Home > Philosophy > Meditations and discourse on Descartes’ Meditations and Discourse.

Meditations and discourse on Descartes’ Meditations and Discourse.

It’s in this meditation that I want to look at one of Descartes a priori proofs for a god, the reason I say “a god” and not “the Christian God” is, his arguments, even if accepted as true,  don’t prove the existence of that god.

This is standard fare as far as responses go, and it’s is a distinction most Christians will scoff at, claiming, for example, that Descartes arguments might simply be evidence for a god, that the different Abrahamic religions agree on reason and simply disagree on revelation (this of course leaves aside that this argument could demonstrate the existence of almost any creator god, within certain parameters, outside of the Abrahamic religions). However much this rebuttal may or may not carry weight normally, it is an unwarranted and irrelevant distinction in this instance, Descartes makes no effort to distinguish his arguments toward his god, we have no idea if he was aware that his argument required additional arguments to get to his god, and without those arguments we cannot simply assume Descartes thought that. All we do know is Descartes made an unjustified leap to his conception of his god, based on the arguments he presents in both Discourse and Meditations.

The Ontological argument

When Descartes came to his “I think, therefore I am” philosophy (p. 25), he reasoned that from this it was “clearly” a greater perfection to know than to doubt – this prompted him to find out where he learned to think about something that was more perfect than himself. (Descartes, Discourse on Method and Related Writings, p. 25, 1637)

Even if we grant this, why do we need to take the concept of something “more perfect than himself” to the unjustified idea of absolute perfection? We might also ask Descartes: what does perfect mean in this sense? Could a smarter person not simply be an example of something “more perfect” than him?  It is unclear what he means exactly.

To Descartes, it was clear that this aforementioned ability to know “had” to be from some “nature” that was in fact more perfect. (Descartes, Discourse on Method and Related Writings, p. 26, 1637)

Readers may be now asking exactly how is there a necessary or logical link between his ability to think and some “far more perfect nature” giving him this ability? (We might also note the slide toward anthropomorphism that Descartes is slowly taking – now this conception of perfection is a “nature”?).

Well, Descartes continues – saying the reason this is so, is due to the fact that his perceptions of external realities – the sky, the earth, light, heat etc – represented no difficulty in understanding their origins. He reasoned that he did not notice anything in them that were “superior” to him – and that this meant to the extent they contained any perfection was reliant on his ability to perceive such and if these external realities did not exist, then that is his fault of perception and came from him. This however would not apply to his “being” that was “more perfect” than him – since “to get an idea from nothing was manifestly impossible.” (Descartes, Discourse on Method and Related Writings, p. 26, 1637)

Again, the reader may have noticed the tricky word game Descartes is playing: now the “perfect nature”, which we could have possibly (and rather generously) understood to be a nebulous form of ‘idea’ about nature, is suddenly changed to a “perfect being”. This assumption is completely unjustified and the language heavily implies anthropomorphism, but is there any reason – even if we grant his concept of perfection – to apply what appears to be sentience and intelligence to this idea?  It is also not clear that we need to accept his premise that it is impossible to get an idea from nothing – at least in the sense he is using – do we need to accept all literary, mythical and fictional stories as true? After all – it’s impossible, according to Descartes, that these ideas could come from nothing.  But that’s the rub isn’t it, Descartes isn’t claiming that anything we can imagine must have it’s roots in external reality, only his special pleading god.

Now, you could say in response – that these ideas come from literary traditions, imagination etc, which are not from nothing – which begs the question – couldn’t Descartes conception of his nebulous god be exactly the same thing? After all, would Descartes also claim the character Yoda – or closer to home – Marduk /Ganesha/Thor etc, also have a basis in reality (I can feel a reason/revelation distinction coming)?

Well, Descartes has a response to this too – he claims that:

… I could not have received it from myself either, because it was just impossible for something that is more perfect to result from and depend on something less perfect as for something to proceed from nothing. Thus the only remaining option was that this idea was put in me by a nature that was really more perfect than I was, one that even had in itself all the perceptions of which I could have some idea, that is – to express myself in a single word –  God. (Descartes, Discourse on Method and Related Writings, p. 26, 1637)

There we have it, Descartes unwarranted assumptions realised in his end goal – to take a preconception – that a (single) god exists – and to place that preconception into a word game. But as we’ve seen along the way, there is no reason, for multiple reasons, to accept this conclusion.

For example: Descartes says he could not have received his idea of his perfect being from himself, on that much I might agree, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t receive the idea from other minds, he could have been taught, nay indoctrinated, by family members, the society of the time, to believe in the Christian God. You could then ask; “Where did the original idea come from?” And this is perhaps where Descartes is going with it – to which we can offer any number of reasons: misconceptions of reality, confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, ignorance of the empirical world and its mechanisms which, in a reasoning animals attempt to learn about its world, ascribed deities to answer these unknowns. If we accept that natural explanations are preferable to supernatural ones as some Christians do,  then these answers are all, more likely than the concept of a god.

We could also ask just how Descartes thinks that because he has the ability to detect what he would call “imperfections” (others might call that, simply being an animal which evolved over time to adapt to its environment with no teleology present? Or in other words being human!) that it follows from this a perfect being must exist? If he can conceive of perfection (and I’m not sure he can in this instance) how does it follow it’s a sentient being that exists?

From this notion – in his book – Meditations of First Philosophy, Descartes self reflects, asking himself :

I must consider whether there is anything in this idea that could not have originated from me. I understand by the name “God” a certain substance that is infinite, independent, supremely intelligent and supremely powerful, and that created me along with everything else that exists – if anything else exists. (Descartes, Meditations of First Philosophy, p. 30-1, 1641)

Of course the obvious question is how he came to know the properties of his god, he might say he intuited them, I would say, yet again – he was taught them, based on classic theology, either way – he makes no demonstration of how he knows what he says he knows. Or does he?

