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Descarte 2 Essay Research Paper DescartesHow does

Descarte 2 Essay, Research Paper Descartes How does Descartes try to extricate himself from the sceptical doubts that he has raised? Does he succeed? by Tom Nuttall

Descarte 2 Essay, Research Paper

Descartes

How does Descartes try to extricate himself from the sceptical

doubts that he has raised? Does he succeed?

by Tom Nuttall

[All page references and quotations from the Meditations are

taken from the 1995 Everyman edition]

In the Meditations, Descartes embarks upon what Bernard Williams

has called the project of ‘Pure Enquiry’ to discover certain,

indubitable foundations for knowledge. By subjecting everything

to doubt Descartes hoped to discover whatever was immune to it.

In order to best understand how and why Descartes builds his

epistemological system up from his foundations in the way that he

does, it is helpful to gain an understanding of the intellectual

background of the 17th century that provided the motivation for

his work.

We can discern three distinct influences on Descartes, three

conflicting world-views that fought for prominence in his day.

The first was what remained of the mediaeval scholastic

philosophy, largely based on Aristotelian science and Christian

theology. Descartes had been taught according to this outlook

during his time at the Jesuit college La Flech_ and it had an

important influence on his work, as we shall see later. The

second was the scepticism that had made a sudden impact on the

intellectual world, mainly as a reaction to the scholastic

outlook. This scepticism was strongly influenced by the work of

the Pyrrhonians as handed down from antiquity by Sextus

Empiricus, which claimed that, as there is never a reason to

believe p that is better than a reason not to believe p, we

should forget about trying to discover the nature of reality and

live by appearance alone. This attitude was best exemplified in

the work of Michel de Montaigne, who mockingly dismissed the

attempts of theologians and scientists to understand the nature

of God and the universe respectively. Descartes felt the force of

sceptical arguments and, while not being sceptically disposed

himself, came to believe that scepticism towards knowledge was

the best way to discover what is certain: by applying sceptical

doubt to all our beliefs, we can discover which of them are

indubitable, and thus form an adequate foundation for knowledge.

The third world-view resulted largely from the work of the new

scientists; Galileo, Copernicus, Bacon et al. Science had finally

begun to assert itself and shake off its dated Aristotelian

prejudices. Coherent theories about the world and its place in

the universe were being constructed and many of those who were

aware of this work became very optimistic about the influence it

could have. Descartes was a child of the scientific revolution,

but felt that until sceptical concerns were dealt with, science

would always have to contend with Montaigne and his cronies,

standing on the sidelines and laughing at science’s pretenses to

knowledge. Descartes’ project, then, was to use the tools of the

sceptic to disprove the sceptical thesis by discovering certain

knowledge that could subsequently be used as the foundation of a

new science, in which knowledge about the external world was as

certain as knowledge about mathematics. It was also to hammer the

last nail into the coffin of scholasticism, but also, arguably,

to show that God still had a vital r_le to play in the discovery

of knowledge.

Meditation One describes Descartes’ method of doubt. By its

conclusion, Descartes has seemingly subjected all of his beliefs

to the strongest and most hyberbolic of doubts. He invokes the

nightmarish notion of an all-powerful, malign demon who could be

deceiving him in the realm of sensory experience, in his very

understanding of matter and even in the simplest cases of

mathematical or logical truths. The doubts may be obscure, but

this is the strength of the method – the weakness of criteria for

what makes a doubt reasonable means that almost anything can

count as a doubt, and therefore whatever withstands doubt must be

something epistemologically formidable.

In Meditation Two, Descartes hits upon the indubitable principle

he has been seeking. He exists, at least when he thinks he

exists. The cogito (Descartes’ proof of his own existence) has

been the source of a great deal of discussion ever since

Descartes first formulated it in the 1637 Discourse on Method,

and, I believe, a great deal of misinterpretation (quite possibly

as a result of Descartes’ repeated contradictions of his own

position in subsequent writings). Many commentators have fallen

prey to the tempting interpretation of the cogito as either

syllogism or enthymeme. This view holds that Descartes asserts

that he is thinking, that he believes it axiomatic that ‘whatever

thinks must exist’ and therefore that he logically concludes that

he exists. This view, it seems to me, is wrong. It should be

stated on no occasion, in the Meditations, does Descartes write

‘I am thinking, therefore I am’, nor anything directly

equivalent. Rather, he says:

“Doubtless, then, that I exist and, let him deceive me as

he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as

I shall be conscious that I am something. So that it must, in

fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully

considered, that this proposition I am, I exist, is necessarily

true each time it is expressed by me or conceived in my mind.”

(p. 80).

The point here is that it is impossible to doubt the truth of the

proposition ‘I exist’ when one utters it. It is an indubitable

proposition, and one that will necessarily be presupposed in

every attack of the sceptic. Descartes is not yet entitled to use

syllogisms as the possibility of the malign demon is still very

much alive. As an aside, Descartes himself denies that the cogito

is a syllogism, although it should be mentioned that in some of

the Replies to Objections he seems to assert that it is in fact

a syllogism. Finally, in the Regulae ad directionem ingenii,

Descartes denies the usefulness of syllogisms as a means to

knowledge.

I believe that, given Descartes’ project, it is fair to grant him

that the cogito deserves the status he bestows upon it. For can

there be anything more certain than something that is so forceful

and so powerful that every time it is presented to our mind we

are forced to assent to it?

What Descartes did here was to jiggle about the way philosophy

normally approaches the construction of knowledge structures. By

starting with self-knowledge, he elevates the subjective above

the objective and forces his epistemology to rest upon the

knowledge he has of his own self (and inadvertently sets the tone

for the next 300 years of philosophy). This leaves him with a

problem. He can know his own existence, that he is a thinking

thing and the contents of his consciousness, but how can any of

this ever lead to any knowledge of anything outside of himself?

The answer is that, by itself, it can’t. Descartes, in the third

Meditation, attempts to prove the existence of God, defined as a

being with all perfections. This proof is to be derived from his

idea of a God, defined as a being with all perfections. So far,

so good – Descartes examines the contents of his consciousness

and discovers within it this idea, and we can allow him this. At

this point, however, he introduces a whole series of scholastic

principles concerning different modes of causation and reality

without proper justification:

“For, without doubt, those [ideas considered as images, as

opposed to modes of consciousness] that represent substances are

something more, and contain in themselves, so to speak, more

objective reality, that is, participate by representation in

higher degrees of being or perfection than those that represent

only modes or accidents; and again the idea by which I conceive a

God has certainly in it more objective reality than those ideas

by which finite substances are represented.

