Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli
1. Introduction to Descartes' Meditations (1641):
Descartes lived from 1596 to 1650. Between 1618 and 1621 he pursued a study of mathematics that resulted in the discovery and formulation of what we now call "analytic geometry"--that branch of mathematics that relates the algebraic and geometric studies. The "Cartesian Coordinate System" which you were taught in High School gets its name from him. He also did important work in the field of optics, and his Meditations on First Philosophy was published in 1641.
To put his philosophy in perspective we should note that as philosophers seek to clarify our concepts and viewpoints one of the problems they regularly encounter is the question of justification. The area of philosophy called epistemology is especially concerned with the justifiability of our knowledge claims. In his Theaetetus Plato approaches the question of justification by asking: "How we can tell whether we are dreaming or awake?" Remember that we rarely take "dream reports" as indicative of the true character of reality, while we far more frequently (but, of course, not always) take "awakened reports" as indicative of true states of affairs. The "dreaming" question, like all philosophical questions seems trivial, yet its deceptive simplicity belies the complexity that arises as one tries to answer it.
Since we base most of our knowledge claims upon our sensory experience, if we can not tell whether our experiences are the fluff of dreams or the reports of the senses when we are awake, it seems that the experiences we rely upon may not be very reliable ones. No one, for example, would write their chemistry lab reports on the basis of last night's dreams.
Well, how do we tell whether we are awake or asleep? If we can't tell which state we are in, can we place any reliability, credence, or worth in the reports?
When the foundations of our knowledge claims are unclear some philosophic work is necessary. Descartes undertakes the project of trying to find a firm foundation for our knowledge claims. He does this because, in part, of the times in which he lives.
As we have seen, the Medieval period marked a significant departure from the Ancient one--thinkers like St. Anselm maintained that reason must take its cues from certain truths of faith. They held that philosophy is important as we try to come to understand what we antecedently believe (through faith). Ancient thinkers like Plato, by contrast, held that we should believe what we can rationally establish. Thus contrast Plato's Socrates' statement that "I am the kind of man who listens only to the argument that on reflection seems best to me" [Crito, 46b] with Anselm's desire to come to understand what he antecedently believes. The Modern period (which we have already encountered with our reading of selections from Hobbes' Leviathan) is characterized by an immense "faith" in our ability to rationally uncover universal and general truths about the world--it is, then a return to the philosophical view of the Ancients. As such a return, however, it is conditioned by the loss of both the feelings of security and of certainty which the Medieval period provided with its "faith-based" foundation. This loss did not occur because of the development of a clear-cut and widely-accepted "replacement" methodology however. The methodology of the new empirical sciences was still under development in Descartes' time.
Thus skepticism and relativism loomed large. With the Renaissance, the rediscovery of the Greek skeptical texts encouraged this feeling of insecurity while eating away at the faith that grounded the Medieval period. It became clear that there were "high" cultures that were not grounded on the sort of faith and belief which were at the core of Medieval civilization. Obviously the problem of justifying a standard of knowledge (or of reality, or of morality) did not arise as long as there was an unchallenged criterion, but in an age of intellectual revolution these problems are thrust into prominence.
Descartes agrees with Galileo that the "book of nature" is written in the language of mathematics--he believes the world was created according to some "simple" mathematical formulae. His ability to hook together geometry and algebra reinforced this view. He wants to firmly ground his knowledge claims, and thus wants to establish that they are truly beyond doubt--that they are certain. There are several different senses of certainty (psychological certainty, logical certainty, and metaphysical certainty), and it is the latter which Descartes wants.1
Descartes believes he can show that there is one claim which legitimately has this degree of surety--his cogito argument (his famous "I think, therefore I am"--or cogito, ergo sum") gives us this level of certainty. He will go on to justify much of human knowledge (including knowledge of a deity) and to develop a dualistic metaphysics. He would beat the skeptics at their own game: his procedure is to doubt everything tinged with any doubt (to reject everything which he can) until he finds something which can not be doubted. With this claim he will have a foundation upon which other knowledge claims may rest securely. Descartes wants to do more than refute skepticism however. He wants to show that the foundation that he "uncovers" is one that can be built upon, and this means he must get beyond subjectivity. Here his proof of the existence of a deity comes in--the argument he develops for the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and benevolent deity provide him with the intellectual tool to move with certainty beyond knowledge of subjectivity.
