Home > Philosophy, Theism > First Assignment: ‘Critically Examine Descartes’ Two Arguments For The Existence Of God.’- Pt. 1.

First Assignment: ‘Critically Examine Descartes’ Two Arguments For The Existence Of God.’- Pt. 1.

Due to the length of the assignment, I will split it into 2 parts, the first focusing on the background knowledge we need to view his Descartes’ arguments, and the second post will deal with the arguments themselves.

Rene Descartes was a hugely influential 17th century philosopher and a central figure in the scientific revolution of that time. Any discussion of Descartes and God must ultimately begin with the backdrop from which Descartes discussed these ideas. It is not enough for us to very simply deconstruct his two arguments; we must look at several principles, or methods Descartes used to put forward these notions. Central to our understanding of Descartes two arguments for the existence of God are two principles (1) Descartes’ “new theory of ideas”, and (2) the “Causal Adequacy Principle (CAP)”. We shall begin by discussing each of these in turn. We will then look at “The Causal Argument” for the existence of God, the first proof Descartes offers in the Third Meditations of his First Philosophy, then we will look at his “Ontological Argument” as it is put forth in the Fifth Meditations of his First Philosophy. We will be looking at these arguments from a unique perspective, instead of challenging Descartes and his views, what may be more interesting, and within the scope of this limited paper, is instead to try and see these arguments from Descartes’ perspective, and attempt to explain why he, as immensely smart as he was, thought they were valid.

(1)    Descartes new theory of ideas

Descartes new theory of ideas is brought to us in the third meditations of his First Philosophy, and is a result of his systematic doubt put forward in the preceding two mediations. Descartes’ system of doubt did not allow him to use the common usage of the word ‘idea’ used by the medieval scholastics, which is to say an idea is a mental image that resembled and was caused by the object it was representing. His method forced him to rejected modes of thinking which were taught to him; the only thing that had epistemic justification was that he was a thing that thinks, and by this he means: a thing that” affirms, denies understands a few things, is ignorant of many things, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions” (Descartes, 1985, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, p. 24).

Let us begin by first teasing out what Descartes meant by the term ‘idea’ then we’ll move onto his new theory of ideas. When we investigate Descartes’ definition of the word ‘idea’ we can easily become confused, there is much discussion about what the term means, separate from its common usage, for example: “Some of my thoughts are as it were the images of things, and it is only in these cases that the term ‘idea’ is strictly appropriate — for example, when I think of a man, or a chimera, or the sky, or an angel, or God.” (Descartes, 1985, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, p. 25). The Stanford dictionary of Philosophy provides a lengthy discussion on how this definition conflicts with others Descartes used (Pessin 2008), but for our purposes let us focus on this one definition. It seems the Cartesian concept of ‘idea’ equates the image in our thoughts of the ‘objective’ reality it is relating but as Pessin, 2008 states this is not the medieval concept. Under Descartes’ view the term ‘images’ is not meant to be taken literally as he lists God, and God is not something which can be viewed as an image.  It is possible Descartes takes an idea to be, that there is an ‘object’ of his thought, and this ‘object’ is more of a likeness to the ‘formal’ reality rather than a strict mental image. All of these terms are used in a special sense, one we will define and elaborate on when we get to the CAP.

We should note, that according to Descartes, there are three modes (or ways) in which ideas exist: innate, adventitious (external) and invented by him, which derive from his own nature. (Descartes, 1985, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, p. 26).  According to The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Skirry, 2008) “innate” ideas are placed in us by God at creation and can be viewed, but cannot be altered – such as ideas of geometry. “Adventitious” ideas are the product of sensations produced by material objects existing externally to the mind. “Invented by him” (or “fabrications”) are as the name suggests inventions of the mind, and can be controlled, examined and cast aside at will.

The issue, which Descartes’ new theory of ideas attempts to solve, is (to paraphrase Descartes): which ideas does he take to be derived from outside him, and what is his reason for thinking they resemble things that exist? This will be integral to our discussion on Descartes arguments for the existence of God (and will lead us into the CAP).

Let us look at an example Descartes provides to discuss the difference between ideas in our mind (the ‘objective’), and the cause of them in reality (the ‘formal’ factor) – the sun. Descartes finds within himself two distinct ideas of the sun, one acquired from the senses, and one acquired from ‘astronomical reasoning’. The idea (‘object’) that Descartes has in his mind of the sun, derived from his senses is, according to him, an example of a ‘formal’ reality with an ‘eminent’ adventitious source. Although the senses would tell him the sun is very small, many times smaller than the Earth in fact. The other idea (‘object’) he has of the sun, which comes from ‘astronomical reasoning’ based innately (or constructed by him in some other way), reveals the sun to be many times larger than the Earth. We see this leads us to a contradiction in Descartes’ object-idea of the sun, as both ideas cannot resemble the sun that exists outside his mind.  What Descartes can do though, is use the different versions of his ‘objective’ ideas of the sun, and the fact that his idea of the sun does not depend on his will, to conclude that the sun must have a ‘formal’ reality for its ‘objective’ status in his mind , which exists adventitious and ‘eminently’ to him, in reality. At this stage however, Descartes is still working under the assumption that the existence of the external world is under the highest level of doubt, it is not until the proofs for God’s existence are given, can he ground them in an external reality. At this point in time his maligning demon holds reign over his external perceptions. To talk of the sun is an example of Descartes employing reason to determine the idea-content in his mind that must have as much objective reality, as its cause (i.e. – the sun existing in reality, to cause the idea-content in Descartes’ mind). What we can reasonably take away from this exercise is that different cognitive modes of discovery are being employed by Descartes to investigate the ‘formal’ and ‘eminent’ reality of an idea (these terms will be explained in the CAP) and its cause.