Now it is manifest by the natural light that there must be

at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in

its effect; for whence can the effect draw its reality if not

from its cause? And how could the cause communicate to it this

reality unless it possessed it in itself?”

Whence do these principles draw their indubitability? Even if we

grant that it is contrary to natural reason that an effect can

have greater ‘reality’ than its cause, that the concepts of modes

and substances are coherent with Descartes’ method, let alone

possess the properties that he ascribes to them, then surely we

can still bring the malign demon into play? Is it not possible

that this all- powerful demon could bring it about that Descartes

has a notion of a being with all possible perfections that he

calls God? No, says Descartes, because the notion (representing

something perfect) would then have more objective reality than

the demon (as something evil and thus imperfect) has formal

reality, and ‘it is manifest by the natural light’ that this is

not possible. But why not? Maybe the demon has just made it seem

impossible, and it seems that Descartes has no answer to this.

Further problems remain. Cosmological arguments for God invoking

the notion of causation have always had to contend with the

problem of the cause of God. For if all events (or ideas) are

caused ultimately by God, then what about God Himself? Why should

He be exempt from this rule? The standard response to this is to

claim that God, being omnipotent, causes Himself. One of the

chief perfections that Descartes attributes to God is that of

’self-existence’, that is, that His existence depends on nothing

else but itself. But if we examine this idea, it seems a little

confused. If God is the efficient cause of God then we are forced

to ask how something that does not yet exist can cause anything.

If God is the formal cause of God, i.e. it is part of the

intrinsic nature of God that he exists – which seems more likely

- then it seems that we have merely a reformulation of the

ontological argument for God’s existence from Meditation 5.

It seems that Descartes may have anticipated the wealth of

criticism that the causal proof of God would inspire, and so,

after explaining how human error and a benevolent, non-deceiving

God are compatible in Meditation Four, he produced in Meditation

Five a version of the mediaeval ontological argument for God’s

existence. Unlike the causal argument, the ontological argument

doesn’t involve the covert import of any new principles. It

simply purports to show that, from an analysis of his own idea of

God, Descartes can show that He necessarily exists. The reasoning

goes like this:

I have ideas of things which have true and immutable natures. If

I perceive clearly and distinctly that a property belongs to an

idea’s true and immutable nature, then it does actually belong to

that nature. I perceive clearly and distinctly that God’s true

and mmutable nature is that of a being with all perfections.

Further, I perceive clearly and distinctly that existence is a

perfection and non-existence a non- perfection. Thus existence

belongs to God’s true and immutable nature. God exists.

One of the interesting things about this argument is that, at

first sight, it does not seem to depend in any way upon anything

that has been proved hitherto. It is an application of pure

logic, an analysis of what we mean when we say ‘God’ and a

inference from that analysis. Descartes explicitly says that an

idea’s true and immutable nature does not in any way depend upon

his thinking it, and thus upon his existence. Once he has

perceived clearly and distinctly that an idea’s true and

immutable nature consists in such-and-such, that is the case

whether or not he thinks it is, or even if he exists or not.

Descartes in fact recognises the primacy of the ontological

argument: “although all the conclusions of the preceding

Meditations were false, the existence of God would pass

with me for a truth at least as certain as I ever judged any

truth of mathematics to be.” If this is true, which it seems to

be, then this argument is only as trustworthy as the faculties

which enabled us to construct it, which are the same faculties

that enable us to know mathematical truths, and so it seems

worthwhile to ask how, under Descartes’ theory, we come to know

mathematical truths. Descartes claims we perceive them clearly

and distinctly. How do we know that what we perceive clearly and

distinctly is true? Because God, being perfect, is no deceiver,

and would not let it be the case that we could ever perceive

something clearly and distinctly without it being the case. It

seems then, that this proof of God, relying on the veracity of

clear and distinct ideas, relies on the certain knowledge that a

non-deceiving God exists. We have another proof of God, the

causal proof as described in Meditation three. But apart from the

patent futility of using one proof of p to construct another

proof of p, on examining the causal proof of God further, we find

that it, too, relies upon a methodology that can only be relied

upon if the divine guarantee is present, for if this guarantee is

not present, then, as I mentioned above, how can we be sure that

the all-powerful demon is not exercising his malignant influence?

This, of course, is the infamous Cartesian circle, first

identified by Arnauld in the Fourth Objections and discussed ever

since. Many philosophers have tried to get Descartes off the hook

in various ways, some by denying that there is a circle and some

by admitting the circularity but denying its significance. I will

here briefly evaluate a few of their arguments.

Some commentators have taken a passage from Descartes’ reply to

the Second set of Objections (Mersenne’s) to indicate that

Descartes is only actually interested in the psychological

significance of fundamental truths. The passage is as follows:

“If a conviction is so firm that that it is impossible for us

ever to have any reason for doubting what we are convinced of,

then there are no further questions for us to ask; we have

everything we could reasonably want.”

Under my interpretation, this is what it is about the cogito

that makes it so important for Descartes, so we cannot have any

argument with the principle expressed by him in the above

passage. But can it help break the circle? When we clearly and

distinctly perceive something, Descartes says, fairly I think,

that this perception compels our assent, that we cannot but

believe it. God’s r_le in the system, to these commentators, is

as a guarantor of our memory regarding clarity and distinctness.

In other words, once we have proved God’s existence, we can

happily know that any memory we have of a clear and distinct idea

regarding x is true i.e. that we really did have a clear and

distinct idea of x. But this does not seem satisfactory, as we

still do not have a divine guarantee for the reasoning that leads

us from the clear and distinct notions we originally have about

God to the proof of His existence. We can give assent to the

clear and distinct notions we have originally; in fact, we are

compelled to give this assent when the notions are presented to

our mind, but the logical steps we take from these ideas to the

final proof is still subject to the evil demon because God is not

yet proven. Furthermore, because these steps are needed, the

memory of the original clear and distinct ideas are themselves

subject to doubt because God is not yet proven. It seems that the

only way either of the proofs of God could be accepted would be

if we had an original clear and distinct perception of God

directly presented to our mind (qualitatively similar to the

cogito). But this in itself would make any future proofs

redundant. Interestingly, this sounds quite similar to a divine

revelation.

