Descartes Meditation

You wrote an essay for me and my teacher loved it and wants me to expand it into a 4-page paper as my final paper. I attached what you have written for me and the instructions of the essay.

This is what my teacher wrote:

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Let me say, by way of introduction, that this is the best paper I have read in the class so far, and if you expand it a little in the ways indicated so that it is at least 3 pages long, it should be an “A” paper.

Before I discuss your paper’s content, though, let me start off with a few words on writing style:

You should be careful in your use of the word “ideology.” Ideology means a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of an economic or political theory/policy or that belongs to a particular culture. Religious ideas like the concept of God are not usually thought of as ideologies unless they are tied to a particular political system like a theocracy. It sounds strange – and not a little unidiomatic – to speak of Descartes’ “ideology of God” or his “omnipresence ideology,” as you do. In addition, ideologies are typically held by a person (or a group of persons) for reasons that are not purely epistemic: that is why they are called ideologies in the first place. In attempting to doubt all his beliefs, Descartes is actually trying to get away from ideology in that sense: in the end, he wants all his beliefs to be justified on purely epistemic grounds. Whether or not he succeeds is, of course, another question.

That brings me to a larger point: Your text often reads as if you were trying to impress the reader with sophisticated words that you don’t always use correctly. As a result, the argument you are trying to make frequently gets lost in a dense thicket of verbiage, which your reader then has to disentangle. Many readers will not make an effort and will simply stop reading. Concentrate on being concise and accurate instead. Below (after my comments) I have suggested some changes to your text to make it more reader-friendly and to give you a better idea of what I mean. I have highlighted in bold print the changes I have made, so you can more easily identify them.

Now to the philosophical content of your paper: The “critics” you mention in your essay are hypothetical or imaginary objectors, not real people. Descartes is trying to anticipate in the Third Meditation how an intelligent person might react to his proof for the existence of God. Bear in mind that he would not be mentioning these objections if he did not think that he had a good response to them. If you decide to write on this topic for your longer essay – something I would encourage – you will have to consider his replies to these objections and evaluate them. In your forum post, you simply assume that Descartes’s hypothetical objector is right.

In what follows I will present the three objections which this imaginary critic lodges against Descartes’ proof for the existence of God, along with Descartes’s response. This is just to give you an idea of how these objections are usually understood by philosophers and how Descartes would defend himself against them.

1. Contrary to what you say in your paper, Descartes’s imaginary critics do NOT argue that “anything excellent can happen as a result of something equal to its potential.” This would be equivalent to Descartes’s principle that the total cause has to be equal to the total effect, which Descartes actually uses to PROVE that his idea of God must come from a cause, or “potential” source, which is at least as real/great as his idea of God. Descartes’ critics are, in fact, arguing the opposite here, i.e., that something can come from nothing. Take the idea of coldness, for example. Coldness is not something real but is simply the absence of heat: as you correctly say in your paper, “there is nothing behind it in reality.” In the same way, Descartes’ hypothetical critics argue, God may not stand for anything real. Descartes’ response here is to argue that God, as the sum of all perfections, is the most real thing that there is.

2. You are right to say that Descartes’ imaginary objector makes the argument that “no one has a clear and distinct conception of God as infinite,” but you misunderstand his reasoning. He does not claim that Descartes reasons from “feelings of inferiority” but that, in envisioning God’s perfection, Descartes is simply imagining God as having all those perfections which he himself lacks. But this is not the same as having a clear and distinct idea of what those perfections are. Descartes argues, in response, that it is actually the other way around: it is by comparison with God’s infinitude, i.e. by comparison with his idea of God, that he knows that he himself is finite or imperfect. To those who would object that a finite being cannot know the infinite, he replies that there is a distinction to be made between understanding an idea and grasping it: I can know that something is perfect without knowing all the respects, or ways, in which it is perfect.

