Reppert’s book focuses primarily on naturalism, using various rationalistic¹ arguments against such in an attempt to promote theistic conceptions of the mind, and the world (namely, that God, as defined by Christianity exists). I want to generally share some notes on this today, firstly we might want to see how Reppert defines and treats naturalism:
Naturalism is the view that the natural world is all there is and that there are no supernatural beings. Whatever takes place in the universe takes place through natural processes and not as a result of supernatural causation. The most popular kind of naturalism is known as materialism or physicalism. Materialism maintains that the basic substances of the physical world are pieces of matter, and physicalism maintains that those pieces of matter are properly understood by the discipline of physics. (Reppert, 2003, p.46-7)
He notes that there might be some slight differences in naturalism and materialism (relating to the status of non-matter linguistic structures such as propositions for example), but argues for the sake of his purposes that anything counts as naturalistic if it:
… posits a closed “basic level of analysis,” and if all other levels have the characteristics they have in virtue of those the basic level has. If the base level is mechanistic but is not composed of matter, then we would have naturalism without materialism. If we have a basic level that is composed of matter but it is not to be described by physicalism (I’m not sure how that’s possible), then we have materialism without physicalism. However, if the argument that I am proposing works against physicalism, it will work against nonphysicalist forms of naturalism as well. (Reppert, 2003, p. 47)
He continues by way of example, and as a bridge to his argument, how a purely physical universe, defined by science as starting with the big bang, containing material substances that act without purpose (being based on the laws of the universe) come together, guided by evolution, to further propagate the species. Reppert states that the issue for him likes in our brains, which use “rational inference”, but if they are created and driven by evolution, as they seemingly are on a physicalist’s worldview, they must also be explained at the most basic level of analysis. But, he asks, the most basic level of analysis is physics, and rational inference does not operate at this level, and thus we have our first problem with explanations proposed by physicalism.
Here he turns to secular philosophers Keith Parsons and Daniel Dennett to try and tease out what exactly is meant by the term “most basic level of analysis”. Parsons states that to explain material bodies, we can look at more fundamental bodies to explain them, and even more fundamental bodies to explain them. But, the problem is we must hit a rock bottom, or fundamental explanation (if we want to avoid absurdities like an infinite regress). Parsons doesn’t see this as a problem at all:
At present, rock bottom would be the powers and liabilities of such entities as quarks and electrons… to say that there is no explanation why a quark, given that it is a fundamental particle, has the powers and liabilities it possess, seems tantamount to saying that there is no explanation of why a quark is a quark. Surely, anything with different powers and liabilities would not be a quark. (Parsons, 1989, p. 91-2 quoted in Reppert, 2003, p. 48)
With this Reppert has shown that fundamental explanations within physicalist philosophy are flawed, that is, flawed in the sense that under the physicalist view we have properties (rational inference for example) that need explanation, that currently do not have one. To Reppert naturalistic explanations are fundamentally “nonpurposive” ones:
For if some purposive or intentional explanation can be given and no further analysis can be given in nonpurposive and nonrational terms, then reason must be viewed as a fundamental cause in the universe, and this strikes me as a huge concession to position such as theism, idealism and pantheism, which maintain that reasons are fundamental to the universe.(Reppert, 2003, p. 51)
More than just nonpurposive, naturalistic explanations at the most basic level occur either out of natural necessity or chance (p. 87), which problematizes the question of rational inference even more. Do we have free will under such a system? Could we? How can we make purposive, rational decisions when at our most fundamental level we are a closed system, based on random physics?