Harry Frankfurt, in his book ‘Demons, Dreamers and Madmen’, has

argued that what Descartes is actually looking for is a coherent,

indubitable set of beliefs about the universe. Whether they are

‘true’ or not is irrelevant. Perfect certainty is totally

compatible with absolute falsity. Our certainty may not coincide

precisely with ‘God’s’ truth, but should this matter?:

“Reason can give us certainty. It can serve to establish beliefs

in which there is no risk of betrayal. This certainty is all we

need and all we demand. Perhaps our certainties do not coincide

with God’s truth But this divine or absolute truth, since it is

outside the range of our faculties and cannot undermine our

certainties, need be of no concern to us.” (Frankfurt, p 184)

This is almost a Kantian approach to knowledge, where we as

humans only concern ourselves with the phenomena of objects as

they present themselves to us, not with the objects in

themselves. Can we ascribe this view to Descartes? It’s tempting,

given what we have said above regarding the prime importance of

indubitability, but it would seem that a God presenting ideas to

us in a form which doesn’t correspond to reality, and then giving

us a strong disposition to believe that they do correspond to

reality would be a deceiving God and contrary to Descartes’

notion of Him. Thus the belief set would not be coherent.

Perhaps, as we do not have clear and distinct ideas of the bodies

we perceive, and as the divine guarantee only extends as far as

clear and distinct ideas, we are being too hasty in judging that

reality is how it appears to be and if we stopped to meditate

further we would see that reality is actually like something

else. But aside from the fact that this seems unlikely,

Descartes never seemed to envisage the possibility.

So much for the Cartesian circle. Where does this leave the

ontological argument, which we had only just begun to discuss?

Aside from the methodological difficulties, there do seem to two

further problems with it. The first has been noted by almost

every student of Descartes over the years – that of the

description of existence as a property. Put briefly, this

objection states that existence is not a property like ‘red’ or

‘hairy’ or ‘three-sided’ that can be applied to a subject, and

thus it makes no sense to say that existence is part of

something’s essence. If we assert that x is y, we are already

asserting the existence of x as soon as we mention it, prior to

any application of a predicate. from the beginning. In

other words, to say ‘x exists’ is to utter a tautology and to say

that ‘x doesn’t exist’ is to contradict oneself. So how can

sentences of the form ‘x doesn’t exist’ make sense? one may well

ask. It is because these sentences are shorthand for ‘the idea I

have of x has no corresponding reality’ and it was to solve

problems like this that Bertrand Russell constructed his theory

of descriptions. To add existence to an idea doesn’t just make it

an idea with a new property, it changes it from an idea into an

existent entity.

Finally, if Descartes is right, there seems no reason why we

cannot construct any other idea whose essence includes

existence. For instance, if I conjure up the idea of an existent

purple building that resembles the Taj Mahal’, then it is the

true and immutable nature of this idea that it is a building,

that this building resembles the Taj Mahal, that the building is

purple, and that it exists. But no such building does exist, as

far as I am aware, and if it did exist, its existence would not

be necessary, but contingent. This in itself is enough, I think,

to show that the ontological argument is false.

Once we have destroyed Descartes’ proofs of the existence of God,

the edifice of knowledge necessarily comes tumbling down with

them, as we find that almost everything Descartes believes in is

dependent on God’s nature as a non-deceiver:

“I remark that the certitude of all other truths is so absolutely

dependent on it, that without this knowledge it is impossible

ever to know anything perfectly.” (p.115)

The only possible exceptions are those assent-compelling beliefs

such as the cogito. Even these, however, are doubtful when we

are not thinking about them, and the above passage does give

weight to Edwin Curley’s argument that:

“Descartes would hold that the proposition “I exist” is fully

certain only if the rest of the argument of the Meditations goes

through. We must buy all or nothing.”

This is not the end of the story, though. As far as Descartes is

concerned, by the end of Meditation Five, he has produced two

powerful proofs of God, has a clear and distinct notion of his

own self, has a criterion for truth, knows how to avoid error and

is beginning to form ideas regarding our knowledge of corporeal

bodies.. And so it remains only to explain why we are fully

justified in believing in corporeal bodies, and also to draw the

ideas of Meditation Two regarding self-knowledge to their full

conclusion.

Regarding the nature of corporeal bodies and our knowledge of

them, it seems to me that, given his premises, the conclusions

Descartes draws in Meditation Six are generally the correct ones.

He again invokes the causal to argue that the ideas of bodies we

have within our minds must be caused by something with at least

as much formal reality as the ideas have objective reality. We

could theoretically be producing these ideas, but Descartes

dismisses this possibility for two reasons – firstly, that the

idea of corporeality does not presuppose thought and secondly

that our will seems to have no effect on what we perceive or

don’t perceive. (This second argument seems to me to ignore

dreaming, in which what we perceive derives from us but is

independent of our will). The ideas, then, could come from God,

or from another being superior to us but inferior to God. But

this, too, is impossible, argues Descartes, as if it were the

case that God produces the ideas of bodies in us, then the very

strong inclination we have towards believing that the idea-

producing bodies resemble the ideas we have would be false and

thus God would be allowing us to be deceived which is not

permissible. The same would apply if any other being were

producing these ideas. Thus, concludes Descartes, it is most

likely that our ideas of corporeal bodies are actually caused by

bodies resembling those ideas. We cannot be certain, however, as

we cannot claim to have clear and distinct notions of everything

we perceive. We can, however, claim certainty with regard to

those properties of bodies which we do know with clarity and

distinction; namely, size, figure (shape), position, motion,

substance, duration and number (not all of these assertions are

justified). Obviously we cannot claim that we know these

properties for specific bodies with clarity and distinction, for

to do so would leave open the uestion of why it is that

astronomy and the senses attribute different sizes to stars. What

Descartes means is that we can be sure that these primary

qualities exist in bodies in the same way that they do in our

ideas of bodies. This cannot be claimed for qualities such as

heat, colour, taste and smell, of which our ideas are so confused

and vague that we must always reserve judgement. (This conclusion

is actually quite similar to the one John Locke drew fifty years

later in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.)

I think we can grant this reasoning, with the caveat regarding

dreaming that I noted above, and of course the other unproved

reasonings that Descartes exhumes here, such as the causal

principle. Furthermore, it seems to be further proof that

Descartes does believe we can get to know objects in themselves

to a certain extent.

