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Why does Descartes think he can be

sure that a God who is no deceiver exists? Are his arguments convincing?Descartes

considers himself to be sure that there is a non-deceiving God by using two

different arguments in the Meditations: the so-called ?trademark?

argument, and the famous ontological argument. Although Descartes believes that

they are both capable of proving the existence of God indubitably, some

consideration of the arguments suggests that they are not convincing as he

considers them to be. The ?trademark?

argument appears early on in the work, in the third meditation. It is important

to remember the context in which the argument is used: Descartes has removed

from his acceptance anything that is doubtable, and is left with the cogito.

Any argument for a non-deceiving God will necessarily have to come from within

himself, as that is all he has left. The ?trademark? argument can be summed up

as two simple premises: firstly, that the idea of God exists within us, and

secondly, the complexity of the idea is such that only a perfect being ? God ?

could have planted it within us. One way in which

this argument can easily be disproved is if it can be shown that Descartes does

not possess an idea of God. To merely say, though, that just because Descartes

lacks a complete understanding of God?s infinite nature means he lacks an idea

of God would not, on its own, be able to disprove this. To understand the idea

of God does not require one to understand all that goes with the idea: our

finite nature naturally prevents us from doing this, as is discussed later. One

can have the idea of how radio works whilst still lacking an understanding of

the actual details of radio waves. What, though, is

unconvincing about this argument, even at this stage, is the idea of saying an

infinite being exists, but its infiniteness can never be fully understood by a

finite being, thus God exists and gave us all the idea of him. The use of words

appears to be too arbitrary ? ?infinite?, ?omnipotent?, and ?omniscient? all

appear in the text to define the concept of God by Descartes. These are,

though, just words. Although the meanings of these words are likely to be

understood, it is still the case that these abstract concepts can be applied by

anyone to anything, without the slightest worry about their correct use. One

can have the idea of an omnipotent and infinite being, and not believe it. The

atheist is just as unable to explain what this concept actually involves as the

theist. To admit to being able to understand the concept of God appears

unlikely: one can have a vague idea of His probable nature, but this will not

be the same as understanding. It has been suggested by some critics that by

merely negating our finitude we can have an understanding of infinity.

Descartes seems to take the opposite view, and asserts that our finiteness is a

negation of God?s infiniteness, because in order to recognise our own

finiteness, an understanding of infinity is required. This approach, though,

again seems to involve playing with words rather than actually solving the

problem. Even so, there

is still the question of how this idea of God was created. It seems right to

say that ideas have causes, although it would be futile to always maintain that

the cause of one idea was another idea, as ultimately there has to be a cause

of the idea. Only God, it is maintained, in a repetition of the classic ?first

cause? argument, could have originated this idea. It would be acceptable to

presume that the idea of God was taught by one generation to the next, although

this would disrupt the assertion that we all have an internal idea of God. Only Descartes?

assertion that no finite being could have produced an idea of an infinite being

fits this argument. Descartes uses the idea of ?degrees of reality? to explain

this. For a thing to create something else it needs at least as much reality as

the thing it is creating. Thus, a finite being, having a lesser degree of

reality than an infinite one, could not therefore have created it. The cause

must be at least as real as the effect. This interpretation seems to imply that

all the properties found in the causes are to be found in the effects, which

appears to be manifestly false. For example, simple atoms combine to make

complex molecules. To argue this, though, maybe to misunderstand what the terms

cause and effect mean, when used in this context. Descartes may be referring to

dependence. Modes depend

upon the substances they need. Likewise, the complex molecules mentioned above

depend upon the existence of simple atoms, thus the former are less real than

the latter. In this way, it can be argued that humanity, being finite, is

dependent on an infinite being, God, for its existence. It has been suggested,

though, that this would mean that God would depend upon an infinite being for

existence, which would be unacceptable to a monotheist like Descartes. This

view, though, is open to the (valid) criticism that intertwined with the idea

of God is his eternal nature: being infinite, he depends upon nothing save

himself. Or, in other words, he has the power to choose not to exist, but never

makes this move. Despite these

attempts at interpretation, though, the arguments still remain unconvincing.

The attempt to refer to ?degrees of reality? merely suggests how God might exist,

not whether He does or not. Moreover, to suggest that the idea of God is innate

and too difficult for people to invent themselves does not remove any doubt.