Thus far this introduction to has covered only the "epistemological"2 aspects of Descartes' thought, and it is already too long. The Meditations are as well-known and important for their "metaphysical"3 content as they are for their epistemological content however, and we need to understand this before we look at the text. The general introductory story regarding Descartes' metaphysics maintains that he offers a "dualistic metaphysic" which offers a picture of reality as bifurcated into two distinct categories of "things:" the mental and the physical.
To see the difference between these two categories of reality, begin by considering your "visual field" (the images you experience when you pay attention to your visual experience. Concentrating on this "field," try and answer the question "Where, in physical space, does this visual field reside?" Is it to be located in the brain?
Descartes holds that "physical things" all have one central characteristic: they are extended (or have some shape or other). While they can change their shapes (surely this is what we want to do when we visit our health clubs), they always have some shape or other. According to Descartes, however, "mental things" are not correctly characterized as having a shape. Instead, they are characterized as having "experiences." Descartes holds that the mental and physical are distinct categories of things, and any thing must be one or the other (but not both).
This "dualistic picture" of Descartes' metaphysics is right as far as it goes, but he actually holds that there are three distinct kinds of things. In addition to physical objects (also called "extended things" by him), and mental objects (also called "minds," or "selves" by him), there is also a deity. Strictly speaking, this "thing" is a mind, but it is significantly different from the sorts of mental substances which we are—it is infinite, and it is not dependent upon anything else.3a
Mention of Descartes' deity, however, seems to take us right back to the "picture" of the world offered by the Medieval world-view! It is important to note, however, that while he was a Catholic, the deity he discusses in the Meditations is better seen as a "god of the philosophers"4--this deity fulfills a particular role, and this role is what is important not any "personalistic" characteristics of the deity. For Descartes, the deity will provide a causal and explanatory terminus (and end for all questions of causation and justification), but this deity will be bereft of most of the Medieval adornments.
It is also important to note that from the "modern" view-point of Descartes, the most appropriate way to approach any inquiry--including one about a deity it to follow the a chain of deductive reasoning. The goal is to come to know things, and it should be clear, is not to be developed by examining texts or consulting religious or scriptural authorities. Instead, it is to be had by rationally examining the "book of nature." To see this clearly, however, we must turn to the text itself.
2. Dedication, Preface, and Synopsis:4a
484 His deity and the soul are to be proved by natural reason.4b
485 Demonstrations of the highest certainty and evidence require a mind entirely free from prejudice and detached from the senses.
487 Descartes notes again, that his inquiry here will be one in “first philosophy,” and will require that the reader give it serious attention. Indeed, he notes, he publishes a set of “Objections” with the Meditations, and he asks the reader to withhold final judgment until they have been considered also.
3. The First Meditation:
490 Goal--he desires to establish firm knowledge in the sciences.
Type of doubt--he recommends that we doubt whatever is not indubitable or entirely certain--even what is only slightly tinged or possibly tinged! It is general--he doesn't doubt each proposition but, rather, doubts them in groups.
Sometimes, he notes, the senses mislead us!
-But, perhaps, sometimes the senses don't--when we are "close" to the object, etc.
The dreaming argument: But I do dream: "I have been deceived in sleep by similar perceptions."
-491 May I suppose that dream images represent? May I suppose that there are simples like the elements in a picture (that the structure of the painting may be all wrong, as it were, but that the elements in it actually correspond or represent)?
-Surely “simples” are true whether one is awake or dreaming? That is, whether my experiences are dreaming or awakened ones, surely the “simple components” of the experiences (those out of which the “complexes” are formed) provide me with a solid (and valid) base of knowledge claims. Can’t I suppose that dream images still represent the world somewhat? That is, may I suppose that there are simples like the elements in a picture (that the structure of the painting may be all wrong, as it were, but that the elements in it actually correspond or represent)?"Be that as it may, there is fixed in my mind a certain opinion of long standing, namely that there exists a God who is able to do anything and by whom I, such as I am, have been created. How do I know that He did not bring it about that there is no earth at all, no heavens, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, and yet bring it about that all these things appear to me to exist precisely as they do now? Moreover, since I judge that others sometimes make mistakes in matters that they believe they know most perfectly, may I not, in like fashion, be deceived every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square, or perform an even simpler operation, if that can be imagined?"
-If one believes there is not such a powerful deity, then, since the author of our being is less powerful, it is increasingly probable that we easily fall into error.
-492 “...long standing opinions keep returning, and, almost against my will, they take advantage of my credulity, as if it were bound over to them by long use and the claims of intimacy.”
