Assess Descartes’ Arguments For The Existence of God

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A2 Descartes Sample Essay 2013

Assess Descartes’ Arguments For The Existence of God

In his Meditations, Descartes provides two arguments for the existence of God. In Meditation III, he give the trademark argument. In Meditation V, he gives the ontological argument. In this essay, I will discuss both arguments and show that they do not work. I shall begin with the trademark argument and then turn to the ontological argument.

The trademark argument is a type of cosmological argument. A cosmological argument establishes God as a first cause. Descartes argues from the existence of the idea of God – the effect – to God as the ultimate cause of this idea. He starts by saying that he has an idea of God as a perfect or infinite being. He then claims that ideas need causes, just as much as material things like tables or chairs need causes. He then introduces what has been called the Causal Adequacy Principle (CAP): that there must be at least as much reality in the total cause as in the effect.
The idea of God has two different types of reality. It is useful here to compare an idea to a painting. Consider a painting of Socrates. The painting is an object and as such has a degree of formal reality. It also has a degree of objective reality. This is the degree of reality had by the object of the painting: in this case, the man Socrates. In the same way, an idea of Socrates has a degree of formal and a degree of objective reality. With an idea of God, the degree of formal reality is the same as with any other idea. However, the degree of objective reality is the maximal degree as God has more reality than anything else. So, by the principle, since God has more (objective) reality than Descartes has. So, neither Descartes nor any other finite mind can be the cause of the idea of God. Only God can be the cause of the idea. So, God exists.
The problem with the argument lies with the CAP and the idea of degrees of reality. Descartes seems to be thinking that causation is a matter of transferring a quality in the way that one might transfer money or energy. A battery cannot transmit more energy than it to a light bulb and I cannot buy something that costs more money than I have. In general, the cause can only provide as much of the relevant quality as it has to the effect. Descartes gives an example of this thinking when he says that an inventor cannot create a machine more complex than him.
Yet this principle seems wrong. Mersenne argued that non-living things (sun, water, air) could produce living things (plants). Cottingham gives the example of non-spongy ingredients (flour, eggs, sugar) producing a spongy cake. Indeed, we see today examples of machines such as chess-playing computers that are more complex than their inventors. In reply to Mersenne, Descartes says that they all share the same degree of reality as they are equally lacking reason. In reply, one could say, firstly, that a sperm and an egg lack reason but produce a creature with reason. Secondly, one could say that Descartes is ignoring the point by choosing to focus on the quality of reason rather than the quality of life.
Descartes says elsewhere that degrees of reality refer to types of existence. A quality, such as redness, is less real than a finite substance, such as a tomato. For the redness cannot exist except as a feature of a substance. In turn, a finite substance is less real than an infinite substance for the same reason: the existence of the latter depends on the existence of the former. Descartes thinks that God is needed to sustain reality. Things cannot continue to exist by themselves from one moment to the next. To this understanding, it can be objected that there is an alternative view in which God is less a ‘pianist’ who sustains the ‘music’ of reality through his actions and more an architect who does create a world of material things that do not need to be sustained in existence thereafter. This is the view of Newton, Locke and many philosophers after them.
Descartes could reply that, even so, reality needed a creator. Indeed, in what is known as the second Trademark argument, he says as much. He says that I could not exist with this idea of a perfect being if God were not the ultimate source of my creation. Once again, the CAP is used: I am less perfect than God, so only God could be the ultimate cause of my existence. Descartes considers the alternatives. I could be the cause of my existence if I am God. Yet I am not, as I recognise my own imperfections. Could I always have been in existence? Nothing exists from one moment to the next by itself, as I noted above. So, Descartes would again need to be God to sustain himself in existence from all eternity. Descartes’ parents cannot be the ultimate cause of his existence as they are less perfect than God and so cannot have created a being with the idea of God. To reply that they in turn got their existence from their parents merely sets us off on an infinite regress. Finally, Descartes argues that I cannot be the product of many lesser Gods as they could not explain the perfection of the unity of the attributes of God that I find in my idea.
In reply to both this and the earlier version of the argument, one could argue that the idea of God is not something that needs a divine origin. Hume argued that we could form the idea ourselves. By reflection, I am aware of my own emotions and thoughts, and so I am aware of myself as having knowledge, power and a capacity for good. I then ‘augment’ these ideas and combine them into the idea of a single being who is infinitely wise, powerful and merciful. It would still be arguable that reality needs a divine creator even if we can form the idea of God ourselves. This is just the traditional cosmological argument. In reply, one could argue that there is another explanation. This universe is simply the latest in an eternal sequence of ‘big bangs’ and ‘big crunches’ that needs no explanation.
