Essay by PaperNerd ContributorUniversity, Bachelor's November 2001

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Descartes' account of error runs along the following lines. It is impossible that God should ever deceive me, since in all deceit there is an imperfection, and the desire to deceive is malicious. Imperfection and malice are incompatible with God's essence. My power of judgement cannot be in error, if used properly, since this has been given by God. God could have made me infallible, while still free. However, my intelligence is not capable of understanding God's motive, which, suffice to say, is all-good. I have a power of understanding, which neither affirms nor denies, and is limited. I have a will, which does affirm or deny, and is unlimited. Error arises when I extend my judging power of the will to things which I do not understand, or which I only partly understand. Error is my fault, since the natural light teaches us that the knowledge of the understanding must always precede the determination of the will.

Williams' criticises Descartes' account on two counts. His first objection arises from Descartes' assertion that the will is infinite, the second concerns his connection between belief and will, which Williams refers to as assent. Firstly, he argues that for Descartes, the question of whether I can do something comes to this: whether, if I set myself to do something, I do it. It makes no sense on this interpretation, Williams continues, to ask whether someone can or cannot will something, since there is no physical obstacle to willing. Descartes view of the will as limitless is thus not fully intelligible, Williams concludes.

Williams' second objection centres upon Descartes' claim that the power of assent is as limitless as the will. As Hobbes argued, there are a very large number of things that one cannot help believing, or just cannot believe. ?The wife...