-I will suppose an evil genius who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful and who employs all his artifice to deceive me—note that the sense of ‘evil’ here is epistemic, not moral or theological!
I will be a skeptic—I will withhold my assent.
4. Comments on the First Meditation:
(A). Avoid Error vs. Embrace Truth.
(B). Dreams and Deceivers:
Alice, Wonderland, and dreaming,4c
Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Circular Ruins,”4d and the Star Trek Next Generation episode entitled “Ship In A Bottle” where Professor Moriarty (a holodeck character) manages to take control of both a holodeck fantasy program and of the Starship Enterprise. At the end of the episode, one of the crew-members is not at all sure that the “program” is not continuing, and (sheepishly) worries that his “life” might be a fantasy.
(C). The problem of representationalism:
Imagine you are either a physicist, astronomer, chemist or psychologist. You are charged with discovering certain fundamental laws of the universe—that is, you are attempting to discover the laws which govern the behavior of unobservable phenomena (electrons, quanta, black holes, molecules, minds, etc.). How will you proceed?
-Do chemical reactions, behavioral responses, and gross macroscopic events which we can observe provide us with representations of what occurs at the unobservable level? Here is something parallel to the problem Descartes confronts and would resolve. The scientist is, literally, confined to his or her observations—what is observed differs radically from the fundamental particles discussed in the theories.
Descartes looks for a characteristic of some of his ideas which would guarantee that they (truly) represent (things in the world).
5. Problems with Descartes’ Arguments for Skepticism:
(A). G.E. Moore raises this criticism of Descartes’ dreaming argument: “...can he consistently combine this proposition [a] that he knows that dreams have occurred, with his conclusion [b] that he does not know that he is not dreaming? Can anybody possibly know that dreams have occurred, if, at the time, he does not himself know that he is not dreaming? If he is dreaming, it may be that he is only dreaming that dreams have occurred; and if he does not know that he is not dreaming, can he possibly know that he is not only dreaming that dreams have occurred? Can he possibly know therefore that dreams have occurred? I do not think that he can; and therefore I think that anyone who uses this premise and also asserts the conclusion that nobody ever knows that he is not dreaming, is guilty of an inconsistency.”4e
(B). Philosophical argumentation and modeling:
senses sometimes mislead us---->perhaps they always do;
some paintings are forgeries--->perhaps they all are.4f
Gilbert Ryle provides a version of this criticism:
I must say a little about the quite general argument from the notorious limitations and fallibility of our senses to the impossibility of our getting to know anything at all by looking, listening and touching.
A country which had no coinage would offer no scope to counterfeiters. There would be nothing for them to manufacture or pass counterfeits of. They could, if they wished, manufacture and give away decorated disks of brass or lead, which the public might be pleased to get. But these would not be false coins. There can be false coins only where there are coins made of the proper materials by the proper authorities.
In a country where there is a coinage, false coins can be manufactured and passed; and the counterfeiting might be so efficient that an ordinary citizen, unable to tell which were false and which were genuine coins, might become suspicious of the genuineness of any particular coin that he received. But however general his suspicions might be, there remains one proposition which he cannot entertain, the proposition, namely, that it is possible that all coins are counterfeits. For there must be an answer to the question ‘Counterfeits of what?’”4g
(C). In his Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, Gerald Edelman notes that: “one matter Descartes did not explicitly analyze, however, was that to be aware and able to guide his philosophical thought, he needed to have language. And for a person to have language, at least one other person must be involved, even if that person is the memory of someone in one’s past, an interiorized interlocutor. This requirement shakes Descartes’ notion that his conclusions depended on himself alone and not on other people. Moreover, Descartes was not explicit as to when a human being first has access to a thinking substance in his development. Perhaps he should have pondered further the likelihood of a French baby concluding, “Je pense donc je suis.”"4h
6. The Second Meditation:
492 Doubt...until I shall find something that is certain.
492-493 The Cogito:
-What of "I walk therefore I am?"
-What if Hamlet says "I think therefore I am"?
-What of Jorge Luis Borges' "The Circular Ruins,"5 or Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass 6
-Discuss the difference between the “occurrent “and the “substantial” senses of ‘I.’ Indicate why the distinction is important here, and why it is the “substantial” sense which Descartes wants and needs (but doesn’t seem entitled to).
