PHIL 101 SUNY at Stony Brook The Great Conversation Book Ch 18 Discussion

PHIL 101 SUNY at Stony Brook The Great Conversation Book Ch 18 Discussion

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Meditations on First Philosophy Both inferences seem to be correct. What reason is there to prefer Bridget’s formulation? Now we can understand why Descartes introduces the wax example. If even here knowledge cannot be found in sensation, but only in a “purely mental inspection,” then we should recognize that knowledge of what we are must also be approached in this way. Our tendency to think of ourselves as what we can sense of ourselves—these hands, this head, these eyes—is considerably undermined. Indeed, I must know myself “much more truly and certainly” even than the wax. There follows a remarkable conclusion: “I can’t grasp anything more easily or plainly than my mind.” (What would Freud have said to that?) Q13. What qualities, then, belong to the wax essentially? (Look again at the basic principles of Descartes’ physics on pp. 361–362.) Q14. Why is our imagination incapable of grasping these qualities of the wax? By what faculty do we grasp it? Q15. How does the wax example help to cure our habitual inclination to trust the senses? Q16. How does our language tend to mislead us? Meditation III: On God’s Existence I will now close my eyes, plug my ears, and withdraw all my senses. I will rid my thoughts of the images of physical objects—or, since that’s beyond   375 me, I’ll write those images off as empty illusions. Talking with myself and looking more deeply into myself, I’ll try gradually to come to know myself better. I am a thinking thing—a thing that doubts, affirms, denies, understands a few things, is ignorant of many things, wills, and refuses. I also sense and have mental images. For, as I’ve noted, even though the things of which I have sensations or mental images may not exist outside me, I’m certain that the modifications of thought called sensations and mental images exist in me insofar as they are just modifications of thought. That’s a summary of all that I really know— or, at any rate, of all that I’ve so far noticed that I know. I now will examine more carefully whether there are other things in me that I have not yet discovered. I’m certain that I am a thinking thing. Then don’t I know what’s needed for me to be certain of other things? In this first knowledge, there is nothing but a clear and distinct grasp of what I affirm, and this grasp surely would not suffice to make me certain if it could ever happen that something I grasped so clearly and distinctly was false. Accordingly, I seem to be able to establish the general rule that whatever I clearly and distinctly grasp is true. But, in the past, I’ve accepted as completely obvious and certain many thoughts that I later found to be dubious. What were these thoughts about? The earth, the sky, the stars, and other objects of sense. But what did I clearly grasp about these objects? Only that ideas or thoughts of them appeared in my mind. Even now, I don’t deny that these ideas occur in me. But there was something else that I used to affirm—something that I used to believe myself to grasp clearly but did not really grasp at all: I affirmed that there were things besides me, that the ideas in me came from these things, and that the ideas perfectly resembled these things. Either I erred here, or I reached a true judgment that wasn’t justified by the strength of my understanding. But what follows? When I considered very simple and easy points of arithmetic or ­geometry— such as that two and three together make five— didn’t I see them clearly enough to affirm their truth? My only reason for judging that I ought to 376   CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty doubt these things was the thought that my Godgiven nature might deceive me even about what seems most obvious. Whenever I conceive of an allpowerful God, I’m compelled to admit that, if He wants, He can make it the case that I err even about what I take my mind’s eye to see most clearly. But, when I turn to the things that I believe myself to grasp very clearly, I’m so convinced by them that I spontaneously burst forth saying, “Whoever may deceive me, he will never bring it about that I am nothing while I think that I am something, or that I have never been when it is now true that I am, or that two plus three is either more or less than five, or that something else in which I recognize an obvious inconsistency is true.” And, since I have no reason for thinking that God is a deceiver—indeed since I don’t yet know whether God exists—the grounds for doubt that rest on the supposition that God deceives are very weak and “metaphysical.” Still, to rid myself of these grounds, I ought to ask as soon as possible whether there is a God and, if so, whether He can be a deceiver. For it seems that, until I know these two things, I can never be completely certain of anything else. The structure of my project seems to require, however, that I first categorize my thoughts and ask in which of them truth and falsity really reside. Some of my thoughts are like images of things, and only these can properly be called ideas. I have an idea, for example, when I think of a man, of a chimera, of heaven, of an angel, or of God. But other thoughts have other properties: while I always apprehend something as the object of my thought when I will, fear, affirm, or deny, these thoughts also include a component in addition to the likeness of that thing. Some of these components are called volitions or emotions; others, judgments. Now, viewed in themselves and without regard to other things, ideas cannot really be false. If I imagine a chimera and a goat, it is just as true that I imagine the chimera as that I imagine the goat. And I needn’t worry about falsehoods in volitions or emotions. If I have a perverse desire for something, or if I want something that doesn’t exist, it’s still true that I want that thing. All that remains, then, are my judgments; it’s here that I must be careful not to err. And the first and foremost of the errors that I find in my judgments is that of assuming that the ideas in me have a similarity or conformity to things outside me. For, if I were to regard ideas merely as modifications of thought, they could not really provide me with any opportunity for error. Of my ideas, some seem to me to be innate, others acquired, and others produced by me. The ideas by which I understand reality, truth, and thought seem to have come from my own nature. Those ideas by which I hear a noise, see the sun, or feel the fire I formerly judged to come from things outside me. And the ideas of sirens, hippogriffs, and so on I have formed in myself. Or maybe I can take all of my ideas to be acquired, all innate, or all created by me: I do not yet clearly see where my ideas come from. For the moment, the central question is about the ideas that I view as derived from objects existing outside me. What reason is there for thinking that these ideas resemble the objects? I seem to have been taught this by nature. Besides, I find that these ideas are independent of my will and hence of me—for they often appear when I do not want them to do so. For example, I now feel heat whether I want to or not, and I therefore take the idea or sensation of heat to come from something distinct from me: the heat of the fire by which I am now sitting. And the obvious thing to think is that a thing sends me its own likeness, not something else. I will now see whether these reasons