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Does God Exist?

posted by B on 8/11/01

Does God really exist?

Only dead French people know for sure.

Descartes' philosophy developed in the context of the key features of Renaissance and early modern philosophy. Like the humanists, he rejected religious authority in the quest for scientific and philosophical knowledge. For Descartes, reason was both the foundation and guide for pursuing truth. Although Descartes was a devout Catholic, he was also influenced by the Reformation's challenge to Church authority, particularly the challenge against medieval Aristotelianism. He was an active participant in the scientific revolution in both scientific method and in particular discoveries. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Descartes reacted strongly against the Renaissance resurgence of ancient Greek skepticism. Thus, we find in Descartes' writings a relentless pursuit of absolute certainty.

Presented here are Descartes' three meditations on the existence of some supreme being, presented popular culture reference free and full of so many jokes that you can't see them, and it looks like there aren't any jokes. But what you're gonna have to do is make like Mena Suvari's weird looking nipples and LOOK CLOSER.


Rembrandt's "Philosopher"; Mena Suvari's strangely unsettling nipples

Meditation 3 -

Descartes notes that when he contemplates on the certainty of his existence, he knows the truth of his existence clearly and distinctly. He proposes a general rule: everything he perceives clearly and distinctly is true. Descartes would like to use this general rule and show both the existence of external objects and the truth of mathematics. For, to differing degrees, both of these are vivid concepts. Unfortunately, knowledge of external objects does not rise to the level of clarity and distinctness. Sensory judgments about the external world at first seemed vivid, but later proved to be questionable. By contrast, mathematical judgments are perceived clearly and distinctly. However, an obstacle remain: God may be deceiving him irrespective of how clearly and distinctly he perceives mathematical truths. To put the general rule of clarity and distinctness on sound footing, Descartes must (a) prove God's existence, and then (b) show that God is not a deceiver.


A mother desperately tries to feed her starving child; Chris Kattan as "Mango"

In constructing his argument for God's existence, Descartes makes several prefatory comments about the nature and content of human thought. He begins outlining the various types of thoughts we have, which include ideas, thoughts, volitions and judgments. Only judgments have a truth value, and most deception comes from judgments about ideas. There are three kinds of ideas: fictitious (invented), adventitious (from external objects), and innate (inborn). A final prefatory issue concerns the adventitious ideas (that is, ideas of external objects). Are they really produced by external objects as they seem to be? One reason why we believe adventitious ideas have their origin in physical objects (as opposed to being mere fictions of the mind) is because we are taught this by nature. Descartes believes that nature teaches us in an unabsolute sense (that is, by a spontaneous impulse) that adventitious ideas are caused by external objects. We trust natural impulses, though, since they often lead us astray, such as with moral intuitions. Another reason why we believe adventitious ideas have their origin in external objects is that these ideas are independent of our will or volitions. We may not rely on this reason, though, since we may have an unknown mental faculty which produces such ideas against our will. Descartes next argues that even if adventitious ideas were caused by external objects, an idea may in no way resemble the object causing it. How does he illustrate this problem with our two ideas of the sun? Descartes concludes that only a "blind impulse" makes us believe that adventitious ideas correspond to real physical objects.

Since adventitious ideas have no clear basis in external objects, then Descartes cannot attempt to prove God's existence through a posteriori arguments (that is, arguments based on our perception of external objects). For example, he cannot argue for God's existence based on apparent design in the world, since he cannot trust his adventitious ideas of design. However, there is another path open to him. He may simply examine the content of his ideas, ignoring their connection with external objects. In his words, he will consider his ideas as merely "modes of thought." When we view ideas merely as modes of thought, some seem more perfect or complex than others. In Descartes' terminology, a more perfect or complex idea has greater objective reality than a less perfect or complex idea. For example, ideas of eternal substance, such as God, have more perfection than ideas of finite substance, such as trees or dogs.