Finally, I turn to Descartes’ argument for the distinction of

mind and body. Descartes believes he has shown the mind to be

better known than the body in Meditation Two. In Meditation Six

he goes on to claim that, as he knows his mind and knows clearly

and distinctly that its essence consists purely of thought, and

that bodies’ essences consist purely of extension, that he can

conceive of his mind and body as existing separately. By the

power of God, anything that can be clearly and distinctly

conceived of as existing separately from something else can be

created as existing separately. At this point, Descartes makes

the apparent logical leap to claiming that the mind and body have

been created separately, without justification. Most commentators

agree that this is not justified, and further, that just because

I can conceive of my mind existing independently of my body it

does not necessarily follow that it does so. In defence of

Descartes, Saul Kripke has suggested that Descartes may have

anticipated a modern strand of modal logic that holds that if

x=y, then L (x=y). In other words, if x is identical to y then it

is necessarily identical to it. From this it follows that if it

is logically possible that x and y have different properties then

they are distinct. In this instance, that means that because I

can clearly and distinctly conceive of my mind and body as

existing separately, then they are distinct. The argument, like

much modern work on identity, is too technical and involved to

explore here in much depth. But suffice to say that we can

clearly and distinctly conceive of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as

being distinct and yet they are identical, necessarily so under

Kripke’s theory. It is doubtful that Kripke can come to

Descartes’ aid here and Descartes needs further argument to prove

that the mind and the body are distinct.

And so we finish our discussion of Descartes’ attempts to

extricate himself from the sceptical doubts he has set up for

himself. As mentioned previously, the ultimate conclusion to draw

regarding the success of the enterprise that Descartes set for

himself must be that he failed. When the whole epistemological

structure is so heavily dependent on one piece of knowledge – in

this case the knowledge that God exists – then a denial of that

knowledge destroys the whole structure. All that we can really

grant Descartes – and this is certainly contentious – is that he

can rightly claim that when a clear and distinct idea presents

itself to his mind, he cannot but give his assent to this idea,

and furthermore, that while this assent is being granted, the

clear and distinct idea can be justly used as a foundation for

knowledge. The most this gets us – and this is not a little – is

the knowledge of our own existence each time we assert it. But

Descartes’ project should not be judged by us as a failure – the

fact that he addressed topics of great and lasting interest, and

provided us with a method we can both understand and utilise

fruitfully, speaks for itself.

Bibliography

1. Descartes, Ren_ A Discourse on Method, Meditations and

Principles of Philosophy trans. John Veitch. The Everyman’s

Library, 1995.

Descartes, Ren_ The Philosophical Writings of Descartes volume I

and II ed. and trans. John Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D.

Murdoch. Cambridge, 1985.

Frankfurt, Harry Demons, Dreamers and Madmen. Bobbs-Merrill,

1970.

Curley, Edwin Descartes Against the Skeptics. Oxford, 1978.

Vesey, Godfrey Descartes: Father of Modern Philosophy. Open

University Press, 1971.

Sorrell, Tom Descartes: Reason and Experience. Open University

Press, 1982.

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy ed. Ted Honderich. Oxford

University Press, 1985.

Cottingham, John Descartes. Oxford, 1986. Williams, Bernard

Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. Harmondsworth, 1978.

Russell, Bertrand The History of Western Philosophy. George Allen

and Unwin, 1961. 11. Kripke, Saul Naming and Necessity. Oxford

1980.>

Descartes

How does Descartes try to extricate himself from the sceptical

doubts that he has raised? Does he succeed?

by Tom Nuttall

[All page references and quotations from the Meditations are

taken from the 1995 Everyman edition]

In the Meditations, Descartes embarks upon what Bernard Williams

has called the project of ‘Pure Enquiry’ to discover certain,

indubitable foundations for knowledge. By subjecting everything

to doubt Descartes hoped to discover whatever was immune to it.

In order to best understand how and why Descartes builds his

epistemological system up from his foundations in the way that he

does, it is helpful to gain an understanding of the intellectual

background of the 17th century that provided the motivation for

his work.

We can discern three distinct influences on Descartes, three

conflicting world-views that fought for prominence in his day.

The first was what remained of the mediaeval scholastic

philosophy, largely based on Aristotelian science and Christian

theology. Descartes had been taught according to this outlook

during his time at the Jesuit college La Flech_ and it had an

important influence on his work, as we shall see later. The

second was the scepticism that had made a sudden impact on the

intellectual world, mainly as a reaction to the scholastic

outlook. This scepticism was strongly influenced by the work of

the Pyrrhonians as handed down from antiquity by Sextus

Empiricus, which claimed that, as there is never a reason to

believe p that is better than a reason not to believe p, we

should forget about trying to discover the nature of reality and

live by appearance alone. This attitude was best exemplified in

the work of Michel de Montaigne, who mockingly dismissed the

attempts of theologians and scientists to understand the nature

of God and the universe respectively. Descartes felt the force of

sceptical arguments and, while not being sceptically disposed

himself, came to believe that scepticism towards knowledge was

the best way to discover what is certain: by applying sceptical

doubt to all our beliefs, we can discover which of them are

indubitable, and thus form an adequate foundation for knowledge.

The third world-view resulted largely from the work of the new

scientists; Galileo, Copernicus, Bacon et al. Science had finally

begun to assert itself and shake off its dated Aristotelian

prejudices. Coherent theories about the world and its place in

the universe were being constructed and many of those who were

aware of this work became very optimistic about the influence it

could have. Descartes was a child of the scientific revolution,

but felt that until sceptical concerns were dealt with, science

would always have to contend with Montaigne and his cronies,

standing on the sidelines and laughing at science’s pretenses to

knowledge. Descartes’ project, then, was to use the tools of the

sceptic to disprove the sceptical thesis by discovering certain

knowledge that could subsequently be used as the foundation of a

new science, in which knowledge about the external world was as

certain as knowledge about mathematics. It was also to hammer the

last nail into the coffin of scholasticism, but also, arguably,

to show that God still had a vital r_le to play in the discovery

of knowledge.

Meditation One describes Descartes’ method of doubt. By its

conclusion, Descartes has seemingly subjected all of his beliefs

to the strongest and most hyberbolic of doubts. He invokes the

nightmarish notion of an all-powerful, malign demon who could be

deceiving him in the realm of sensory experience, in his very

understanding of matter and even in the simplest cases of

mathematical or logical truths. The doubts may be obscure, but

this is the strength of the method – the weakness of criteria for

what makes a doubt reasonable means that almost anything can

count as a doubt, and therefore whatever withstands doubt must be

something epistemologically formidable.

