Rene Descartes has earned the title of the Father of Modern Philosophy. He calls into doubt everything that we take for granted as human beings. Though he does come to the conclusion that we can know the world, and most people agree with this, the arguments by which he draws new axioms and deduces this conclusion are not sound. While many of Descartes’ axioms are irrefutable, there are a couple key maxims that can be denied, which then ruin his conclusions from then on. Axiomatic arguments certainly have the most impact in philosophical writing, but at the same time because Descartes has crucial claims that are deniable, this yields his entire following argument unreliable.
Descartes’ argument in Meditation III: Concerning God, That He Exists, as well as all of his arguments in Meditation on First Philosophy, is axiomatic. Descartes wishes to call into doubt everything he knows, and then find axioms from which he can make a new foundation of knowledge. While this is a promising way to form an argument, Descartes fails to provide a sound argument of God’s existence. He makes his first argument for God with the following axioms (numbered for the sake of clarity):
(1) “Hence it follows that something cannot come into being out of nothing”
(2) “What is more perfect cannot come into being from what is less perfect”
(3) “Now it is indeed evident by the natural light that the total cause of something must contain at least as much reality as does the effect.”
(4) “It is indeed an idea that is utterly clear and distinct; […] the idea that I have of God is the most true, the most clear and distinct.”
(5)”I understand by the name ‘God’ a certain substance that is infinite, independent, supremely intelligent and supremely powerful, and that created me along with everything else that exists. […] Although the idea of substance is in me by virtue of the fact that I am a substance, that fact is not sufficient to explain my having the idea of an infinite substance, since I am finite.”
(6) “If the objective reality of any of my ideas is found to be so great that I am certain that the same reality was not in me, either formally or eminently, and that therefore I myself cannot be the cause of the idea, then it necessarily follows that I am not alone in the world, but that something else, which is the cause of this idea, also exists.”
(7) “Nothing more perfect than God, or even as perfect as God, can be thought of imagined.”
(8) “The whole force of my argument rests on the fact that I recognize that it would be impossible for me to exist, being of such a nature as I am (namely, having in me the idea of God), unless God did in fact exist. God, I say, that same being the idea of whom is in me: a being having all those perfections that I cannot comprehend, but can somehow touch with my thought, and a being subject to no defects whatever. From these considerations it is quite obvious that he cannot be a deceiver, for it is manifest by the light of nature that al fraud and deception depend on some defect.”
(9) “I must conclude that necessarily God exists”
(Meditation III: Concerning God, that He Exists)
This argument is well known, and, by definition, logical. However, there are some major problems in the premises. If even one premise is found to be false, the entire argument is invalid. While this first argument for God he provides is valid (in that if the premises are true then the conclusion must follow) the premises are not all true.
The first problem comes in what I have marked as premise (2), that what is more perfect cannot come out of something that is less perfect. Merely exploring the idea of evolution, which also becomes a problem when we consider his argument in Meditation V, can negate this premise. Evolution, the process of gradual development over time, contains the very idea of the more perfect coming out of something lesser. While Descartes was before the times of evolution, it seems that he could have seen this himself. Perhaps by observing a very successful offspring of two less successful parents would have brought him to such a conclusion. To this objection Descartes may respond with his definition of perfect, which is most likely the definition of God (free of any flaw/defect, that which cannot be lesser than anything). However, his definition is not a sufficient rebuttal, as premise (2) of his argument contains with in it that there are varying degrees of perfection. While he would agree that humans are not perfect, he must necessarily agree that humans vary in gradation of excellence. This is not his weakest claim, but rather the initial mistake.
Premise (4), in which Descartes asserts that the idea of God within him is the most clear and distinct (self-evident) idea that he knows. This “truth”, as Descartes perceives it, is an assumption. Assumptions are not necessarily true. The idea of a God is one that many people and cultures have, but that by no means proves that everyone has it clearly and distinctly. There is no evidence that proves every person will have a self-evident idea of God within him or her if they were cut off from the teaching of it. This is not only a problem of inference, in that there is no way Descartes could possibly know that everyone has this overt idea of God within them, but also of the very idea of clear and distinct ideas. Even if we are to take a vague perception of a deity into consideration, there are many cultures that had more than one God, and a flawed God at that (ex. Zeus cheated on his wife, selfish, etc.).
