Rene Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy
An Ontological Oversight: Descartes’ First Argument for the Existence of God
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.”  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,
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.
 Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Ed. John Cottingham. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print. (21).
Allegory of the Cave, Descartes’ Meditations, and The Truman Show
In his Allegory of the Cave, Plato asks us to consider that the world we are living is the equivalent of a cave; in order for us to enter into this “sensible realm” of truth and knowledge we must actively pursue these values. In his First Meditation, Rene Descartes asks us to abandon all preexisting assumptions of the universe, as there is the possibility that we are being deceived. It is difficult to imagine there being any legitimacy to either of these scenarios that the philosophers set up, as we are so wrapped up in the intricacies of our own lives that it rarely crosses our minds whether there is any authenticity to what we are experiencing. However, the 1998 film The Truman Show brings a very plausible reality to these propositions. The Truman Show brings to life the notions of skepticism – the belief that they way you think things do not match up with reality – brought up by Plato and Descartes. Recalling the Allegory of the Cave, The Truman Show presents a world where man lives in a false reality. It correlates with the idea of man’s ignorance, and his escape from it, that Plato writes about. Likewise, The Truman Show bears resemblances to First Meditations in respect to its exploration of one man’s transition from trust to doubt in the world presented to him.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave describes a set of circumstances in which humans have been trapped in a cave their entire life, with their only connection to the real world being the shadows cast on the wall they face by a burning fire behind them. Because they have been stuck in this position for all their lives, this is how they perceive their world to be. Truman Burbank, the title character of The Truman Show, lives very similarly to the people in the cave. The enormous television show set he lives on that he lives on echoes the pseudo-reality that the cave provided to the prisoners in Plato’s allegory. The actors hired to interact with Truman are like the fire that gave off shadows for the people in the cave, as both of these gave the illusion of a true reality. However, also like the prisoners, Truman goes through most of his life never suspecting anything was wrong with the world he was presented with. Truman believes “that the truth is nothing other than the shadows” (Republic VII p.1133). At this point in time, Truman is not a skeptic, as he takes his fake world at face value and believes it to be reality.
The key aspect of The Allegory of the Cave is that the prisoner ultimately is freed from his shackles and allowed to finally perceive the sensible realm. Truman’s quest to seek out the truth in his existence represent his own breaking free of the shackles put on him by Christof and all others involved in the production of the TV show about Truman’s life. Plato writes of how once reality can often times be hard to come to terms with for someone who has lived in a state of ignorance his entire life. He relates it to coming out of a dim cave, and having to adjust your eyes once you step out into the sunlight. The light is intimidating, but it is worth following, as once we immerse ourselves in it we cannot possibly imagine returning to the dark state we were once it. This is applicable to Truman, who overcomes his fear of water to fight his way to reaching a reality he has up till then only seen remnants of. It was a risk, but in the end we see that it was nonetheless a risk worth taking. Once Truman hits the wall – the boundary between the cave and the sensible realm – Christof tries to coax him out of leaving. However, it is too late. Truman knows too much, and he cannot possibly consider returning to his dark cave.
Truman would have never come to terms with reality had he never expressed doubt in his artificial world. Rene Descartes emphasizes the significance of having doubt in your surroundings through his First Meditation. Descartes argues that our surroundings cannot be trusted, and so if one ever wants to truly reach a full understanding of their world they must doubt everything. The Truman Show explores this concept of doubt, as Truman leads the majority of his life without a single doubt in his mind that the world is as he thinks it is; he never doubts that his wife is really his wife, he never doubts that he has genuine friends, and he never doubts that his dad died long ago. By never doubting these things, he remained a slave to Christof for so many years.
Once Truman started to be skeptical of his world, he became closer to discovering the truth of his own existence. As strange things occur to him more frequently, Truman abandons the state of denial he had been living in for his whole life. He picks up on odd, unexplainable events that are taking place, such as the stage light falling from the sky or the radio’s crossed signals picking up conversations from the crewmembers that are filming Truman. Truman’s peers tried to dissuade him from having distrust in the world that they designed for him, however Truman does not cease to follow the gut feeling that Descartes encourages. Ultimately, Truman comes to the same realization that Descartes had; his world is being controlled by some kind of evil mastermind, and what he is seeing does not correlate with the world’s absolute truth. This is what pushed him to seek out this actual reality. If Truman had not abandoned faith in the things he observed that seemed so obvious, the film would have ended much differently and much more disappointingly.
Descartes’ Aims in The Meditations
In the meditations, Descartes aims to provide a sound basis for science, and to vindicate rationalism by proving that true source of scientific knowledge lies in the mind and not the senses. In order to prove that the mind should be the true source of such knowledge, Descartes subjects all knowledge derived from the senses to doubt. He argues that as a child, he accept a large number of falsehoods and has subsequently built a ‘whole edifice’ on them of a ‘highly doubtful nature’. He argues that such childhood prejudices arise naturally through immersion in the senses. He uses the example of optical illusions such as a stick in water appearing bent to show the unreliable nature of the information gathered through the senses, and argues that we should reject such information as a result. Here, Descartes leaves it solely to the individual to assess the reliability of knowledge. It could be argued that the reliability of sense data could in fact be improved though corroboration with others, and it should not simply be rejected.
In order to provide a truly solid foundation for knowledge Descartes feels the need to subject all knowledge to doubt, and uses two thought experiments to do so. He says that we cannot doubt the things we see up close and in good light, equating such doubt with madness and dismissing the possibility that he is mad. In order to doubt even these perceptions, Descartes employs the dream argument, arguing that in dreams we appear to see things up close and in good light when in actual fact we do not. However, the dream argument has been objected to on the grounds that it is an asymmetric argument: simply because we are unsure we are asleep when we are dreaming, it does not necessarily follow that we do not know that we are awake when we are awake.
Descartes does not stop at a posteriori knowledge – he also feels the need to challenge the validity of mathematics and a priori knowledge. In order to do so he proposes the idea of an omnipotent being with the capability of deceiving us of even this knowledge. Descartes rejects the idea of a deceiver God, as God is by definition ‘good’ and would not deceive us, and instead proposes an omnipotent evil demon. However, the very idea of ‘deception’ relies upon the idea that we are not deceived all the time. As a result, it seems that the omnipotent demon could not in fact deceive us about all a priori knowledge as if this was the case there would be no such thing as ‘deception’. In this way, Descartes seems to fail in doubting all a priori knowledge.
By using these sceptical arguments, Descartes claims to have demolished all existing opinions and allowed himself to start afresh and find a solid foundation for knowledge. However, through this very claim Descartes reveals that he has not infact doubted everything, as he continues to assume the truth of foundationalism and believes that it is possible to find a foundation of knowledge, when in fact it may not be. Furthermore, he fails to doubt logic, memory and language – all tools used by Descartes throughout the Meditations, indicating that his doubt is in fact not ‘universal’. Alternatively, it could be suggested that Descartes’ method of doubt is in fact too extreme. By wanting all knowledge to have the certainty of maths and by discounting all sense data, it could be argued that Descartes simply sets the bar for knowledge too high.
After Meditation One, Descartes’ greatest challenge seems to be to overcome his evil demon. It is in challenging his own existence with the evil demon hypothesis that Descartes claims to find a piece of certain knowledge, which will form the foundation for all other knowledge. He argues that the evil demon cannot deceive nothing into thinking that it exists when it does not, and therefore when he conceives that he is something he cannot be nothing. Descartes argues that the Cogito is indubitable, because if he is being deceived by an evil demon, he must exist. If true, the Cogito is of central importance to Descartes’ whole strategy – it provides an ideal starting point from which he can build further truths. It provides certain knowledge not only about our ideas, but a substantive existential truth, not born of experiment or observation, but of thought alone.
However, the Cogito has been criticised for its apparent use a suppressed premise – namely, ‘all thinking things exist’. This premise is highly questionable, because it is not clear that the existence of thoughts necessarily imply a thinker. Hume argued that we have no right to assume this, and the Buddhist teaching advocates that the supposed ‘self’ is impermanent. Alternatively, perhaps Descartes should have said ‘there is thinking going on therefore there are thoughts’, rather than making the inference between thinking and the existence of a thinker. Furthermore, Descartes strays from rationalism here, since ‘thinking things exist’ seems to be an a posteriori observation. In this way, it is unlikely that the Cogito actually proves the existence of a self.
In response to this, it has been argued that the Cogito does not use a suppressed premise and is in fact an analytic truth, with the concept of my present existence contained within that of my thinking, just as the concept ‘female fox’ is contained within that of ‘vixen’. However, if the cogito truly was analytic, nothing substantial about the world could follow from it and it could not form the foundation of knowledge as analytic statements tell us about concepts, rather than reality. Furthermore, as argued by Kant and Russell, existence does not seem to be a property amongst other properties that can be assigned to things, but instead the condition of possibility for having properties at all. This is shown through the example of fictional characters – we can talk of characters having thoughts, and in this way we can talk of non-existent thinkers whereas it is not possible to talk of male vixens. This suggests that there is no conceptual entailment between existence and thought.
