An Ontological Oversight: Descartes’ First Argument for the Existence of God

August 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

Over the course of his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes suspends belief in all material and metaphysical substance before rebuilding from the foundational element of the thinker’s existence, eventually concluding that God exists alongside material things and that the soul and body are distinct. However, the advancement from the thinker’s existence to the existence of authentic material beings necessitates a supremely powerful God who is no deceiver. Descartes claims in Meditation I that “since deception and error seem to be imperfections, the less powerful they make my original cause, the more likely it is that I am so imperfect as to be deceived all the time.” [1] To establish any confidence in the external world, it is imperative that Descartes proves God’s existence, and he attempts this feat at three distinct points in his famed Meditations on First Philosophy. In Meditation III, Descartes argues that the thought of an idea necessitates a cause, which must have a formal reality greater than the objective reality of the idea – this is deemed Descartes’ First Argument for the Existence of God in this paper. Descartes’ First Argument for the Existence of God relies on an enigmatic conception of an ‘idea’ and of how the thinker can comprehend incomprehensible ideas. However, if we are to accept Descartes’ questionable assertion that the thinker can ‘understand’ God’s infinite qualities, then it would be possible for the thinker to reconstruct an artificial notion of God. Ultimately, Descartes’ First Argument for the Existence of God will be disproven, forcing readers to rely on his two subsequent arguments to demonstrate God’s existence.

Descartes’ First Argument for the Existence of God is reconstructed below, preceded by two crucial axioms and two definitions that support the premises of his argument. Descartes’ First Argument for the Existence of God Axiom 1: Something cannot arise from nothing (40).

Axiom 2: There is at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause (40).

Definition 1: The objective mode of being belongs to ideas by their nature; the formal mode of being belongs to the causes of ideas (42).

Definition 2: God is a substance that is infinite, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful… (45).

Premise A – From Axiom 2 and Definition 1: In order for a given idea to contain such and such objective reality, it must surely derive it from some cause that contains at least as much formal reality as there is objective reality in the idea (41).

Premise B – From Axiom 1: If the objective reality of an idea cannot come from me, it must come from something else (41).

Premise C – From Definition 2: The ideas of the attributes of God are such that they could not have come from me (45).

Premise D – They must have come from God; therefore, God exists (45).

Descartes is careful to defend against accusations of “thinking something into existence,” as he seems to do in his Ontological Argument in Meditation V. Descartes writes that “the nature of an idea is such that, of itself, it requires no formal reality except what it derives from my thought (41). Descartes posits that thinking about an idea does not immediately afford that idea formal reality. However, as reconstructed in the argument above, the thought of an idea necessitates a cause, which must have more reality than the idea (from Axiom 2) and must be a formal reality (from Definition 1). Descartes also does not think about God, but conceives the objective ideas that are God’s attributes– infiniteness, eternality, immutability, omniscience, omnipotence etc.– which could not possibly come from him or other corporeal bodies around him, because nothing on earth possesses these attributes. Therefore, Descartes concludes that God must necessarily exist. Especially in comparison to Descartes’ two subsequent arguments, his First Argument for the Existence of God is ostensibly incontrovertible. Still, while Descartes’ First Argument for the Existence of God is inductively valid, it is not sound. Descartes’ notion of an idea, as well as how one conceives of such an idea, will be challenged in reference to Premise C. Then, Premise C will be challenged on the basis of our ability to artificially construct ideas of supreme perfection to arrive at an image of God.

Despite Descartes’ more operable approach – conceiving God’s attributes rather than God Himself – it still seems impossible that anyone could have even an objective idea of these immeasurable attributes of God, which may invalidate Premise C. Infiniteness, eternality, omniscience and omnipotence are impossible to conceive, even in an objective mode of thought, because they do not exist on Earth. Given that Descartes has already suspended belief of the external world by Meditation III, he could not expect to find such qualities around him and instead must rely on knowledge of his own existence. Descartes himself claims to be manifestly imperfect, so these notions of perfection could not possibly be apprehended. It appears that Descartes professed complete cognition of God’s infinite, immutable and omnipotent nature when all he truly possessed was a lesser apperception that extended little further than a simple knowledge of the words ‘infinite,’ ‘immutable’ and ‘omnipotent.’ Descartes responds to this objection with one of the most contentious and enigmatic claims of his entire Meditations on First Philosophy: It does not matter that I do not grasp the infinite, or that there are additional attributes of God which I cannot in any way grasp, and perhaps cannot even reach in my thought; for it is in the nature of the infinite not to be grasped by a finite being like myself. It is enough that I understand the infinite, and that I judge all the attributes that I clearly perceive and know to imply some perfection (46). Descartes does, in fact, admit that he only possesses a most rudimentary understanding of God’s attributes, which does not allow him to ‘grasp’ the ideas completely. According to John Cottingham, Descartes believes that “one can know or understand something without fully grasping it: ‘In the same way that we can touch a mountain with our hands but we cannot put our arms around it… to know something is to touch it with one’s thought’” (Footnote 46). Readers may accept such an argument as sufficient explanation as to how Descartes can ‘understand’ the ideas of infinity, immutability, omniscience and omnipotence – all of which are impossible to encapsulate in one’s thought – without fully ‘grasping’ them. Thus, Descartes provides an plausible defense against the objection that one could not possibly possess an idea of God’s infinite attributes.