In Meditation Two, Descartes hits upon the indubitable principle

he has been seeking. He exists, at least when he thinks he

exists. The cogito (Descartes’ proof of his own existence) has

been the source of a great deal of discussion ever since

Descartes first formulated it in the 1637 Discourse on Method,

and, I believe, a great deal of misinterpretation (quite possibly

as a result of Descartes’ repeated contradictions of his own

position in subsequent writings). Many commentators have fallen

prey to the tempting interpretation of the cogito as either

syllogism or enthymeme. This view holds that Descartes asserts

that he is thinking, that he believes it axiomatic that ‘whatever

thinks must exist’ and therefore that he logically concludes that

he exists. This view, it seems to me, is wrong. It should be

stated on no occasion, in the Meditations, does Descartes write

‘I am thinking, therefore I am’, nor anything directly

equivalent. Rather, he says:

“Doubtless, then, that I exist and, let him deceive me as

he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as

I shall be conscious that I am something. So that it must, in

fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully

considered, that this proposition I am, I exist, is necessarily

true each time it is expressed by me or conceived in my mind.”

(p. 80).

The point here is that it is impossible to doubt the truth of the

proposition ‘I exist’ when one utters it. It is an indubitable

proposition, and one that will necessarily be presupposed in

every attack of the sceptic. Descartes is not yet entitled to use

syllogisms as the possibility of the malign demon is still very

much alive. As an aside, Descartes himself denies that the cogito

is a syllogism, although it should be mentioned that in some of

the Replies to Objections he seems to assert that it is in fact

a syllogism. Finally, in the Regulae ad directionem ingenii,

Descartes denies the usefulness of syllogisms as a means to

knowledge.

I believe that, given Descartes’ project, it is fair to grant him

that the cogito deserves the status he bestows upon it. For can

there be anything more certain than something that is so forceful

and so powerful that every time it is presented to our mind we

are forced to assent to it?

What Descartes did here was to jiggle about the way philosophy

normally approaches the construction of knowledge structures. By

starting with self-knowledge, he elevates the subjective above

the objective and forces his epistemology to rest upon the

knowledge he has of his own self (and inadvertently sets the tone

for the next 300 years of philosophy). This leaves him with a

problem. He can know his own existence, that he is a thinking

thing and the contents of his consciousness, but how can any of

this ever lead to any knowledge of anything outside of himself?

The answer is that, by itself, it can’t. Descartes, in the third

Meditation, attempts to prove the existence of God, defined as a

being with all perfections. This proof is to be derived from his

idea of a God, defined as a being with all perfections. So far,

so good – Descartes examines the contents of his consciousness

and discovers within it this idea, and we can allow him this. At

this point, however, he introduces a whole series of scholastic

principles concerning different modes of causation and reality

without proper justification:

“For, without doubt, those [ideas considered as images, as

opposed to modes of consciousness] that represent substances are

something more, and contain in themselves, so to speak, more

objective reality, that is, participate by representation in

higher degrees of being or perfection than those that represent

only modes or accidents; and again the idea by which I conceive a

God has certainly in it more objective reality than those ideas

by which finite substances are represented.

Now it is manifest by the natural light that there must be

at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in

its effect; for whence can the effect draw its reality if not

from its cause? And how could the cause communicate to it this

reality unless it possessed it in itself?”

Whence do these principles draw their indubitability? Even if we

grant that it is contrary to natural reason that an effect can

have greater ‘reality’ than its cause, that the concepts of modes

and substances are coherent with Descartes’ method, let alone

possess the properties that he ascribes to them, then surely we

can still bring the malign demon into play? Is it not possible

that this all- powerful demon could bring it about that Descartes

has a notion of a being with all possible perfections that he

calls God? No, says Descartes, because the notion (representing

something perfect) would then have more objective reality than

the demon (as something evil and thus imperfect) has formal

reality, and ‘it is manifest by the natural light’ that this is

not possible. But why not? Maybe the demon has just made it seem

impossible, and it seems that Descartes has no answer to this.

Further problems remain. Cosmological arguments for God invoking

the notion of causation have always had to contend with the

problem of the cause of God. For if all events (or ideas) are

caused ultimately by God, then what about God Himself? Why should

He be exempt from this rule? The standard response to this is to

claim that God, being omnipotent, causes Himself. One of the

chief perfections that Descartes attributes to God is that of

’self-existence’, that is, that His existence depends on nothing

else but itself. But if we examine this idea, it seems a little

confused. If God is the efficient cause of God then we are forced

to ask how something that does not yet exist can cause anything.

If God is the formal cause of God, i.e. it is part of the

intrinsic nature of God that he exists – which seems more likely

- then it seems that we have merely a reformulation of the

ontological argument for God’s existence from Meditation 5.

It seems that Descartes may have anticipated the wealth of

criticism that the causal proof of God would inspire, and so,

after explaining how human error and a benevolent, non-deceiving

God are compatible in Meditation Four, he produced in Meditation

Five a version of the mediaeval ontological argument for God’s

existence. Unlike the causal argument, the ontological argument

doesn’t involve the covert import of any new principles. It

simply purports to show that, from an analysis of his own idea of

God, Descartes can show that He necessarily exists. The reasoning

goes like this:

I have ideas of things which have true and immutable natures. If

I perceive clearly and distinctly that a property belongs to an

idea’s true and immutable nature, then it does actually belong to

that nature. I perceive clearly and distinctly that God’s true

and mmutable nature is that of a being with all perfections.

Further, I perceive clearly and distinctly that existence is a

perfection and non-existence a non- perfection. Thus existence

belongs to God’s true and immutable nature. God exists.

One of the interesting things about this argument is that, at

first sight, it does not seem to depend in any way upon anything

that has been proved hitherto. It is an application of pure

logic, an analysis of what we mean when we say ‘God’ and a

inference from that analysis. Descartes explicitly says that an

idea’s true and immutable nature does not in any way depend upon

his thinking it, and thus upon his existence. Once he has

perceived clearly and distinctly that an idea’s true and

immutable nature consists in such-and-such, that is the case

whether or not he thinks it is, or even if he exists or not.