Russell also argued that the Cogito is a circular argument as it assumes what it sets out to prove, using the word ‘I’ in an argument that looks to prove the existence of said ‘I’. Lichtenberg argued that this ‘I’ is merely a linguistic convenience, similar to the ‘it’ in ‘it is raining’, and that it does not actually refer to anything. In his failure to analyse these fundamental concepts, Descartes’ project could be seen as not radical enough, with empiricists arguing that it is subject to rationalist prejudices by regarding such concepts as innate rather than derived from experience.
Descartes’ claim to have overcome the evil demon with the Cogito is also highly questionable. There does not seem to be any reason why an omnipotent being capable of deceiving Descartes regarding the logic of mathematics would be unable to deceive him regarding the logic and reasoning he has used in the Cogito. Indeed, by failing to employ truly universal doubt in meditation one, and doubt his own logic and reasoning, Descartes seems to have failed in his aim of providing a certain and indubitable foundation in the Cogito.
Having apparently established the existence of his own existence through the Cogito, Descartes then attempts to rebuild knowledge and prove the existence of things beyond his own consciousness. In Meditation Three, Descartes assesses the knowledge he has so far acquired in order to find some distinguishing features of it that may help him to recognize other truths. He argues that what makes the Cogito certain is that he has a ‘clear and distinct’ understanding of it, and therefore other things he understands clearly and distinctly may also be true; he uses the Cogito as a benchmark against which all other propositions can be measured. Clear and distinct ideas are those perceptions which are so self-evident that, while they are held in the mind, they cannot be logically doubted. By ‘clear’ Descartes means those ideas that are present to the attentive mind and by ‘distinct’ he means ideas that are not confused with anything that is not clear.
The inductive leap between the Cogito as a piece of certain knowledge that is known clearly and distinctly and all clear and distinct knowledge being certain seems immediately problematic. Simply because the Cogito is known clearly and distinctly, it does not necessarily follow that all things perceived clearly and distinctly are true. Furthermore, an evil demon could easily deceive us regarding apparent clear and distinct perceptions. Descartes himself acknowledges the need dispel remaining doubts concerning clear and distinct beliefs. To do so, Descartes uses the Trademark Argument to prove the existence of God, the guarantor of clear and distinct beliefs. The argument is as follows:
P1) I have an idea of God
P2) In every cause there must be at least as much reality as in the effect
P3) Since I am imperfect I cannot be responsible for this idea of perfection
P4) Whatever caused the idea of perfection must be perfect
C) Therefore, God exists
Descartes argues that the existence of this perfect being guarantees the truth of clear and distinct ideas as, by its very definition, a perfect being would not deceive him. In this way, Descartes seems to overcome the deceiving creator of Meditation One and establish faith in a priori reasoning. However, it could be argued that the benevolence of a perfect God is necessarily incompatible with deception. An example of such a combination would be that of a loving parent deceiving her child about the existence of the tooth fairy.
The greatest criticism of the trademark argument is that Descartes presupposes what he sets out to prove, employing a circular argument known as the Cartesian Circle. Where Descartes attempts to use the trademark argument to guarantee the truth of clear and distinct ideas, he seems to use many of these ideas within the argument itself. God’s existence is necessary in order to ensure that clear and distinct ideas are reliable, but clear and distinct ideas are what enable Descartes to know that God exists. The very idea of God as well as the idea of causation are supposedly clear and distinct ideas, both of which are used in the trademark argument to prove God’s existence. Furthermore, even if the truth of clear and distinct ideas can be ensured, they only seem to offer subjective truths to those who conceive them.
Descartes’ Proof for the Existence of God and its Importance
Descartes’ Proof for the Existence of God and its Importance In Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes describes his philosophical quest to find absolute, certain knowledge. His method for finding this knowledge is to start from the most basic truths, systematically working through them and trying to establish some sort of doubt about them. If he is able to create doubt about something, anything that follows from that thing will also contain doubt and therefore be eliminated. To create as much doubt as possible, he comes up with the “evil genius hypothesis,” in which there is a higher being that exists who deceives all sensory perceptions that Descartes has. In going through this process, the only thing that Descartes is able to determine as true is that he is a thinking thing that exists; he is unable to prove the existence of anything else. At this point, he also establishes a general rule for truth, which states, “everything I [Descartes] very clearly and distinctly perceive is true” (line 35). In order to prove anything else beyond that he is a thinking thing, he must disprove the idea of the evil genius and he does this with his proof for the existence of God. For Descartes, proving the existence of God is absolutely crucial; without this proof, he would have been unable to go any further on his quest to attain unconditional knowledge. In Meditation Three, Descartes presents his proof for the existence of God. Before discussing God, Descartes declares that an effect cannot have more reality than its cause—everything that comes into being had to be made by something that has an equal or greater amount of reality. The initial cause of an idea must contain at least as much formal reality as the idea has objective reality. Here, Descartes posits that if he can conceive of an idea that has more objective reality than he could possibly possess formally, it follows that something else exists in the world that is the cause of this idea. It is from this that he bases his argument for the existence of God. His proof for God’s existence contains a number of different arguments. From the name “God” Descartes says he understands a certain substance “that is infinite, independent, supremely intelligent and supremely powerful, and that created me along with everything else that exists—if anything else exists” (line 45). In examining the idea of an infinite substance, he says that the fact he is also a substance is not sufficient to explain having the idea of an infinite substance, because he is finite. Therefore, the idea must have proceeded from an infinite substance. He next says that while he can doubt the existence of other things, he cannot doubt the existence of God, because it is an idea “utterly clear and distinct” (line 46), a reference to his truth criterion mentioned above. Following this, he then proposes that he himself may be supremely perfect, that he possesses all of God’s perfections as potentialities and is constantly improving—meaning the idea of God could have come from himself. However, he dismisses this idea with three reasons: God is all actual and not at all potential; because he is always improving his knowledge will never be infinite; and a potential being is nothing, the idea of God must come from an actual infinite being. Lastly, Descartes argues that if his parents or some other imperfect being created him, this creator must have also possessed this idea of God. Whoever created them, then, must also have had this idea. Tracing the chain back, one must ultimately conclude that the idea of God can originate only from God. Knowing that the cause of his idea of a perfect, infinite God is actually God allows Descartes to prove that God is not the “evil genius” he previously hypothesized him to be. He can clearly and distinctly perceive that God is not a deceiver, because all deception relies on some sort of defect, and God (who is the cause of the idea of a perfect, infinite God) has no defects. This is the key to continuing his quest. Proving that God exists and is not a deceiver enables him to move out from just his thoughts and prove the existence of things outside of himself. He is now able to use his reason, which he believes is man’s natural endowment, to find truths because he knows he is not being deceived. Critics, both during Descartes’ time and in modern times, have found in Descartes’ proof a number of faults, most notably charging it with circularity. This circularity critique revolves around Descartes’ “a clear and distinct perception equals truth” rule. For Descartes’ proposal that something that is clearly and distinctly perceived is necessarily true to hold, god must exist and not be a deceiver. However, he also uses as part of his proof of God’s existence the reliability of a clear and distinct perception. As God’s existence must first be established in order to rely upon a clear and distinct perception, it can be easily seen that if a clear and distinct perception is used in the proof of God’s existence the argument appears to be circular. Descartes did respond to these critiques from his peers, but his defense was not completely convincing, as the critiques still exist today. In Meditations, Descartes presents a number of groundbreaking, revolutionizing ideas about the pursuit of knowledge. His proof for the existence of God is an integral part to his concepts. However, because of the holes that critics have found in this proof, many find it to not be very convincing, which in turn negatively affects the rest of his ideas.
The Separation of Mind and Body
Since the publication of The Discourse on the Method, Renes Descartes appears to have become the poster boy for the position of mind/body dualism. Throughout the Discourse and his later works, Descartes postulates several arguments for the absolute distinction and, thus, separateness of the mind and the body. The position is not simply that the mind and body have different properties but that they are entirely different substances. In this essay, I will aim to outline Descartes’ principal arguments and assess their cogency with reference to modern critical approaches. It does sometimes seem, however, as though these modern responses cloud the air around the arguments which Descartes himself presented; charitable interpretations, though they might generate more acceptable claims, are often unhelpful when discussing the validity and soundness of the arguments which Descartes himself puts into words. Ultimately, I will seek to sustain the line of argument that although the work of Descartes’ critics has forced hidden premises to surface thus rendering his arguments valid, many of his premises are still riddled with flaws.