A stack of corpses lying outside of the cremetorium of Buchenwald; WCW Champion David Arquette

Descartes next discusses a principle of causality: "there must be as much in the total efficient cause as there is in the effect of that same cause." That is, there must be as much in any cause as there is in its effect. For example, if an object has 5 units of heat, then its cause must have at least 5 units of heat. This principle has been traditionally called the principle of sufficient reason, and he believes that we know this innately. Descartes argues that the principle of sufficient reason applies to ideas as well as to physical objects. That is, an idea with a moderate amount of objective reality (let's say, with five units of complexity) must be produced by something with at least that much objective reality (five or more units of complexity). Based on the principle of sufficient reason as it applies to ideas, Descartes believes that there are important conclusions we can draw about the origin of specific ideas. Descartes believe that his ideas of people, animals or angels could have arisen from within himself since they can arise from ideas of himself. He continues discussing the origins of ideas of physical objects, particularly regarding their secondary and primary qualities. He believes that his ideas of light, colors, sounds, odors, tastes, and heat (that is, secondary qualities) need no explanation outside of himself.

Primary qualities too, such as substance, duration, and number, may also be explained by the idea of himself. Finally, Descartes considers the idea of God which is in his mind. This idea is that of "an infinite and independent substance." More to the point, he has in his mind an idea of infinite perfection. This requires an explanation beyond himself, and that explanation must have as much objective reality as the initial idea of infinite perfection. This, then, is his proof for God's existence:

1. We have an idea of infinite perfection.
2. The idea we have of ourselves entails finitude and imperfection.
3. There must be as much reality in the cause of any idea as in the idea itself (the principle of sufficient reason).
4. Therefore, the idea we have of infinite perfection originated from a being with infinite perfection, and this being is God.

Once proving God's existence, Descartes addresses three possible criticisms of his argument. Each of these possible criticisms suggests that our idea of infinite perfection need not be caused by God himself. A first possible criticism is based on Descartes assumption that we initially possess an idea of the infinite, and that our idea of the finite consists of the negation of our idea of the infinite. A critic might argue that the opposite is the case: we have an initial idea of the finite and our idea of the infinite is its negation. In this case, we could be the cause of infinite perfection by (a) taking the idea of finite imperfection from ourselves, and (b) negating this idea. Thus, for Descartes' proof to be successful, he needs to show that we initially possess an idea of the infinite. And, Descartes contends that we initially possess the idea of the infinite. A second possible criticism is that the idea of infinite perfection is "materially false and can therefore be from nothing." More simply, the suggestion is that the idea of infinite perfection is an incoherent concept, and needs no explanation beyond itself. However, Descartes argues that the notion of infinite perfection is clear and distinct in the highest degree, and thus requires an explanation. A third possible criticism is that perhaps we are potentially infinitely perfect, and thus produced the idea of infinite perfection from our hidden potential. Descartes gives three replies to this third criticism. First, if his potential perfection can be actualized only gradually (through a gradual increase in knowledge), this implies that he is finite. And, if he is a finite being, he could not produce the idea of infinite perfection. Second, he argues that even if his knowledge would increase gradually over an infinite amount of time, at no point would he have infinite knowledge. Third, he argues that the objective being of an idea cannot be produced by a merely potential being.

Since Descartes has proven his own existence and the existence of God, he now finds it appropriate to show that God was the cause of his existence. He shows this through the process of elimination, arguing that he could not be produced by (a) himself, (b) a finite cause less perfect than God, (c) by several partial causes, or (d) by his parents. God is the only possible cause for his existence. Descartes gives two replies to the suggestion that he was derived from himself. His first reply is that if he caused himself, then he would be God since he would give himself every perfection he could. Descartes' second reply is based on the fact that he exists over time. Each of the parts and moments of his existence depends on others. He then asks whether "I have some power through which I can bring it about that I myself, who now am, will also exist a little later?" He answers that he does not have the power in himself for duration, so he doesn't have the power for creation either. Another suggestion is that he was caused by a finite cause less perfect than God. He responds noting that this finite cause would have to possess the idea of infinite perfection too, hence we need to inquire into its cause as well. Another suggestion is that he was created by several partial causes. This fails, though, since the concept of infinite perfection is unified, so the cause of it must be unified. Finally, he addresses the suggestion that he was caused by his parents. Although his parents may be the cause of his body, they are not the cause of his thinking existence insofar as he has an idea of infinite perfection. Descartes concludes that God must be the cause of him, and that God innately implanted the idea of infinite perfection in him.


