Descartes’ Arguments for God’s Existence

Descartes’ Proof Of The Existence Of God: Summary & Analysis
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Only among judgments, then, can we find those sorts of thoughts representing something as existing outside of us.

Descartes and the Existence of God Essay

Next, Descartes examines his thoughts again to discover which are components of judgment, narrowing his ideas into three types: innate, adventitious coming from the outside and fictional produced internally. Now, adventitious ideas could have been created by Descartes himself. Although they do not depend on his will, he might have a faculty producing them, like the faculty that produces dreams. That is, of those ideas that are adventitious, it might be that we produce them even if we do not do so willingly, as it happens when we are dreaming. Fictional ideas, too, could have clearly been created by Descartes himself.

Of those, we are even aware of having come up with them. Innate ideas, though, beg the question of where did they originate? The second holds very much the same concept around formal versus objective reality, stating that more cannot come from less. Finally, he posits that there is a hierarchy of beings that can be divided into four categories: material bodies, humans, angels, and God. The only perfect being, in this hierarchy, is God with angels being of "pure spirit" yet imperfect, humans being "a mix of material bodies and spirit, which are imperfect," and material bodies, which are simply called imperfect.

If something, x, has a degree of formal reality or perfection than something else, y, could have caused x only if x and y have the same degree of formal reality or perfection. I have less formal reality or perfection than my idea of perfection.

Journal of the History of Philosophy

In the Fifth Meditation and elsewhere Descartes says that God's existence follows from the fact. Except for the idea of God, it doesn't seem Additional argument for the existence of God.

So I could not have caused my idea of perfection. Only God, who is perfect, has enough formal reality or perfection to cause my idea of a perfect being. It is important to recall that in the Third Meditation, in the midst of the causal argument for the existence of God, the meditator already discovered many of these perfections — omnipotence, omniscience, immutability, eternality, simplicity, etc. To illustrate this point Descartes appeals to divine omnipotence. He thinks that we cannot conceive an omnipotent being except as existing. Since such a being does not depend on anything else for its existence, he has neither a beginning nor an end, but is eternal.

Returning to the discussion in the First Replies, one can see how omnipotence is linked conceptually to necessary existence in this traditional sense. An omnipotent or all-powerful being does not depend ontologically on anything for if it did then it would not be omnipotent. It exists by its own power:. Some readers have thought that Descartes offers yet a third version of the ontological argument in this passage Wilson, , —76 , but whether or not that was his intention is unimportant, since his primary aim, as indicated in the last line, is to enable his meditator to intuit that necessary existence is included in the idea of God.

Since there is a conceptual link between the divine attributes, a clear and distinct perception of one provides a cognitive route to any of the others. Although Descartes sometimes uses formal versions of the ontological argument to achieve his aims, he consistently affirms that God's existence is ultimately known through clear and distinct perception.

The formal versions of the argument are merely heuristic devices, to be jettisoned once has attained the requisite intuition of a supremely perfect being. Descartes stresses this point explicitly in the Fifth Meditation, immediately after presenting the two versions of the argument considered above:. Here Descartes develops his earlier analogy between the so-called ontological argument and a geometric demonstration. He suggests that there are some meditators for whom God's existence is immediately manifest; for them God's existence is akin to an axiom or definition in geometry, such as that the hypotenuse of a right triangle subtends its largest angle.

But other meditators, whose minds are confused and mired in sensory images, must work much harder, and might even require a proof to attain the requisite clear and distinct perception. For them, God's existence is akin to the Pythagorean Theorem. The important point is that both kinds of meditators ultimately attain knowledge of God's by clearly and distinctly perceiving that necessary existence is contained in the idea of supremely perfect being.

Descartes' contemporaries would have been surprised by this last remark. While reviewing an earlier version of the ontological argument, Aquinas had rejected the claim that God's existence is self-evident, at least with respect to us. He argued that what is self-evident cannot be denied without contradiction, but God's existence can be denied.

Descartes interprets Aquinas to be claiming that God's existence is not self-evident to everyone , which is something with which he can agree. Descartes does not hold that God's existence is immediately self-evident, or self-evident to everyone, but that it can become self-evident to some careful and industrious meditators. Some commentators have thought that Descartes is committed to a species of Platonic realism. According to this view, some objects that fall short of actual existence nevertheless subsist as abstract, logical entities outside the mind and beyond the physical world Kenny, ; Wilson, Another commentator places Cartesian essences in God Schmaltz , while two recent revisionist interpretations Chappell, ; Nolan, read Descartes as a conceptualist who takes essences to be ideas in human minds.