Descartes in fact recognises the primacy of the ontological

argument: “although all the conclusions of the preceding

Meditations were false, the existence of God would pass

with me for a truth at least as certain as I ever judged any

truth of mathematics to be.” If this is true, which it seems to

be, then this argument is only as trustworthy as the faculties

which enabled us to construct it, which are the same faculties

that enable us to know mathematical truths, and so it seems

worthwhile to ask how, under Descartes’ theory, we come to know

mathematical truths. Descartes claims we perceive them clearly

and distinctly. How do we know that what we perceive clearly and

distinctly is true? Because God, being perfect, is no deceiver,

and would not let it be the case that we could ever perceive

something clearly and distinctly without it being the case. It

seems then, that this proof of God, relying on the veracity of

clear and distinct ideas, relies on the certain knowledge that a

non-deceiving God exists. We have another proof of God, the

causal proof as described in Meditation three. But apart from the

patent futility of using one proof of p to construct another

proof of p, on examining the causal proof of God further, we find

that it, too, relies upon a methodology that can only be relied

upon if the divine guarantee is present, for if this guarantee is

not present, then, as I mentioned above, how can we be sure that

the all-powerful demon is not exercising his malignant influence?

This, of course, is the infamous Cartesian circle, first

identified by Arnauld in the Fourth Objections and discussed ever

since. Many philosophers have tried to get Descartes off the hook

in various ways, some by denying that there is a circle and some

by admitting the circularity but denying its significance. I will

here briefly evaluate a few of their arguments.

Some commentators have taken a passage from Descartes’ reply to

the Second set of Objections (Mersenne’s) to indicate that

Descartes is only actually interested in the psychological

significance of fundamental truths. The passage is as follows:

“If a conviction is so firm that that it is impossible for us

ever to have any reason for doubting what we are convinced of,

then there are no further questions for us to ask; we have

everything we could reasonably want.”

Under my interpretation, this is what it is about the cogito

that makes it so important for Descartes, so we cannot have any

argument with the principle expressed by him in the above

passage. But can it help break the circle? When we clearly and

distinctly perceive something, Descartes says, fairly I think,

that this perception compels our assent, that we cannot but

believe it. God’s r_le in the system, to these commentators, is

as a guarantor of our memory regarding clarity and distinctness.

In other words, once we have proved God’s existence, we can

happily know that any memory we have of a clear and distinct idea

regarding x is true i.e. that we really did have a clear and

distinct idea of x. But this does not seem satisfactory, as we

still do not have a divine guarantee for the reasoning that leads

us from the clear and distinct notions we originally have about

God to the proof of His existence. We can give assent to the

clear and distinct notions we have originally; in fact, we are

compelled to give this assent when the notions are presented to

our mind, but the logical steps we take from these ideas to the

final proof is still subject to the evil demon because God is not

yet proven. Furthermore, because these steps are needed, the

memory of the original clear and distinct ideas are themselves

subject to doubt because God is not yet proven. It seems that the

only way either of the proofs of God could be accepted would be

if we had an original clear and distinct perception of God

directly presented to our mind (qualitatively similar to the

cogito). But this in itself would make any future proofs

redundant. Interestingly, this sounds quite similar to a divine

revelation.

Harry Frankfurt, in his book ‘Demons, Dreamers and Madmen’, has

argued that what Descartes is actually looking for is a coherent,

indubitable set of beliefs about the universe. Whether they are

‘true’ or not is irrelevant. Perfect certainty is totally

compatible with absolute falsity. Our certainty may not coincide

precisely with ‘God’s’ truth, but should this matter?:

“Reason can give us certainty. It can serve to establish beliefs

in which there is no risk of betrayal. This certainty is all we

need and all we demand. Perhaps our certainties do not coincide

with God’s truth But this divine or absolute truth, since it is

outside the range of our faculties and cannot undermine our

certainties, need be of no concern to us.” (Frankfurt, p 184)

This is almost a Kantian approach to knowledge, where we as

humans only concern ourselves with the phenomena of objects as

they present themselves to us, not with the objects in

themselves. Can we ascribe this view to Descartes? It’s tempting,

given what we have said above regarding the prime importance of

indubitability, but it would seem that a God presenting ideas to

us in a form which doesn’t correspond to reality, and then giving

us a strong disposition to believe that they do correspond to

reality would be a deceiving God and contrary to Descartes’

notion of Him. Thus the belief set would not be coherent.

Perhaps, as we do not have clear and distinct ideas of the bodies

we perceive, and as the divine guarantee only extends as far as

clear and distinct ideas, we are being too hasty in judging that

reality is how it appears to be and if we stopped to meditate

further we would see that reality is actually like something

else. But aside from the fact that this seems unlikely,

Descartes never seemed to envisage the possibility.

So much for the Cartesian circle. Where does this leave the

ontological argument, which we had only just begun to discuss?

Aside from the methodological difficulties, there do seem to two

further problems with it. The first has been noted by almost

every student of Descartes over the years – that of the

description of existence as a property. Put briefly, this

objection states that existence is not a property like ‘red’ or

‘hairy’ or ‘three-sided’ that can be applied to a subject, and

thus it makes no sense to say that existence is part of

something’s essence. If we assert that x is y, we are already

asserting the existence of x as soon as we mention it, prior to

any application of a predicate. from the beginning. In

other words, to say ‘x exists’ is to utter a tautology and to say

that ‘x doesn’t exist’ is to contradict oneself. So how can

sentences of the form ‘x doesn’t exist’ make sense? one may well

ask. It is because these sentences are shorthand for ‘the idea I

have of x has no corresponding reality’ and it was to solve

problems like this that Bertrand Russell constructed his theory

of descriptions. To add existence to an idea doesn’t just make it

an idea with a new property, it changes it from an idea into an

existent entity.

Finally, if Descartes is right, there seems no reason why we

cannot construct any other idea whose essence includes

existence. For instance, if I conjure up the idea of an existent

purple building that resembles the Taj Mahal’, then it is the

true and immutable nature of this idea that it is a building,

that this building resembles the Taj Mahal, that the building is

purple, and that it exists. But no such building does exist, as

far as I am aware, and if it did exist, its existence would not

be necessary, but contingent. This in itself is enough, I think,

to show that the ontological argument is false.

Once we have destroyed Descartes’ proofs of the existence of God,

the edifice of knowledge necessarily comes tumbling down with

them, as we find that almost everything Descartes believes in is

dependent on God’s nature as a non-deceiver:

“I remark that the certitude of all other truths is so absolutely

dependent on it, that without this knowledge it is impossible

ever to know anything perfectly.” (p.115)

The only possible exceptions are those assent-compelling beliefs

such as the cogito. Even these, however, are doubtful when we

are not thinking about them, and the above passage does give

weight to Edwin Curley’s argument that:

“Descartes would hold that the proposition “I exist” is fully

certain only if the rest of the argument of the Meditations goes

through. We must buy all or nothing.”

