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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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