Home > Philosophy, Theism > First Assignment: ‘Critically Examine Descartes’ Two Arguments For The Existence Of God.’- Pt. 2.

First Assignment: ‘Critically Examine Descartes’ Two Arguments For The Existence Of God.’- Pt. 2.

Now, let us have a look at Descartes first argument for the existence of God, which is located in the Third Meditations of his First Philosophy. We do not have enough room to exhaustively explore the entire nuance of Descartes’ first argument for the existence of God, so it is enough for our purposes to simply follow through the argument as presented on The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy and then comment on it. We might tentatively entitle Descartes’ first argument for the existence of God as “The Causal Argument”, and it is one in which once the CAP is established, he can turn those notions to the question of God’s existence.

Firstly let us define our main term; Descartes defines God as “a substance that is infinite <eternal, immutable>, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful and which created both myself and everything else” (Descartes, 1985, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, p. 31).   In looking for an idea that he cannot be the cause of; as the CAP suggests he can be the cause of any idea he has either formally or eminently, Descartes reasons that he is formally a finite substance, hence he can be the cause of any idea with the objective reality of a finite substance. Since finite substances require another party to subsist, namely God, and modes (remember modes = properties) require a finite substance require as well as God, finite substances are more real than modes. Since a finite substance cannot be formally, but rather eminently a property/mode Descartes reasons, therefore he can be the cause of all of his ideas of properties/modes. The problem lies however in the idea of God being an infinite substance; which is more real due to its absolute independence “it follows that Descartes, a finite substance, cannot be the cause of his idea of an infinite substance. This is because a finite substance does not have enough reality to be the cause of this idea, for if a finite substance were the cause of this idea, then where would it have gotten the extra reality? But the idea must have come from something. So something that is actually an infinite substance, namely God, must be the cause of the idea of an infinite substance. Therefore, God exists as the only possible cause of this idea. ” (Skirry, 2008, Rene Descartes (1596-1650): Overview)

Now that we have stated the argument we may begin to discuss it from Descartes perspective, so we might see why he thought this argument worked. What might be our first task is to find out, is if Descartes’ idea of God, is a fabrication or not, or rather, if Descartes explained how his idea of God was not a fabrication,  if we discover his notion of God to be, simply a fabrication, this will be a serious flaw in his argument. It would appear from the above outline of Descartes’ argument that he would reason the objective idea of God in his mind to be adventitious or innate. The key to understanding Descartes’ view of God is in understanding his definition of ‘eminent reality’, for it is on this definition that ‘properties’ and ‘substances’ are defined. Descartes views properties (remember our ‘blue, wet, smelly’ example) to be less real, or perhaps more aptly stated less independent, than substances (recall ‘the ocean’ example) which posses greater independence. God being defined as an infinite substance means he has a total state of independence from all other substances (and properties), this would preclude Descartes from being the cause of the objective reality of the idea of God, as Descartes does not contain as much eminent reality as the idea of God contains.  Therefore we can rule out Descartes’ objective idea of God as a fabrication, moreover as we see above, a fabrication can be “controlled, examined and cast aside at will.” And we see from the above argument, that God cannot be redefined as, for example, a finite being, or a material being, hence it follows that this being cannot be invented by him (which is consistent with the reasoning he used to come to his conclusions about the sun). It would appear his idea of God is closer to being innate, as he defines the term.

Another possible objection, expressed on The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy by Skirry, 2008 we may like to explore from Descartes’ point of view is the objection that could not a finite substance with an idea of God, such as Descartes, not have been given the idea of God, by another substance, with the idea of God? Would it not be a category error to reason from an idea of an infinite substance (God), to that infinite substance actually existing? We may presume that Descartes might argue that this would lead to an ultimate regress, for whence does the other finite cause get its idea of God? From another finite substance? But where does that finite substance get its idea of God? From another finite substance? And so on, and so on. The answer lies in there needing to be, as the argument goes, an eminent cause of that first idea of God, which can only be found in an infinite, independent substance (that which we call God), this halts the infinite regress. This is explained adequately by the CAP, and is the reason it is not a category error for Descartes to reason from the idea of an infinite substance, to the existence of said infinite substance.  (Skirry, 2008, Rene Descartes (1596-1650): Overview)

The next argument for the existence of God that we will consider appears in Descartes’ Fifth Meditations of his First Philosophy, and it can aptly be titled “The Ontological Argument”. Descartes provides this argument in a strict geometrical fashion (but it should not be mistaken for an axiomatic or Euclidian proof), indeed referencing it to the likeness of a shape.

“But if the mere fact that I can produce from my thought the idea of something entails that everything which I clearly and distinctly perceive to belong to that thing really does belong to it, is not this a possible basis for another argument to prove the existence of God? Certainly, the idea of God, or a supremely perfect being, is one that I find within me just as surely as the idea of any shape or number. And my understanding that it belongs to his nature that he always exists is no less clear and distinct than is the case when I prove of any shape or number that some property belongs to its nature.”  (Descartes, 1985, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, p. 45)