are good enough. When I say that nature teaches me something, I mean just that I have a spontaneous impulse to believe it, not that the light of nature reveals the thing’s truth to me. There is an important difference. When the light of nature reveals something to me (such as that my thinking implies my existing) that thing is completely beyond doubt, since there is no faculty as reliable as the light of nature by means of which I could learn that the thing is not true. But, as for my natural impulses, I have often judged them to have led me astray in choices about what’s good, and I don’t see why I should regard them as any more reliable on matters concerning truth and falsehood. Next, while my sensory ideas may not depend on my will, it doesn’t follow that they come from Meditations on First Philosophy outside me. While the natural impulses of which I just spoke are in me, they seem to conflict with my will. Similarly, I may have in me an as yet undiscovered ability to produce the ideas that seem to come from outside me—in the way that I used to think that ideas came to me in dreams. Finally, even if some of my ideas do come from things distinct from me, it doesn’t follow that they are likenesses of these things. Indeed, it often seems to me that an idea differs greatly from its cause. For example, I find in myself two different ideas of the sun. One, which I “take in” through the senses and which I ought therefore to view as a typical acquired idea, makes the sun look very small to me. The other, which I derive from astronomical reasoning (that is, which I make, perhaps by composing it from innate ideas), pictures the sun as many times larger than the earth. It clearly cannot be that both of these are accurate likenesses of a sun that exists outside me, and reason convinces me that the one least like the sun is the one that seems to arise most directly from it. All that I’ve said shows that, until now, my belief that there are things outside me that send their ideas or images to me (perhaps through my senses) has rested on blind impulse rather than certain judgment. Still, it seems to me that there may be a way of telling whether my ideas come from things that exist outside me. Insofar as the ideas of things are just modifications of thought, I find no inequality among them; all seem to arise from me in the same way. But, insofar as different ideas present different things to me, there obviously are great differences among them. The ideas of substances are unquestionably greater—or have more “subjective reality”—than those of modifications or accidents. Similarly, the idea by which I understand the supreme God—eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, and creator of all things other than Himself—has more subjective reality in it than the ideas of finite substances. Now, the light of nature reveals that there is at least as much in a complete efficient cause as in its effect. For where could an effect get its reality if not from its cause? And how could a cause give something unless it had it? It follows both that   377 something cannot come from nothing and that what is more perfect—that is, has more reality in it—cannot come from what is less perfect or has less reality. This obviously holds, not just for those effects whose reality is actual or formal, but also for ideas, whose reality we regard as merely subjective. For example, it’s impossible for a nonexistent stone to come into existence unless it’s produced by something containing, either formally or eminently, everything in the stone. Similarly, heat can only be induced in something that’s not already hot by something having at least the same degree of perfection as heat. Also, it’s impossible for the idea of heat or of stone to be in me unless it’s been put there by a cause having at least as much reality as I conceive of in the heat or the stone. For, although the cause doesn’t transmit any of its actual or formal reality to the idea, we shouldn’t infer that it can be less real than the idea; all that we can infer is that by its nature the idea doesn’t require any formal reality except what it derives from my thought, of which it is a modification. Yet, as the idea contains one particular subjective reality rather than another, it must get this reality from a cause having at least as much formal reality as the idea has subjective reality. For, if we suppose that an idea has something in it that wasn’t in its cause, we must suppose that it got this thing from nothing. However imperfect the existence of something that exists subjectively in the understanding through an idea, it obviously is something, and it therefore cannot come from nothing. And, although the reality that I’m considering in my ideas is just subjective, I ought not to suspect that it can fail to be in an idea’s cause formally—that it’s enough for it to be there subjectively. For, just as the subjective existence of my ideas belongs to the ideas in virtue of their nature, the formal existence of the ideas’ causes belongs to those causes— or, at least, to the first and foremost of them—in virtue of the causes’ nature. Although one idea may arise from another, this can’t go back to infinity; we must eventually arrive at a primary idea whose cause is an “archetype” containing formally all the reality that the idea contains subjectively. Hence, the light of nature makes it clear to me that the ideas in me are like images that may well fall short 378   CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty of the things from which they derive, but cannot contain anything greater or more perfect. The more time and care I take in studying this, the more clearly and distinctly I know it to be true. But what follows from it? If I can be sure that the subjective reality of one of my ideas is so great that it isn’t in me either formally or eminently and hence that I cannot be the cause of that idea, I can infer that I am not alone in the world—that there exists something else that is the cause of the idea. But, if I can find no such idea in me, I will have no argument at all for the existence of anything other than me—for, having diligently searched for such an argument, I have yet to find one. Of my ideas—besides my idea of myself, about which there can be no problem here—one presents God, others inanimate physical objects, others angels, others animals, and still others men like me. As to my idea of other men, of animals, and of angels, it’s easy to see that—even if the world contained no men but me, no animals, and no angels— I could have composed these ideas from those that I have of myself, of physical objects, and of God. And, as to my ideas of physical objects, it seems that nothing in them is so great that it couldn’t have come from me. For, if I analyze my ideas of physical objects carefully, taking them one by one as I did yesterday when examining my idea of the piece of wax, I notice that there is very little in them that I grasp clearly and distinctly. What I do grasp clearly and distinctly in these ideas is size (which is extension in length, breadth, and depth), shape (which arises from extension’s limits), position (which the differently shaped things have relative to one another), and motion (which is just change of position). To these I can add substance, duration, and number. But my thoughts of other things in physical objects (such as light and color, sound, odor, taste, heat and cold, and tactile qualities) are so confused and obscure that I can’t say whether they are true or false—whether my ideas of these things are of