… it is my contention that a consistent physicalism leads to the conclusion that there are no mental states with propositional content, and if such states were to exist they would be epiphenonmenal, that is, without any causal efficacy. What is more, there is certainly the possibility that what is conducive to discovering the truth might not be conducive to survival and vice versa. We night survive better not knowing the truth but by believing just those falsehoods that would be most conducive to survival. (Reppert, 2003, p. 89)
Citing Dennett the author asks what purpose could there possibly be in a physicalist view of the world, one in which rational inference seems unlikely or is at the very least, problematic? To quote Dennett:
Darwin explains a world of final causes and teleological laws with a principle that is independent of “meaning” or “purpose”. [Evolutionary theory] assumes a world that is absurd in the existentialist’s sense of the term: not ludicrous or pointless, and this assumption is a necessary condition for any non-question-begging account of purpose. (Dennett, 1976, p.171 quoted in Reppert, 2003, p.49)
Reppert states that under the physicalist view the only “purpose” one can speak of is that of the function of something, and a Darwinian one at that, for example the function of the heart is to pump blood. More than this, to Reppert “meaning” and “reasoning” must also have similar explanations, that is in the final analysis the explanation must be mechanistic and nonpurposive (and as we’ve seen, borne out of physical necessity or chance).
Reppert has more to say on naturalism, materialism and physicalism, but for now, lest you become bored, let us leave it here for today. If you’re looking for a quick response to some of this, check out my blog on Nielsen’s naturalism, here).
Reppert, V. (2003). C.S Lewis’ Dangerous Idea. Downers Grove IL. Intervarsity Press.
1: That is, the use of reason as a grounding for knowledge rather than, say, experience.
Thus far we have looked at some basic terminology regarding naturalism (see here), we have very basically looked at cosmological naturalism (see here), we have looked at some criticisms of cosmological naturalism (that may also apply to naturalism as a whole, for them see here), and we will continue to develop and address those criticisms over the course of the series, but for now, let us look at methodological naturalism and allow Nielsen to briefly define it for us:
2. Methodological naturalism is a methodological commitment to employing inquiry only the norms and methods of inquiry of the empirical sciences together with their logico-mathematical auxiliaries. This the claim is, is the only way we legitimate and securely can fix belief. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 135)
As stated it is the sciences which are used to determine both the categorical terms that are taken as basic, including those terms used to characterize the generic traits of nature, as Nielsen states:
Different naturalists will take different categories to be basic, but they will all agree on the use of the scientific method as the proper way of fixing belief – including belief concerning which categorical terms to adopt. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 145)
Some clarifications before we move on: what exactly is the scientific method in our conversation here today? How can it be the sole fixer of belief, and be reliable enough to establish a worldview around? (The term “fixing belief” has been used, but what does this mean? Essentially it is the method we attempt to attach our beliefs to, for example Pierce would state that the scientific method is the tool that gives us the most access to facts (others such as metaphysics or theology have been used) and thus is the most reliable method for us to fix our beliefs to, for more see here). Hook and Nagel define their use of the scientific method as an empirical one, a “hypopthetico-deductive-inductive method” (p. 169), that as Pierce called “the combined use of induction, deduction and abduction” (p. 169). Hook and Nagel’s project was to shirk extraneous philosophical posturing, to avoid the philosophical urge to look for “first principles” (naturalistic or otherwise), specifically our underlying presuppositions, to them there is “no special philosophic knowledge, or philosophic wisdom that can be otherwise gained or warranted” (p. 169) instead their focus was on the “working truths on the level of practical affairs which are everywhere recognized and which everywhere determine the pattern of reasonable conduct in secular affairs, viz., the effective use of means to achieve ends”. (Nielsen quoting Hook, p. 159) Nielsen states that these working truths are not necessary ones, but rather more reasonable than their alternatives (whether this has been demonstrated is a source of disagreement), they avoid pedantic discussions (usually held by and between philosophers) about the problems of looking for first principles; in the same way that the results of science can be known without locking down every principle and presupposition of scientific reasoning (we can after all know that obesity is related to dietary and lifestyle factors rather than the position of the sun). Some examples of possible categories, or working truths determined by the scientific method were mentioned in the last blog (see here), “structure, function, power, act, cause, relation, quantity and event.” (p. 145), these are not factually true or false, so the argument goes, but are “proposals about how to conceptualize things whose use is to be justified pragmatically.” (p. 162)
We are more confident of the warrant of those beliefs … than of any first principles that people might appeal to for their justification. (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2003, p. 160)
From here Hook states:
The choice… of which categories to take as basic in describing a method depends upon the degree to which they render coherent and fruitful what we learn by the use of the method… [it is a non sequitur states Nielsen] to assume that because one asserts that the fundamental categories of description are X, Y, and Z, and that they hold universally, one is therefore asserting that the world cannot be significantly described except in terms of X, Y and Z. (Hook 1961a, 191) (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2001, p. 169)
To Hook and indeed Nielsen the above is not to say that the world consists of nothing but X, Y and Z, we can also use A,B and C which might not be categorical and still say as nonreductive naturalists: “that the conditions under which any existing thing is significantly describable in terms of A, B and C are such that they are describable in terms of X, Y and Z.” (Nielsen quoting Hook, 2001, p.169) The example he uses to demonstrate this is Nielsen himself moving a pen, we can describe the movements of such in terms of intentional acts, and in terms of bodily movements (without reference to intentional acts).