-Indubitability—three senses: psychological, logical, metaphysical: “psychological” certainty would be where a specific individual finds herself unable to raise doubts (because of her psychological constitution, or her deeply felt convictions, or her predispositions, etc.); “logical” certainty would be where no individual could raise doubts (because logic rules them out); and “metaphysical” certainty would be where absolutely no doubts could be raised (where error is absolutely inconceivable).
-Descartes asks “Do I exist?” The American philosopher, Morris Cohen, asks “Who wants to know?”7
493 Sum res cogitans: but I do not yet know with sufficient clearness what I am, though assured that I am.
-What, then, did I formerly think I was?
--A "rational animal"--this leaves us with two questions to answer ("What is rationality?" and "What is an animal?") and we have no way of getting started here.
--Body: Can I affirm that I possess any one of the attributes of which I have lately spoken as belonging to the nature of body? After attentively considering them in my own mind, I find none of them that can properly be said to belong to myself.
--Soul: nutrition, walking (locomotion), perception?
--Thinking:....I am a thinking thing.
493-494 My knowledge that I am a thinking thing is not dependent on things which are not certain.
-Is this the case?-Memory and occurrent conception of the self: Christopher Nolen’s movie Memento —without short-term memory, we get a very different “self!” Of course there is also “long-term” memory, and other sorts! Moreover, does memory entail any sort of certainty?-Personal identity and Theseus’ ship—my “updated case would have one imagine a ship (Theseus’) which is rebuilt plank by plank (with the original planks saved and then reassembled according to the original plan. The question is: “Which of the resultant ships is Theseus’ ship?”
494 Nonetheless, Descartes concludes that he knows he is an enduring thing—a substance:-“For it is so obvious that it is I who doubt, I who understand, and I who will, that there is nothing by which it could be explained more clearly. But indeed it is also the same “I” who imagines; for although perhaps, as I supposed before, absolutely noting that I imagined is true, still the very power of imagining really does exist, and constitutes a part of my thought. Finally, it is this same “I” who senses or who is cognizant of bodily things as if through the senses….”
495 The Wax Experiment: the wax is something extended. Here Descartes lets his mind “wander” and, clearly, stops, for the moment, adducing claims to certain knowledge. In this passage he clarifies the essential characteristic of non-mental substance (the physical realm of corporeal things)—shape, divisibility, occupation of space, having location, etc. The background picture of the physical is provided by the emerging science of the day—by Galileo’s “mechanics.”
-Descartes claims that he knows the wax by his reason—not by the use of his senses or of his imagination!
-496 “Each time I know the wax, I know myself better (than I know the wax).”
“...I manifestly know that nothing can be perceived more easily and more evidently than my own mind.”
7. Preparation for the Third Meditation:
This Meditation involves “building a bridge” from the “subjective world” of the self to the “objective world”—that which is “beyond” the self.
Note: the evil genius may be considered to be the “troll” under the bridge!
He seeks the identification of a characteristic of some ideas which assures that they represent.
He seeks the identification of a characteristic of some ideas which assures they represent.
(A) Dark Pool Analogy: if you are swimming alone in a dark pool and you feel something brush your leg, it is natural to reach the (alarming) conclusion that you are not alone.
(B) The "Anthropology Example:"7 find a tribe which has a drawing of a complex machine, or an advanced metal object:
-tells us something about the level of development of the tribe. They must have such machines (or the imagination necessary to conceive of them), or the ability to make, trade, or otherwise acquire such objects.
-degrees of reality and how this applies to ideas:--formal reality of ideas--the "level" of reality which attaches to all ideas as they are "dependent things" (as they are dependent upon minds--as "contents of consciousness").
--objective reality of an idea--their referential content (or representational capacity). Different ideas will have different "levels" here--from the most simple to the most complex.
(C) The Causal Principle:
-ex nihilo nihil fit 8 (Descartes believes it and the principle are equivalent.)
-Aristotelian analysis of causation: the efficient cause explains the existence of a thing, while the formal cause explains the nature of that thing.
-Cause, reason, and explanation.
Together the causal principle, the idea of the degrees of reality of ideas (objective reality), the idea of a deity and Descartes' knowledge that he does not have the power to cause this idea yield the proof that this deity exists!
8. The Third Meditation:
496 “I am a thing that thinks....these modes of thinking...insofar as they are merely modes of thinking, do exist in me.”
“...there is nothing but a certain clear and distinct perception of what I affirm. Yet this would hardly be enough to render me certain of the truth of a thing, if it could ever happen that something that I perceived so clearly and distinctly were false. And thus I now seem able to posit as a general rule that everything I very clearly and distinctly perceive is true.”