something or of nothing. Although, as I noted earlier, that which is properly called falsehood—namely, formal falsehood—can only be found in judgments, we can still find falsehood of another sort—namely, material falsehood—in an idea when it presents what is not a thing as though it were a thing. For example, the ideas that I have of coldness and heat are so unclear and indistinct that I can’t tell from them whether coldness is just the absence of heat, or heat just the absence of coldness, or both are real qualities, or neither is. And, since every idea is “of something,” the idea that presents coldness to me as something real and positive could justifiably be called false if coldness were just the absence of heat. And the same holds true for other ideas of this sort. For such ideas, I need not posit a creator distinct from me. I know by the light of nature that, if one of these ideas is false—that is, if it doesn’t present a real thing—it comes from nothing—that is, the only cause of its being in me is a deficiency of my nature, which clearly is imperfect. If one of these ideas is true, however, I still see no reason why I couldn’t have produced it myself—for these ideas present so little reality to me that I can’t even distinguish it from nothing. Of the things that are clear and distinct in my ideas of physical objects, it seems that I may have borrowed some—such as substance, duration, and number—from my idea of myself. I think of the stone as a substance—that is, as something that can exist on its own—just as I think of myself as a substance. Although I conceive of myself as a thinking and unextended thing and of the stone as an extended and unthinking thing so that the two conceptions are quite different, they are the same in that they both seem to be of substances. And, when I grasp that I exist now while remembering that I existed in the past, or when I count my various thoughts, I get the idea of duration or number, which I can then apply to other things. The other components of my ideas of physical objects—­ extension, shape, place, and motion—can’t be in me formally, since I’m just a thinking thing. But, as these things are just modes of substance, and as I am a substance, it seems that they may be in me eminently. All that’s left is my idea of God. Is there something in this idea of God that couldn’t have come from me? By “God” I mean a substance that’s infinite, independent, supremely intelligent, and supremely powerful—the thing from which I and everything else that may exist derive our existence. Meditations on First Philosophy The more I consider these attributes, the less it seems that they could have come from me alone. So I must conclude that God necessarily exists. While I may have the idea of substance in me by virtue of my being a substance, I who am finite would not have the idea of infinite substance in me unless it came from a substance that really was infinite. And I shouldn’t think that, rather than having a true idea of infinity, I grasp it merely as the absence of limits—in the way that I grasp rest as the absence of motion and darkness as the absence of light. On the contrary, it’s clear to me that there is more reality in an infinite than in a finite substance and hence that my grasp of the infinite must somehow be prior to my grasp of the finite—my understanding of God prior to my understanding of myself. For how could I understand that I doubt and desire, that I am deficient and imperfect, if I didn’t have the idea of something more perfect to use as a standard of comparison? And, unlike the ideas of hot and cold which I just discussed, the idea of God cannot be said to be materially false and hence to come from nothing. On the contrary, since the idea of God is completely clear and distinct and contains more subjective reality than any other idea, no idea is truer per se and none less open to the suspicion of falsity. The idea of a supremely perfect and infinite entity is, I maintain, completely true. For, while I may be able to suppose that there is no such entity, I can’t even suppose (as I did about the idea of coldness) that my idea of God fails to show me something real. This idea is maximally clear and distinct, for it contains everything that I grasp clearly and distinctly, everything real and true, everything with any perfection. It doesn’t matter that I can’t fully comprehend the infinite—that there are innumerable things in God which I can’t comprehend fully or even reach with thought. Because of the nature of the infinite, I who am finite cannot comprehend it. It’s enough that I think about the infinite and judge that, if I grasp something clearly and distinctly and know it to have some perfection, it’s present either formally or eminently—perhaps along with innumerable other things of which I am ignorant—in God. If I do this, then of all my ideas the idea of God will be most true and most clear and distinct.   379 But maybe I am greater than I have assumed; maybe all the perfections that I attributed to God are in me potentially, still unreal and unactualized. I have already seen my knowledge gradually increase, and I don’t see anything to prevent its becoming greater and greater to infinity. Nor do I see why, by means of such increased knowledge, I couldn’t get all the rest of God’s perfections. Finally, if the potential for these perfections is in me, I don’t see why that potential couldn’t account for the production of the ideas of these perfections in me. None of this is possible. First, while it’s true that my knowledge gradually increases and that I have many as yet unactualized potentialities, none of this fits with my idea of God, in whom absolutely nothing is potential; indeed, the gradual increase in my knowledge shows that I am imperfect. Besides, I see that, even if my knowledge were continually to become greater and greater, it would never become actually infinite, since it would never become so great as to be unable to increase. But I judge God to be actually infinite so that nothing can be added to his perfection. Finally, I see that an idea’s subjective being must be produced, not by mere potentiality (which, strictly speaking, is nothing), but by what is actual or formal. When I pay attention to these things, the light of nature makes all of them obvious. But, when I attend less carefully and the images of sensible things blind my mind’s eye, it’s not easy for me to remember why the idea of an entity more perfect than I am must come from an entity that really is more perfect. That’s why I’ll go on to ask whether I, who have the idea of a perfect entity, could exist if no such entity existed. From what might I derive my existence if not from God? Either from myself, or from my parents, or from something else less perfect than God—for nothing more perfect than God, or even as perfect as Him, can be thought of or imagined. But, if I derived my existence from myself, I wouldn’t doubt, or want, or lack anything. I would have given myself every perfection of which I have an idea, and thus I myself would be God. And I shouldn’t think that it might be harder to give myself what I lack than what I already have. On the contrary, it would obviously be much harder 380   CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty for me, a thinking thing or substance, to emerge from nothing than for me to give myself knowledge of the many things of which I am ignorant, which is just an attribute of substance. But surely, if I had given myself that which is harder to get, I wouldn’t have denied myself complete knowledge, which