Let us finish with one last quote from Nielsen who asks if methodological naturalism is a good policy, in reply he states that it comes from a tradition of philosophy which has tried to explain reality via metaphysics, that has tried methods other than the scientific to fix belief, what we “might reasonably take to be true or take for truth or to be warrantedly assertable” (p. 149). Nielsen states that, as the argument goes:
But, at least during the modern period with its extensive pluralism, there never has been with these other methods of fixing belief anything but local and temporary agreement with no progress in the direction of reflective and informed consensus… The scientific method, though through and through fallibalistic, works and carries with it a considerable consensus about its working. So if we want to be reasonable we will stick with the scientific method and leave metaphysics to spirit-seekers and other crazies. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 149)
How well methodological naturalism works as a worldview will be addressed later. Of course this blog is only very short and shallow in its descriptive content, but the discerning reader will see there will be problems with questions of meaning and morality with a scientistic worldview, even if it is nonreductive, these issues and more will be addressed later.
Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.
It seems appropriate when looking at a book with naturalism in the title to begin our discussion with a look at naturalism; starting more generally, working our way to the specific naturalism Nielsen puts forth. Thusly, what is Naturalism?
Naturalism denies that there are any spiritual or supernatural realities. There are, that is, no purely mental substances and there are no supernatural realities transcendent to the world or at least we have no sound grounds for believing that there are such realities or perhaps even for believing that there could be such realities. Naturalism has sometimes been reductionistic (claiming that all talk of the mental can be translated into purely physicalist terms) or scientistic (claiming that what science cannot tell us humankind cannot know). The more plausible forms of naturalism are neither across the board reductionistic nor scientistic. (Nielsen, 2001, p. 29)
(I will go into more detail on Nielsen’s discussion on reductionism and scientism in another post.)
Nielsen continues stating that (where consistent) naturalism is a type of atheism, although it “need not be a militant atheism and it should not be dogmatic: it should not claim that it is certain that theism is either false or incoherent.” (p. 30) This fallibalism however does not mean that a naturalist should be an agnostic, that is; to be consistent such a naturalist would be “an atheist arguing, or at least presupposing, that theism is either false or incoherent or in some other way unbelievable.” (p. 30) To Nielsen naturalism is incompatible with belief in God (or a belief that God exists), therefore a naturalist cannot be an agnostic: “saying, as agnostics do, that we do not know, or perhaps even cannot know, whether or not God does or does not exist. In accepting naturalism, a naturalist is also accepting that there is no God.” (p. 30) Nielsen is quick to add however that the spirit of fallibalism is at the heart of a reasonable naturalists philosophy, that is they will “argue for atheism in a fallibalistic, and sometimes even moderately skeptical, manner: a manner characteristic of modernity including that peculiar form of modernity that some call postmodernity.” (p. 30) A naturalist should be sceptical as in the fashion of Hume, that is in a “limited and moderate sense”, although they should not, and indeed cannot be a sceptic “through and through”; moreover, Nielsen adds, that a sceptic, “limited or otherwise, need not be a naturalist, atheist, or even an agnostic as the fideistic stances of Pascal and Kierkegaard brilliantly exemplify.” (p. 30) As stated Nielsen puts a high premium on fallibalism, stating that whether or not a sceptic, a naturalist will be (if she is reasonable) a fallibalist, “but that notwithstanding, still an atheist. “Dogmatic atheism” is not a pleonasm and “fallibalistic atheism” is not an oxymoron.” (p. 30)
As a small digression here, it might be important to note that to Nielsen there is not a sharp distinction between atheism and agnosticism, that is atheism is defined as:
In speaking of an atheist, I refer to someone who rejects belief in God either (a) because she believes that it is false or highly unlikely that God exists, (b) because that the concept of God is incoherent or so problematic as to make such belief impossible or irrational, or (c) because she believes that the term “God” is being used in such a manner that it is so devoid of substance as to make religious belief, rhetorical effects aside, indistinguishable from purely secular beliefs except for the fact that religious beliefs are associated with certain religiously distinctive stories which in turn are stories which (on such an account) the religious believer, though she must entertain them in a vivid and lively way, may or may not believe. (Nielsen, 2001, pp. 56-7)
From this Nielsen adds the atheist bases her rejection on how “God” is being construed by religious people; moreover Nielsen defines his personal atheism as that of someone who rejects (i) anthropomorphic conceptions of God on the basis of (a), (ii) belief in the God of developed Judaism, Christianity, or Islam on the basis of (b), and (iii) purely symbolic conception of God such as Richard Braithwaite’s and R.M. Hare’s on the basis of (c). (Nielsen, 2001, pp. 57)
Continuing on Nielsen states that most naturalists reject the conception common to the Abrahamic theisms (“where they are being even remotely orthodox”, p. 31) that “human beings are sinful, utterly dependent on God, and can only make adequate sense of their lives by accepting without question God’s ordinances for them.” (p. 31) Moreover such a naturalism rejects that particular conception of human beings as well as the associated morality that comes with those beliefs. Naturalists believe that people can “make sense of their lives and reasonably order their lives as moral beings without any belief in God or any other spiritual realities.” (p. 31)
Nielsen states that naturalists engage in both critique and explanation of religion, and that in some cases, if successful, such investigation also becomes a critique of religious belief and practice. Some critics of naturalism such as Robin Horton have stated that naturalistic explanations of religion simply “explain religion away and are superficial to boot.” (Nielsen quoting Norton, p. 31) Nielsen agrees with Horton that Bertrand Russell’s and Baron d’Holbach’s critiques are such examples that align with Horton’s view, but others such as Ludwig Feuerbach and Emile Durkehim (both of whom Nielsen draws on quite heavily in his chapter: “Naturalistic Explanations of Religion“) do not. Nielsen argues that a naturalistic conception of religion will “explain religion as a function of human needs and of the conditions of life which give rise to those needs.” (p. 31) Nielsen does ponder what if anything would constitute an adequate naturalistic explanation of religion, citing Marx Wartofsky who states “that a viable conception of religion is one which doesn’t explain religion away, but rather explains its origins, its distinctive cultural and historical forms, its persistence in various institutions, its changing contexts and development, its continuing and present existence in the modes of belief and actions of individuals.” (Nielsen quoting Wartofsky, p. 31)
Of course I am being very vague in what a naturalism might be about, after all the number of different naturalisms Nielsen looks at reflects the large number of thinkers who have discussed, defended and criticised this philosophical tradition. It becomes difficult to define any particular naturalism as Nielsen spends much of the book comparing the naturalisms of a wide range of thinkers, against their critics, and each other; some naturalisms on offer are Nielsen’s own social naturalism, Nagel’s methodological naturalism, Hook’s pragmatic naturalism, Dewey’s (et al.) ethical naturalism, Quine’s cosmological naturalism etc. Made all the more confusing when we see that many of these thinkers held more than one naturalism to be true, or very likely true, or espoused subcategories or situational naturalisms that amount to the same thing (e.g.: “Nagel characterized his naturalism as a contextualistic naturalism and Hook characterized his as an experimental or pragmatic naturalism, though as we shall see, they come to much the same thing.” Nielsen, p.138), there are even cases of some theists holding to some form of naturalism (as in the cases of Jacques Maritain, Richard Neibuhr, and C.S. Pierce), obviously these would be very nuanced positions to both hold to the title naturalism and for these thinkers to retain their theism.