-What ‘clear’ and ‘distinct’ mean here.
But, he came to doubt things that he had previously thought to be perceived clearly and distinctly—for example, he believed that besides his ideas, there were “external things” which these ideas represented.
496-497 Similarly, he wonders, might he not be wrong about mathematical “truths?”
497 The doubts he has, however, are founded upon the supposition of the existence of an evil genius, and he has no reason to believe that there is such a creature. He terms this sort of doubt “...very tenuous and, so to speak, metaphysical.”9
In this extended passage we confront a “conflict” between the “metaphysical doubt,” on the one hand, and the “cogito” and “clear and distinct ideas,” on the other—we might say that we encounter Descartes’ “epistemological schizophrenia.”
Moreover, we confront a serious problem for Descartes here—the potential problem of circularity. He says that to remove the doubt, he “...should at the first opportunity inquire whether there is a God, and, if there is, whether or not he can be a deceiver. For if I am ignorant of this, it appears I am never capable of being completely certain about anything else.” Note that Cress’ translation has Descartes saying “...anything else,” but other translations have Descartes saying, simply, “anything.”10 The difference, of course, is significant! The latter engenders what is known as the problem of “circularity.”11
Ideas alone (without a representational claim) are not false.
The possibility of falsity arises with an idea’s representational claim.
Ideas are generally considered to be either innate, adventitious (caused from without), or produced by me (factitious).
We must inquire into the grounds for the representational claim of our ideas:
-497-498 Could the representational claim of my ideas be grounded in the fact that I am taught by nature that my ideas are representations of things? “When I say here “I have been so taught by nature” all I have in mind is that I am driven by a spontaneous impulse to believe this, and not that some light of nature is showing me that it is true.”
-498 Could the representational claim be justified by the fact that various of my ideas are not dependent upon my will? “I may have powers I don’t know of....”
-“Finally, even if the ideas did proceed from things other than myself, it does not follow that they must resemble those things.”
“...insofar as these ideas are merely modes of thought, I see no inequality among them; they all seem to proceed from me in the same manner. But insofar as one idea represents one thing and another idea another thing, it is obvious that they do differ very greatly from one another. Unquestionably, those ideas that display substances to me are something more and, if I may say so, contain within themselves more objective reality than those which represent only modes or accidents.”
-“Objective reality” refers to the representational capacity of ideas. Consider two different “ideas” (say the plots for an episode of “Married With Children” and a plot for an episode of “Seinfeld”). Insofar as two “ideas” (or “plots”) are considered simply as “ideas,” they are “equal.” When one considers what they represent (the interactions of actors, the motivations for behavior, the very behaviors themselves), however, it is difficult to say they are “equal.” They represent things of greatly varying complexity.
498-499 Descartes’ Causal Principle:
-Note the appeal to the natural light (of reason).12
-Dependency of attributes and modes on substances; dependence of finite substances upon infinite substance: Everything which exists has a cause, or ex nihilo nihil fit.
-Efficient, formal, eminent, and total causes; objective and formal reality:
--the “efficient cause” is the cause of the existence of an effect;
--the “formal cause” is the cause of character (or nature) of an effect. The contrasting notion of a “formal or eminent cause” is clarified by Jean-Marie Beyssade in her “The Idea of God and the Proofs of His Existence” when she refers to the Second Replies: “who can give three coins to a beggar? Either a poor man who has [formally] the coins in his purse, or a rich banker who has [eminently] far greater assets in his account....If I dream of three coins, they have only an “objective” reality (in my mind); if I wake up and either find them in my purse or their equivalent in my bank account, they also have “formal” reality (outside my mind); the three coins that existed “objectively” in my mind will now also exist “formally” (in my purse) or “eminently” (in my account).”13 One might also think of the difference between “being infected with a disease” (correlated with “formal reality”) and “carrying a disease” (correlated with “eminent reality”).
--the “objective reality” of an idea is its representational capacity (‘objectif’ in French may be translated as “intentive” and designates an idea’s capacity of referring to something other than or more than itself); and
--the “formal reality” of a thing is its “nonideational reality”. All ideas, as ideas (and not at representations of something else) have the same degree (or level) of reality—they are dependent upon minds (or thinking substances).