However, Descartes’ definition of an ‘idea’ complicates this claim. Descartes admits, “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, a chimera, or the sky, or an angel, or God” (37). In reconsidering the possibility of Descartes understanding the idea, or image, of God or His attributes, it is troublesome to suggest that he could understand God’s image without fully grasping it. Visualization of an image in the mind typically entails a complete grasp of the object visualized and it is unlikely that the infinite attributes of God ­­– much less God Himself – could be visualized in this manner. Yet a comprehensive deliberation regarding the capacity to ‘make contact with’ an image/idea without grasping it is beyond the scope of this paper. Nonetheless, Descartes’ dichotomy between understanding and grasping an idea, alongside his problematic visually oriented definition of ideas, is alarming to even the most casual meditator.

Descartes’ counterargument rests on the claim that “it is enough that I understand the infinite, and that I judge all the attributes that I clearly perceive and know to imply some perfection” (46). Based on this claim, it may be possible for one to construct an idea of God based on attributes that they understand – in the limited sense of the word for which Descartes intends ­– to arrive at an artificially designed image. Following Descartes’ First Argument for the Existence of God, he asserts that the infinite attributes of God that he conceives imply God’s perfection. Yet Descartes professes that because he is a thinking thing, he also possesses some perfection, albeit to a lesser degree than God. If, as Descartes asserts, he can understand the idea of infinity, then he can extend his understanding of a limited degree of perfection an infinite number of times, arriving at a conception of infinite perfection, which supposedly only belongs to God. Therefore, an infinitely perfect idea (God) would result from Descartes’ own concept of his intellectual imperfection. Descartes rejects this potentiality in Meditation III: if the thinker adds more and more degrees of perfection, “it will never reach the point where it is not capable of a further increase; God, on the other hand, I take to be actually infinite, so that nothing can be added to his perfection” (47). Thus, Descartes rejects the possibility of reconstructing an idea of God’s infinite attributes based on his definition of God’s attributes (Definition 2), which are inherently unreachable by man. Yet given that Descartes posits it is sufficient to understand an idea and simply ‘touch it with one’s thought,’ rather than fully grasping it, one could still conceive of God’s infinite attributes through the method outlined above. Therefore, Descartes’ contentious assertion that it is acceptable to merely understand an idea without fully grasping contradicts his objection that a synthetically reconstructed idea of God’s infinite perfection could not be achieved through thought. As a result, Premise C is fallacious and thus Descartes’ First Argument for the Existence of God is unsound.

Premise C was immediately questionable given that God’s attributes, which include infiniteness, eternality and immutability, could not possibly be conceived by the thinker’s intellect. However, if we are to accept Descartes’ assertion that the thinker mustn’t fully grasp the idea of God’s attributes, but rather simply ‘understand’ them in the sense that he ‘touches them with his thought,’ then another problem arises. The thinker can reconstruct an artificial idea of infinity, eternality, immutability and so on, which would be God (by Definition 2), because all these attributes imply some perfection. Descartes claims that his own ability to think indicates some degree of perfection within himself and so he may replicate this idea of perfection in his mind to arrive at an artificially constructed notion of God. Therefore, Descartes’ inductive First Argument for the Existence of God is wholly unsound. Had Descartes’ First Argument provided sufficient demonstration of God’s existence, the two subsequent, supplementary arguments for God’s existence would be superfluous. Yet Descartes nonetheless provides these two additional demonstrations of God’s existence to readers in his Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes’ decision to include these appended arguments is quite perplexing and is worthy of further examination.

[1] Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Ed. John Cottingham. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print. (21).

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