(2)    The Causal Adequacy Principle (CAP)

Central to Descartes’ ‘new theory of ideas’ is what is known as the “Casual Adequacy Principle” which is brought to us in the Third Meditations of Descartes’ First Philosophy. It is integral to our understanding of the two arguments for the existence of God and to our previous discussion on Descartes’ new theory of ideas. Why? We have been using several terms to discuss Descartes’ theory of ideas that need unpacking, and in this unpacking we should see how the above discussion on the interaction between ‘formal’ cause, and ‘objective’ reality becomes a coherent description of the intentionality of consciousness. Let us allow Paul MacDonald, 2012 to demonstrate and elaborate these terms for us:

““formal” – pertains to the cause of you having an idea (its occurrence)

“objective” pertains to the intention of the idea you have (its about-ness)

“eminent” pertains to the degree of reality of an idea’s cause (its ontological independence).” (MacDonald, 2012, PHL218 Unit Information and Learning Guide, p. 31)

To further tease out what these terms mean, let us take a look at each of them in turn. “Formal”: simply put this term is the cause of an idea, to use our previous example – the sun in the sky, would be a ‘formal’ cause of our having an idea of the sun. “Objective” – this term follows from ‘formal’ in the sense that it is the ‘object’ in our mind of the ‘formal’ cause. So, the formal cause (the sun) would exist as an ‘object’ (a representation) in the mind. It is important to note that this is  a special use of the word ‘objective’ that does not refer to the objective fact that is the sun existing in reality, apart from our subjective interpretation of its existence. Rather is it taken to mean, literally an object (representation) in our mind of a ‘formal’ source. “Eminent” – this term refers to a substance (an independent, autonomous thing), which has greater reality than a property (a dependent thing which cannot exist autonomously), or we could word it as a substance is that which has a greater degree of independence. For example you cannot have simply ‘blue, wet, smelly’ (properties), you need to have a substance that contains those properties, such as – the ocean (substance). Properties are dependent on substances for their existence and it’s important to note that in his discussion of God, Descartes believes God to be an infinite substance.

If we go back and look at our analysis of Descartes discussion of the sun, as well as our definitions of his use of the word ‘idea’, we can begin to see Descartes’ method of investigation and how it yielded a map to understanding the link between the mind, brain, and the external world. Now we may begin to look at Descartes’ view of intentionality in regards to the CAP. As MacDonald 2012 states, to Descartes the CAP operates in three directions:

“1. Cause and effect which governs the interaction between material things;

2.  Cause and effect governs the interaction between the material thing and having an idea about it,

3. But cause-and-effect does not govern the relation between the idea-act and its ‘object’, this relation is explained by representation or (as he says elsewhere) signification.”  (MacDonald, 2012, PHL218 Unit Information and Learning Guide, p. 31)

From this notion of causal mechanisms we can begin to understand, by way of looking at another example, how Descartes explained modes of consciousness, to tease out some clarity from these concepts. Descartes uses the example of the stone: a stone which did not previously exist, cannot begin to exist, unless it has a sufficient cause for its existence – in this sense ‘cause’ refers to something which contains either formally, or eminently everything that is contained within the stone.  Likewise Descartes’ explains, the ‘idea’ of said stone cannot exist in Descartes mind, unless it is put there by some cause that contains as much (formal) reality as he conceives to be in the stone. We need to be clear about what Descartes is, and is not saying here; he is not saying that the stone that exists in reality also exists in his mind, physically. He is saying, however that there is a representational ‘object’ in his mind of the stone. This representation is caused by the eminent or existing stone.

Now we can look at how Descartes worded the CAP:

“The nature of an idea is such that of itself it requires no formal reality except what it derives from my thought, of which it is a mode. But in order for a given idea to contain such and such objective reality, it must surely derive it from cause which contains at least as much formal reality in the idea. For if we suppose that an idea contains something which was not in its cause, it must have got this from nothing, yet the mode of being by which a thing exists objectively <or representatively> in the intellect by way of an idea, imperfect though it may be, is certainly not nothing and so it cannot come from nothing.” (Descartes, 1985, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pp. 28-9).

At this point the only clarification we will need in regards to the above, is the use of the word ‘mode’, this simply refers to a ‘property’.

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