3. Descartes’s hypothetical objector now suggests that the perfections Descartes finds in God may actually be his own, although not completely developed as in God. This objection takes three forms: (1) The critic argues that since Descartes’s knowledge has been steadily increasing in the Meditations, there is perhaps nothing to prevent it from reaching infinity. Descartes counters by saying that God has, actually, the knowledge to which Descartes can only aspire. The very fact that Descartes’s knowledge has been increasing shows that it is not complete but only potentially infinite and not actually infinite like God’s. (2) The imaginary critic then goes on to suggest that Descartes could use his vastly increased knowledge to acquire the other two perfections of omnipotence and omnibenevolence. Again, Descartes points out that there is a difference between improving or expanding one’s knowledge and becoming omniscient. (3) His imaginary critic concedes this point but argues that while Descartes may not, in reality, ever be perfect, he has at least the potential to become perfect. To this Descartes responds by arguing that an imperfect being such as himself could not have produced the idea of perfection internally or within himself but that the idea must have been generated externally, i.e., by God. In other words, Descartes does not even have the potential to become perfect, since that potential can never be realized.

Just a few more observations based on some of your comments:

1. “Descartes based his argument in Meditation III on saying that God exists through the manifestation of innate ideas such as triangles and circles”: I am not sure what you mean here. You are right if you mean that Descartes infers from his (innate) idea of God that God must exist and that the idea of God is innate like the geometric concepts of circles and triangles. But, as Descartes points out in Meditation V, the idea of God is different from that of the circle in that the idea of God implies His existence. God could not be perfect if he did not possess the perfection of existence, i.e. if He did not exist, so existence is part of His concept. By contrast, there is nothing in our ideas of the circle or the triangle that indicates that they MUST exist.

2. “The critics point out that his knowledge is always increasing, and this might have contributed to the origin of his omnipresence ideology”: Descartes does not consider omnipresence – God’s being everywhere at once – a perfection, and hence he does NOT ascribe it to God: the four divine perfections, which Descartes recognizes, are omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omniscience, and existence. For some philosophers (and possibly for Descartes as well), omnipresence, while not itself a perfection, is related to omniscience, which is.

3. “This conclusion is drawn from one of the weak points of Descartes’s argument, which turns on using the origin of ideas rather than arguing from facts. In addition, they argue that nature controls everything, and there is nothing like a supernatural power behind any phenomenon”: What “facts” do you think Descartes should have based his argument on? Do you think everyone would accept these as objective facts? How would you go about proving that there is no supernatural power behind phenomena or that nature controls everything rather than simply claiming it, as you do here?

My criticisms notwithstanding, you have the makings of a very solid paper here. I like the way you engage with the text of Descartes’ Meditations, and you generally have a good understanding of the point that Descartes is trying to make. I am not expecting you to use all the information above, but only what you find useful to make your point. I just want you to be aware of how intelligent readers of Descartes have interpreted these hypothetical objections and to take into account how Descartes would respond to them.

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This is the instruction:

The essay prompts deal with what has become known as “the Cartesian Circle,” an objection to Descartes’ attempt to prove the existence of God. In the Meditations, Descartes offers two distinct proofs for the existence of God, one in Meditation III, the other in Meditation V. (One of these proofs is very similar to Anselm’s ontological argument.) In the first proof, Descartes claims that whatever we can clearly and distinctly perceive must be true (i.e. that clarity and distinctness are criteria of truth). His argument, then, runs as follows: Since we have a clear and distinct idea of God as a perfect being, and since this idea cannot have come from me (since I am imperfect), then God must exist. Furthermore, since God is perfect, He cannot be a deceiver, i.e., an evil demon. In the second proof, Descartes tries to show that God exists because existence is a perfection and God could not be perfect without it. He then goes on to argue that since God exists and is perfect, i.e., no deceiver, we can trust our memory when it tells us that something was at that time clearly and distinctly perceived. In this way, God guarantees that when we clearly and distinctly perceive something, it must be true. But here is where, according to Descartes’ commentators, the circle comes in: we only know that God exists because we have a clear and distinct idea of Him, but how, according to Descartes, do we know that that idea is really clear and distinct and hence true? Well, because God exists and He is no deceiver, but we only know that God exists (and is no deceiver) because we have a clear and distinct idea of Him, etc., etc., … If Descartes’ argument here is indeed circular, as these critics charge, then it is a bad argument since it assumes what it is trying to prove, namely, the existence of God. The two essay prompts basically ask you to investigate whether there is a way out of this dilemma.

In answering either of these questions, you might find it helpful to take a look at the two outlines of Meditations III and V, which I have posted on Blackboard. A “Summary of the Third Meditation” and a “Summary of the Fifth Meditation” can be found under the rubric “Course Material.” Once you have clicked on this rubric, choose “Course Unit 2,” and you should see it listed there toward the bottom of the page.

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