Thus, we see that the definition of a clear and distinct idea is imperfect in and of itself. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes does not give us a very helpful definition of clear and distinct ideas, but he claims “I now seem able to point as a general rule that everything I very clearly and distinctly perceive is true” (MIII 35). I can follow that logic only as far as perceiving my own thought. That is the only clear and distinct perception that I know to be true, and Descartes is very observant to point out this fact. However, it seems this is as far as universal clear and distinct ideas reach. By expounding upon this rationalist assertion of self-evident claims, Descartes allows refutable claims into his axiomatic schematic. Simply based on the fact that one person has the apparent idea of God in his or her mind, it does not follow that everyone does.
Descartes even admits to this difference in his Discourse on Methods, “I at length resolved to make myself an object of study, and to employ all the powers of my mind in choosing the paths I ought to follow, an undertaking which was accompanied with greater success than it would have been had I never quitted my country or my books” (Discourse on Methods, I). He knew that there were great differences between distinct societies, and yet still proceeded to claim that every person has a clear and distinct idea of God. Not only is it problematic to lay so much faith in the so-called clear and distinct idea of God, but also very circular.
By claiming that we have a clear and distinct idea of God innately, and proceeding to claim that we can know things are true by remembering the fact that God is real and would never deceive us, is extremely circular. If God exists, then our idea of him is clear and distinct; if our idea of God is clear and distinct, then he exists. Descartes argument relies heavily on the fact that God would never deceive us, what I have marked as premise (8). He states that deception at any level is a form of imperfection, and because God is a perfect being, it is impossible for him to deceive. Through Descartes definition of God we come to the conclusion that God must be true because he put the clear and distinct innate idea in our mind of him.
Descartes does not provide sufficient reason for God’s lack of deception, however. Even in the religion of Christianity we have seen acts of deceit by God, take for example Job. In sum, the story of Job is that he is a well-off, righteous man. When Satan sees this he challenges God that Job only follows him because of God’s protection. God takes away his protection in order to prove Job’s faith to Satan. While this story may not be read as deception, but rather as a “test of faith”, it seems that it is a clear stratagem against Job. Descartes would presumably deny this of being an act of fraud on God’s part, but I maintain that it is. Descartes does not want it to be possible for there to be a deceptive God, but understands that it is possible: “Some people would deny the existence of such a powerful God rather than believe that everything else is uncertain. Let us grant them – for purposes of argument – that there is no God, and theology is fiction. On their view, then, I am a product of fate or chance or a long chain of causes and effects. But the less powerful they make my original cause, the more likely it is that I am so imperfect as to be deceived all the time – because deception and error seem to be imperfections. “ (Med I). God is not necessarily incapable of deceit, but it is convenient for Descartes to deem it so. In this quote, taken from Meditation One: Concerning Those Things That Can Be Called into Doubt, Descartes allows a world without God for a moment. He believes that this would yield the “original cause” (which points to the fact Descartes does not permit infinite regress, which I will touch upon) of us to be less “powerful”, and thus cede an imperfect world capable of deceiving us at all times. However unappealing this may seem, he fails to provide an argument that deems it impossible for such a world to exist. It seems that the only reason this cannot exist for Descartes is the mere attitude of disliking the outcome. He does not want to believe that the world could be so imperfect that we are always being deceived by our perceptions. For his faith in the outside world to be restored after fully doubting it, Descartes needs God to be incapable of deception, however unnecessary his argument actually deduces that to be so.