I would like to begin by addressing two arguments for mind-body separation which stem from the difference in properties between the two entities. Firstly, I will discuss the famed argument from doubt which, as Hooker points out, is often regarded as ‘his primary argument for the distinctness of himself and his body.’ The argument follows from the cogito conclusion; the meditator cannot doubt his own existence since his existence is evident from his thinking at that moment; the fact he is thinking is evident from his doubting. Descartes notes that ‘from this I recognized that I was a substance whose whole essence and nature is to be conscious and whose being requires no place and depends on no material thing.’ The skeptic cannot doubt that he exists, but upon contemplating his body, is unable to rely on its reality (it may be an illusion, for example.) It is clear, then, that the mind and body must be distinct since they do not both have the property of indubitability. Formally, Descartes argues that (1) I can doubt that my body exists (2) I cannot doubt that I exist (3) Therefore, I am not identical with my body.
The argument seems suspicious. Firstly, the argument as presented is not a formally valid logical proof; the premises do not naturally entail the conclusion without the addition of another premise. Descartes doesn’t add this premise but later commentators tend to accept its implicitness. It seems that Descartes is presupposing Leibniz’s law, the principle of the indiscernibility of identicals: ‘for all things, x and y, if x is identical with y, then for all properties, p, x has p if, and only if, y has p.’ Acceptance of the validity of the argument from doubt, therefore, relies on the acceptance of this principle. Descartes, though implicitly relying upon it, doesn’t provide an argument in its favour. Luckily, the indiscernibility of identicals is commonly accepted amongst philosophers although there are objections which have been raised. Hooker reminds us, for example, of Kenny’s belief in the limitations of Leibniz’s law; the law, he argues, cannot be used in ‘modal and intentional contexts.’ According to Kenny, Descartes implicitly relies on the law in such a context and is consequently guilty of ‘needing a principle not applicable to its premises; or, as some would say, a false principle.’ Many would disagree with Kenny’s objection and accept Leibniz’ law as a limitless necessary truth of numerically identical things. However, the fact that it can be doubted weakens Descartes case since, firstly, he doesn’t defend Leibniz’s law or even recognize his use of it (Descartes wouldn’t have defended a law called ‘Leibniz’s law’ since it hadn’t yet been formulated, but he didn’t defend his use of the principle we would now refer to as Leibniz’s law) thus leaving him open to this kind of criticism. Secondly, even if Descartes is implicitly relying on Leibniz’s law, he is in no position to do so; he has only just concluded his own existence and is in no position to be asserting general laws about the identity of objects he hasn’t yet proved exist.
Hooker points out another issue with the argument from doubt; Descartes argues from his doubting that his body exists and not doubting that he exists to the ‘de re counterparts’ of these assertions: his body has the property of being doubted by him and he as a thinking thing does not. This kind of move could lead to a farcical inference such as Hooker’s example of Tom and his father: ‘I can doubt that John has ever fathered a son, so John has the property of being possibly doubted by me to have ever fathered a son. I cannot doubt that Tom’s father has ever fathered a son, so Tom’s father does not have the property of being doubted by me to have ever fathered a son. Since John has a property not had by Tom’s father, the two are distinct.’ The argument is obviously fallacious.
Arnauld expresses a similar worry within the fourth set of objections; simply because one can doubt that an object has a property, does not mean it doesn’t have that property. He uses the example of a right-angled triangle arguing that one might well be able to doubt that it has the Pythagorean property but this doesn’t mean that the triangle doesn’t have it since it is a necessary part of a right-angled triangle. The distinction of the triangle from this feature is impossible. Similarly, ‘despite my ability to imagine myself without a body, the body is indeed an essential part of me- something without which I could not exist.’ It seems that the property of being doubted by the meditator is not a genuine property of an object, it is a fact about the meditator. Descartes attempts to answer Arnauld’s worry in his replies. He argues that ‘…we cannot have a clear understanding of a triangle having the square on its hypotenuse equal to the squares on the other sides without at the same time being aware that it is right-angled. And yet we can clearly and distinctly perceive the mind without the body and the body without the mind.’ However, we know this fact about triangles. It is mathematically impossible for it not to be the case. In the case of the mind and body, we begin our investigations from a place of ignorance; although we can conceive of the two being distinct, they could just as easily be inseparable without our knowledge. As Hatfield puts it, ‘it is possible that the thinking self and the body are actually identical, and the reasoner is ignorant of that fact.’
Descartes later attempts to escape the claim that he derives his conclusion from ignorance by denying that the passages in the discourse which suggest this were not intended to be his conclusion (although, it does seem that they were: ‘from this I knew I was a substance whose whole essence or nature is simply to think, and which does not…depend on any material thing…’) Descartes is sending confusing mixed messages here. However, at any rate, Descartes seems to be admitting himself that the argument from doubt, as stated in the Discourse, fails. It can be made valid but remains unsound.
Next, I would like to address the argument from divisibility. The argument simply states that the mind and body are separate entities; the former is indivisible and the latter divisible. Descartes maintains that ‘…when I consider the mind, or myself in so far as I am merely a thinking thing, I am unable to distinguish any parts within myself; I understand myself to be something quite single and complete. Although the whole mind seems to be united to the whole body, I recognize that if a foot or an arm or any other part of the body is cut off nothing has thereby been taken away from the mind.’ Once again, Leibniz’s law must come into play for the purposes of validity. The mind and body are distinct because they do not possess the same attributes i.e. indivisibility. Perhaps the most obvious issue here is that Descartes’ conception of the mind doesn’t seem to marry well with medical observations about the mind. Damage to the brain has been shown to affect our mind and diminish our mental capacity. Cottingham is very matter of fact about this particular point; he maintains that there is an abundance of evidence for mental capacity being diminished by damage to the nervous system, for example, ‘and the depressingly probable inference from this must be that the total destruction of the central nervous system will cause total mental extinction.’ In addition, he recognizes how common it is for the mind to seemingly exist in tension with itself i.e. for there to almost be two wills existing in the mind. Consciousness is not, therefore, necessarily a unified thing. Even if it were a unified thing, it might still rely on the physical brain which, as Descartes accepts, can be divided.
Descartes’ argument within the Meditations, often referred to as ‘the argument from clear and distinct perception’, seems much less susceptible to obvious fallacies than those arguments stemming from the distinct properties of mind and body, though fallacies are still present. The argument again emphasizes that the meditator is definitely sure that he is a thinking thing and has a sufficiently clear understanding of what thought is to enable him to accept the possibility that he might not be an extended thing. Equally, the meditator has a clear understanding of a body as an extended, non-thinking thing; it is essential to its being that it be extended but not necessary that it be a thinking thing. If the meditator can conceive of a thinking thing being non-extended and of an extended thing being non-thinking, then it is possible for God to create a world in which these clearly understood possibilities are actually the case in reality. If God could indeed create a thinking, non-extended thing and vice versa, then they must be distinct and separately existing things.
Firstly, many have recognized the issue of Descartes seemingly claiming that because he can clearly and distinctly perceive mind and body as existing apart, they can actually be distinct. Enter Arnauld, once again, with his triangle. He argues that one could clearly and distinctly perceive a right angled triangle to exist without possessing the Pythagorean property and Descartes seems to suggest this makes the object and the principle distinct. Evidently, they are not. Descartes replies by arguing that the Pythagorean principle is not a complete thing, and he is discussing complete things. As Cottingham states ‘his concept of mind is, he maintains, complete; for what he is aware of- his thinking- is sufficient for him to exist with this attribute and this alone.’ Still, however, we have the issue of how Descartes knows he will continue to exist without his body. ‘I think therefore I am’ only works if thinking can happen and if thinking relies on a brain, for example, then Descartes cannot claim that he would still exist without his body. Many have accused Descartes of underestimating the potential complexity of thought; Cottingham puts the problem succinctly: ‘ Why should it not be the case, as indeed modern scientific research seems increasingly to be discovering, that it is an extremely obscure and complicated process- vastly more difficult to understand than, say, digestion.’ In addition, the argument from clear and distinct perception rests on the reliability of clear and distinct perception which, although a discussion of it is beyond the scope of this inquiry, is questionable.
In conclusion, it seems that the arguments I have discussed for Descartes’ mind-body dualism are, largely, indefensible. I think it is fair to say that Descartes’ proofs can more often than not be made logically valid by the addition of premises which he presupposes. Taking the words on the page at face-value, Descartes’ failure to specify implicit premises would perhaps force us to conclude he often makes logically invalid assertions. The work of later critics has allowed him to be read more charitably. However, although we might be able to render Descartes’ arguments valid, it is often difficult to argue for their soundness.