would have been easier to get. Indeed, I wouldn’t have denied myself any of the perfections that I grasp in the idea of God. None of these perfections seems harder to get than existence. But, if I had given myself everything that I now have, these perfections would have seemed harder to get than existence if they were harder to get—for in creating myself I would have discovered the limits of my power. I can’t avoid the force of this argument by supposing that, since I’ve always existed as I do now, there’s no point in looking for my creator. Since my lifetime can be divided into innumerable parts each of which is independent of the others, the fact that I existed a little while ago does not entail that I exist now, unless a cause “recreates” me—or, in other words, preserves me—at this moment. For, when we attend to the nature of time, it’s obvious that exactly the same power and action are required to preserve a thing at each moment through which it endures as would be required to create it anew if it had never existed. Hence, one of the things revealed by the light of nature is that preservation and creation differ only in the way we think of them. I ought to ask myself, then, whether I have the power to ensure that I, who now am, will exist in a little while. Since I am nothing but a thinking thing—or, at any rate, since I am now focusing on the part of me that thinks—I would surely be aware of this power if it were in me. But I find no such power. And from this I clearly see that there is an entity distinct from me on whom I depend. But maybe this entity isn’t God. Maybe I am the product of my parents or of some other cause less perfect than God. No. As I’ve said, there must be at least as much in a cause as in its effect. Hence, since I am a thinking thing with the idea of God in me, my cause, whatever it may be, must be a thinking thing having in it the idea of every perfection that I attribute to God. And we can go on to ask whether this thing gets its existence from itself or from something else. If it gets its existence from itself, it’s obvious from what I’ve said that it must be God—for it would have the power to exist on its own and hence the power actually to give itself every perfection of which it has an idea, including every perfection that I conceive of in God. But, if my cause gets its existence from some other thing, we can go on to ask whether this other thing gets its existence from itself or from something else. Eventually, we will come to the ultimate cause, which will be God. It’s clear enough that there can’t be an infinite regress here—especially since I am concerned, not so much with the cause that originally produced me, as with the one that preserves me at the present moment. And I can’t suppose that several partial causes combined to make me or that I get the ideas of the various perfections that I attribute to God from different causes so that, while each of these perfections can be found somewhere in the universe, there is no God in whom they all come together. On the contrary, one of the chief perfections that I understand God to have is unity, simplicity, inseparability from everything in Him. Surely the idea of the unity of all God’s perfections can only have been put in me by a cause that gives me the ideas of all the other ­perfections— for nothing could make me aware of the unbreakable connection of God’s perfections unless it made me aware of what those perfections are. Finally, even if everything that I used to believe about my parents is true, it’s clear that they don’t preserve me. Insofar as I am a thinking thing, they did not even take part in creating me. They simply formed the matter in which I used to think that I (that is, my mind, which is all I am now taking myself to be) resided. There can therefore be no problem about my parents. And I am driven to this conclusion: The fact that I exist and have an idea in me of a perfect entity—that is, God—conclusively entails that God does in fact exist. All that’s left is to explain how I have gotten my idea of God from Him. I have not taken it in through my senses; it has never come to me unexpectedly as the ideas of sensible things do when those things affect (or seem to affect) my external organs of Meditations on First Philosophy sense. Nor have I made the idea myself; I can’t subtract from it or add to it. The only other possibility is that the idea is innate in me, like my idea of myself. It’s not at all surprising that in creating me God put this idea into me, impressing it on His work like a craftsman’s mark (which needn’t be distinct from the work itself). The very fact that it was God who created me confirms that I have somehow been made in His image or likeness and that I grasp this likeness, which contains the idea of God, in the same way that I grasp myself. Thus, when I turn my mind’s eye on myself, I understand, not just that I am an incomplete and dependent thing which constantly strives for bigger and better things, but also that He on whom I depend has all these things in Himself as infinite reality rather than just as vague potentiality and hence that He must be God. The whole argument comes down to this: I know that I could not exist with my present nature—that is, that I could not exist with the idea of God in me—unless there really were a God. This must be the very God whose idea is in me, the thing having all of the perfections that I can’t fully comprehend but can somehow reach with thought, who clearly cannot have any defects. From this, it’s obvious that He can’t deceive—for, as the natural light reveals, fraud and deception arise from defect. But before examining this more carefully and investigating its consequences, I want to dwell for a moment in the contemplation of God, to ponder His attributes, to see and admire and adore the beauty of His boundless light, insofar as my clouded insight allows. As I have faith that the supreme happiness of the next life consists wholly of the contemplation of divine greatness, I now find that contemplation of the same sort, though less perfect, affords the greatest joy available in this life. Commentary and Questions In the first paragraphs, Descartes resolves to explore more carefully his own mind. But then what alternative does he have, now that he has resolved to consider everything else “as empty illusions”? A momentous step is taken: He solves (or at least he thinks he solves) the problem of the criterion! Here are the steps. 1. He is certain that he exists as a thinking thing. 2. He asks himself, What is it about this proposition that accounts for my certainty that it is true? 3. He answers, The fact that I grasp it so clearly and distinctly that I perceive it could not possibly be false. 