In claiming that necessary existence cannot be excluded from the essence of God, Descartes is drawing on the traditional medieval distinction between essence and existence. According to this distinction, one can say what something is i. So, for example, one can define what a horse is — enumerating all of its essential properties — before knowing whether there are any horses in the world. The only exception to this distinction was thought to be God himself, whose essence just is to exist.

It is easy to see how this traditional distinction could be exploited by a defender of the ontological argument. Existence is included in the essence of a supremely perfect being, but not in the essence of any finite thing. Thus it follows solely from the essence of the former that such a being actually exists.

At times, Descartes appears to support this interpretation of the ontological argument. But Descartes' complete view is subtler and more sophisticated than these remarks first suggest. Understanding this view requires a more careful investigation of the distinction between essence and existence as it appears in medieval sources. Seeing where Descartes' position fits within this debate will provide a deeper understanding of his version of the ontological argument.

The distinction between essence and existence can be traced back as far as Boethius in the fifth century. It was later developed by Islamic thinkers such as Avicenna. But the issue did not become a major philosophical problem until it was taken up by Aquinas in the thirteenth century.

The issue arose not as part of an effort to establish God's existence on a priori grounds as mentioned above, Aquinas was one of the staunchest critics of the ontological argument , but out of concern to distinguish God from finite spiritual entities such as angels. Like many scholastic philosophers, Aquinas believed that God is perfectly simple and that created beings, in contrast, have a composite character that accounts for their finitude and imperfection. Earthly creatures are composites of matter and form the doctrine of hylomorphism , but since purely spiritual beings are immaterial, Aquinas located their composite character in the distinction between essence and existence.

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Some of the details of Aquinas' account will emerge from our discussion below. The primary interest of his theory for our purposes, however, is that it led to a lively debate among his successors both as to how to interpret the master and about the true nature of the relation between essence and existence in created things. This debate produced three main positions:. Proponents of the first view conceived the distinction between essence and existence as obtaining between two separate things. In the eyes of many Thomists, this view was considered to be quite radical, especially as an interpretation of Aquinas' original position.

One problem then with the theory of real distinction, at least as espoused by many of Aquinas' followers, was that it reified essence and existence, treating them as real beings in addition to the created entity that they compose.

Essay about Descartes Argument for the Existence of God

The theory of real distinction was also considered objectionable for philosophical reasons. On the theory of real distinction, this view leads to an infinite regress. If an essence becomes actual only in virtue of something else — viz. Wippel, , f. In response to these difficulties some scholastic philosophers developed a position at the polar extreme from the theory of real distinction.

As the term suggests, this theory held that essence and existence of a creature are identical in reality and distinguished only within our thought by means of reason.

Needless to say, proponents of this theory were forced to distinguish purely spiritual entities from God on grounds other than real composition. Giving up the doctrine of real composition seemed too much for another group of thinkers who were also critical of the theory of real distinction. This led to the development of a number of intermediate positions, including Duns Scotus' curious notion of a formal distinction and the view that essence and existence are modally distinct such that existence constitutes a mode of a thing's essence.

Articulating this theory in an important passage in the Principles of Philosophy , Descartes claims that there is merely a distinction of reason between a substance and any one of its attributes or between any two attributes of a single substance , AT 8A; CSM Since thought and extension constitute the essence of mind and body, respectively, a mind is merely rationally distinct from its thinking and a body is merely rationally distinct from its extension , AT 8A; CSM But Descartes insists that a rational distinction also obtains between any two attributes of a substance.

Since existence qualifies as an attribute in this technical sense, the essence and existence of a substance are also distinct merely by reason , AT 8A; CSM Descartes reaffirms this conclusion in a letter intended to elucidate his account of the relation between essence and existence:. Indications are given here as to how a rational distinction is produced in our thought.

Descartes explains that we regard a single thing in different abstract ways. Case in point, we can regard a thing as existing, or we can abstract from its existence and attend to its other aspects. In so doing, we have distinguished the existence of a substance from its essence within our thought. Like scholastic proponents of the theory of rational distinction, however, Descartes is keen to emphasize that this distinction is purely conceptual.

In reality they are identical. While borrowing much from scholasticism, Descartes' account is distinguished by its scope of application. He extends the theory of rational distinction from created substances to God. In general, the essence and the existence of a substance are merely rationally distinct, and hence identical in reality. This result appears to wreak havoc on Descartes' ontological argument.

One of the most important objections to the argument is that if it were valid, one could proliferate such arguments for all sorts of things, including beings whose existence is merely contingent. By supposing that there is merely a rational distinction between essence and existence abroad in all things, Descartes seems to confirm this objection. In general, a substance is to be identified with its existence, whether it is God or a finite created thing.