The crew of the Challenger, who are all dead.


The crew of N*SYNC, who are all alive. And a bunch of fruitcakes.


Descartes closes Meditation Three arguing that as God's creation, it is highly believable that God made him in his image, and that he understands God reflectively, just as he understands himself. He concludes that God is not a deceiver since deception is an imperfection, and God is infinite perfection.

Meditation 4 -

At the close of the Third Meditation, Descartes has arrived at all of the fundamental principles he needs in his quest for truth: (1) he exists (a foundational fact which is indubitable), (2) God exists and is not a deceiver, and (3) clarity and distinctness are reliable indicators of truth. Descartes' goal is to show that we can rely on our senses to at least some degree. Meditations IV and V do not contribute directly to this goal. Meditation IV explains the source of human error and argues that God is not responsible for our mistakes. Descartes' concept of "error" is broad, referring to any mistaken judgment whatever. This includes assertions, predictions, ethical judgments, or judgments leading to an action. Descartes begins his quest for the origin of error by considering several theories which he ultimately rejects. He first considers whether God could be the cause of his error. He quickly rejects this, though, since God is not a deceiver. He next considers the possibility that human error results from his faculty of judgment. This makes sense since he sees himself as finite, existing on a middle rung of the great chain of being between God and nothing. Thus, error would seem to be a defect which we can blame on our faculty of judgment. However, it unsatisfactory to say that human error results from his faculty of judgment since a perfect God would not would not place an imperfect faculty in him. Descartes is puzzled that God could have made him such that he would never err, yet he clearly does err, and he suggests that maybe he can never know God's purpose in allowing us to err, since the wisdom of God is above human intellect. However, he concludes that we should examine God's in creation as a whole, not just his purpose in creating me personally in a manner that involves error.

After rejecting the above suggestions, Descartes considers the specific faculties involved when we make mistakes: the understanding and the will. He can find no reason to hold either of these faculties individually responsible for error. Our reason cannot be faulted since although knowledge is limited, the intellectual faculty of judgment itself has no error. The faculty of the will itself does not produce error since the will is a perfect faculty, and, indeed, is as perfect as God's (God's is only greater in terms of power, knowledge, and affected objects). He briefly discusses the free nature of our will. Even when strong motives incline us toward one direction, we choose all the more freely in that direction. Freedom is at its lowest when no motive moves me more in one direction than in another.


Laying John F. Kennedy to rest; A video game about Shaq doing karate.


Descartes considers a final view that error results when we extend our will beyond our knowledge. This, he believes, is the true explanation. According to Descartes, our will often becomes indifferent (or lazy) and accidentally extends beyond the bounds of our knowledge. He stresses that we should abstain from willing when we have insufficient knowledge. As an example, he explains that at this stage in his investigation he doesn't know whether his essential qualities include mind, body, or both. Hence, he abstains from any willful judgment on this issue. In this and similar cases, he believes that proper use of freedom requires us to abstain from willful judgment. Suppose, though, that, by chance, we stumble upon some truth beyond the scope of our knowledge. For Descartes, it is still improper to use the will in this manner since I know clearly and distinctly that full knowledge ought to precede volition.