This is not the end of the story, though. As far as Descartes is

concerned, by the end of Meditation Five, he has produced two

powerful proofs of God, has a clear and distinct notion of his

own self, has a criterion for truth, knows how to avoid error and

is beginning to form ideas regarding our knowledge of corporeal

bodies.. And so it remains only to explain why we are fully

justified in believing in corporeal bodies, and also to draw the

ideas of Meditation Two regarding self-knowledge to their full

conclusion.

Regarding the nature of corporeal bodies and our knowledge of

them, it seems to me that, given his premises, the conclusions

Descartes draws in Meditation Six are generally the correct ones.

He again invokes the causal to argue that the ideas of bodies we

have within our minds must be caused by something with at least

as much formal reality as the ideas have objective reality. We

could theoretically be producing these ideas, but Descartes

dismisses this possibility for two reasons – firstly, that the

idea of corporeality does not presuppose thought and secondly

that our will seems to have no effect on what we perceive or

don’t perceive. (This second argument seems to me to ignore

dreaming, in which what we perceive derives from us but is

independent of our will). The ideas, then, could come from God,

or from another being superior to us but inferior to God. But

this, too, is impossible, argues Descartes, as if it were the

case that God produces the ideas of bodies in us, then the very

strong inclination we have towards believing that the idea-

producing bodies resemble the ideas we have would be false and

thus God would be allowing us to be deceived which is not

permissible. The same would apply if any other being were

producing these ideas. Thus, concludes Descartes, it is most

likely that our ideas of corporeal bodies are actually caused by

bodies resembling those ideas. We cannot be certain, however, as

we cannot claim to have clear and distinct notions of everything

we perceive. We can, however, claim certainty with regard to

those properties of bodies which we do know with clarity and

distinction; namely, size, figure (shape), position, motion,

substance, duration and number (not all of these assertions are

justified). Obviously we cannot claim that we know these

properties for specific bodies with clarity and distinction, for

to do so would leave open the uestion of why it is that

astronomy and the senses attribute different sizes to stars. What

Descartes means is that we can be sure that these primary

qualities exist in bodies in the same way that they do in our

ideas of bodies. This cannot be claimed for qualities such as

heat, colour, taste and smell, of which our ideas are so confused

and vague that we must always reserve judgement. (This conclusion

is actually quite similar to the one John Locke drew fifty years

later in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.)

I think we can grant this reasoning, with the caveat regarding

dreaming that I noted above, and of course the other unproved

reasonings that Descartes exhumes here, such as the causal

principle. Furthermore, it seems to be further proof that

Descartes does believe we can get to know objects in themselves

to a certain extent.

Finally, I turn to Descartes’ argument for the distinction of

mind and body. Descartes believes he has shown the mind to be

better known than the body in Meditation Two. In Meditation Six

he goes on to claim that, as he knows his mind and knows clearly

and distinctly that its essence consists purely of thought, and

that bodies’ essences consist purely of extension, that he can

conceive of his mind and body as existing separately. By the

power of God, anything that can be clearly and distinctly

conceived of as existing separately from something else can be

created as existing separately. At this point, Descartes makes

the apparent logical leap to claiming that the mind and body have

been created separately, without justification. Most commentators

agree that this is not justified, and further, that just because

I can conceive of my mind existing independently of my body it

does not necessarily follow that it does so. In defence of

Descartes, Saul Kripke has suggested that Descartes may have

anticipated a modern strand of modal logic that holds that if

x=y, then L (x=y). In other words, if x is identical to y then it

is necessarily identical to it. From this it follows that if it

is logically possible that x and y have different properties then

they are distinct. In this instance, that means that because I

can clearly and distinctly conceive of my mind and body as

existing separately, then they are distinct. The argument, like

much modern work on identity, is too technical and involved to

explore here in much depth. But suffice to say that we can

clearly and distinctly conceive of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as

being distinct and yet they are identical, necessarily so under

Kripke’s theory. It is doubtful that Kripke can come to

Descartes’ aid here and Descartes needs further argument to prove

that the mind and the body are distinct.

And so we finish our discussion of Descartes’ attempts to

extricate himself from the sceptical doubts he has set up for

himself. As mentioned previously, the ultimate conclusion to draw

regarding the success of the enterprise that Descartes set for

himself must be that he failed. When the whole epistemological

structure is so heavily dependent on one piece of knowledge – in

this case the knowledge that God exists – then a denial of that

knowledge destroys the whole structure. All that we can really

grant Descartes – and this is certainly contentious – is that he

can rightly claim that when a clear and distinct idea presents

itself to his mind, he cannot but give his assent to this idea,

and furthermore, that while this assent is being granted, the

clear and distinct idea can be justly used as a foundation for

knowledge. The most this gets us – and this is not a little – is

the knowledge of our own existence each time we assert it. But

Descartes’ project should not be judged by us as a failure – the

fact that he addressed topics of great and lasting interest, and

provided us with a method we can both understand and utilise

fruitfully, speaks for itself.

Bibliography

1. Descartes, Ren_ A Discourse on Method, Meditations and

Principles of Philosophy trans. John Veitch. The Everyman’s

Library, 1995.

Descartes, Ren_ The Philosophical Writings of Descartes volume I

and II ed. and trans. John Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D.

Murdoch. Cambridge, 1985.

Frankfurt, Harry Demons, Dreamers and Madmen. Bobbs-Merrill,

1970.

Curley, Edwin Descartes Against the Skeptics. Oxford, 1978.

Vesey, Godfrey Descartes: Father of Modern Philosophy. Open

University Press, 1971.

Sorrell, Tom Descartes: Reason and Experience. Open University

Press, 1982.

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy ed. Ted Honderich. Oxford

University Press, 1985.

Cottingham, John Descartes. Oxford, 1986. Williams, Bernard

Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. Harmondsworth, 1978.

Russell, Bertrand The History of Western Philosophy. George Allen

and Unwin, 1961. 11. Kripke, Saul Naming and Necessity. Oxford

1980.>

Descartes

How does Descartes try to extricate himself from the sceptical

doubts that he has raised? Does he succeed?

by Tom Nuttall

[All page references and quotations from the Meditations are

taken from the 1995 Everyman edition]

In the Meditations, Descartes embarks upon what Bernard Williams

has called the project of ‘Pure Enquiry’ to discover certain,

indubitable foundations for knowledge. By subjecting everything

to doubt Descartes hoped to discover whatever was immune to it.