Descartes says that we cannot form an idea of infinity. If we take our idea of the finite and extend it, we get the idea of the indefinite, not the infinite. The infinite must be an idea, like that of God, that is given to us as it is too complex for us to form by ourselves. However, this leads to a problem. If the idea is so complex, can we say that we fully understand it? After all, mathematicians have long thought the infinite is paradoxical. If Descartes says we do have a full understanding, then we could reply that we could have formed the idea ourselves. If we he says we do not, then perhaps there is no clear idea of infinity. Descartes sees us as having a fuzzy grip on a clear idea. But perhaps we have a clear grip on something intrinsically fuzzy or paradoxical. The same thought applies to the idea of God. If the idea is too complex for me to invent, meaning that I don’t have a complete understanding, then perhaps it is rather that I have as clear an idea as possible of something incoherent. Once again, it has been argued that the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent being is impossible.
Descartes does say that there are two different types of understanding an idea. I can understand something both fully and not fully. He illustrates this with the example of the mountain. I can be on a mountain without being on all of it. This is like a partial grasp of an idea. To embrace the whole mountain would be to have a full understanding. However, I cannot do this as I am too small. In the same way, my finite mind cannot grasp fully the concepts of God and the infinite. In reply, one can say that this still doesn’t rule out the possibility that instead of having a partial or fuzzy grasp of something clear, I have a clear grasp of something fuzzy or paradoxical.
Let us now turn to the ontological argument. Descartes argues that existence is a perfection and that the essence of God is the sum of all perfections. So, existence flows from the essence of God and therefore, God exists. God has the property of existence in just the same way that a triangle has the property of having internal angles that sum to 180o. Descartes poses a couple of objections that he resolves himself. The first is that whilst it may be true I can’t think of a valley without mountains, it doesn’t follow that any mountains or valleys exist. Descartes replies that existence isn’t part of the essence of a valley but it is for God, so in this case, in thinking of God, we prove he exists. The second is that if I bring to mind the idea of God, then, necessarily, I think of a being that exists; but it was never necessary to bring that idea to mind. The implication is that God necessarily exists but only in the world of my supposition. Descartes replies that this is false. I may not be always thinking about God just as I may not be always thinking about triangles. But when I do, I discover the essential features of triangles that hold whether I am thinking about them or not. The same goes for God.
There are better objections to the argument. Caterus echoes an object put by Gaunilo to Anselm’s ontological argument. Gaunilo said that if a being no greater than which can be conceived exists, so too does an island no greater than which can be conceived.. The objection in general is that if it follows from the concept of a greatest X that X must exist, then anything can be ‘proven’ to exist, which is absurd. Caterus likewise says that given the concept ‘existing lion’ we can prove that a lion exists; or, again, anything else. Descartes replies that this is an concept we have invented whereas the concept of God is a natural one. We think of a lion as existing or not and hence ‘existing lion’ is artificial. By contrast, when we think of God, we discover a complete concept which we have not invented. This will not work. As shown above, Hume argues that we have invented the concept of God by magnifying certain qualities we find in ourselves. Furthermore, it is beside the point that we can think of a lion as not existing; the concept in question is ‘existing lion’ and such a thing cannot be thought of as not existing.
The best objection was foreshadowed by Gassendi but made famous by Hume and Kant. It is that existence is not a feature that adds anything to the definition of something. In Kant’s terms, existence is not a predicate that adds anything to the subject. As he said, the value of 1000 imaginary thalers is the same as the value of 1000 real thalers. Another way of putting the point is that if I think of house that I then build, I have built the same house I thought of. By existing, I have not added anything else it would be impossible for me to build the same house I plan in my mind. Existence cannot be a defining feature of God and so the ontological argument fails. As Frege showed, when we say X exists, we are not ascribing a feature to X but to the concept of X. We are saying that the concept of X is not empty: at least one thing falls under it. Whether this is so in the case of God will need to be proven by arguments other than those Descartes provides.
In conclusion, Descartes fails to establish the existence of God via the trademark arguments or the ontological argument.

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