 Hooker, M. 1978. ‘Descartes’s Denial of Mind-Body Identity’, in Hooker, M. (ed), Descartes: Critical and Interpretive Essays (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press: 1978)
 Leibniz’ law, in Hooker, M. 1978. ‘Descartes’s Denial of Mind-Body Identity’, in Hooker, M. (ed), Descartes: Critical and Interpretive Essays (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press: 1978)
 Cottingham, J. Descartes (Basil Blackwell), 1986, chapter 5
 Descartes, The Fourth set of replies.
 Hatfield, G. Descartes and the Meditations
 Descartes, The Discourse on the Method, 6:32-3
 Cottingham, J. Descartes (Basil Blackwell), 1986, chapter 5
 Cottingham, J. Descartes (Basil Blackwell), 1986, chapter 5
Descartes’ cogito: inference or intuition?
The kind of reasoning utilized by Descartes in order to arrive at his conclusion of the cogito has been questioned since its initial publication in The Discourse on the Method. The conjunction ‘ergo’ suggests the formula of an inference, that Descartes has concluded his existence from a premise. Yet, Descartes himself seems to deny the use of this kind of deductive reasoning favouring the idea that the conclusion stems from intuition. In this essay, I will seek to examine the potential issues with claiming the cogito conclusion to have been inferred and question whether the argument from intuition carries any more weight. Ultimately, I believe that once all has been considered, it has to be asserted that Descartes concludes ‘I think, therefore I am’ intuitively.
Before engaging in an exploration of the place of intuition and inference within the cogito reasoning, it is perhaps worth briefly and clearly summarising the question. Hatfield explains it succinctly: ‘…where does the conclusion get its force? Does it follow from a logical argument, that is, by deductive inference from the premise “I think”, perhaps with other premises? Or is it somehow known immediately, through the mere awareness of some thoughts?’ (Hatfield, G. Descartes and the Meditations, P.107) Essentially, which kind of reasoning is being used here given that the formula is both claimed to be discovered intuitively and presented as an, albeit invalid or incomplete, logical inference? Markie offers a useful definition of the two key terms: ‘Deduction is “the inference of something as following necessarily from some other propositions which are known with certainty” (AT X 369: CSM I 15). Intuition is the faculty by which we gain the initial certainties that make deduction possible.’ (Peter Markie. “The cogito and its importance”, in the Cambridge Companion to Descartes, P.144)
For structural ease, I would like to firstly address the possibility of the cogito as an inference and then as an intuition. Proponents of the inference interpretation might argue that some inferring is obviously occurring since Descartes has moved from one proposition to another, the addition of the conjunction ‘therefore’ suggesting the entailment of the conclusion from the premise. It is widely accepted that in order for the argument to be a logically valid syllogism, it would require the addition of a second premise allowing the argument to read as follows: 1) I think 2) Everything that thinks exists 3) Therefore, I exist. However, it is clear that this simplistic inference interpretation of the cogito simply will not work in accordance with Descartes’ ideas. Firstly, he explicitly rejects a syllogistic approach in his Second Set of Objections: …’he does not deduce existence from thought by means of a syllogism…’ As Cottingham rightly points out, Descartes approaches the cogito purely from a personal perspective; he concludes that he is existing purely from the fact that he is thinking in a specific moment. The entailment of existence from thinking is, according to Descartes, self-evident: ‘It is a contradiction to suppose that what thinks does not, at the very time when it is thinking, exist.’ (Principles I 7: AT VIII 7; CSM I 195, Cited in Cottingham, J. Descartes, 1986, p.36) It is only self- evident when it is occurring in time, however. Descartes is not making any general claims about the connection between thinking things and existing things but simply concluding his own existence from his own personal case of thinking. As Cottingham reiterates: ‘most logicians are accustomed to think of validity predominantly in term of timeless, non-tensed propositions, and many commentators…have managed fundamentally to distort Descartes’ argument by trying to construe in ‘blackboard fashion’, as an exemplification of some timelessly valid formal structure.’ (Cottingham, J. Descartes, 1986, p.36) Aside from this point, it doesn’t seem as if we can accept an additional premise at this stage, especially such a general claim as ‘everything that thinks exists’; Descartes is only just on the cusp of proving his own existence and is therefore in no position to be making generalisations about other things, beings or objects which he has still not demonstrated, exist. He is still in the process of doubting everything, the hypothetical ‘second premise’ would therefore be dubitable. Descartes has not yet refuted the notion of a demon controlling our thoughts and so any conclusions or inferences could arguably still be deceptive.
However, although Descartes blatantly rejects the idea of condensing his cogito into a strict, syllogistic inference, he does seem to accept that the hidden premise exists and is needed. He does not deny that ‘one must first know what thought, existence and certainty are, and that it is impossible that that which thinks should not exist, and so forth. (Descartes, The principles of Philosophy ‘) However, it seems that Descartes, in accepting the addition of this premise, is still guilty of assuming knowledge he is not yet in a position to have. As Hatfield maintains: ‘”I exist” is supposed to be her first item of knowledge. If she really has cleared her mind of all other judgements, where do these premises come from?’ (Hatfield, G. Descartes and the Meditations, P.111) He argues that ‘it appears so evident to the understanding that we cannot but believe it…’ (Descartes’ Letter to Clerselier)But Descartes has forced himself to doubt everything, including the simplest of propositions at this stage. It seems, then, that if the premise that ‘Everything that thinks must exist’ cannot be maintained without undermining Descartes’ claim to be doubting everything, the syllogism (which Descartes rejects anyway) fails and so does the idea that the premise is simply known to be true (the view which Descartes seems to support.)
I would now like to consider the cogito purely as an intuition. In order for the cogito conclusion to be asserted, both ‘I think’ and ‘I exist’ would have to be shown to be indubitable. For Descartes, the idea that he is thinking is a self-evident proposition; he states in the Principles that certain notions are ‘sufficiently self-evident…the most simple notions.’ (Descartes, The principles of Philosophy ) We can perhaps support this idea with Cottingham’s point that ‘doubting is a special case of thinking.’ (Cottingham, J. Descartes, 1986, p.39) It does seem to be the case that in doubting that we are thinking, we are proving to ourselves that we are. ‘Doubting it confirms its truth.’ (ibid.)It seems that the only way to escape the indubitableness of ‘I am thinking’ is to deny that we are doubting which, I think most would agree, goes too far. There would be no way of moving forward if we were to do this. In addition, ‘I think’ is an incorrigible claim; because it is an internal belief, it cannot be doubted. It is not necessarily true but is certain in the sense of being beyond doubt.
From this indubitable premise, Descartes moves on to conclude that he exists in one unbroken leap. It seems clear to us that for something to be thinking, it does have to be existing, how can it be otherwise? But it is here that those in the ‘inference-camp’, so to speak, would claim Descartes is presupposing a hidden premise. I think that the way Descartes resolves the issue does seem to be the most convincing. He draws a distinction between the way in which we actually, in reality, come to the conclusion that we exist and what is actually going on philosophically behind the scenes. In other words, ‘he argued that the judgement ‘I think, therefore I am’ is inferentially complex and contains an implicit major premise, but that everything needed is grasped in a single intuitive act of thought.’ (Hatfield, G. Descartes and the Meditations, P.112) Although this approach rather diplomatically seems to combine both the idea of inference and the idea of intuition, I cannot help but feel that Descartes is still championing the idea that he used an intuitive method to come to his conclusions. Although, after the fact, we can analyse an intuition and dissect its origins and the premises implicit within it, this doesn’t mean we didn’t arrive at a conclusion through intuition. Descartes seems to be saying that when he contemplated his thought and his existence and their interconnectedness, he was doing it by the method of intuition. This seems to me to be similar to arguing the following: that when we feel cold, we know we feel cold by virtue of feeling a sudden shiver. Though there are numerous anatomical factors which contributed to generating the shiver, it is through the shiver alone that we come to know we are cold. If my understanding is correct, then intuition in Descartes’ case is like the shiver and the implicit premises the underlying reasons for it.
For Descartes, general principles such as the ones which many claim help us infer the cogito conclusion (for example, ‘everything that thinks must exist’) can only actually be discovered after the drawing of the conclusion. Hatfield perfectly summaries the point here: ‘Descartes believes that such general premises are at work in the logic of the cogito reasoning…but they come to awareness only through reflection on particular cases of intuitively evident knowledge…the inference is accepted in a single intuition and subsequently analysed to discover its logical structure, including the tacit general premises.'(Hatfield, G. Descartes and the Meditations, P.115) By this understanding, Descartes escapes the issue of using a dubitable premise because he claims only to know about it after the fact. He is using only his intuitions, not any unjustified premises.