The problem with this objection, in this instance, is that it assumes that Descartes locates the difference between God and creatures in the relation each of these things bears to its existence.

Descartes’ argument for God’s existence in the 3rd Meditation

This is not the case. In a few important passages, Descartes affirms that existence is contained in the clear and distinct idea of every single thing, but he also insists that there are different grades of existence:. In light of this passage and others like it, we can refine the theory of rational distinction. What one should say, strictly speaking, is that God is merely rationally distinct from his necessary existence, while every finite created thing is merely rationally distinct from its possible or contingent existence.

The distinction between possible or contingent existence on the one hand, and necessary existence on the other, allows Descartes to account for the theological difference between God and his creatures. Now, when Descartes says that a substance be it finite or infinite is merely rationally distinct from its existence, he always means an actually existing substance.

So how are we to understand the claim that a finite substance is merely rationally distinct from its possible existence? It is tempting to suppose that this term means non-actual existence. But as we saw already with the case of necessary existence, Descartes does not intend these terms in their logical or modal senses. After all, Descartes contrasts possible existence not with actual existence but with necessary existence in the traditional sense. This result explains why Descartes believes that we cannot proliferate ontological arguments for created substances.

It is not that the relation between essence and existence is any different in God than it is in finite things. In both cases there is merely a rational distinction. The difference is in the grade of existence that attaches to each. Whereas the concept of an independent being entails that such a being exists, the concept of a finite thing entails only that it has dependent existence. Looking back at the problematic passage cited above from the Fifth Replies, it becomes clear that Descartes intended something along these lines even there. Descartes' final position then is that essence and existence are identical in all things.

What distinguishes God from creatures is his grade of existence.

We can produce an ontological argument for God, and not for finite substances, because the idea of a supremely perfect being uniquely contains necessary — or ontologically independent — existence. Because of its simplicity, Descartes' version of the ontological argument is commonly thought to be cruder and more obviously fallacious than the one put forward by Anselm in the eleventh century.

But when the complete apparatus of the Cartesian system is brought forth, the argument proves itself to be quite resilient, at least on its own terms. Indeed, Descartes' version is superior to his predecessor's insofar as it is grounded in a theory of innate ideas and the doctrine of clear and distinct perception. These two doctrines inoculate Descartes from the charge made against Anselm, for example, that the ontological argument attempts to define God into existence by arbitrarily building existence into the concept of a supremely perfect being.

Essay on Descartes' Ideas on the Existence of God

In the Third Meditation, the meditator discovers that her idea of God is not a fiction that she has conveniently invented but something native to the mind. As we shall see below, these two doctrines provide the resources for answering other objections as well. Given our earlier discussion concerning the non-logical status of the ontological argument, it may seem surprising that Descartes would take objections to it seriously.

He should be able to dismiss most objections in one neat trick by insisting on the non-logical nature of the demonstration. This is especially true of objection that the ontological argument begs the question. If God's existence is ultimately self-evident and known by a simple intuition of the mind, then there are no questions to be begged. Unfortunately, not all of the objections to the ontological argument can be dismissed so handily, for the simple reason that they do not all depend on the assumption that we are dealing with a formal proof.

Although it is often overlooked, many of the best known criticisms of the ontological argument were put to Descartes by official objectors to the Meditations. He in turn responded to these objections — sometimes in lengthy replies — though many contemporary readers have found his responses opaque and unsatisfying. We can better understand his replies and, in some cases, improve upon them by appealing to discussions from previous sections. One classical objection to the ontological argument, which was first leveled by Gaunilo against Anselm's version of the proof, is that it makes an illicit logical leap from the mental world of concepts to the real world of things.

Johannes Caterus, the author of the First Set of Objections to the Meditations , puts the point as follows:. The principle of clear and distinct perception is intended to do just that. According to this principle, for which he argues in the Fourth Meditation, whatever one clearly and distinctly perceives or understands is true — true not just of ideas but of things in the real world represented by those ideas. Thus, Descartes' commitment to the principle of clear and distinct perception allows him to elude another objection that had haunted Anselm's version of the argument.

The previous objection is related to another difficulty raised by Caterus. In order to illustrate that the inference from the mental to the extra-mental commits a logical error, critics have observed that if such inferences were legitimate then we could proliferate ontological arguments for supremely perfect islands, existing lions, and all sorts of things which either do not exist or whose existence is contingent and thus should not follow a priori from their concept.

The trick is simply to build existence into the concept.