The common scholarly objection to this argument that would seem to be decisive is Kant’s criticism of existence being a predicate (for an in-depth analysis see Himma, 2005, or Nolan 2011). For our purposes however, instead of engaging the discussion on whether Descartes was right, or not, let us instead look at what Descartes thought of this argument, at why it was convincing to him. Perhaps, as we have mentioned Kant’s criticisms of predication, we may like to muse on what Descartes’ response to such a criticism might have been. Banach, 1982 states that Kant’s (and others) criticism boils down to the fact that we cannot define a being into existence, in that we cannot come to a proof for God’s existence, by simply contemplating concepts. This charge is that the definition of God that Descartes is using is question begging, for if we define God as existing, we beg the question in favour of God’s existence, it becomes a circular argument. How did Descartes address this view? Descartes’ “Ontological Argument” is arguing for an essence of God that is based implicitly on the traditional view held by the medieval scholastics that there is a distinction between a thing’s essence and existence. Nolan, 2011 states that according to this tradition then one can separate, and discuss the issue of essence from existence. This view seems integral to Descartes being able to avoid the charge of circularity. The confusion would seem to come when we talk of a supremely perfect being necessarily existing, under the banner of its essence.  (Nolan, 2011, “Descartes’ Ontological Argument”)

As Banach, 1982 has stated there have been some philosophers who have used a straw man in stating Descartes’ argument as: “I have an idea of God as a supremely perfect being. Existence is a perfection. God must exist in reality or else the supremely perfect being would lack a perfection, and this is absurd. God’s essence or nature contains existence just as the essence of a triangle contains it having three sides. The emphasis in these types of interpretations is on the use of existence as a predicate and a perfection which one must attribute to the nature of the supremely perfect being.”  (Banach, 1982) To understand Descartes’ argument we need to understand in what context he is discussing the term existence. He differentiates between “existence” which could be defined as part of anything conceivable, and “necessary existence” in which he does not mean logical necessity in the way philosophers use the term now, but rather, he is using the term to describe ontological necessity. To Descartes God’s essence contains necessary, ontological existence or as Banach also states “eternal and unconditioned existence”. (Banach, 1982) There also appears to be discussion that the term necessary existence is tied up in the idea of God necessarily existing, and God necessarily existing in reality. Banach claims Descartes’ response might have been that we know certain characteristics of the essences of things, in “normal cases”, and that what we reasonably know in those circumstances is that certain characteristics belong to the thing as a “possible existent”.  “That is, if it exists then what we have clearly and distinctly perceived as belonging to the nature of a thing, will belong to it in most normal cases the essence of a thing contains only contingent or possible existence.” (Banach, 1982) In God’s case we have the characteristic of a perfect being who by definition must include necessary existence, then according to our previously stated “axiom” whatever we “clearly and distinctly perceive as belonging to the nature of the thing” really does belong to it, hence we can derive his existence from his nature.  (Banach, 1982)

What of the objection that Descartes is simply saying something to the effect of “thinking it makes it so”? Descartes counters stating:  “…just as I cannot think of a mountain without a valley, it certainly does not follow from the fact that I think of a mountain without a valley that there is any mountain in the world: and similarly, it does not follow from the fact that I think of God as existing that he does exist. For my thought does not impose any necessity on things… “(Descartes, 1985, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, p. 46) As Lacewing, 2008 states, it is not as if thinking about God’s existence brings about his existence, all that would bring about are ideas, no we have it the wrong way around; it is because God’s existence is (ontologically) necessary that we can think of him as existing. Reality determines our thought, not the other way around. (Lacewing, 2008, Descartes’ Ontological Argument)


As we have seen Descartes’ new theory of ideas is a complex novel idea about the intentionality of consciousness, how we perceive external realities, which was a radical departure from the medieval scholastics view. His theory relates ideas, as ‘objects’ in the mind, based on some ‘formal’ or ‘eminent’ reality, this relationship is demonstrated by the example of the sun in the sky, and the object in our mind of said sun, the sun can be said to be the ‘formal’ cause of the ‘objective’ reality that is the sun in our mind.

This causal process was important to Descartes, and important to his notion of the external world, its existence and grounding that existence in the final cause, God. In fact, Descartes’ first argument was based upon the notion of working from his causal ideas: since all substances rely on God to subsist, and all properties rely on substances and God to exist it follows then that properties contain less reality than substances. God is defined as an infinite substance, which Descartes could not eminently be responsible for, as he is only a finite substance and does not present with the formal prerequisites to create such an idea objectively in his mind. Therefore Descartes reasons, God exists.  Descartes has another proof for the existence of God’s, just as God is defined as an infinite substance, which could not be produced in Descartes’ mind, he is also defined as necessarily existing, which is essential to his nature, his essence,  just as. For example, a triangle has 3 sides is essential to its nature. Descartes’ other proof for the existence of God relies upon the medieval tradition of separating essence from existence, and existence from necessary existence. All things conceivably contain existence, but only one thing contains necessary or ontological existence, and that is God.


Banach, D.  (1982). Descartes’ Ontological Argument. Saint Anselm College. Retrieved from http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/Descartes%20Ontological%20Argument.htm

Descartes, R. (1985). Meditations of First Philosophy trans John Cottingham. Cambridge. Pp. 24, 25, 26, 28-9, 31, 45, 46.

MacDonald, P.S. (2012). PHL218 Unit Information and Learning Guide. Perth, Western Australia. Murdoch University. P. 31.

Lacewing. M. (2008). Descartes’ Ontological Argument. Retrieved from http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/philosophy/downloads/a2/unit4/descartes/DescartesOntological.pdf

Nolan, L.  (2011). “Descartes’ Ontological Argument”. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Reterieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/descartes-ontological/

Pessin, A. (2008).  “Descartes’s Theory of Ideas”. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/descartes-ideas/>

Skirry, J. (2008). Rene Descartes (1596-1650): Overview. The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/descarte/#SH4b

Categories: Philosophy, Theism
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