In his Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, Bernard Williams maintains that in this principle, “Descartes is in fact making two logically distinct assumptions: not only that the cause of any idea must have as much reality as the idea has objectively, but also, and more basically, that ideas must have causes at all. Descartes does not in fact think that there are two different principles at work here. He thinks that everything must have a cause, and he supposes that this is entailed by the causal principle...which states that the cause must contain as much reality as the effect; from which ‘it follows...that something cannot proceed from nothing’. Descartes regarded it as self-evident that if the cause must have as much reality as the effect, then no real thing can proceed from ‘something’ that has no reality at all. This reasoning indeed did appear self-evident to very many thinkers for a very long time; it was Hume who detected that the argument is circular.”14
-The causal principle asserts that the cause of an idea must be at least real enough to cause this sort of idea—e.g., one which has this sort of objective reality (or representational capacity).
-Our ideas have formal reality as modes of thought—as such, of course, they are neither true nor false however. It is their objective reality which is in question, then, when we are discussing truth and falsity.
--“It is a first principle that the whole of the reality or perfection that exists only objectively [representationally] in ideas must exist in them formally or in a superior manner in their causes.”15
--Anthropology Example: find a tribe which has a picture of a pile of stones and a picture of a complex machine.16 The latter tells us something about the level of development of the tribe. They must have such machines (or the imagination necessary to conceive of them). “Higher order understanding” is exhibited by the second picture.
499 If some idea is such that I can’t cause it—then I am not alone. Dark Pool Analogy: if you are swimming alone in a dark pool and you feel something brush your leg, it is natural to reach the (alarming) conclusion that you are not alone.
I have ideas of “...other men, animals, or angels” which I could have caused.
I have various ideas of physical objects—I could cause them.
500 There remains, then, only his idea of a deity.
-Proof that Descartes could not be its cause.
-Note the reasons offered and the strength of the conclusion! Is the argument strong enough to legitimate the claim that “I must conclude that God necessarily exists?”17
--Note that Descartes here says that “something can not come from nothing,” suggesting that “everything has a cause.” Of course, he can not actually maintain this—his deity is not to be caused by anything!
--Note that additional (and more powerful reasons are offered after the conclusion—both as the sentence continues and in the following pages:
-Positive and negative conception of a deity.
-“Nor can it be said that this idea of God is perhaps materially false, and thus can originate from nothing....On the contrary, because it is most clear and distinct and because it contains more objective reality than any other idea, no idea is in and of itself truer and has less of a basis for being suspected of falsehood. I maintain that this idea of a being that is supremely perfect and infinite is true in the highest degree true. For although I could perhaps pretend that such a being does not exist, nevertheless I could not pretend that the idea of such a being discloses to me nothing real, as was the case with the idea of cold which I referred to earlier.”
-500-501 Perhaps I am (potentially) this deity? No—not even potentially! Were I so, I would have made me different (no doubts)! He says that: “...the objective being of an idea cannot be produced by a being, that is merely potentially existent, which, properly speaking is nothing, but only by a being existing formally or actually.”
-Indeed, there is nothing in all these things that is not manifest by the light of nature to one who is conscientious and attentive. But when I am less attentive, and the images of sensible things blind the mind’s eye, I do not so easily recall why the idea of a being more perfect than me necessarily proceeds from a being that really is more perfect.
-501 Something must have created (and must “conserve”) me. It couldn’t be myself!
-501-502 Could I have been created by a lesser deity—there would, then, be the need for a (“perfect”) deity to cause this positive idea in that other being!
-502 A cause—why not many? Not a committee because of the simplicity and relatedness of the various conceptions contained in the idea of his deity. [A camel is a horse made by a committee].
“Thus the only option remaining is that this idea is innate in me, just as the idea of myself is innate in me. Recall the earlier distinction (p. 72) between innate ideas, adventitious (caused by something external) ideas, and ideas which are caused by oneself.
Another appeal to the natural light “establishes” that this deity is not a deceiver.
9. Summary of and Comments on the Third Meditation :
First, here is a “quick” summary of the core argument for the existence of a deity in Meditation Three:
1. He relies upon his knowledge of himself and his ideas, and upon the fact that he knows he is not perfect (he has, for example, doubts). This knowledge is guaranteed by the cogito.
2. He relies upon the ideas (which he has). The mere “having” of them makes any doubt about them (as ideas) irrelevant. Note that in this sense, however, the ideas are “merely had,” and are not “true or false.”
3. He accepts the “causal principle” as guaranteed by the natural light of reason—that is, as clearly true, and as true as the cogito. This is “new” (not established by earlier “meditations”).
