.. llows: “If a conviction is so firm that that it is impossible for us ever to have any reason for doubting what we are convinced of, then there are no further questions for us to ask; we have everything we could reasonably want.” Under my interpretation, this is what it is about the cogito that makes it so important for Descartes, so we cannot have any argument with the principle expressed by him in the above passage. But can it help break the circle? When we clearly and distinctly perceive something, Descartes says, fairly I think, that this perception compels our assent, that we cannot but believe it. God’s rle in the system, to these commentators, is as a guarantor of our memory regarding clarity and distinctness. In other words, once we have proved God’s existence, we can happily know that any memory we have of a clear and distinct idea regarding x is true i.e.
that we really did have a clear and distinct idea of x. But this does not seem satisfactory, as we still do not have a divine guarantee for the reasoning that leads us from the clear and distinct notions we originally have about God to the proof of His existence. We can give assent to the clear and distinct notions we have originally; in fact, we are compelled to give this assent when the notions are presented to our mind, but the logical steps we take from these ideas to the final proof is still subject to the evil demon because God is not yet proven. Furthermore, because these steps are needed, the memory of the original clear and distinct ideas are themselves subject to doubt because God is not yet proven. It seems that the only way either of the proofs of God could be accepted would be if we had an original clear and distinct perception of God directly presented to our mind (qualitatively similar to the cogito). But this in itself would make any future proofs redundant.
Interestingly, this sounds quite similar to a divine revelation. Harry Frankfurt, in his book ‘Demons, Dreamers and Madmen’, has argued that what Descartes is actually looking for is a coherent, indubitable set of beliefs about the universe. Whether they are ‘true’ or not is irrelevant. Perfect certainty is totally compatible with absolute falsity. Our certainty may not coincide precisely with ‘God’s’ truth, but should this matter?: “Reasoncan give us certainty. It can serve to establish beliefs in which there is no risk of betrayal.
This certainty is all we need and all we demand. Perhaps our certainties do not coincide with God’s truthBut this divine or absolute truth, since it is outside the range of our faculties and cannot undermine our certainties, need be of no concern to us.” (Frankfurt, p 184) This is almost a Kantian approach to knowledge, where we as humans only concern ourselves with the phenomena of objects as they present themselves to us, not with the objects in themselves. Can we ascribe this view to Descartes? It’s tempting, given what we have said above regarding the prime importance of indubitability, but it would seem that a God presenting ideas to us in a form which doesn’t correspond to reality, and then giving us a strong disposition to believe that they do correspond to reality would be a deceiving God and contrary to Descartes’ notion of Him. Thus the belief set would not be coherent. Perhaps, as we do not have clear and distinct ideas of the bodies we perceive, and as the divine guarantee only extends as far as clear and distinct ideas, we are being too hasty in judging that reality is how it appears to be and if we stopped to meditate further we would see that reality is actually like something else.
But aside from the fact that this seems unlikely, Descartes never seemed to envisage the possibility. So much for the Cartesian circle. Where does this leave the ontological argument, which we had only just begun to discuss? Aside from the methodological difficulties, there do seem to two further problems with it. The first has been noted by almost every student of Descartes over the years – that of the description of existence as a property. Put briefly, this objection states that existence is not a property like ‘red’ or ‘hairy’ or ‘three-sided’ that can be applied to a subject, and thus it makes no sense to say that existence is part of something’s essence. If we assert that x is y, we are already asserting the existence of x as soon as we mention it, prior to any application of a predicate.
from the beginning. In other words, to say ‘x exists’ is to utter a tautology and to say that ‘x doesn’t exist’ is to contradict oneself. So how can sentences of the form ‘x doesn’t exist’ make sense? one may well ask. It is because these sentences are shorthand for ‘the idea I have of x has no corresponding reality’ and it was to solve problems like this that Bertrand Russell constructed his theory of descriptions. To add existence to an idea doesn’t just make it an idea with a new property, it changes it from an idea into an existent entity.
Finally, if Descartes is right, there seems no reason why we cannot construct any other idea whose essence includes existence. For instance, if I conjure up the idea of ‘an existent purple building that resembles the Taj Mahal’, then it is the true and immutable nature of this idea that it is a building, that this building resembles the Taj Mahal, that the building is purple, and that it exists. But no such building does exist, as far as I am aware, and if it did exist, its existence would not be necessary, but contingent. This in itself is enough, I think, to show that the ontological argument is false. Once we have destroyed Descartes’ proofs of the existence of God, the edifice of knowledge necessarily comes tumbling down with them, as we find that almost everything Descartes believes in is dependent on God’s nature as a non-deceiver: “I remarkthat the certitude of all other truths is so absolutely dependent on it, that without this knowledge it is impossible ever to know anything perfectly.” (p.115) The only possible exceptions are those assent-compelling beliefs such as the cogito.
Even these, however, are doubtful when we are not thinking about them, and the above passage does give weight to Edwin Curley’s argument that: “Descartes would hold that the proposition “I exist” is fully certain only if the rest of the argument of the Meditations goes through. We must buy all or nothing.” This is not the end of the story, though. As far as Descartes is concerned, by the end of Meditation Five, he has produced two powerful proofs of God, has a clear and distinct notion of his own self, has a criterion for truth, knows how to avoid error and is beginning to form ideas regarding our knowledge of corporeal bodies. And so it remains only to explain why we are fully justified in believing in corporeal bodies, and also to draw the ideas of Meditation Two regarding self-knowledge to their full conclusion. Regarding the nature of corporeal bodies and our knowledge of them, it seems to me that, given his premises, the conclusions Descartes draws in Meditation Six are generally the correct ones.
