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Descartes' Proof Of The Existence Of God
Descartes' Proof Of The Existence Of God
The intention of this paper will be to examine Descartes’ argument for the existence of God. First, I will review Descartes’ proof for the existence of God. Then, I will discuss some consequences that appear as a result of God’s existence. Finally, I will point to some complications and problems that exist within the proof.
Descartes’ proof of the existence of God occurs in the Third Meditation. He builds his entire argument upon his proof in the previous meditation that in order for him to think, he must exist. From this single observation, Descartes notices that the idea of his existence is very clear and distinct in his mind; based upon this clarity and the fact that he has just determined his own existence, he deduces a rule—that the things that he sees as very clear and very distinct are all true.
Descartes starts his proof by dividing “thought” into four categories—ideas (concepts), volitions (choices), emotions (desires), and judgments (beliefs). He then breaks down these categories to discover which type/s of thoughts can yield error. The first thing to realize is that there is no error in an idea. Error can occur only in the judgment of whether the idea is true or false. For example, I may have an idea of what it would be like to burn my finger, but that idea has no rightness or wrongness until I make a judgment as to whether I believe or disbelieve the idea. In other words, having an idea is one thing, but believing it is something different. Concerning emotions and volitions, these forms of thought do not give way to any error either since we can desire or choose anything and not find any error in the fact that I desire it or choose it.
Next, Descartes discusses where ideas come from, namely, inside ourselves (innate or invented) and outside ourselves (adventitious). Innate, or inborn, ideas include “my understanding of what a thing is, what truth is, and what thought is” (38). These ideas are considered innate because the understanding seems to be resulting simply from my own nature. They are in no way derived. When my senses (seeing, hearing, feeling, etc.) come into play, I develop an idea adventitiously. For example, if I were sitting by a fire, I would feel the heat of the flames. Feeling or having the idea of the heat was not something I decided to do from within; therefore, it must have come from something other than myself (i.e. the fire). Last but not least, some ideas are made up in my own mind. For instance, I have developed an image of my grandfather who passed away long before I was born. I have never actually seen him, but I invented an idea of him.
Descartes utilizes another rule in his thought process in addition to the one stated previously—objective reality cannot exist without formal reality. By this he means that an idea cannot originate without a cause. Formal reality is characteristic of things and ideas have formal reality because they are states of mind. Objective reality is when things or ideas are representational of other things. Ideas automatically have objective reality since the idea represents some reality. Also, the more perfect ideas cannot come from the less perfect. This is known as the “Causal Principle” and is more properly stated as “there must be as much reality in the total and efficient cause as in the effect”. He explains that those ideas in us that obviously do not have formal reality, such as a mermaid, are merely combinations of other formal realities (a woman and a fish) and thus do not invalidate the rule. Another important explanation to note is the difference between being an idea and being the opposite of an idea. For example, “heat” is an idea and “cold” is simply the lack of heat. The idea of “cold” is dependent on the idea of “heat”.
Now Descartes has established the rules by which to lay down his argument. He then explains that he knows that he is imperfect due to the fact that he has doubts. Clearly, knowing is more perfect than doubting. From this notion, he realizes that within him lies this idea of a perfect being and that he is incapable of producing this idea alone. Descartes determines that such an idea must have a formal reality, a cause. This cause could not have originated from a less perfect reality or being, since he has already established that ideas can be less perfect than their cause, but never more perfect. Descartes also determines several qualities that God possesses merely by observing himself. Descartes thought that whatever ideas he himself had, if they contained perfections, then God would possess them. If the ideas were in any way flawed (imperfect), then God would not possess them. The attributes of God that Descartes came up with are that He is “infinite, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful, and which created myself and everything else” (45). Descartes then makes the point that he has the idea of “infinite” describing God. At the same time, Descartes is a “finite” being, meaning he is limited in space and time. Since it has already been established that this more perfect idea of infiniteness cannot come from the less perfect idea of finiteness, the idea could not have originated from Descartes alone. Therefore, Descartes concludes that God necessarily exists.
Whether or not Descartes or I exist is indisputable; the fact that I am contemplating my existence proves it. What is disputable are the conclusions that can be drawn from that realization. Descartes observed a quality within the truth of his existence, that is, his existence is very clear and distinct. Then he used this quality as a rule—that all things clear and distinct are true. That is no more accurate than saying that all ideas that are vague and ambiguous to me are untrue, unconditionally. Also, the existence or God depends on the clarity and distinctness with which we perceive the idea of God, for if it was not clear and distinct then it would not necessarily be true. But the clarity and distinctness of our thoughts depends on the existence of God. This seems to me a very circular argument and can hardly survive as a proof.
Descartes said right from the beginning of the meditation that he has the idea of a perfect being and that he is imperfect. This leads into the second problem I have with Descartes’ proof—that he uses his imperfect judgments to decide what attributes are perfect and which are not. He then applies the ones he judges as perfect to God. In doing so, he is assuming that his judgment is as perfect as the idea of God. If Descartes did not think that his judgment was as perfect as the idea of God, he would not have used it to determine the qualities that God possesses.
The final difficulty that I discovered in the proof involves the usage of the concepts of formal and objective reality. I cannot fathom that for me to have an idea, it would necessarily exist. To illustrate, I can think of a God and I can also think of a being so absolutely imperfect. Since Descartes holds that existence is a perfection, how can this idea of an absolutely imperfect being exist? So now I have an idea with an objective reality and by Descartes’ rule, it must also have a formal reality. I do not see how this is possible. Descartes was obviously a man of great intelligence, but ultimately failed in proving God’s existence.
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