One can have ideas of complex, even fanciful things, but that does not suggest

that they are innate. Furthermore, when to say, ?I have an idea of God? is not

very meaningful. It merely suggests the use of a word. Admittedly, describing

an infinite substance may take some time, but one cannot admit to truly

understanding something unless it has been adequately defined to some extent. Thus, the

?trademark? argument is discounted. What, then, of Descartes? second proof of

God, the ontological argument? This proof

follows an argument which can be traced back to St Anselm in the 11th

Century. Descartes? form of it is one of the simplest. Put in a rudimentary

way, it can be expressed as being a perfect being, and as existence forms part

of the essence of being perfect, God therefore exists. When Descartes uses the

term ?essence?, he is referring to properties of a thing which is necessarily

contained in the essence of the thing. The classic example of this is a

triangle: its essence is that its internal angles total 180?. The triangle,

though, does not contain existence as part of its essence: there may, in fact,

be no triangle existing in nature. Even so, its angles will still total 180?.

God, though, is considered by Descartes to be a special case. The concept of

God, being infinite, contains all possible perfections, thus existence cannot

be separated from this. A number of

objections can be raised to this idea. Descartes himself answers one such in

the text, namely that just as he can imagine a triangle without it in fact

existing, surely he can imagine an existing God without Him actually existing.

Descartes responds by repeating the statement that he cannot separate existence

from the essence of a supremely perfect being, thus he necessarily exists.

This, though, is reminiscent of Gaunilo?s reply to St Anselm?s version of the

argument, in which he suggests that one can just as easily imagine a perfect

island. It does not follow that this perfect island exists solely on the

grounds that one has an idea of it. It may be the

case that Descartes would reply that a perfect island is akin to the winged

horse he discusses, which is merely the combination of the idea of a horse and

the idea of wings. As was discussed earlier in the paragraphs relation to the

?trademark? argument, though, it might be argued that the idea of God is merely

an extension of our personal knowledge about ourselves. Descartes would refute

this, as described above, but it still remains a convincing counter-argument. The most common

attack on the ontological argument is the view that it considers existence to

be a predicate (a word/phrase which ?asserts something about a proposition?

[OED, 1995]). Kant was one of the first to use this criticism, and it has

frequently occurred ever since. Under this view, it is asserted that nothing is

actually learnt by saying that something exists. Moreover, by saying that

?white sheep exist?, existence is not being attributed to our concept of white

sheep in the way ?white sheep are fluffy? does. Admittedly, it might be said

that white sheep do not solely reside in the imagination, thus they can be said

to exist, but this is to misunderstand the argument. The concept of white sheep

remains the same, whether or not they actually exist. Likewise, the concept of

God, part of which is his existence, is not actually reduced by asserting that

He does not exist. That a supremely perfect being would have as his essence

existence, yet there is no supremely perfect being is not contradictory. It

would only be contradictory to assign two predicates to an object that conflict

with each other: to say that a triangle has four sides, for instance, would be

an example of this. Likewise, Moore pointed out that to say ?All tame tigers

exist? can be negated in a way which ?Some tame tigers exist? cannot. This also

seems to suggest that the verb ?to exist? does operate in a different manner to

normal predicates. Of course, it could be argued that ?some tame tigers exist

in fiction? allows a negation of the original, but this involves using a

different interpretation of the verb than the one currently used. When the verb is

used in this context, it is certain that existence in reality is meant, not

existence in the understanding, or in fiction, etc. Thus despite Descartes?

claims to have a clear and distinct idea of God, in which his essence entails

his existence, the ontological argument can be said to be less than convincing.

Descartes? clear and distinct idea of God is just that: clear and distinct in

his understanding. Although this has been already touched on above, it is worth

repeating: it can be effectively argued that Descartes? understanding of God

does not mean He actually exists. There may not be any winged horses, but the

concept can be grasped, likewise there may not be a God, but the concept can be

grasped. The ontological argument consistently appears to be defining Him into

existence, even though its adherents, Descartes among them, claim that this not

the case. Kenny, on the

other hand, has suggested that if a distinction is drawn between what is given,

and what actually exists. A discussion over the nature of a triangle is an

example of the former: it does not matter whether such a triangle exists or

not. No triangle may actually exist, but it still has angles totalling 180?. On

the other hand, to say that ?God is perfect? may be similar, but as existence

forms part of the definition of what God is, He must necessarily exist. It is

hard, though, to see how this version differs fundamentally from either the

ontological argument itself, or Descartes? version. Descartes

considers that both of these arguments prove the existence of a non-deceiving

God. The proof that God is a not malevolent is obvious to Descartes, who

considers that the perfect being would not deceive him. However, it may be the

case that the same arguments Descartes uses can be used to prove the existence

of the Devil or the malicious demon. This, though, is beyond the scope of this

essay. Either way, the

proofs Descartes uses are not convincing. One does not need to have God implant

an idea of Himself into one?s mind to have an idea of God. Likewise, the

ontological argument, however it is phrased, ultimately defines God into

existence, rather than proving it.


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