4. He concludes, Let this then be a general principle (a criterion): Whatever I grasp with like clarity and distinctness must also be true. He then reviews (yet again) the things he had at one time thought were true and reminds himself that no matter how sure he feels about them, he can’t be absolutely certain. Q17. Why does he feel a need to inquire about the existence and nature of God? Descartes now tries to make clear a crucial distinction between ideas on the one hand and volitions, emotions, and judgments on the other (pp. 376–377). This distinction is embedded in an inventory of the varied contents of the mind (which is all that we can so far be certain of). You will find a schematic representation of that i­nventory in the following diagram. Contents of the mind Ideas Innate Acquired from outside Ideas in action Produced by me   381 Judgments Volitions Emotions 382   CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty Q18. What is the key difference between ideas and judgments? Q19. What is the key difference between judgments on the one hand and volitions and emotions on the other? Q20. What question arises with respect to the ideas that seem to be acquired from outside myself? Q21. What (provisional) examples does Descartes give of each class of ideas? We need to comment on the notion of innate ideas. In calling them “innate,” Descartes does not mean to imply that they are to be found in babies and mentally defective adults, as some of his critics suppose. He merely means that there are some ideas we would have even if nothing existed but ourselves. These ideas do not require external causes for their existence in us; every developed rational mind will possess them from its own resources. Thus, the idea of a thing can originate with the cogito, which gives me the certainty that I exist as a thing that thinks—even if nothing else exists. Perhaps my idea of an antelope is caused in me only by seeing antelopes in a zoo (though this remains to be proved). But we would have the ideas of thing, thought, and truth in any case. Q22. Why do you think Descartes believes that the ideas of truth and thought are innate? Q23. Why is he inclined to believe that some ideas do originate from objects outside himself? He gives two reasons (p. 377). Q24. Are these two reasons conclusive? Q25. What is the difference between being taught “by nature” and being taught “by the light of nature”? (See p. 376.) What is the light of nature? We come now to a point of terminology. Descartes distinguishes subjective reality on the one hand from formal and eminent reality on the other. If we are going to understand Descartes’ argument, we must be clear about how he uses these terms and keep his use firmly in mind. It is easier to begin with formal reality. Something has formal reality if it is, in our terms, actual or existing. If there really are giraffes and angels, then giraffes and angels have formal reality. You also, because you exist, have formal reality. And when you form an image of a giraffe in your mind, that image also has formal reality—that is, it actually exists as an image in your mind. So any idea actually present in a mind is formally real. This means that (if there are giraffes) both the idea of a giraffe (when being thought) and the giraffe you are thinking of are formally real. They are distinct realities, but related: The one represents the other. What you are thinking about when you entertain an idea has subjective reality, reality “for you.” Thus, when you think about giraffes and angels, they have both formal and subjective reality. The objects of some ideas, though, have only subjective reality: the tooth fairy, for instance, or unicorns. These, of course, are examples of ideas “produced by us.” But if we look carefully, we can see that they have not been invented out of nothing. The idea of a unicorn comes from the ideas of a horse and a single horn. And (though Descartes has not proved it yet) it may be that horses and horns are formally real. Already he remarks (p. 377) that although one idea may be derived from others, this cannot go on to infinity: There must eventually be a cause for these ideas; and the reality of that cause must be more than “merely subjective.” If this were not so, we would have gotten something “from nothing.” And the light of nature assures us that this is impossible. There is an old Latin saying: ex nihilo nihil fit, or “from nothing, nothing comes.” Descartes does not, of course, make these distinctions for their own sake. There is a problem he is trying to solve: Given that I can be certain that I exist (together with all my ideas), can I be certain of the formal existence of anything else? Although thoroughgoing skepticism may have been refuted (we do know something in the cogito), we have not got beyond solipsism. Solipsism is a view that each of you (if there is anyone out there!) must state for yourself in this way: “I am the only thing that actually (formally) exists; everything else is only subjectively real.” Another step in solving that problem is to note that there are degrees of reality: some things have more reality than others. This is the cardinal principle of the Great Chain of Being.* Descartes gives *See pp. 271–272. Meditations on First Philosophy   383 two examples, framed in terms of subjective reality (p. 377), though the same is true for formal reality as well. 7. So there must be a formal reality that is an infinitely perfect substance. 8. So God exists. Q26. Why does the idea of substance contain more subjective reality than that of modification or accident? (Think of a fender and the dent in it.)* Q27. Why does the idea of infinite substance have more subjective reality than that of finite substance? Q29. Is this argument valid? Q30. Are there premises in the argument that are less than certainly true? On the basis of these distinctions, Descartes formulates a causal principle: There must be at least as much reality in the cause as there is in the effect. A cause is said to be formally real when it has the same degree of reality as the effect it produces; it is said to be eminently real when it has even more reality than its effect. Q28. What examples does Descartes offer to illustrate this causal principle? Once more Descartes canvases the various kinds of ideas he finds in himself as a thinking thing. He is looking for some idea of which he himself could not possibly be the cause. Such an idea must have a cause (since nothing comes from nothing). If (1) he is not the cause and (2) there is a cause, then (3) he knows that he is not alone in the universe. Something else exists! Descartes thinks his meditations to this point give him the materials with which to prove that God exists. Let us see what the argument looks like: 1. 2. 3. 4. I have an idea of an infinitely perfect substance. Such an idea must have a cause. Ex nihilo nihil fit. So the cause of an idea must have at least as much formal reality as there is subjective reality in the idea. 5. Though I am a substance, I am not infinitely perfect. 6. So I could not be the cause of this idea. *We owe this nice example to Ronald Rubin, the translator of these Meditations. Meditation III contains two separate arguments for God’s existence. The first one, which we have now examined, begins with the fact that each of us has an idea of God. The second one begins (on p. 379) with the fact that I exist. The argument then addresses whether I could exist if God does not. It is an argument by exclusion; it considers the other plausible candidates for the cause of my existence and shows in each case that it won’t do. Note that both arguments are causal arguments. The first inquires about the cause of my idea of God and the second about the cause of my existence. Both make use of the causal principle Descartes has formulated. Let us sketch the principal steps in this argument. 1. I exist. 2. There must be a cause for my existence. 3. The cause must be one of the following: (a) myself, (b) my always having existed, (c) my parents, (d) something else less perfect than God, or (e) God. 4. Not (a), or I would have given myself perfections I now lack—because creating the properties of a substance is not as hard as creating the substance itself. 5. Not (b), because my existing now does not follow from my having existed in the past. 6. Not (c), for this leads to an infinite regress. 