Lecture Series: Pt 2 – Descartes’ Third Meditation.
In today’s post we will be examining Descartes first argument for the existence of God, as this is what my assignment is on, I’m a little nervous at my ability to deconstruct Descartes fairly and accurately. This will be my attempt to collect my thoughts, any feedback would be appreciated.
Third Meditation: The existence of God
Descartes begins to discuss causes, the sufficient cause for his ideas, for his knowledge and beliefs – he briefly touched on this notion, when he discussed God in the earlier meditations, and again, when discussing his demon. But it is now that Descartes wishes to explore the cause of his ‘judgements’, ‘volitions’, ’emotions’ – focusing mainly on judgements as he states these refer to objective facts about the world and hence he needs to know if the thoughts inside him conform to those ‘things located outside’ himself. Descartes wants to know what distinguishes his volitions and emotions, which can imagine concepts that have no referents in real life (think of a hippogriff, or a siren) and which ideas inside him, which he believes as true, and do have real referents in reality? Is it his nature (meaning: a spontaneous impulse which leads him to believe, not truth that has been revealed by a natural light. Natural light meaning, simply: reason)? Or experience which tells Descartes which of his ideas depend on his will, or not?
To discuss the truth of these questions we must look at Descartes analogy of our perception of the sun, much like our earlier discussion of the wax, if we were to base our perceptions solely on experience, we would come to a different idea of what both the sun and the wax were. In the case of the sun we see it as a tiny ball, we can be assured that this is an object in our thoughts, that has a referent in reality, but that is not the end of our discussion. How do we come to know that the sun is in fact many times larger than the earth? By ‘astronomical reasoning’ as Descartes puts it, now we have 2 ‘ideas’ of the sun in us which are in conflict – but it is through reason that we come to discover the objective reality of what the sun is.
It is here we move to Descartes discussion of the existence of God and to help us understand the argument, let us simply explore Descartes points. He begins with God, due to his attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, eternal, infinite etc) God has more objective reality, than ideas that represent finite substances. To Descartes the notion of ’causes’, are discovered through the ‘natural light’ (reason), and under this reason God must be the total and efficient cause, and that there is less reality in the effect which comes from this cause (God). It is here that Descartes reasons:
For where, I ask, could the effect get its reality from, if not from the cause? And how could the cause give it to the effect unless it possessed it? It follows from this that something cannot arise from nothing, and also that what is more perfect – that is, contains in itself more reality – cannot arise from what is less perfect. (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 28, 1985)
To elaborate Descartes uses the example of a stone which previously did not exist, it cannot begin to exist unless it is produced by something that “contains, either formally or eminently everything to be found in the stone” (p.28). Descartes states that heat cannot be produced by something that is not hot, but by something that of at least “the same order of perfection as heat” (p.28), similarly the idea of heat, or the stone cannot exist in him unless it is put there by some cause which contains as much reality as he conceives to be in the heat or stone.
It is here where Descartes attempts to explain his theory of ideas, as it pertains to God – Descartes reasons that for an idea to contain objective reality (objective meaning in this sense, literally an object), it must be causally explained by some kind of formal reality, for if this were not the case, the idea would exist from nothing, but the fact that an idea exists in the intellect as an object (“objectively”) means that it cannot be nothing, hence it cannot come from nothing. But this is not enough of an explanation yet, Descartes reasons that, when looking for the origin of his ideas, there cannot be an infinite regress of them, they must have a first cause, a ‘primary idea’, an “archetype which contains formally all the reality which is present only objectively.” (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 29, 1985)
From this line of reasoning Descartes begins to discover how he might not be alone in the universe, that if there is an objective reality to any of his ideas, that are so great, that that reality could not reside in him, hence he could not be their cause, hence, from this it is necessary that he is not alone, and that some other thing, which is the cause of these ideas, must exist. How does Descartes discern however between God and his ideas of other objects (he uses ‘angels, animals and other men’ as examples), he states he has no difficulty understanding that they could be put together from the ideas he has of himself, of ‘corporeal things’, or that there is nothing so great in them, that they could not have originated from him. Further still Descartes searches to see if there is some falsity to his reasoning, in this idea of ‘material falsity’ that is ideas that refer to ‘non-things’, which Descartes states come from the fact the he is imperfect.
In turning his focus on God, he asks himself the above questions, if there is anything in the idea of God that could come from him? If we consider God defined as infinite, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful, and which created both everything and him, Descartes reasons it is unlikely this idea of God, comes from himself. To unpack this Descartes continues elaborating that he is a finite substance, so where does the idea of an infinite substance come from? It is in Descartes previously mentioned imperfection that he comes to understand that the infinite, which contains more reality than the finite is some way prior to his perception of the finite, in the face of Descartes imperfection, he reasons how would he know what that is, if there was not some idea in him of perfection? Descartes answers a few objections stating that is not needed for him to completely understand all the attributes of God, and how they work in reality, for:
“it is in the nature of the infinite not to be grasped by finite being like myself. It is enough that I understand the infinite and that I judge all the attributes which I clearly perceive and know to imply some perfection – and perhaps countless other of which I am ignorant – are present in God either formally or eminently. This is enough to make the idea that I have of God the truest and most clear and distinct of all my ideas.(Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 32, 1985)
Descartes, in a moment of doubt, wonders why a being more perfect than him must necessarily proceed from some being which is in reality more perfect – to probe this thought, Descartes asks if he could exist if no such being existed. Causally, he asks from whence his existence could come then? From himself? His parents? Or some other beings less perfect than God? Descartes states: if he were to have self-created he would be perfect (in the sense that he would not doubt, or lack anything) as he would have given himself these abilities, in essence he would be God. But perhaps the cause is not God, perhaps he was created by his parents, or some other cause less perfect, but as he has already stated, an effect has as much in it, as the cause, if this is the case then Descartes’ cause must be a thinking thing ,which he is, and as he has an ‘objective’ idea of God, there must be some being with all the attributes and perfections of God. Descartes defends, again, his notion of God against the charge that several partial causes could be responsible for creating him, or that he received his notion of perfection from several separate causes in the universe – but the fact that God is unified in a single cause, is more perfect than the notion of a separate disconnected cause, which is congruent with the definition of God, as perfect. Moreover the cause that led Descartes to believe objectively in God, must also have come from a cause which is itself unified.
I’m not even going into Descartes 4th meditation today, this blog is long, and incoherent enough now as it is, the 4th meditation is on ‘truth and falsity’, and not strictly pertaining to God, while still referring to it.
Deciphering this reading has been a task, one I fear might be outside my ability to reasonably discuss. I’ve made no effort to discredit Descartes hypothesis regarding God, it is enough for me merely to attempt to understand it, at the moment. I’m wondering if this is a question I want to tackle for my assignment now, especially considering my lecturer refered to it as a ‘perverse’ question, in the sense that is ‘perversely difficult’ which my analysis of Descartes is beginning to demonstrate to me. I realise now, my reviews here and here, were by no means accurate, and I have not understood Descartes, perhaps even now. He was an immensely talented thinker, one I recommend we all spend some serious time deconstructing and analysing, much of our Western philosophy is based around Cartesian notions, perhaps not so much anymore, but much still remains, especially in theistic thought (think: mind/body dualism as an example).
Descartes R., (1985). Meditations of First Philosophy trans John Cottingham,. Cambridge. Pp. 28, 29,32
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