Upon cursory examination, one might assume that Rene Descartes is a ‘non-believer’; in the existence of a heavenly being, a God that presides over humans and gives us faith. However, this is simply not the case – Descartes is simply trying to destroy all of the uncertainties that have come about by the attempted scientific explanations of such a supreme being. For Rene Descartes and all of the other believers in the world, the existence of God provides a convenient answer to unexplained questions, while never providing answers to the questions about God himself. This is evidenced a great deal in the circular argument made by Descartes in the Meditations on First Philosophy. What follows is a brief account of the third and fifth meditations, which provide Descartes’ response to the masked question, ‘What is God?’;
Can one perceive or confirm the existence of an idea that is external to him, an idea such as God? In order to determine the answer we must start by understanding the ways in which we can conclude an objects’ existence. Descartes explains three ways in which a person might come to such a conclusion – the first, through nature; the second, through feeling a value that is independent of the will of the object; and the third, the objective reality of an idea, or the ’cause and effect profile.’; The third point is the one that we will primarily spend our time with.
Descartes drills us with the idea that an object will have an effect when it stems from a legitimate cause, or an initial idea that precedes with equal or superior properties in one’s intellect. In other words, the mind generates thoughts and ideas about a physical form, and develops a reality for this form, through previous schema and beliefs.
‘And although an idea may give rise to another idea, this regress cannot, nevertheless, be infinite; we must in the end reach a first idea, the cause of which is, as it were, the archetype in which all the reality that is found objectively in these ideas is contained formally.’;
The only problem with Descartes’ argument is when the existence of God arises as a notion, for there is no sustenance or idea for the notion of God to originate from. Is it possible, then, to create the idea of a finite being from an infinite existence, outside of the physical and mental, in a state all of it’s own?
Descartes quickly answers that the response would be that a finite being cannot completely, if at all, comprehend the ideas that would cause God to exist, and therefore the basis for doubt is lost in an intangible proof. Additionally, the mere fact that he believes that there is a God provides yet another piece of proof towards His existence. This must be true, according to Descartes, with the provision that the idea and belief must have been placed in his consciousness by an outside factor.
The final factor that convinces Descartes that there is a God is the fact of his own existence, along with the fact that he, himself, is not a God. This belief stems from the theory that if a man is independent from all other existence and ideas about forms and matter, then he has the ability to become infinite. Descartes says that if he himself were the ‘author of his own being’; and independent of all existence, then he would attain a Godly level of existence.
Ultimately, it is his own dependence on another being that proves to him that there is a God.
Many people are bred into religion, or borne into a set of ideas about a particular infinite being. The interesting problem with most types of faith in this manner is that the scripture that has been deemed to come from your god is also the proof that God exists. This is the type of circular definition that Descartes is trying to avoid at all costs. Basically, it’s like using a word in it’s own definition, or ‘the definition of an apple is an apple.’ The argument begins to get a little bit ambiguous when he begins discussing the uncertainty of his beliefs. He is, as he claims, as certain of the idea of the sun, the moon, the earth, even his own rational though, as he is certain of God’s existence.
The most troubling part of the entire section is the understanding of formal and objective reality. Remember his theory that existence is perfection. To understand that to have an idea is to exist is one case, but take for instance the man whom can think, just as someone thinks of God, of a being so absolutely imperfect, clearly and distinctly, that it does not exist. However, according to Descartes, since it has an objective reality, it must follow that it also must have a formal reality as well. Clearly, this is an impossibility which I have yet to ascertain to the fullest degree.
Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead creates within it a hero who is so independent that he ceases to exist within the public eye ;#8211; however, he never ceases to exist, as he ends up clearly being dependant on his own belief of something greater. Whether Rand shared Descartes’ view on the existence of God is uncertain, however can be applied to the entire argument. If one is without an idea to back him up, one ceases to exist – but who created the idea of the being in the first place? And further, who created and implanted within all beings the existence of a higher, more defined, and more perfect being? It is through this logic that Descartes attempts, rather unsuccessfully in my mind, to prove that the existence of God is not a rare leap of faith but rather a certainty in it’s own perfect, unquestionable and ultimately non-comprehensible way. He was certainly arrogant, though, in his thoughts and writings, though, ascribing characteristics to a being that he himself will never understand fully. In my mind, Descartes exceeded in many parts of his argument, but failed to prove from a logical standpoint the existence of a higher being. We, as humans, will take to heart his ideals, but will continue to work on leaps of faith and the prescribed scriptures and circular definitions of our own religions.