It might be better, now that we have very simply touched on some of the basic ideas of naturalism, that is its varieties, its relation to atheism, fallibalism etc, we can explore different naturalisms, what Nielsen thinks of them, how strong they fare against their critics, and some of the outlier issues involved in this worldview such as the pragmatists tendency to drop metaphysical talk, the rejection of reductionism and scientism, and Nielsen’s own use of verifiability principles.
Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism & Religion. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books.
After looking at some basic terms, very briefly (see here), I want to turn now to something which may seem peripheral, and maybe it is, but is of interest to me nonetheless. What am I speaking about? Relativistic v objectivist morality, and some misunderstandings about it, and where Harris might land on either issue.
As stated in the last post, Harris’ thesis is about setting up a moral system that is objective, and based on truth – that is – not relativistic, subjective, and thus not simply relying on the whims, or preference of any given person or culture on any given day.
Moral relativism, however tends to be self-contradictory. Relativists may say that moral truths exist only relative to a specific cultural framework – but this claim about the status of moral truth purports to be true across all possible frameworks. In practice relativism most always amounts to the claim that we should be tolerant of moral difference because no moral truth can supersede any other. And yet this commitment to tolerance is not put forward as simply one relative preference among others deemed equally valid. (Harris, 2010, p. 45)
Harris goes further than this, he states that the motivations for relativism lie in the intellectual reparations for Western colonialism ethnocentrism and racism (p. 45), this being the only “charitable” thing he can say about it.
Later on in his book, the last page in fact, Harris in recognizing some of what anthropologists and cultural theorists might say about the state of relativism, states that it is not subjectivity that is the problem for a moral theory, at least as far as the scientists who study the brain are concerned. No, it is the belief (among those scientists) that there is no intellectual justification for “speaking about right and wrong or good and evil, across cultures.” (p. 190)
Much of this of course might be considered a caricature of what relativists, of any breed- be they anthropologist, atheistic philosopher, Post Modernist (theistic? After all a divine intelligence is a mind is it not? Would a moral law given from such an intelligence be considered simply divine relativism?) or otherwise – might say. He does not engage much with relativistic challenges to his theory, instead choosing to make common sense points, rather than referencing. This is a book written at the popular level however, you may choose to give it wriggle room for that, or not.
The challenge of subjectivity, and what it means to knowledge of all types is a serious one, that many philosophers have struggled with (see here, here, here, here, here). Heidegger, Patocka, Husserl, Foucault and Post Modern thinkers working in that tradition such as Heise are all concerned with how the phenomological, subjective experience is taken into account with theories of objectivity, as Patocka states, theories that situate us in the third person, or as Foucault might say, theories that ignore power relations. It would have been nice to see stronger engagement with this philosophical challenge.