He again invokes the causal to argue that the ideas of bodies we have within our minds must be caused by something with at least as much formal reality as the ideas have objective reality. We could theoretically be producing these ideas, but Descartes dismisses this possibility for two reasons – firstly, that the idea of corporeality does not presuppose thought and secondly that our will seems to have no effect on what we perceive or don’t perceive. (This second argument seems to me to ignore dreaming, in which what we perceive derives from us but is independent of our will). The ideas, then, could come from God, or from another being superior to us but inferior to God. But this, too, is impossible, argues Descartes, as if it were the case that God produces the ideas of bodies in us, then the very strong inclination we have towards believing that the idea-producing bodies resemble the ideas we have would be false and thus God would be allowing us to be deceived which is not permissible.
The same would apply if any other being were producing these ideas. Thus, concludes Descartes, it is most likely that our ideas of corporeal bodies are actually caused by bodies resembling those ideas. We cannot be certain, however, as we cannot claim to have clear and distinct notions of everything we perceive. We can, however, claim certainty with regard to those properties of bodies which we do know with clarity and distinction; namely, size, figure (shape), position, motion, substance, duration and number (not all of these assertions are justified). Obviously we cannot claim that we know these properties for specific bodies with clarity and distinction, for to do so would leave open the question of why it is that astronomy and the senses attribute different sizes to stars. What Descartes means is that we can be sure that these primary qualities exist in bodies in the same way that they do in our ideas of bodies.
This cannot be claimed for qualities such as heat, colour, taste and smell, of which our ideas are so confused and vague that we must always reserve judgement. (This conclusion is actually quite similar to the one John Locke drew fifty years later in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.) I think we can grant this reasoning, with the caveat regarding dreaming that I noted above, and of course the other unproved reasonings that Descartes exhumes here, such as the causal principle. Furthermore, it seems to be further proof that Descartes does believe we can get to know objects in themselves to a certain extent. Finally, I turn to Descartes’ argument for the distinction of mind and body. Descartes believes he has shown the mind to be better known than the body in Meditation Two.
In Meditation Six he goes on to claim that, as he knows his mind and knows clearly and distinctly that its essence consists purely of thought, and that bodies’ essences consist purely of extension, that he can conceive of his mind and body as existing separately. By the power of God, anything that can be clearly and distinctly conceived of as existing separately from something else can be created as existing separately. At this point, Descartes makes the apparent logical leap to claiming that the mind and body have been created separately, without justification. Most commentators agree that this is not justified, and further, that just because I can conceive of my mind existing independently of my body it does not necessarily follow that it does so. In defence of Descartes, Saul Kripke has suggested that Descartes may have anticipated a modern strand of modal logic that holds that if x=y, then L (x=y).
In other words, if x is identical to y then it is necessarily identical to it. From this it follows that if it is logically possible that x and y have different properties then they are distinct. In this instance, that means that because I can clearly and distinctly conceive of my mind and body as existing separately, then they are distinct. The argument, like much modern work on identity, is too technical and involved to explore here in much depth. But suffice to say that we can clearly and distinctly conceive of Dr Jekyll and Mr.
Hyde as being distinct and yet they are identical, necessarily so under Kripke’s theory. It is doubtful that Kripke can come to Descartes’ aid here and Descartes needs further argument to prove that the mind and the body are distinct. And so we finish our discussion of Descartes’ attempts to extricate himself from the sceptical doubts he has set up for himself. As mentioned previously, the ultimate conclusion to draw regarding the success of the enterprise that Descartes set for himself must be that he failed. When the whole epistemological structure is so heavily dependent on one piece of knowledge – in this case the knowledge that God exists – then a denial of that knowledge destroys the whole structure.
All that we can really grant Descartes – and this is certainly contentious – is that he can rightly claim that when a clear and distinct idea presents itself to his mind, he cannot but give his assent to this idea, and furthermore, that while this assent is being granted, the clear and distinct idea can be justly used as a foundation for knowledge. The most this gets us – and this is not a little – is the knowledge of our own existence each time we assert it. But Descartes’ project should not be judged by us as a failure – the fact that he addressed topics of great and lasting interest, and provided us with a method we can both understand and utilise fruitfully, speaks for itself. Bibliography 1. Descartes, Ren A Discourse on Method, Meditations and Principles of Philosophy trans.
John Veitch. The Everyman’s Library, 1995. Descartes, Ren The Philosophical Writings of Descartes volume I and II ed. and trans. John Cottingham, R.
Stoothoff and D. Murdoch. Cambridge, 1985. Frankfurt, Harry Demons, Dreamers and Madmen. Bobbs-Merrill, 1970. Curley, Edwin Descartes Against the Skeptics.
Oxford, 1978. Vesey, Godfrey Descartes: Father of Modern Philosophy. Open University Press, 1971. Sorrell, Tom Descartes: Reason and Experience. Open University Press, 1982.
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy ed. Ted Honderich. Oxford University Press, 1985. Cottingham, John Descartes. Oxford, 1986.
Williams, Bernard Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. Harmondsworth, 1978. Russell, Bertrand The History of Western Philosophy. George Allen and Unwin, 1961. 11.
Kripke, Saul Naming and Necessity. Oxford 1980. Essay Data Section Word Count: 4577 Title: Descartes Type: Student Submitted || Return To The Student Essay Directory ||.