In order to best understand how and why Descartes builds his

epistemological system up from his foundations in the way that he

does, it is helpful to gain an understanding of the intellectual

background of the 17th century that provided the motivation for

his work.

We can discern three distinct influences on Descartes, three

conflicting world-views that fought for prominence in his day.

The first was what remained of the mediaeval scholastic

philosophy, largely based on Aristotelian science and Christian

theology. Descartes had been taught according to this outlook

during his time at the Jesuit college La Flech_ and it had an

important influence on his work, as we shall see later. The

second was the scepticism that had made a sudden impact on the

intellectual world, mainly as a reaction to the scholastic

outlook. This scepticism was strongly influenced by the work of

the Pyrrhonians as handed down from antiquity by Sextus

Empiricus, which claimed that, as there is never a reason to

believe p that is better than a reason not to believe p, we

should forget about trying to discover the nature of reality and

live by appearance alone. This attitude was best exemplified in

the work of Michel de Montaigne, who mockingly dismissed the

attempts of theologians and scientists to understand the nature

of God and the universe respectively. Descartes felt the force of

sceptical arguments and, while not being sceptically disposed

himself, came to believe that scepticism towards knowledge was

the best way to discover what is certain: by applying sceptical

doubt to all our beliefs, we can discover which of them are

indubitable, and thus form an adequate foundation for knowledge.

The third world-view resulted largely from the work of the new

scientists; Galileo, Copernicus, Bacon et al. Science had finally

begun to assert itself and shake off its dated Aristotelian

prejudices. Coherent theories about the world and its place in

the universe were being constructed and many of those who were

aware of this work became very optimistic about the influence it

could have. Descartes was a child of the scientific revolution,

but felt that until sceptical concerns were dealt with, science

would always have to contend with Montaigne and his cronies,

standing on the sidelines and laughing at science’s pretenses to

knowledge. Descartes’ project, then, was to use the tools of the

sceptic to disprove the sceptical thesis by discovering certain

knowledge that could subsequently be used as the foundation of a

new science, in which knowledge about the external world was as

certain as knowledge about mathematics. It was also to hammer the

last nail into the coffin of scholasticism, but also, arguably,

to show that God still had a vital r_le to play in the discovery

of knowledge.

Meditation One describes Descartes’ method of doubt. By its

conclusion, Descartes has seemingly subjected all of his beliefs

to the strongest and most hyberbolic of doubts. He invokes the

nightmarish notion of an all-powerful, malign demon who could be

deceiving him in the realm of sensory experience, in his very

understanding of matter and even in the simplest cases of

mathematical or logical truths. The doubts may be obscure, but

this is the strength of the method – the weakness of criteria for

what makes a doubt reasonable means that almost anything can

count as a doubt, and therefore whatever withstands doubt must be

something epistemologically formidable.

In Meditation Two, Descartes hits upon the indubitable principle

he has been seeking. He exists, at least when he thinks he

exists. The cogito (Descartes’ proof of his own existence) has

been the source of a great deal of discussion ever since

Descartes first formulated it in the 1637 Discourse on Method,

and, I believe, a great deal of misinterpretation (quite possibly

as a result of Descartes’ repeated contradictions of his own

position in subsequent writings). Many commentators have fallen

prey to the tempting interpretation of the cogito as either

syllogism or enthymeme. This view holds that Descartes asserts

that he is thinking, that he believes it axiomatic that ‘whatever

thinks must exist’ and therefore that he logically concludes that

he exists. This view, it seems to me, is wrong. It should be

stated on no occasion, in the Meditations, does Descartes write

‘I am thinking, therefore I am’, nor anything directly

equivalent. Rather, he says:

“Doubtless, then, that I exist and, let him deceive me as

he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as

I shall be conscious that I am something. So that it must, in

fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully

considered, that this proposition I am, I exist, is necessarily

true each time it is expressed by me or conceived in my mind.”

(p. 80).

The point here is that it is impossible to doubt the truth of the

proposition ‘I exist’ when one utters it. It is an indubitable

proposition, and one that will necessarily be presupposed in

every attack of the sceptic. Descartes is not yet entitled to use

syllogisms as the possibility of the malign demon is still very

much alive. As an aside, Descartes himself denies that the cogito

is a syllogism, although it should be mentioned that in some of

the Replies to Objections he seems to assert that it is in fact

a syllogism. Finally, in the Regulae ad directionem ingenii,

Descartes denies the usefulness of syllogisms as a means to

knowledge.

I believe that, given Descartes’ project, it is fair to grant him

that the cogito deserves the status he bestows upon it. For can

there be anything more certain than something that is so forceful

and so powerful that every time it is presented to our mind we

are forced to assent to it?

What Descartes did here was to jiggle about the way philosophy

normally approaches the construction of knowledge structures. By

starting with self-knowledge, he elevates the subjective above

the objective and forces his epistemology to rest upon the

knowledge he has of his own self (and inadvertently sets the tone

for the next 300 years of philosophy). This leaves him with a

problem. He can know his own existence, that he is a thinking

thing and the contents of his consciousness, but how can any of

this ever lead to any knowledge of anything outside of himself?

The answer is that, by itself, it can’t. Descartes, in the third

Meditation, attempts to prove the existence of God, defined as a

being with all perfections. This proof is to be derived from his

idea of a God, defined as a being with all perfections. So far,

so good – Descartes examines the contents of his consciousness

and discovers within it this idea, and we can allow him this. At

this point, however, he introduces a whole series of scholastic

principles concerning different modes of causation and reality

without proper justification:

“For, without doubt, those [ideas considered as images, as

opposed to modes of consciousness] that represent substances are

something more, and contain in themselves, so to speak, more

objective reality, that is, participate by representation in

higher degrees of being or perfection than those that represent

only modes or accidents; and again the idea by which I conceive a

God has certainly in it more objective reality than those ideas

by which finite substances are represented.

Now it is manifest by the natural light that there must be

at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in

its effect; for whence can the effect draw its reality if not

from its cause? And how could the cause communicate to it this

reality unless it possessed it in itself?”

Whence do these principles draw their indubitability? Even if we

grant that it is contrary to natural rea

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