Markie adopts an interpretation of Descartes’ cogito which marries almost exactly with the aforementioned approach; he calls it ‘the self-evident intuition /immediate inference interpretation.’ (Peter Markie. “The cogito and its importance”, in the Cambridge Companion to Descartes.) Markie argues that ‘Descartes intuits the self-evident proposition that he thinks and simultaneously immediately infers that he exists. His knowledge that he thinks is intuitive in the primary sense of being self-evident and entirely noninferential; his knowledge that he exists is intuitive in the extended sense of being immediately inferred from the simultaneously intuited premise that he thinks.’ (ibid. ) This approach admits the use of both inferential and intuitive knowledge but covers them both with the umbrella of intuition. I think this represents a good example of Descartes recognising how nuanced our approach to this kind of question has to be; there is a point at which the formulaic nature of philosophy seems to be failing us since strictly speaking, Descartes’ conclusion is an inference but it is understood intuitively in real life. Descartes couldn’t say that he arrived at his conclusion through following premises x, y and z to their conclusion validly because this would be a false impression of how he came to gain knowledge.
Therefore, it is evident that Descartes’ cogito argument is not a straightforward case when it comes to establishing the type of reasoning used in drawing to his conclusion. The potential issues with claiming the cogito conclusion to have been inferred are many and, although the argument is laid out as a weak logical proof, it does seem as though ‘I think, therefore I am’ is a certainty arrived at primarily through intuition.
Did Descartes argue in a circle?
Arnauld, within his objections to ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’, highlights what would come to be considered one of the most fundamental flaws in Cartesian reasoning; namely the evident circularity of reasoning from ‘Clear and Distinct perception’ to the existence of God, and vice versa. The problem has come to be christened ‘The Cartesian Circle’ and has lead to an abundance of philosophical discourse, both critical and defensive, on the subject. In this essay, I will seek to sustain the line of argument that Descartes is initially guilty of the charge of circularity levelled against him which he fails to escape within his reply. Though many have since proposed methods of overcoming the circularity issue which in themselves might seem cogent, ultimately they can only be achieved by the alteration of Descartes’ original argument or a forced interpretation of the text thus failing to demonstrate that Descartes did not, in fact, argue in a circle.
Before engaging in an analysis of the circularity problem it is perhaps worth briefly summarizing the steps which Descartes’ takes to arrive at his conclusion. The meditator having begun his contemplation doubting all that he knows and perceives, he eventually recognises the indubitableness of his own existence; Descartes’ famous ‘cogito’ reasoning states that he has to exist because he is thinking, the fact that he is thinking is evident from his doubting. Hatfield formally expresses how the argument subsequently unfolds: ‘1) I know with certainty that I am a thinking thing. 2) This knowledge is based solely on a clear and distinct perception of its truth. 3) Clear and distinct perception would not be sufficient to yield such knowledge if it were in any way fallible. 4) Therefore, clear and distinct perception provides a sufficient ground for knowledge; whatever I so perceive is true. ‘ (Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.144) Though Descartes has now established the basic reliability of his perceptions, they are still potentially open to doubt until they can be guaranteed by a non-deceptive God. The existence of this non-deceptive God can only be concluded by appeal to the proofs of the intellect which his existence supposedly validates. Cottingham summarizes the problem succinctly: ‘I need to trust my intellect in order to prove God’s existence, yet without prior knowledge of God’s existence I have in principle no reason to trust my intellect.’ (Cottingham, J. Descartes, pp. 66-70) Herein lies the problem of the Cartesian Circle. The method with which Descartes argues means that he never actually removes the doubt from any of his claims; we can doubt our clear and distinct perceptions (albeit only in a ‘slight’ and metaphysical’ way) which means we have to doubt the existence of God since we cannot trust the intellectual method we used to arrive at his existence. Yet, paradoxically, his existence is the only thing which could remove the doubt. ‘A particular method of ascertaining the truth (clear and distinct perception) is vindicated by proving that God exists and is no deceiver, but this proof relies on that very method.’ (Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.169) As a reader would naturally interpret it in the Meditations, therefore, the argument is almost certainly circular. I will now move on to consider how Descartes himself endeavours to escape the circle. In response to Arnauld’s criticism, Descartes appeals to the difference between what we clearly and distinctly perceive in the present and what we remember having perceived on a prior occasion. He argues that ‘…we are sure that God exists because we attend to the arguments which prove this; but subsequently it is enough for us to remember that we perceived something clearly in order for us to be certain that it is true. This would not be sufficient if we did not know that God exists and is not a deceiver.’ (Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.169) I think it is worth questioning whether this is actually a reply to Arnauld’s circularity worries; what Descartes seems to be implying here is that circularity doesn’t actually matter because all the existence of God does is allows the meditator to confidently rely on clear and distinct perceptions he is no longer having i.e. perceptions he only recollects. One can rely on current clear and distinct perceptions. Firstly, if, indeed, Descartes is saying what he seems to be saying, why exactly was there any need to doubt in the first place? As Hatfield notes, ‘this reply makes it seem as if the reliability of clear and distinct perception was never itself really placed in doubt ‘(Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.170), which, of course, it was. Descartes seems to have changed his tune, so to speak. Consequently, the reply doesn’t appear to tackle the circularity which Arnauld initially pointed out because Descartes has moved the goal posts. However, granting that he hasn’t and that this is the way he wishes, and has always wished, to argue, there still seems to be an issue; we still have to rely on God’s existence at some stage in order to trust our recollected perceptions and we still cannot prove his existence without presupposing the reliability of our clear and distinct perceptions. It seems that in order for the reply to work, we have to be able to prove God’s existence without clear and distinct perception. I don’t think that this is possible within Descartes’ framework as I now hope to demonstrate.
Descartes postulates two arguments towards the existence of God which, by virtue of their being arguments, already presume to trust the human intellect. However, aside from this fact, the arguments seem weak and thus unable to prove the existence of the God necessary to secure our certainty of recollected perceptions. Within the third meditation, Descartes explores the nature of ideas; he maintains that ‘there must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause.’ (The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. by Cottingham et alii. Meditation 3, P.28)The idea of a perfect, infinite God could not exist in us because we are finite; yet, the idea does exist in us. There must be a cause of the objective reality found in the idea of him; that cause would have to be God. However, in order for this argument to hold, the idea of God would have to be innate which does not account for the multitude of people who do not find this idea of God within them at all, or even the idea of a perfect being. In addition, there is nothing to suggest we could not create this idea of a perfect being from our own limitations i.e. imagine a limitless being. Descartes might argue that we cannot derive the idea of perfection from imperfection, presumably because we could not know limitations without the idea of perfection. One can easily conceive of us creating an idea of perfection, however, just by comparison with other, better humans and extending this to an extreme. Moreover, we might be unable to recognise a perfect being; what we think is a perfect being could be imperfect but simply more perfect than us. It seems, then, that this is a rather weak argument for God’s existence lessening our ability to use God to validate our recollected clear and distinct perceptions.
Descartes provides a second proof for the existence of God in the form of his version of the Ontological argument. The central idea is that necessary existence is part of the definition of a perfect being, the idea of which the meditator clearly and distinctly perceives. Therefore, God must exist. The most evident flaw in the proof rests in the fact that existence is not a predicate; if it were, anything could be brought into existence. Anything we could conceive of as perfect in our minds would necessarily exist and this is definitely not the case.
It seems that even if Descartes’ proofs for the existence of God were not as weak as they are, his reply against Arnauld’s circularity criticism still wouldn’t hold. Both arguments still appear to be relying on the clear and distinct perception of the idea of God which invites the return of the circle. Otherwise, how are we perceiving this idea? It could be argued that the idea of God comes from the ‘natural light’ (‘the intrinsic cognitive power found in all human minds'(Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.156)) which is not open to any doubt. However, if we could perceive things by this ‘natural light’, is there any need for the deceiving-God hypothesis? Hatfield also draws our attention to the fact that the natural light and clear and distinct perception are two different phrases representing the same idea: ‘…the cogito reasoning is seen by the natural light. Earlier, the same conclusion was attributed to clear and distinct perception. It therefore seems that the natural light and clear and distinct perception are the same thing described in to different ways.’ (ibid. p.157) One couldn’t be used in place of the other in this case. Descartes’ reply is also very limited if we can only clearly and distinctly perceive things in the present without God; as soon as we stop concentrating on the clear and distinct perception, it becomes a perception we have to recollect and we need God again. Hatfield is keen to mention, on behalf of Arnauld, that Descartes’ reply also does not seem to address the issue of the truth behind our clear and distinct perceptions: ‘whether or not we can doubt them, they might still be false. In that case, we should want a proof of their validity that does not rely on clear and distinct perception. It is that proof that Arnauld rightly says Descartes has not supplied.’ (Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.171)
To reiterate, then, Descartes’ reply to the circularity challenge states that we can clearly and distinctly perceive things without God but God is needed to remove our doubts about recollected perceptions. Most of our clear and distinct perceptions will be recollected since we cannot be clearly and distinctly perceiving things at all times. Therefore, the arguments for God’s existence have to be sound and cannot appeal to clear and distinct perception without falling back into circularity. The arguments which Descartes presents for God’s existence are either too weak to be convincing or appeal to clear and distinct perception so his reply is a weak one.
