Topic 2: The Meditations don’t just prove the existence of God once, but twice. What are these arguments and what is the relationship between them? In what sense is God foundational for the metaphysics Descartes elaborates in his great work? What are some objections to his view? Are they compelling? Your goal in this essay is to assess Descartes’ argument(s) for the existence of God and to arrive at your own conclusions regarding its persuasiveness. At a minimum, your essay must rely on textual evidence from Meditations 3 and 5 to make its case.
In Meditations, Rene Descartes comes to the conclusion that he exists, with the statement; “I think therefore I am”, and that becomes the ‘Archimedean point’ on which he expands further concrete knowledge. This epistemic foundationalism enables Descartes to attempt to prove not only that God is real, but that we are able to trust our senses. In this essay, I will discuss the two proofs that Descartes proposes for the existence of God and argue whether these proofs are legitimate, and how persuasive they are.
Arguments for the existence of god
Descartes provides two arguments that prove the existence of God, the cosmological argument (Meditation three), and the ontological one (Meditation five). For the cosmological argument, Descartes used a mathematical approach, by using the concept of infinity. The idea that Descartes had was that we cannot have a concept of something without its opposite (such as light and darkness), and thus, we cannot have a concept of finitude without infinity. What Descartes is attempting to explain with this, is that certainty comes from the mind and not from the senses. First of all, through introspection, Descartes distinguishes formal and objective reality;
I am a substance, it seems possible that they are contained in me eminently […] for 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, unless this idea proceeded from some substance which really was infinite (1641, p.51).
This knowledge of himself becomes his Archimedean point, off of which he comes to the conclusion that .therefore, Descartes looks for answers from his own mind, and not from his senses, as his mind is what he can be certain of. Descartes phrases it this way;
I have no choice but to conclude that the mere fact of my existing and of there being in me an idea of a most perfect being, that is, God, demonstrates most evidently that God too exists (1641, p.53)
The interesting part about this sentence is that Descartes expresses that he has no choice, he has proven to himself that his mind produces true answers about the world, and thus, he must believe that the concept of God is not only real but necessary.
The second proof that Descartes presents in Meditation five, is ontological, that is, relating to existence. He argues that some things are necessary, and to illustrate this, he uses mathematics once more; a triangle’s “three angles are equal to two right angles” (1641, p.58), and he does not need to sense this to know that it is a fact, he can logically come to that conclusion using intellect alone; “their truth is so open and so much in accord with my nature that […] I am not so much learning something new as recalling something I knew beforehand” (1641, p.58). This enables him to argue that since he cannot imagine “God except as existing”, just like he can’t imagine a “mountain without a valley”, God’s existence becomes necessary (1641, p.59). He goes on to explain how he can imagine a god that doesn’t exist, but that would then not make him a God, as that imaginary God would simply be a “perfect being without a supreme perfection” (1641, p.60) which does not make sense. In essence, Descartes argues that existence is superior to non-existence, God is a perfect being, thus God must exist.
God as a foundation for metaphysics
In the historical context that Descartes is writing in, God and faith is still a major part of education and society. Having received a religious education, Descartes was arguably susceptible to religious bias. Moreover, it would be favorable for him to prove the existence of God, as it would give him a major foundation for knowledge. Hypothetically, if God exists, Descartes can confirm that he is thus not a ‘brain in a vat’ and that there is no evil genius that is controlling our senses as god is benevolent and would not trick our senses. However, one can argue that God could trick the senses in an act of benevolence. The 1999 movie The Matrix Directed by the Wachowski sisters, discusses this idea of experiencing life through an induced and collective dream. In this scenario, individuals get to experience a dream world, with no idea of the disastrous state of the earth. A limited number of people get the opportunity to choose whether they want to keep dreaming or live in the real world. It is much simpler to go with the dream; “Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object.” (Camus 1957, p.36). This idea of falsehood being more attractive than truth is something that has been discussed extensively through the literature, great thinkers from the past and today have argued that it is a considerable challenge to face the truth relentlessly. The question here is whether Descartes can relentlessly pursue the truth, putting aside bias, and possibly happiness (in the form of bliss).
Objections to Descartes view on God
When Descartes proposed his ‘logical’ proof for the existence of God, the Church did not approve. Only a decade earlier, Galileo was condemned for proving the heliocentric model over the current geocentric theory, the fact was, the Church did not approve of views that did not conform with the faith.
George Orwell came up with a term that describes having to opposed beliefs and believing both. This term is ‘Doublethink’. I would argue that it is possible that Descartes used his intelligence, and combined it with his beliefs, in order to argue, and believe the proofs that he presents to us on God’s existence. Indeed, in Meditation five, Descartes writes; “Nothing seems more pressing than that I try to free myself from the doubts into which I fell a few days ago” (1641, p.58). Arguably, he sees this lack of knowledge as constraining, and perhaps rushes to a familiar ‘truth’; God exists.
The most persuasive of Descartes arguments is perhaps the idea that we can not conceive of something that is unreal, or that doesn’t have an opposite state. However, it is easily countered by bringing up fantasy beings. That being said, the idea of a dragon, or flying horse is based on things that do exist, it is very hard indeed to come up with something uninspired from reality. On the other hand, some things that are real are also hard to conceptualize, such as a 4th dimension (which can be explained, mathematically, but cannot be easily imagined). Furthermore, there are psychotic states that humans can enter, where the mind is not a reliable source of information. Notably, people suffering from schizophrenia, experience false senses which are constructed through a chemical imbalance in their brain.
In conclusion, I have found that the arguments Descartes proposes are somewhat convincing because of their mathematical logic. However, some would argue that one does not know that God exists, but believes so (and does so wholeheartedly). At least that is the traditional religious way of thinking. Associating God with logic proves to be a complicated task, that hasn’t been accepted by many (such as the Church or other philosophers), and Descartes proofs could be interpreted as an attempt to incorporate his religious background into his knowledge, using logical concepts.
- Camus, A 1957, The Fall (Translated by J O’Brien), Vintage Books, New York.
- Descartes, R 1641, Meditations on First Philosophy.
- The Matrix 1999, dvd, Warner Bros, USA.