7. Not (d), for this couldn’t account for the unity of the idea of God that I have. 8. So (e), and God exists. Q31. Is there a weak point in this argument? Is there more than one? Q32. Why does Descartes think his idea of God must be innate? Q33. Explain why Descartes says we cannot “comprehend” God but can “reach” him in 384   CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty thought. (Compare touching an elephant and wrapping your arms around it.)* At the end of the third meditation, Descartes feels he has achieved his aim. He now knows that he is not alone. In addition to himself, there is at least one other being—a substance infinite in intelligence and power and perfect in every way. This latter fact will prove to be of very great significance, for Descartes will use it to defeat the hypothesis of the evil demon; a perfect being could not be a deceiver. Thus he thinks he can overcome the deepest ground for skepticism about knowledge of the external world. But that is a line of argument pursued in the remaining meditations. Meditation IV: On Truth and Falsity In the last few days, I’ve gotten used to drawing my mind away from my senses. I’ve carefully noted that I really grasp very little about physical objects, that I know much more about the human mind, and that I know even more about God. Thus, I no longer find it hard to turn my thoughts away from things of which I can have mental images and toward things completely separate from matter, which I can only understand. Indeed, I have a much more distinct idea of the human mind, insofar as it is just a thinking thing that isn’t extended in length, breadth, or depth and doesn’t share anything else with physical objects, than I have of physical objects. And, when I note that I doubt or that I am incomplete and dependent, I have a clear and distinct idea of a complete and independent entity: God. From the fact that this idea is in me and that I who have the idea exist, I can clearly infer both that God exists and that I am completely dependent on Him for my existence from moment to moment. This is so obvious that I’m sure that people can’t know anything more evidently or certainly. And it now seems to me that, from the contemplation of the true God in whom are hidden all treasures of knowledge and wisdom, there is a way to derive knowledge of other things. * Compare the similar thought by Aquinas, p. 324. In the first place, I know that it’s impossible for Him ever to deceive me. Wherever there is fraud and deception, there is imperfection, and, while the ability to deceive may seem a sign of cunning or power, the desire to deceive reveals malice or weakness and hence is inconsistent with God’s nature. Next, I find in myself an ability to judge which, like everything else in me, I’ve gotten from God. Since He doesn’t want to deceive me, He certainly hasn’t given me an ability which will lead me wrong when properly used. There can be no doubt about this—except that it may seem to imply that I don’t err at all. For, if I’ve gotten everything in me from God and He hasn’t given me the ability to err, it doesn’t seem possible for me ever to err. Thus, as long as I think only of God and devote all my attention to Him, I can’t find any cause for error and falsity. When I turn my attention back to myself, however, I find that I can make innumerable errors. In looking for the cause of these errors, I find before me, not just the real and positive idea of God, but also the negative idea of “nothingness”—the idea of that which is completely devoid of perfection. I find that I am “intermediate” between God and nothingness, between the supreme entity and nonentity. Insofar as I am the creation of the supreme entity, there’s nothing in me to account for my being deceived or led into error, but, insofar as I somehow participate in nothingness or the nonentity—that is, insofar as I am distinct from the supreme entity itself and lack many things—it’s not surprising that I go wrong. I thus understand that, in itself, error is a lack, rather than a real thing dependent on God. Hence, I understand that I can err without God’s having given me a special ability to do so. Rather, I fall into error because my God-given ability to judge the truth is not infinite. But there’s still something to be explained. Error is not just an absence, but a deprivation— the lack of knowledge that somehow ought to be in me. But, when I attend to God’s nature, it seems impossible that He’s given me an ability that is an imperfect thing of its kind—an ability lacking a perfection that it ought to have. The greater the craftsman’s skill, the more perfect his product. Meditations on First Philosophy Then how can the supreme creator of all things have made something that isn’t absolutely perfect? There’s no doubt that God could have made me so that I never err and that He always wants what’s best. Then is it better for me to err than not to err? When I pay more careful attention, I realize that I shouldn’t be surprised at God’s doing things that I can’t explain. I shouldn’t doubt His existence just because I find that I sometimes can’t understand why or how He has made something. I know that my nature is weak and limited and that God’s is limitless, incomprehensible, and infinite, and, from this, I can infer that He can do innumerable things whose reasons are unknown to me. On this ground alone, I regard the common practice of explaining things in terms of their purposes to be useless in physics: it would be foolhardy of me to think that I can discover God’s purposes. It also seems to me that, when asking whether God’s works are perfect, I ought to look at all of them together, not at one in isolation. For something that seems imperfect when viewed alone might seem completely perfect when regarded as having a place in the world. Of course, since calling everything into doubt, I haven’t established that anything exists besides me and God. But, when I consider God’s immense power, I can’t deny that He has made—or, in any case, that He could have made—many other things, and I must therefore view myself as having a place in a universe. Next, turning to myself and investigating the nature of my errors (which are all that show me to be imperfect), I notice that these errors depend on two concurrent causes: my ability to know and my ability to choose freely—that is, my understanding and my will. But, with my understanding, I just grasp the ideas about which I form judgments, and error therefore cannot properly be said to arise from the understanding itself. While there may be innumerable things of which I have no idea, I can’t say that I am deprived of these ideas, but only that I happen to lack them—for I don’t have any reason to think that God ought to have given me a greater ability to know than He has. And, while I understand God to be a supremely skilled craftsman, I don’t go on to think that He ought to endow each of his works with all the perfections that He can put in the others.   