Since the publication of Arnauld’s circularity concern, scholars have attempted to interpret the meditations in such a way as to relieve Descartes of the charge of circularity or, at least, to interpret it in such a way that the challenge doesn’t matter. For example, some have suggested that by altering the way in which we view the intention behind the meditations, the circle can be avoided. If Descartes only intended to achieve maximum certainty as opposed to truth then his reply seems more generally adequate; we are certain of our clear and distinct perceptions until we stop having them at which point the doubt of the deceiving-God hypothesis can creep in. If we are certain/convinced of the proofs for a non-deceiving God’s existence then his deception is no longer a worry and we can be maximally certain of our perceptions. ‘We have not shown that clear and distinct perceptions are true and so have not shown that the proofs of God are true. But we have shown that they are maximally certain, thereby reaching our goal of unshakeable belief.’ (Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.171) It does seem, however, that Descartes aims towards truth on numerous occasions: ‘if I were unaware of God; and I should thus never have true and certain knowledge…’ represents just one example. He talks of knowledge and of truth. Loeb suggests that ‘knowledge, in the strict sense of scientific knowledge, is identified with unshakeable belief…’ (Loeb, L. ‘The Cartesian circle”, in The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, p.203) which would suggest that the idea of aiming for certainty is perhaps not such an unnatural interpretation of Descartes. Arguably, however, all this can do is lessen what the meditations seek to achieved; it doesn’t solve the problem, it simply dilutes Descartes’ intention until the problem no longer exists.
Another potential way of removing the circularity problem is removing the doubt in the first place. Hatfield offers a description of what this would entail i.e. arguing that God cannot possibly be a deceiver because the notion of God being a perfect being and the notion of him being deceptive are logically incompatible; ‘the supposed reason for doubt is removed and the circle is (allegedly) avoided.’ (Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.174) However, the circle is only avoided because this is not Descartes’ argument. The fact that there is a logical contradiction within his conception of a deceiving God is a separate problem but within the argument which we call circular, Descartes entertains the idea of a deceiving God. Therefore, though it may be able to remove the circularity problem, it doesn’t disprove the fact that Descartes argued in a circle. The ‘remove the doubt’ proposition also contains within it potential issues. For example, the idea of a perfect God could, in some way, be compatible with a deceiving God. (ibid.)
It suffices to say, by way of conclusion, that Descartes argues in a circle. He is guilty of the initial challenge postulated by Arnauld and then subsequently fails to provide an adequate response to the criticism. Though it is worth considering scholarly attempts to remove the circularity problem, these are only arguably useful when attempting to examine whether one could make the Cartesian reasoning work as opposed to whether Descartes made it work. Furthermore, it does seem that these propositions often rely on either an interpretation which doesn’t seem entirely as intended or a distortion of the argument into something which doesn’t necessarily resemble the original.
Mind or Matter: A Critique of Descartes’s Philosophy
In the Second Meditation of The Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes addresses the question of identity: “I am, I exist… But this ‘I’ that must exist––I still don’t properly understand what it is.” (Descartes 4) The only circumstance helping establish identity is that Descartes thinks––in fact, it is the only thing he can guarantee. Therefore, one can come to the conclusion that in establishing that he is essentially a thinking thing, Descartes also establishes that identity is dependent on the mind, not the body. This distinctive attribution of what a person truly is sets the stage for Descartes’ ideas of mind-body dualism, in which the mind and body essentially exist as separate entities. Descartes’ argument takes two major forms––divisibility, dubitability, and conceivability––each of which can be deconstructed to deductive arguments to prove the difference between mind and body. However, there exist logical fallacies and discrepancies in the premises and conclusions that put the validity of Descartes’ dualist position to question.
The logical argument for divisibility in support of dualism is as follows:
All extended things are divisible.No minds are divisible.No minds are extended things.
Upon initial contemplation, the first premise seems to be true. In the extended world, matter is constantly changing form, reshaping, or breaking apart. It is simple to conceptualize physical things being divided. Take an apple, for example––cut it in half, pull out the core, slice it into wedges. What would happen, however, if we took things further? We would divide it into smaller and smaller sections, until the piece of apple was so tiny it could not be cut with a knife. Still, the apple exists and a physical, extended thing. And so we can divide it further, to a single piece of matter, to a single atom, to its atomic components––electrons and quarks. But then what? We started out with an apple, which is undoubtedly an extended thing, so surely the matter we are left with is also an extended thing, being produced by the division of some physical object. Yet, by continuing to divide the apple into its simplest components, we are eventually left with pieces of an extended thing that is in its purest form, and is no longer divisible. Thus, the first premise stating that all physical things are divisible cannot be true.
If the first premise is false, the second premise is rendered useless. Whether or not the mind is divisible tells us nothing; there is no correlation between extended things and divisibility. Even if the second premise were assumed to be true, there would be no way of concluding that “no minds are extended things”, as the quality of indivisibility tells us nothing of the physicality of an object. The second premise in itself is not completely sound, for in some senses, the mind actually is divisible. While the divisibility in question with the first premise is on of spatial divisibility, it can be argued that the mind exhibits temporal divisibility. Everyone, at one point or another, has experienced a “blank moment” or dreamless sleep, during which no images or thoughts subsist in the mind. In these instances, continuity of the mind is broken. Descartes states in the Second Meditation: “I conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, must be true whenever I assert it or think it.” (Descartes 4) Upon rejection of the divisibility argument’s second premise, Descartes’ identification of himself solely as an essentially thinking thing is no longer reasonable, as, should Descartes cease to think, he would cease to exist as well. There are moments in the everyday, such as the instances mentioned previously, during which consciousness takes respite.
The Second Meditation also introduces the doubting argument, which can be summarized as follows:
I can doubt that my body exists.I cannot doubt that I exist as a thinking thing.I, as a thinking thing, am not identical with my body.
When considering the argument in itself, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. The justification issues lie in deciding what determines identity. The following is a modification of the doubting argument, which “makes use of Leibniz’s Law of Identity… x is identical to y if, and only if, for any property p had by x at time t, y also has p at t, and vice versa” (Calef) through the addition of another premise.
My body has the property of being such that I can doubt its existence.I, a thinking thing, do not have the property of being such that I can doubt my existence.If two things are identical, then they have exactly the same properties.I, as a thinking thing, am not identical with my body.
In applying Leibniz’s Law, Descartes establishes the mind and body to be different entities because they do not have the same property of dubitability. While the modification make the argument logically sound, the issue lies in whether or no dubitability is a property that can even be used for an object’s identity––“doubt… is a property of me, not of [the object in question].” (Calef) In other words, to doubt is to be without conviction or to believe something to be uncertain. Objects do not inherently possess the quality of being dubitable; it is applied to them by the doubter. Therefore, because Descartes doubts the existence of his body but does not doubt the existence of his mind, it does not follow that the two things are essentially different. While Descartes provides his reasoning for why he doubts the external world and why he believes the mind to undoubtedly exist, one could just as easily hold views that were the exact opposite, and the premises would still hold true from the conclusions. This proves that doubt, in itself, no matter how strongly backed, is not a sound measure of identity comparison.
Descartes’ conceivability argument, as introduced in the Sixth Meditation, falls under a similar margin of error:
I can conceive that I, a thinking thing, exist without my extended body existing.Anything that I can conceive is logically possible.If it is logically possible that X exist without Y, then X is not identical with Y.I, as a thinking thing, am not identical with my extended body.
Similar to how dubitability is not a possessive property belonging to an object that renders it to be a certain way, conceivability, as used in the first premise, neither confirms nor denies any thing about the nature the mind being separate from the body. One could just as easily conceive of a world in which the mind and body are mutually necessary. Ex nihilo nihil fit––a phrase first coined by the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, meaning nothing comes from nothing––is the main principle on which the second premise is based. “Anything that I can conceive”, or ideas, are attached to what Descartes considered objective reality, which is merely comprised of representations. What they represent are elements within formal reality, which are things solely of the external world, things that are “logically possible”. Despite this connection, they still take distinct and separate forms.
However, to what extent do these ideas within objective reality have to correlate with their formal reality counterparts? Take, for example, the fantastical beasts mentioned in the First Meditation: “For even when painters try to depict sirens and satyrs with the most extraordinary bodies, they simply jumble up the limbs of different kinds of real animals, rather than inventing natures that are entirely new.” (Descartes 2) Satyrs and sirens are things that exist only in objective reality. Their formal connections are not actual satyrs and sirens themselves, but rather the physical figures of humans, goats, and fish, the formal elements which the mythical beasts are comprised of. As a result, the second premise does not stand to be completely valid. A conception is derived from things that are logically possible, but it is not true that anything conceivable is logically possible. If this were the case, there would be no such thing as fiction.