In spite of this flimsy reasoning for the world needing to be perfect, Descartes comes to the conclusion that God must be unable to cheat his creation, other wise we would not be able to trust our self-evident ideas; also meaning we would not be able to trust our clear and distinct idea of God. This circular argument that relies on the definition of God and self-evident ideas, which has already proven problematic in premise (4), continues to produce problems when we explore premise (5). In his fifth premise, Descartes states that it is impossible for our human mind to have the idea of an infinite substance because we are finite beings. He allows for our knowledge of substance because we are a substance, but allows for our idea of infinite substance in light of the innate idea of God within all of us, and that he is an infinite substance himself. Descartes does not believe that we could have the idea of an infinite substance within us unless God were the source of it.
If we consider Descartes other famous field, mathematics, we can see a refutation of premise (5) in his own work. A line on a Cartesian Plane that does not have designated end points must necessarily infinitely continue in both directions. This is a clear and distinct idea that I have of an infinite substance. Substance for Descartes is “extension for matter and thought for the mind” (SEP). This idea of a line continuing into infinity is not one that comes from God, but rather one that comes from mathematics. Even though we may not be able to completely comprehend the fact that the line will continue eternally, the fact that we have an experience of duration means that we can conceive of durations longer and shorter than our own that we have experienced already. God does not need to have implanted our minds with the idea of the infinite by way of his eternal existence, but rather it is possible for our own human minds to conceive of an eternal substance just by thinking of our own existence and imagining further.
This problem goes back to premises (1) and (3) in which Descartes asserts that a “total cause of something must contain at least as much reality as does the effect”, which essentially means that something cannot come from nothing. This idea is known as the “Causal Adequacy Principle” (Skirry). This is another essential problem in Descartes logic in his ontological argument for God. In premise (2) he uses this causal definition in order to claim that a greater idea could not come from a lesser one, and we have seen that rebutted already. In Premise (3), Descartes is insisting that a human, who has less objective and formal reality than God does could never be the cause of such an idea. However, we have seen through my argument of evolution that something that is greater can, in fact, come from that which is lesser.
The biggest problem with Descartes is his complete affliction with the idea of infinite regress. He in no way wants to admit even the slightest possibility for there being an eternal existence with no first cause. “And although one idea can perhaps issue from another, nevertheless no infinite regress is permitted here; eventually some first idea must be reached whose cause is a sort of archetype that contains formally all the reality that is in the idea merely objectively. Thus it is clear to me by the light of nature that the ideas that in me are like the images that can easily fail to match the perfection of thing things which they have been drawn, but which can contain nothing greater or more perfect” (MIII 117) He completely denies the possibility of there being an infinite regress of reality in the world that he wishes to be capable of knowing clearly and distinctly. While it is understandable why infinite regress seemed utterly impossible in Descartes time during the seventeenth century, this argument against a first cause does not cause such a predicament as it once did.
Although Descartes’ ontological argument for God in his Third Meditation: Concerning God and That He Exists is extremely flimsy from the beginning, that is not to say that it is a useless argument. The fact that Descartes attempted to prove God’s existence through an axiomatic proof paved the way for many essential modern philosophers. Descartes’ biggest problem in this proof of God’s existence is that his entire theory of knowledge depends on God’s existence. Without the reality of God, Descartes cannot know anything, and thus cannot begin to build the foundation of what he knows. Descartes argument is not the only way to prove the existence of God, however it would be the only way to universally prove it. While one person may have the idea of God, that does not mean that everyone has it, let alone the same exact one. God’s existence is a question of faith and revelation, not an ontological argument. There would be no need for a dispute on the existence of God if Descartes had not made any logical errors in his work, however this serves to further prove that that there has yet to be a universal way to admit there is a God.
Boucher, John G. Discourse on Methods. Washington, D.C.: Educational Resources Information Center, 1966. Print.
Descartes, René, and Roger Ariew. “Meditations on First Philosophy.” Philosophical Essays and Correspondence. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2000. N. pag. Print.
Robinson, Howard, “Substance”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2013/entries/substance/>.
Skirry, Justin. “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Descartes, Rene: Overview. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 13 Sept. 2008. Web. 14 Dec. 2013. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/descarte/>.