385 Nor can I complain about the scope or perfection of my God-given freedom of will—for I find that my will doesn’t seem to me to be restricted in any way. Indeed, it seems well worth noting that nothing in me other than my will is so great and perfect that it couldn’t conceivably be bigger or better. If I think about my ability to understand, for example, I realize that it is very small and restricted and I immediately form the idea of something much greater—indeed, of something supremely perfect and infinite. And, from the fact that I can form the idea of this thing, I infer that it is present in God’s nature. Similarly, if I consider my other abilities, like the abilities to remember and to imagine, I clearly see that they all are weak and limited in me, but boundless in God. My will or freedom of choice is the only thing I find to be so great in me that I can’t conceive of anything greater. In fact, it’s largely for this reason that I regard myself as an image or likeness of God. God’s will is incomparably greater than mine, of course, in virtue of the associated knowledge and power that make it stronger and more effective, and also in virtue of all its greater range of objects. Yet, viewed in itself as a will, God’s will seems no greater than mine. For having a will just amounts to being able either to do or not to do (affirm or deny, seek or avoid)— or, better, to being inclined to affirm or deny, seek or shun what the understanding offers, without any sense of being driven by external forces. To be free, I don’t need to be inclined towards both alternatives. On the contrary, the more I lean towards one alternative—either because I understand the truth or goodness in it, or because God has so arranged my deepest thoughts—the more freely I choose it. Neither divine grace nor knowledge of nature ever diminishes my freedom; they increase and strengthen it. But the indifference that I experience when no consideration impels me towards one alternative over another is freedom of the lowest sort, whose presence reveals a defect or an absence of knowledge rather than a perfection. For, if I always knew what was good or true, I wouldn’t ever deliberate about what to do or choose, and thus, though completely free, I would never be indifferent. From this I see that my God-given ability to will is not itself the cause of my errors—for my 386   CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty will is great, a perfect thing of its kind. Neither is my power of understanding the cause of my errors; whenever I understand something, I understand it correctly and without the possibility of error, since my understanding comes from God. What then is the source of my errors? It is just that, while my will has a broader scope than my understanding, I don’t keep it within the same bounds, but extend it to that which I don’t understand. Being indifferent to these things, my will is easily led away from truth and goodness, and thus I am led into error and sin. For example, I’ve asked for the last few days whether anything exists in the world, and I’ve noted that, from the fact that I ask this, it follows that I exist. I couldn’t fail to judge that which I so clearly understood to be true. This wasn’t because a force outside me compelled me to believe, but because an intense light in my understanding produced a strong inclination of my will. And, to the extent that I wasn’t indifferent, I believed spontaneously and freely. However, while I now know that I exist insofar as I am a thinking thing, I notice in myself an idea of what it is to be a physical object and I come to wonder whether the thinking nature that’s in me—or, rather, that is me—differs from this bodily nature or is identical to it. Nothing occurs to my reason (I am supposing) to convince me of one alternative rather than the other. Accordingly, I am completely indifferent to affirming either view, to denying either view, and even to suspending judgment. And indifference of this sort is not limited to things of which the understanding is completely ignorant. It extends to everything about which the will deliberates in the absence of a sufficiently clear understanding. For, however strong the force with which plausible conjectures draw me towards one alternative, the knowledge that they are conjectures rather than assertions backed by certain and indubitable arguments is enough to push my assent the other way. The past few days have provided me with ample experience of this—for I am now supposing each of my former beliefs to be false just because I’ve found a way to call them into doubt. If I suspend judgment when I don’t clearly and distinctly grasp what’s true, I obviously do right and am not deceived. But, if I either affirm or deny in a case of this sort, I misuse my freedom of choice. If I affirm what is false, I clearly err, and, if I stumble onto the truth, I’m still blameworthy since the light of nature reveals that a perception of the understanding should always precede a decision of the will. In these misuses of freedom of choice lies the deprivation that accounts for error. And this deprivation, I maintain, lies in the working of the will insofar as it comes from me—not in my God-given ability to will, or even in the will’s operation insofar as it derives from Him. I have no reason to complain that God hasn’t given me a more perfect understanding or a greater natural light than He has. It’s in the nature of a finite understanding that there are many things it can’t understand, and it’s in the nature of created understanding that it’s finite. Indeed, I ought to be grateful to Him who owes me absolutely nothing for what He has bestowed, rather than taking myself to be deprived or robbed of what God hasn’t given me. And I have no reason to complain about God’s having given me a will whose scope is greater than my understanding’s. The will is like a unity made of inseparable parts; its nature apparently will not allow anything to be taken away from it. And, really, the wider the scope of my will, the more grateful I ought to be to Him who gave it to me. Finally, I ought not to complain that God concurs in bringing about the acts of will and judgment in which I err. Insofar as these acts derive from God, they are completely true and good, and I am more perfect with the ability to perform these acts than I would be without it. And, the deprivation that is the real ground of falsity and error doesn’t need God’s concurrence, since it’s not a thing. When we regard God as its cause, we should say that it is an absence rather than a deprivation. For it clearly is no imperfection in God that He has given me the freedom to assent or not to assent to things of which He hasn’t given me a clear and distinct grasp. Rather, it is undoubtedly an imperfection in me that I misuse this freedom by passing judgment on things that I don’t properly understand. I see, of course, that God could Meditations on First Philosophy easily have brought it about that, while I remain free and limited in knowledge, I never err: He could have implanted in me a clear and distinct understanding of everything about which I was ever going to make a choice, or He could have indelibly impressed on my memory that I must never pass judgment on something that I don’t clearly and distinctly understand. And I also understand that, regarded in isolation from everything else, I would have been more perfect if God had made me so that I never err. But I can’t deny that, because some things are immune to error while others are not, the universe is more perfect than it would have been if all its parts were alike. And I have no right to complain about God’s wanting me to hold a place in the world other than the greatest and most perfect. Besides, if I can’t avoid error by having a clear grasp of every matter on which I make a choice, I can avoid it in the other way, which only requires remembering that I must not pass judgment on matters whose truth isn’t apparent. For, although I find myself too weak to fix my attention permanently on this single thought, I can—by careful and frequent meditation—ensure that I call it to mind whenever it’s needed and thus that I