Descartes proposes several explanations in support of substance mind-body dualism, each of which have their own form of merit and novelty––an obvious fact, as Descartes has stood the test of time and been a major source of contentious themes within the philosophical community. However, when taken out of pedagogical philosophy and placed into the context of the everyday, there are some gaps in the development of what follows from dualism and what this means for the ordinary person. In order for Descartes’ dualism argument to be relevant and convincing, there are three components that must successfully be addressed: what, where, and how.
The Sixth Meditation deals with the issue of unity of the distinct mind and body parts. It’s inarguable that, even if established as distinct entities, the mind and body are very closely intertwined––so much so, that for the common man, the dualist phenomenon is one that might never cross their minds. Descartes identifies the what as such: “I (a thinking thing) am not merely in my body as a sailor is in a ship. Rather, I am closely joined to it—intermingled with it, so to speak—so that it and I form a unit.” (Descartes 30). The mind and body, though separate, act as one. The where is approached in a very scientific manner, Descartes utilizing anatomic knowledge to identify a specific place in the brain in which the mind-body interaction takes place. In The Passions of the Soul, Descartes identifies “a certain part of the body where it exercises its functions more particularly than in all the others” (Descartes 9) . The pineal gland, he decides, is the sole place in which the “soul can directly exercise its functions” in one unified location (Descartes 9). In this work, he further elaborates on the idea of “sense-organs”––eyes, hands, ears––within the human anatomy that help bridge the mind-body relationship and translate the external world in a manner perceivable to the mind.
The question of how this relationship occurs, however, is not one that is detailed in either The Meditations on First Philosophy or The Passions of the Soul. As Scott Calef, professor of philosophy at Ohio Wesleyan University best put it, “If the dualist doesn’t know or cannot say how minds and bodies interact, what follows about dualism? Nothing much.” (Calef) This is an issue that cannot be addressed just conceptually, like the what, as that remains too broad and imprecise. Science, a field which only covers structures of the physical world, was apt to answer where, but not enough to explain the full story as, within the diegesis of The Meditations, the mind has been established to have no extension. If anyone should have the ability to figure out the nature of this interaction, it would be Descartes, who in himself professes to be a married reconciliation between both philosophy and science.
It should be acknowledged, though, that it is simply too much to expect an inerrant argument and faultless logic, with every question answered––after all, with such things, there would be no place for philosophy. The Meditations concludes with a call to action from Descartes, stating that we all “must acknowledge the weakness of our nature”, conceding the inherent flaws that preside over us all (Descart 34) . Perhaps there can only be imperfect explanations of existence for imperfect beings.
The Meditations on First Philosophy, edited by Jonathan Bennett: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/descartes1641.pdfFrom the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Dualism and Mind: http://www.iep.utm.edu/dualism/#SH3cThe Passions of the Soul, edited by Jonathan Bennett: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/descartes1649part1.pdf Logical argument taken verbatim from source by Purdue University: https://web.ics.purdue.edu/~curd/110WK13.html
The Role of Senses to Rene Descartes
In René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, he argues that the senses do not accurately help us understand the world. Descartes writes that he has begun to doubt all of his ideas. He decides that all those ideas come from the senses, which are not trustworthy. In the first few meditations, Descartes shows that one can use their senses to help them understand the nature of things, but the senses alone are insufficient to determine veracity. Descartes makes this argument through his discussion of the dream, his own existence, and the wax. Through these examples, Descartes proves that the role of the senses is in the mind more than it is in the body, showing that mind and body are separate.
For Descartes, dreams are evidence that one’s perceptions can be deceptive. Descartes argues that dreaming can prove the lack of use for senses in the body. When one is dreaming, they usually do not know they are dreaming. If one does not know they are dreaming, then one cannot know when they are awake. Descartes writes, “surely whatever I had admitted until now as most true I received either from the senses or through the senses. However, I have noticed that the senses are sometimes deceptive; and it is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once” (Descartes 14). If the senses are felt in a dream as well as in reality, Descartes argues, then one can not know if they are in fact dreaming or awake. One may conclude that any knowledge that relies on the senses should be examined, as it could be deception. Descartes writes that any given situation could be a deception of the senses. Even a realistic situation such as sitting by the fire in a gown could be just a dream, “how often does my evening slumber persuade me of such ordinary things as these: that I am here, clothed in my dressing gown seated next to the fireplace – when in fact I am lying undressed in bed” (Descartes 14). Descartes can feel the warmth of the fire in his dream so much that it does seem real. Moreover, if the senses make him believe that he can feel warmth, he cannot trust the warmth of the fire when he is awake. Descartes’ dream argument shows that although the senses help lead to understanding, one’s senses cannot determine truth. The senses can help one understand things like Descartes’ senses allow him to understand that fire is warm. In this case, the senses can not determine whether Descartes’ is feeling the warmth of the fire or dreaming the warmth of the fire. While dreaming, Descartes thinks of the warmth but in reality, he feels the warmth, showing mind and body are not one thing.
Descartes argues that doubt is the only way for him to discern between truths and falsities. If doubt is the only way for him to distinguish this, then determining truth, for Descartes, cannot be done through the body. It must be done through the mind and through thought. Descartes writes in his Second Meditation, “what then will be true? Perhaps just the single fact that nothing is certain” (Descartes 17). Descartes is arguing that the only thing a person can know is that things can be doubtful. If that person is doubting then that person must be something; that person exists. To understand this, one must use their thought. One’s body will only aid further understanding. This argument also stands for things that are knowable without sense experience but on intellectual experience.
Descartes further argues that the mind and body are separate through the use of his wax argument. When one describes something, the senses offer clues to how one can describe it. Descartes describes the wax, “…it has not yet lost all the honey flavor. It retains some of the scent of flowers…” (Descartes 21), and so on. Descartes gains the knowledge of these characteristics by using his senses. He knows it smells like honey because he is able to smell it. This idea goes for all the other characteristics and the corresponding sense. Descartes argues that the senses give one the image of an object, but not the knowledge of what that object truly is. The argument of the wax continues by Descartes heating the wax. The wax loses those characteristics that are sensed. This argument proves that the senses do determine traits of a substance but do not determine the nature of the substance, “so what was there in the wax that was so distinctly grasped? Certainly none of the aspects that I reached by means of the senses. For whatever name under the senses…has now changed; and yet the wax remains” (Descartes 21). While all the characteristics gained by sense have changed, the wax is still the same substance. The senses tell Descartes that things have changed, but he knows the object is still wax. He is using his rational thought. The senses provide the appearance of the thing. But when those appearances contradict each other one must disclaim those appearances as the thing itself. Descartes argues that the senses are a thing of the body, not of the mind. The mind tells you it is wax while the body tells you it is cold, hard, scented, and so forth. Descartes argues that this is because the senses do not belong to the object. In the case of the wax, “let us focus our attention on this and see what remains after we have removed everything that does not belong to the wax; only that it is something extended, flexible, and mutable” (Descartes 21). These things for Descartes are the wax itself, not the traits gained by sense experience.
In Descartes’ Meditations, he successfully argues that the role of the senses is in the mind more than it is in the body. Through further analysis, this argument proves that the mind and the body are separate. Saying that if one uses his or her mind to determine something without the use of his or her body, then these must be two separate beings. Through Descartes’ argument of the wax, his own existence, and the dream, he effectively argues this point. The wax provides a visual of something typically determined by senses that are further broken down into something that can only be truthful with the use of the brain and of knowledge. Descartes’ trial of his own existence provides the knowledge that the power of senses cannot provide truth but the power of the mind is strong enough to prove even the existence of a person. The dream presents the idea that the senses are untrustworthy. Through these small anecdotes of the senses, we gain a full picture of what the senses can and cannot do. What this argument proves is that the body and mind are separate beings with different purposes. These two beings work together to help us understand the sensible world.
Descartes’ Method in Meditations on First Philosophy
In order to investigate the intricacies of Descartes’ method, we must first come to an understanding of what Descartes is hoping to accomplish by use of it, and the true immediacy with which he writes. The objectives he introduces, namely to prove that “the human soul does not die with the body, and that God exists” (3), are not wants for Descartes, but absolute necessity. For Descartes, the world without God is an unregulated breeding ground of happy vice and endless convenience at the cost of morality; a world in which truth has no value and nothing can be certain; where he can deny his daughter right to the moment of her untimely death without consequence; where his only reason for continuing to live is to carve out the path of escape from this treachery for all damned or lost others. The ideal of his philosophy and the purpose of his methodical project then becomes to uncover what is certain – what is free from all error, from all sources of doubt or the temptation to doubt – and to find God within that certainty.