Descartes next argues that even though God created us, God is not responsible for errors that we make. He considers several possible criticisms against God's role. One might first criticize God for giving us limited knowledge. However, finitude is my essence, and this involves limited knowledge (God was not required to make me infinite). Second, one might criticize God for allowing us to extend our will beyond our knowledge. In reply, Descartes argues that God merely allows us to make erroneous willful judgments, but does not cause us to make them. Third, one might also criticize God for not more actively preventing me from erring. For example, God could have given me clear and distinct perception of everything I would ever need to know. Alternatively, God could have impressed more firmly on my memory the importance of not extending my will beyond my knowledge. However, although this would make me more perfect, when I view the goodness of the whole universe, God may have some need for me to be a less perfect being. Descartes argues that we don't need God to impress more firmly on our memories the importance of restraining the will. By developing the right habits, we can do this ourselves. Through practice, I can develop such habits when I remember previous circumstances in which I over-extended my will.

Meditation 5 -

In the Fifth Meditation, Descartes presents another argument for God's existence. Like the argument in Meditation III, Descartes' argument here does not appeal to sensory information (such as natural design). Instead, it is based on the content of his thoughts. The proof in this Meditation follows Anselm's ontological argument. He begins Meditation Five noting that he can imagine an array of two and three dimensional shapes. Some of these, like triangles, portray such clear and distinct attributes which necessarily belong to them. Since from the mere idea of a triangle one can deduce necessary attributes of a triangle, in the same way, from the mere idea of God (that is, a supremely perfect being) we can arrive at necessary attributes that belong to him. Put more precisely, Descartes' proof of God is this:

1. I have an idea of a supremely perfect being
2. The idea of this being necessarily entails every perfection
3. Existence is a perfection
4. Therefore, the idea of a supremely perfect being entails existence (that is, a supremely perfect being exists)

Descartes next anticipates three possible objections to his argument. A first objection to Descartes' proof is God can be thought of as not existing. That is, we can separate his existence from his essential attributes. Since, according to the critic, we can conceive of God as not existing, then existence is not a necessary attribute of this idea. Descartes replies that we cannot separate God's existence from his essential attributes when we carefully consider this idea. A second objection to Descartes' proof is that even though a necessary attribute of a mountain is that it be adjacent to a valley, it doesn't follow that any mountains or valleys exist. In the same way, even though the concept of supremely perfect being necessarily possesses certain attributes, it doesn't follow that this being exists. Descartes replies that this misses the analogy; existence is essential to God, just as having wings is essential to a winged horse.


Africans are taken from their homes and tortured; Popcorn flavored jellybeans.

A third criticism of Descartes' proof is that if we don't bother considering the idea of a supremely perfect being, then we won't be forced into asserting that existence is one of his perfections. Descartes replies that as often as we consider the idea, we need to give it existence. Descartes argues that not only does the idea of God necessarily include existence, but the initial idea of God itself is innate. Unlike elaborate proofs in geometry, Descartes argues that it is quite easy to understand that existence is a necessary attribute of a supremely perfect being.

Descartes argues that absolute knowledge of anything, including geometry, depends on a prior knowledge of God. Suppose we are analyzing an elaborate geometrical proof. While all of the ideas are fresh in our minds, we can see that the proof is sound. However, as time passes, the details of the proof are no longer in our minds, and we might then doubt the soundness of our proof. But, even if we forget the details of a proof, we can still rely on our established conclusion insofar as each step was perceived clearly and distinctly. Since God is not a deceiver, then we can trust that all we perceive clearly and distinctly is necessarily true. Hence, the certainty and truth of every science depends on knowledge of the true God.


So, does God exist?

I don't know, really. I guess so. Otherwise we wouldn't have Josie and the Pussycats, or Freedom.

Crap, I almost got through this without mentioning her.

Anyway...God, yeah. I'll wait and see if my Grandma makes it through heart surgery on Monday for my final answer.

b
swan@whatever-dude.com
AIM NotAGoonie


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