4. He accepts that (as it applies to “ideas”) this principle indicates that we must discuss both the “formal” and “objective” (that is, representational) reality of our ideas. It is the latter sense which is relevant as the proof continues—individual ideas are distinguished in terms of their representational capacity (or “degree of objective reality).
5. He relies upon his idea of the deity—a perfect, infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-moral being. The idea, as an idea, needs no justification. As the most complex idea (speaking in terms of its representational reality), it is important that his “description” (characterization, depiction, etc.) of the idea be right.
6. He contends that this idea is infinite in the “positive” sense. Given this, it is unlikely he, a finite substance could have caused such an idea.
7. He contends that this idea could not have been caused by multiple causes.
8. He contends that he is not even potentially infinite, but if he were, that would not assign him sufficient objective reality to be able to cause an actually infinite idea.
9. Thus, he concludes, he must conclude that his deity exists. Only it could cause the idea he has.
Secondly, here are a number of points we need to consider critically as we reflect on this Meditation:
(A). Is it always an imperfection to deceive? Doctor-patient cases; Plato’s “noble lie;” Kant’s problem regarding the innocent individual who is being hunted by a vicious person; parents telling their children about Santa Claus and the tooth-fairy; etc.
(B). Cosmological vs. ontological proofs of a deity’s existence.
(C). Is his application of the “causal principle” to ideas appropriate—isn’t “a self” sufficiently “more real” than “any (mere) idea” that it could cause all of them? As Bernard Williams notes: Is his application of the “causal principle” to ideas appropriate—isn’t “a self” sufficiently “more real” than “any (mere) idea” that it could cause all of them? As Bernard Williams notes:
an idea, even when viewed from the point of view of its objective reality, is still an idea, and hence, in Descartes’ metaphysical classification, is a mode, a mode of the attribute of thought. It must, therefore, by an ontological ordering, possess less reality than a substance, (in particular, than himself). To bring about this mode (and it is after all the existence of the idea that is at issue) surely cannot demand quite as much reality or perfection as is required by, or possessed by, its object.18
(D). In his David Hume, Anthony Flew offers a succinct criticism of the sort of argument offered by Descartes in this Meditation:
the form of these arguments is egregiously unsound in as much as the desired conclusions, not merely do not follow from, but are also actually incompatible with, the proffered premises….[for example] arguing that, since everything must have a cause, and since the chain of causes allegedly cannot extend indefinitely backwards in time, therefore there must have been, in the beginning, a First Cause!19
Compare and contrast this argument with Anselm’s!
Anselm is concerned to prove necessary existence, Descartes just wants to prove existence.
Anselm begins with “essences” and metaphysical truths, Descartes begins with doubt and self.
Anselm begins with faith which he tries to understand, Descartes wants to establish the existence of the deity from human understanding alone.
1 “Psychological” certainty would be where a specific individual finds herself unable to raise doubts (because of her psychological constitution, or her deeply felt convictions, or her predispositions, etc.), for example, she might be certain that her significant other was faithful to her; “logical” certainty would be where no individual is able to raise valid doubts (because logic rules them out), for example, regarding the claim that bachelors are unmarried males of the age of consent; and “metaphysical” certainty would be where no doubts whatsoever could be raised (where error is absolutely inconceivable). Back
2 That is, the elements dealing with his "theory of knowledge"--his views on knowledge, justification, and certainty. Back
3 That is, for his views about the fundamental nature of (or characteristics of) reality. Back
3a I will not be as careful as I should be in distinguishing between “experiences” and “ideas.” There are translators of Descartes who take his talk of mentality to be talk of experience generically (all “contents of consciousness”), while others point out that he is primarily concerned with our “ideas” (in the sense of “propositions”). While I think Descartes himself is sometimes unclear on this issue, I believe that he is primarily concerned with our “ideas” in the latter sense and with trying to ensure that they are true. Ultimately, of course, if he is concerned with developing a deductive structure to ensure the justification of his claims, it must be propositions which he is concerned with. A proposition is a sentence which is capable of being true or false (thus, commands and questions are not such). Back
4 For clarification of the distinction between the sort of deity discussed by philosophers and the deity as many conceive it, cf., Anthony Kenny, The God of the Philosophers (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1979). Back
