Descartes Meditations Essay, Research Paper
In Descartes? Meditations on First Philosophy, he offers two main arguments from which he concludes the existence of God. In the Third Meditation, Descartes proposes his metaphysical argument, which states that God must exist, because his real existence is the only cause, which could have produced Descartes? own idea of God. In the Fifth Meditation, Descartes contends that existence is contained in God?s essence, so a non-existent God is by definition, a contradiction. This paper will analyze the strengths and weaknesses of both arguments, and will contend that the metaphysical argument, while flawed, is more credible than Descartes? ontological argument. I will show that the metaphysical argument is the more successful of the two because of its own virtues and because of serious deficiencies in the ontological argument.
Descartes posits his metaphysical argument in Meditation Three, where he begins his reflection by considering the source of all of his ideas. He notes that all his ideas are equally real in the sense that they are all ” simply modes of thought.” However, not all of his ideas are endowed with an equal magnitude of objective reality, meaning that all of his ideas may not represent something which really exists. He then concludes “that it is manifest by the natural light that” if the object of an idea of something involves some level of reality, the idea must be caused by that which has a greater or equal level of reality. Descartes uses this foundation to reason that since his idea of an all-perfect God, who is an infinite substance, contains more reality than he thinks he possesses, he cannot be the source of that idea. The idea must be caused by something which has as much perfection and reality as the object of its idea. By Descartes? definition of that which is “supreme?infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, and the creator of all things,” this cause of his idea must be God.
One of the virtues of this argument is its validity. Descartes clearly enumerates his premises:
? he has an idea of an infinite and perfect God
? ideas have causes which have objective reality, which is equal to that of the object of the idea
? he could not have produced his own idea of the infinite
? God must have produced his idea of the infinite
? God exists.
If these premises are true, his argument is a successful and sound one. Like the ontological argument, the premises of this work draw a lot of objections. Yet Descartes maintains the strength of this an inductive argument by addressing some of the most potentially damaging objections to his metaphysical argument.
Descartes? whole metaphysical argument presupposes that he has an idea of an all-perfect, infinite God. Yet the thesis that Descartes? finite mind can perceive the infinite lends itself to powerful controversy. One could explicitly challenge Descartes in the following manner: It is inconsistent to maintain that one has a clear idea of an infinite and perfect God. Because the individual?s mind is by Descartes? own admission, finite, infinity is inconceivable to the individual.
Descartes? argument can withstand such criticism if we are precarious in our interpretation of what may constitute the idea of an infinite being. Descartes explains that “it does not matter that I do not grasp the infinite?it is enough that I understand the infinite.” This divide between grasping and understanding may seem vague, but it is crucial to the legitimacy of the metaphysical argument. Descartes? understanding of the infinite is an acceptable starting point from which he can proceed to search for the cause of his idea of the infinite. Yet his simultaneous inability to grasp the infinite conciliates the relation of a finite intellect to the incomprehensible nature of the infinite.
Descartes? advances his argument by illustrating the theory that his idea of the infinite must have been caused by that which has infinite reality and perfection, namely, God. Descartes? belief welcomes the contention that an idea of infinity need not be caused by the infinite, so long as one can contemplate the infinite as that which is not finite. Since the individual is finite, one need not look outside of one?s self to find a cause for an idea which lacks the property of being finite.
In the case of false ideas, we may indeed have the idea of a positive quality which is really just formed from the lack of some positive real quality. Descartes explains, “if it is true that cold is nothing but the absence of heat, the idea which represents it to me as something real and positive deserves to be called false.” Descartes then qualifies the infinite as a true idea, which cannot be produced by experiencing a privation of its contradiction. He offers a strong logical explanation to support his position. He says that the idea of the infinite must necessarily exist prior to the idea of the finite because otherwise, the individual would have no standard by which to say that he or she lacks or desires anything. All Descartes really needs to maintain is that an objective, finite cause is insufficient in accounting for the infinite and finite ideas we have. It does not damage Descartes? position if it is shown that our understanding of the infinite and of the finite might rely on each other simultaneously. While these two keen counter-objections solidify the basis for Descartes argument, not all of his counter-objections are as acceptable. To Descartes, it is obvious that “for a given idea to contain such and such objective reality, it must surely derive it from some cause which contains at least as much formal reality.”
Descartes? readers have a right to doubt his clear and distinct perception, including his observation that God?s essence must involve existence. Descartes explicitly recognizes that “the way [he is] made makes him prone to frequent error.” The fact that Descartes is ever prone to error is necessarily a concession that there is some deficiency in his intellect which causes that error. Descartes may not legitimately lay claim to a perfectly clear and distinct perception after he recognizes that that same perception is the product of a fallible intellect. Descartes defends himself in this respect by maintaining that that none of his fallible perceptions ever struck him as clear and distinct in the first place. But the sole fact that Descartes? clear and distinct perceptions have not yet proven themselves false does not necessitate that they are true. Essentially, the only credibility with which Descartes can back up his perceptions, is the fact that he clearly and distinctly perceives that whatever he clearly and distinctly perceives must be true. This begs the question and leaves any reader who does not share his clarity of perception at a loss.
Besides Descartes? reliance on his clear and distinct perception, there are other viable objections to the ontological argument which he is unable to conquer.
Descartes claims there is no inconsistency in his derivation of God?s real existence from what must originate as a conceptual property of a conceptual nature. Descartes argues that any attribute which can be predicated is an acceptable property of something?s nature. On one hand, Descartes is right; real existence meets the fundamental criteria for being a property in the sense that it describes. But as existence still functions grammatically, this argument won?t have the appearance of a logical predicate. Hence, Descartes may use semantics to draw existential conclusions from conceptual premises, but he has no basis to claim his conclusion is logically accurate.
In the metaphysical argument, I have shown that Descartes is able to logically address serious criticisms, and his resort to clear and distinct perception is detrimental, yet secondary. In the ontological argument, however, Descartes relies on his clear and distinct perception to substantiate his most fundamental statements and the fact that something appears to be clear and distinct is not enough to substantiate one?s claims. If one grants Descartes the truth-value of his clear and distinct perceptions, his ontological argument still gives the reader adequate opportunity to can challenge the logical cogency of the argument. These flaws discredit the legitimacy of the ontological argument and support the metaphysical argument?s qualifications as the more successful of the two.