To further draw out what Harris might mean though let’s turn to what he means when he uses the terms ‘objective’ and subjective’, and indeed ‘absolute’. Harris thinks that many people are confused about what scientific objectivity might mean:
As philosopher John Searle once pointed out, there are two very different senses of the terms “objective” and “subjective”. The first sense relates to how we know (i.e., epistemology), the second to what there is to know (i.e., ontology). When we say that we are reasoning or speaking “objectively”, we generally mean that we are free of obvious bias, open to counterarguments, cognizant of the relevant facts, and so on. This to make a claim about how we are thinking. In this sense, there is no impediment to our studying the subjective (I.e. first-person) facts “objectively. (Harris, 2010, p. 29)
From this Harris uses the analogy of his tinnitus to show that although this is a subjective experience, he is being “objective” in the sense that is he is not lying about his tinnitus, this is not preference or bias. He states his experience can be confirmed by an otologist, which suggests his tinnitus has a third-person (objective) cause that can be discovered. Moreover Harris states that much of the sciences of the mind are predicated on being able to “correlate first-person reports of subjective experience with third-person states of the brain.” (p. 30) From here Harris states that many people think that just because moral facts relate to experience and are thus “ontologically subjective” all talk of morality must be subjective in the epistemological sense, that is biased, or merely personal. Harris doesn’t think this is so. He doesn’t deny that there is a subjective realm of experience in regards to his talk of objective moral truths, or objective causes of human well-being. He is not saying moral truth exists independently of the experience of conscious creature either, or that some actions are intrinsically wrong. What he means to say is:
I am simply saying that, given that there are facts – real facts – to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions. (Harris, 2010, p. 30)
Finally, Harris makes the distinction, that is not always obviously delivered in say, debates on morality between atheists and theists, that there is a distinction in moral talk between ‘objective’, that is in either the epistemological or ontological senses discussed above and ‘absolute’, in which a moral truth is so and has no exceptions (see Moreland & Craig, 2003 for an equivocation between absolute and objective). We can speak of morals Harris thinks in objective terms, without speaking about them in absolute ones.
Many people seem to think that a universal conception of morality requires that we find moral principles that admit of no exceptions. If, for instance, it is truly wrong to lie, it must always be wrong to lie – and if one can find a single exception, any notion of moral truth must be abandoned. But the existence of moral truth – that is, the connection between how we think and behave and our well-being – does not require that we define morality in terms of unvarying moral precepts. (Harris, 2010, p. 8)
Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, NY. Free Press.
Moreland, J., P., Craig, W., L. (2003). Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL, Intervarsity Press.
It’s been a while between articles posts, let’s get straight into it:
Philosophy Bites – Links to the First 176 Episodes -Edmonds and Warburton.
LCA 2013: distributed democracy, speaking stacks, links -Sky Croeser.
Anti-Muslim hysteria in Australia -Russell Glasser.
We get email: Believers and their security blankets -Martin Wagner.
Good luck in Somalia– Ophelia Benson.
Egyptian atheist facing blasphemy sentence – Jacob Fortin.
Repairs under way -Ophelia Benson.
A fabulous “Manly Meal”-Ophelia Benson.
WL Craig on Morality and Meaning (Series Index) -John Danaher.
My Favourite Posts of 2012 -John Danaher.
Sexual Objectification: An Atheist Perspective -Richard Carrier.
Prototypical Sexist Atheist on Exhibit– Richard Carrier.
Atheism+ : The Name for What’s Happening-Richard Carrier.
Waldron on pornography -Russell Blackford.
Gay Bishop Comes Up With the Worst Argument to Support Same-Sex Marriage– Greta Christina.
My Letter to the Boy Scouts– Greta Christina.
Same-Sex Marriage Opponents Increasingly Desperate and Stupid – Greta Christina.
Catholic Priest blames women for bringing violence on themselves – Jacob Fortin.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews harass sexually abused girl – Jacob Fortin.
Bill O’Reilly calls David Silverman a Fascist – Jacob Fortin.
Top 10 anti-Christian acts of 2012 -J.T Eberhard.
Most insulting fundraiser ever. – J.T Eberhard.
Don’t Say Gay legislator: being gay is like shooting heroin. -J.T Eberhard.
How often god’s moral decrees bear no resemblance to justice. -J.T Eberhard.
Craig’s Argument for God from Intentionality – Philosotroll.
Witch Hunts in Papua New Guinea – Leo Igwe.
Randal Rauser on William Lane Craig’s defense of the Canaanite genocide -Chris Hallquist.
More Powerpoint Slides from a Christian Pastor’s Anti-Gay Sermon – Hermant Mehta.
Who Still Thinks the Church Has Any Moral Credibility? -Hermant Mehta.
Shells and switches -Deacon Duncan.
God and the PlayStation 3 -Deacon Duncan.
The Gypsy Curse -Deacon Duncan.
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
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’.