Indeed all these are such that, the more carefully I focus my attention on them, the less probable it seems they could have arisen from myself alone… For although the idea of a substance is in me by virtue of the fact that I am a substance, since I am finite, unless this idea proceeded from some substance which really was infinite. Nor should I tink I do not perceive the infinite by means of a true idea, but only through the negation of the finite, just as I perceive rest and darkness by means of a negation of motion and light. On the contrary I clearly understand that there is more reality in an infinite substance than there is in an infinite one. Thus the perception of the infinite is somehow prior in me to the perception of the finite, that is, my perception of God is prior t my perception of myself. For how would I understand that I doubt and desire, that is, that I lack something and that I am not wholly perfect, unless there was some idea in me of a more perfect being, by comparison which I recognize my defects? (Descartes, Meditations of First Philosophy, p. 31, 1641)

This is yet again, the idea of an idea, taken to an absolute, then given personhood – why exactly do I or anyone need to grant these extreme and wholly unjustified leaps? To a non-believer it simply looks as if Descartes is stretching words, sneaking in premises – playing a word game – to get his preconception of god to “life” so to speak. This seems at the least illogical and the most, dishonest. What Descartes seems to miss is that definition is not existence, Descartes can define his being by what attributes he deems fit, but is there any reason to think this being, or any other I could imagine for that matter –actually exists? More on this in a moment.

Descartes continues that the imperfection he sees within himself – “doubt, fickleness, sadness and similar things” could not have been in god, as it not part of perfection to have such. He also says that if there are other bodies in the world similarly imperfect as Descartes is they must rely upon the power of his perfect go to sustain them. (Descartes, Discourse on Method and Related Writings, p. 26-7, 1637)

This is not all clear – why must I, for example, who is obviously (despite how I may feel) not perfect (what does this even mean from a naturalistic point of view?), need to rely upon something that is perfect to “subsist”? As far as we know, I merely need food, shelter and water to subsist, at a baseline, all of which are not perfect.  Does Descartes fail Occam’s razor in his effort to postulate meaningless entities to answer questions for which we already have the answers? It would seem so.

I would also add, that if Descartes is using this as evidence for his divine being – and it looks like he is – he is clearly begging the question: he is assuming a metaphysical reality (that god sustains me through his will/grace etc) that is not clear exists, to come to the conclusion his god exists. If he is not using this as evidence for his god, then it still fails as it is a completely ad hoc hypothesis.

Descartes continues stating:

In contrast when I returned again to examine the idea I had of a perfect being, I found that existence was included in it in the same way as, or even more evidently than, the idea of a triangle includes its three angles being equal to two right angles or the idea a sphere includes the equidistance from its centre of all its parts [on the surface] and that, consequently, it is at least as certain as any geometrical demonstration could ever be that God, who is this perfect being, is or exists. (Descartes, Discourse on Method and Related Writings, p. 27, 1637)

A scholarly criticism of this argument goes along the lines of what F.C Copleston says in his book Aquinas: An Introduction to the LIfe and Work of a Great Thinker:

… existence cannot be numbered among a list of attributes, since it is the foundation of all attributes. (Copleston, Aquinas: An Introduction to the LIfe and Work of a Great Thinker, p. 107, 1955.)

Malcolm Murray elaborates on this Kantian concept in his book, The Atheist’s Primer:

This is Kant’s point when he says “Existence is not a predicate.” Kant is wrong if he’s making a grammatical point, or course. In the proposition, “God exists,” God is subject, and existence is the predicate. But Kant is not making a grammatical point. Let us say, instead, that existence is not a property. Existence is not something which adds to the description of a thing…. if a couple plans on buying their first home they may say things like, “It should have ample closets,” “It should have a good view.” But to say, “It should exist” is weird, since this is already presupposed by speaking of the house in the first place. Saying “It should exist,” adds nothing, because existence is not a property. Otherwise my dreaming of a mansion that belongs to me for free, had ample closet space, has a good view, and exists in fact, would be all I would need to own a home. (Murray, The Atheist’s Primer, p. 65, 2010)

My personal criticism would be: Descartes compares his conception of god to that of geometry – in the sense that it presupposes size, shape, breadth etc in its calculation and it needs no demonstrations of such. This is an obvious equivocation fallacy – a triangle is not a living, being – geometry is a literary tradition that has developed over time to  helps us explain and make sense of our reality. It is unclear if Descartes is asking us to accept his concept of a god in the same sense, but it’s unlikely. Moreover, the products of geometry – triangles etc can have physical demonstration and practical applications if their existence was put into doubt – it’s not clear if Descartes thinks his god can.

Conclusion

Well obviously I don’t think I’ve destroyed Descartes or anything as dramatic as that, these are merely my thoughts regarding his proofs, and why I find it extremely unconvincing, in this instance – why anyone would accept the Ontological argument – at least how it’s presented here. At the very least I hope I’ve shown some of the problem I have with this “proof”. I of course leave it for you to decide where you go with your acceptance of this argument and indeed belief in a god or gods.

References

Copleston F.C (1955).  Aquinas: An Introduction to the LIfe and Work of a Great Thinker (Second Edition). London. The Penguin Group. P. 107.

Descartes R. (1637). Discourse on Method and Related Writings (This translation first published by Penguin Books 1999). London. The Penguin Group. Pp. 125, 126, 127.

Descartes R. (1641). Meditations of First Philosophy (Third Edition). Indianapolis, Indiana. Hackett Publishing Company. P. 30, 31.

Murray M. (2010). The Atheist’s Primer. Ontario, Canada. Broadview Press. P. 65.

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