In the First Meditation is is established that he will accomplish this through radical doubt, in which all sources of potential error are suspended so that he must assume everything is a lie (or a liar) before he can prove certain things to be true, through a process of demonstrative thinking and geometrical proofs. He must leave no stone unturned, so to speak. In this line of thinking, even God is introduced as a potential deceiver, where, in Descartes’ darkness of mind, the radical love of God melds into chaotic deceit for deceit’s sake. Descartes writes: “How do I know that [God] has not brought it about that there is no earth, no sky, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, while at the same time ensuring that all these things appear to me to exist just as they do now? … How do I know that God has not brought it about that I too go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square…?” (18). Is is necessary for this content to be included in the First Meditation for several reasons. Besides establishing exactly how his project is going to be conducted for the next five sections, the content of the First Meditation sets the tone for the following. Although at the end of this section, he does acknowledge that God is “supremely good and the force of truth” (19), his initial instinct to question the good and honest nature of God introduces Descartes’ relationship to God as one lacking reverence, which is especially important for us to understand going into Meditations 2 and 3. The general tone of Descartes’ project is introduced in the beginning of the section, when he writes: “I realized that is was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start right again…” (15). For all the anguish it would cost to “demolish” one’s entire life and start over, Descartes approaches it in a way that seems unusually clinical, as if he is resigned to this necessary evil that he has assigned to himself. It is in this manner that Descartes appears to take on a sacrificial role, not unlike the Messianic mission, which, again, will be further developed in the following couple Meditations. If mental illness for Descartes is not being able to identify oneself as a thinking thing and only believing in what one sees (Bova), then the moments in his project before the Second Meditation, where he will identify such things, are for now his final moments of solidarity with society in any regard; before the curative thoughts are documented, he is as ill as all the deceived and deceiving world. This is the calm before the storm of self-inflicted isolation.
In the Second Meditation, Descartes discovers that the only thing which he cannot doubt about himself is the fact that he is doubting, that he has convinced himself of something and is, thereby, a thinking and existing thing, where thought and existence are totally confluent in that (at least pertaining to mankind) they arise together and are inseparable from conception. As previously mentioned, this discovery officially designates Descartes’ narrative as a reliable one, having removed it from the possibility of mental illness according to his own standards. The placement of the content of the Second Meditation directly before that of the Third Meditation is necessary because the Second Meditation indirectly begs a question that the Third Meditation answers, namely – if Descartes has proved in existence in that he is a thinking thing, what is it that allows him to be a thinking thing in the first place?
The Third Meditation is subtitled “The existence of God”, and, accordingly, deals with all that God is and must be in order for mankind to have access to truth and the idea of perfection. In this section, Descartes establishes that God does exist based on the fact that he, as a thinking thing, can conceive of God, and the perfection that God is. He writes: “… it must be concluded that the mere fact that I exist and have within me an idea of a most perfect being, that is, God, provides a very clear proof that God indeed exists” (40). Because God is infinite, and infinitely conservative of God’s existence, and, in God’s perfection, embodies a perpetual unadulterated truth, the conservation of God’s existence allows us to have continuous access to the truth. The placement of the Third Meditation is vital to our understanding of subsequent Meditations, first and foremost because it solidifies the idea of God as the one perfect thing – that which contains all perfections and allows us to set ourselves as imperfect by contrast. This is vitally important to the process of the Fourth Meditation, which dotes on whether or not God could be a source of potential deception. Secondly, the thoughts in this section of the text establish that which can exist wholly on its own (i.e. God and the mind, which can conceive of ideas about God) as sources of truth, allowing us to better understand the binary differences between truth and falsity that Descartes outlines in the Fourth Meditation. The notion of the mind being able to separate from the body also suggests a lack of captivity (from the confines of the extremely finite body), which would fulfill the requirement of having “freedom of choice” to conceive of “clear and distinct ideas” as is introduced in the Fourth Meditation. It is also important for the ideas in this section of the text to have come after the first and second sections, because only after Descartes’ clear demonstration of a lack of reverence toward God, combined with his thoughts in this section, can we begin to see Descartes’ ultimate connection with God; he wants to mirror him, and is going through the motions of God as a being that cannot deceive, who is (re)constructing the universe. Descartes writes in this section: “But perhaps I am something greater than I myself understand, and all the perfections which I attribute to God are somehow in me potentially, though not yet emerging or actualized” (41). Perhaps, beyond that Descartes’ method of uncovering absolute certainty is to radically doubt, as has already been established, it is beginning to become apparent that Descartes’ method of uncovering absolute certainty is to become God; or at least god-like; at least mirror the experience of God and the attributable perfections to the best of his ability. After all, the only way he can truly be free from doubt is if he is in the position of being the full and sole author of the meaning of his actions; however this role belongs conventionally to God.
After having kept the matter hanging in the balance for so long from the first exercise, Descartes in the Fourth Meditation finally determines that God is not a deceiver. Now that God’s perfect existence has been proven by the thoughts in the previous section, Descartes can come to the conclusion that it would be impossible for God to have deceptive tendencies, on the basis that “… in every case of trickery or deception some imperfection is to be found”, for example, “the will to deceive is undoubtedly evidence of malice or weakness” (43). Since God is perfect, the weakness of morality and spirit that would be required of someone in order to be a deceiver cannot be attributed to God. Furthermore, Descartes establishes in this section what is certainly true and what is a potential source of error, or, more broadly, a falsity, through the use of binary opposites (in which something is defined by its exclusion from the other thing) and an understanding of the causes of error as the extension of our will to understanding something past that which we can understand by nature. That said, he grants that truth can be found in God and God’s perfect will, in the mind, and, by extension, in what is internal and infinite, as well as in the imperfect human will when it is understanding. Therein, falsity can be found in humanity and human imperfection, in the body, and, by extension, in what is external and finite, as well as in the imperfect human will when it is in excess of understanding. Finally, this section more or less introduces the concept of clear and distinct ideas. These denote a freedom of choice to either affirm or deny what is comfortably understood (not an over-extension of the will). Descartes explains that when conceiving of one of these ideas, his mental freedom will guide him confidently down one path of either affirmation or denial, in relation to either his own natural understanding or intervention by a divine force. He says that he is not, however, confined by these interventions, as they “increase and strengthen” his freedom (46). A reprisal of the previous section is evident here as, once again, there appear to be developments in Descartes’ use of identification with God in uncovering the truth, as he pursues total freedom of mind in order to have ideas about what is certain and not. As far as why this section of the text should be placed before the Fifth Meditation, the judgements Descartes draws on what makes an idea clear and distinct allows for him to re-demonstrate the existence of God through their use. We now know that clear and distinct ideas represent a will that is closer to that of God because of the mental freedom that is required in order to conceive of them, so the demonstrations Descartes makes about the existence of God after having introduced these ideas are more godly and therein more true. Also in the Fourth Meditation, as previously noted, humanity has been designated a falsity in light of God’s inherent truth. This as well as the earlier understanding that there is weakness in the will to deceive, can help us to understand why Descartes thinks it necessary in the Fifth Meditation to accept the weakness of human nature.
In the Fifth Meditation, Descartes asks us to accept the weakness of our nature as human beings. Despite having broken down everything in a process of agonizingly discovering what could possibly be true and free from error, Descartes writes in this section: “… I can convince myself that I have a natural disposition to go wrong from time to time in matters which I think I perceive as evidently as can be” (55). Whereas before he more or less grouped both under the broad brush category of ‘falsities’, Descartes acknowledges here that there is a difference between allowing oneself to be deceived and making errors in judgement, such as taking a stance only to become swayed to a different stance by a convincing argument (55). It seems here that he believes the occasional lapse in judgement is inescapable. Descartes then goes on to affirm, once again, the existence of a God, however this time through the lens of “clear and distinct” thought. Since God is perfect and contains all perfections within himself, and existence is a perfection (we can deduce from the designation in the Fourth Meditation of the ‘infinite’, which exists ambiguously more, to the category of certainty, and the ‘finite’, which exists ambiguously less, to the category of falsity, that the more something exists the more perfect it is), then God must exist. The placement of these ideas immediately before those that appear in the sixth and final section of the project is clearly necessary in that this section’s establishment of God’s perfection and existence allows for the potential existence of external things to be explored in the Sixth Meditation.
So, since God is perfect, and, in God’s perfection, is not capable of deceiving, and we are continuously able to sense things that are external to us it is the natural conclusion that external things do exist. This discovery by Descartes in the Sixth and final Meditation completes his task of restructuring his world, as he has brought into existence once again both the internal and the external. It is also in this discovery, as well as his conceptions of mind-body dualism, wherein his mind can be free from the body and function of its own accord, that Descartes is able to point to the immortality of the soul. Because he can successfully mimic God’s obligations to (re)create or to determine existence, and because he can exist without his finite body, Descartes can then identify himself with immortality, and, by extension, perfection, truth, and God.