but because he holds that his idealism can make short shrift of any such pretensions on its behalf. Indeed, the more difficult problem for Berkeley’s system is to expand the domain restricted by Malebranche so as to allow that finite spirits may be causally efficacious. And the controversial interpretive question is whether Berkeley rules in volitional causes by a kind of fiat, declaring that (regular) sequences with volitions as antecedents are causal. Although there is evidence that Berkeley formulates something like this regularity-plus-volition view in his notebooks, I argue that he does not retain this account in his published works, and that on the whole this is a good thing. Rather, Berkeley’s return to a more traditional conception of spirit as substance is accompanied by a return to a more traditional conception of power, which thus requires him to justify its application to finite spirits.