4a The notes are to Donald A. Cress’ translation of Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy  which was published in 1993, as reproduced in Classics of Western Philosophy (seventh edition), ed. Steven Cahn (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2006), pp. 484-516. Back
4b The phrase ‘natural reason’ needs clarification here. In using this phrase, Descartes means to indicate that he wishes to prove these things without appeal to revelation or faith. It is reason alone that is to be the court of appeal—it alone is to provide justification for our beliefs and theories. Back
4b Cf., “Chapter IV Tweedledum and Tweedledee” in Louis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass , in The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, ed. Martin Gardner (N.Y.: Meridian, 1963), pp. 229-244. Back
4d Cf., Jorge Luis Borges, “The Circular Ruins,” in The Light Fantastic, ed. Harry Harrison (N.Y.: Scribners, 1971). Back
4e G.E. Moore, Philosophical Papers (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1959), pp. 248-249. D. Blumenfeld and J.B. Blumenfeld’s “Can I Know That I Am Not Dreaming,” in Descartes: Critical and Interpretive Essays, ed. Michael Hooker (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), pp. 234-255, has an excellent discussion of the dreaming argument. Norman Malcolm has a more complex discussion of Descartes’ “dreaming argument” in his “Dreaming and Skepticism,” which is collected in Descartes: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Willis Doney (Garden City: Anchor, 1967), pp. 54-79—this essay originally appeared in The Philosophical Review v. 65 (1956), pp. 14-37. Back
4f Cf., Jay Rosenberg, The Practice of Philosophy (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1984), pp. 15-17. Note that this argument applies to both the “evil demon” and the “dreaming” arguments (it can’t all be a dream without the notion of a dream being undercut). Back
4g Gilbert Ryle, Dilemmas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), pp. 94-95. Back
4h Gerald Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire (N.Y.: Basic Books, 1992), pp. 34-35. Back
5 Cf., Jorge Luis Borges, "The Circular Ruins," in The Light Fantastic, ed. Harry Harrison (N.Y.: Scribners, 1971). Back
6 Cf., "Chapter IV. Tweedledum and Tweedledee," in Louis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass , in The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, ed. Martin Gardner (N.Y.: Meridian, 1963), pp. 229-244. Back
7 Cited in Avrum Stroll and Richard Popkin, Introduction to Philosophy (N.Y.: Holt Rinehart, 1972) (second edition), p. 44. Back
7 This example is discussed in detail by Bernard Williams, in his Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (Harmonsworth: Penguin, 1978), pp. 138-142. Back
8 That is, “nothing is created from nothing.” Back
9 This is why it makes sense to speak about a level of certainty beyond the “psychological” and the “logical”—he needs certainty which is greater than that provided by logical truths, certainty which “survives” such “metaphysical doubts.” Back
10 Cf., Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy , trans. E.S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross, in their edition of The Philosophical Works of Descartes v. 1, op. cit., p. 159 and pp. 183-184. Cf., also “Reply to Objections II,” op. cit., pp. 38- 39. Most telling here, where there is a question raised by Cress’ translation, is a long paragraph from “Meditation Five” on p. 91 of Cress’ translation. Whichever translation is correct, the supporting citations from Descartes show that his “epistemological paranoia” is extensive. Back
11 Cf., Alan Gewirth, “The Cartesian Circle,” Philosophical Review v. 50 (1941), pp. 368-395; and Edwin B. Allaire, “The Circle of Ideas and the Circularity of the Meditations,” Dialogue v. 2 (1966), pp. 131-153. Back
12 Cf., John Morris, “Descartes’ Natural Light,” op. cit. Back
13 Jean-Marie Beyssade, “The Idea of God and the Proofs of His Existence,” trans. James Cottingham, in The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, ed. James Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1992), pp. 174-199, p. 197, footnotes 13 and 14. Back
14 Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, op. cit., p. 141. Back
15 Descartes, “Replies to Second Objections,” The Philosophical Works of Descartes v. II, op. cit., p. 35. Back
16 As noted above, this example is discussed in Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, op. cit., pp. 138-142. Back
17 Note that Descartes clearly overstates what he has demonstrated here. He has not established the necessary existence of his deity—his proof begins with the contingent facts of his [Descartes’] existence, the existence of his idea [of a deity], and the contingent fact of his limitations. No proof of necessary existence is possible given such contingent foundations! What Descartes may claim (I will not say “legitimately claim,” since the proof may have serious problems) is that “we must conclude that God exists”—here the ‘must’ (or ‘necessarily’) modifies the concluding, not the deity’s existence! Back
18 Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, op. cit., p. 143. Back
19 Anthony Flew, David Hume (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 33. Back
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Last revised on: 04/12/2013.