acquire the habit of avoiding error. Since the first and foremost perfection of man lies in avoiding error, I’ve profited from today’s meditation, in which I’ve investigated the cause of error and falsity. Clearly, the only possible cause of error is the one I have described. When I limit my will’s range of judgment to the things presented clearly and distinctly to my understanding, I obviously cannot err—for everything that I clearly and distinctly grasp is something and hence must come, not from nothing, but from God—God, I say, who is supremely perfect and who cannot possibly deceive. Therefore, what I clearly and distinctly grasp is unquestionably true. Today, then, I have learned what to avoid in order not to err and also what to do to reach the truth. I surely will reach the truth if I just attend to the things that I understand perfectly and distinguish them from those that I grasp more obscurely and confusedly. And that’s what I’ll take care to do from now on.   387 Commentary and Questions Note the transitional character of the first paragraph. Descartes sums up the argument so far, expresses his confidence that God’s existence is more certain than anything else (except the cogito), and looks forward to further progress. Q34. Is Descartes’ assertion (p. 384) that deception is an evidence of weakness rather than power plausible? Explain your answer. Before God’s existence was proved, it was unclear whether any of our beliefs were true. Now there is a new puzzle: How can any of them be false? (Do you see why this puzzle arises?) So Descartes has to provide an explanation of the obvious fact that we can and do make mistakes. For the basic framework he depends again on the idea of the Great Chain of Being. He finds that he is an “intermediate” between God and nothingness, having less reality than God, whose perfection excludes error, but more reality than sheer nonbeing. Error, in any case, is not a positive reality; it is only a defect, as weakness is only the absence of strength and cold the absence of heat. So it should not be too surprising that Descartes, and we, too, should be susceptible to error. Two points he makes in passing are worth noting. 1. Why did God create me so that I could make mistakes? I don’t know, he says, but if I could see the world as God sees it, it is quite possible that I would judge it to be for the best.* Q35. How does recognizing that you are only a part of a larger whole help answer this question? * Here is one expression of that attitude expressed in Leibniz and other later writers to the effect that “this is the best of all possible worlds.” It is this optimism that Voltaire caricatures so savagely in Candide. These reflections of Descartes form part of a project known as theodicy—the justification of the ways of God to man. For another attempt at theodicy, see Hegel (pp. 516–519). You might also review the Stoic notion that evil does not exist in the world, only in our perception of it (p. 243). 388   CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty 2. Among the many things we do not know are God’s purposes. It follows that Aristotelian final causes—the what for—are not appropriate in the explanations given by physics.Thus Descartes buttresses the mechanistic character of his (and the modern world’s) scientific work. We can come to know how things happen, but not why. A more detailed analysis of error can be given. It depends on the distinction between entertaining a belief, or having it in mind (which is the function of the understanding), and assenting to that belief, or accepting it (which is the function of the will). Q36. How does this distinction between understanding and will explain the possibility of error? Q37. In what way is the will more perfect than the understanding? Q38. Can God be blamed for our errors? Q39. How can we avoid error? Meditation V: On the Essence of Material Objects and More on God’s Existence Many questions remain about God’s attributes and the nature of my self or mind. I may return to these questions later. But now, having found what to do and what to avoid in order to attain truth, I regard nothing as more pressing than to work my way out of the doubts that I raised the other day and to see whether I can find anything certain about material objects. But, before asking whether any such objects exist outside me, I ought to consider the ideas of these objects as they exist in my thoughts and see which are clear and which confused. I have a distinct mental image of the quantity that philosophers commonly call continuous. That is, I have a distinct mental image of the extension of this quantity—or rather of the quantified thing—in length, breadth, and depth. I can distinguish various parts of this thing. I can ascribe various sizes, shapes, places, and motions to these parts and various durations to the motions. In addition to having a thorough knowledge of extension in general, I grasp innumerable particulars about things like shape, number, and motion, when I pay careful attention. The truth of these particulars is so obvious and so consonant with my nature that, when I first think of one of these things, I seem not so much to be learning something novel as to be remembering something that I already knew—or noticing for the first time something that had long been in me without my having turned my mind’s eye toward it. What’s important here, I think, is that I find in myself innumerable ideas of things which, though they may not exist outside me, can’t be said to be nothing. While I have some control over my thoughts of these things, I do not make the things up: they have their own real and immutable natures. Suppose, for example, that I have a mental image of a triangle. While it may be that no figure of this sort does exist or ever has existed outside my thought, the figure has a fixed nature (essence or form), immutable and eternal, which hasn’t been produced by me and isn’t dependent on my mind. The proof is that I can demonstrate various propositions about the triangle, such as that its angles equal two right angles and that its greatest side subtends its greatest angle. Even though I didn’t think of these propositions at all when I first imagined the triangle, I now clearly see their truth whether I want to or not, and it follows that I didn’t make them up. It isn’t relevant that, having seen triangular physical objects, I may have gotten the idea of the triangle from external objects through my organs of sense. For I can think of innumerable other figures whose ideas I could not conceivably have gotten through my senses, and I can demonstrate facts about these other figures just as I can about the triangle. Since I know these facts clearly, they must be true, and they therefore must be something rather than nothing. For it’s obvious that everything true is something, and, as I have shown, everything that I know clearly and distinctly is true. But, even if I hadn’t shown this, the nature of my mind would have made it impossible for me to withhold my assent from these things, at least when I clearly and distinctly grasped them. As I recall, Meditations on First Philosophy even when I clung most tightly to objects of sense, I regarded truths about shape and number—truths of arithmetic, geometry, and pure mathematics— as more certain than any others. But, if anything whose idea I can draw from my thought must in fact have everything that I clearly and distinctly grasp it to have, can’t I derive from this a proof of God’s existence? Surely, I find the idea of God, a supremely perfect being, in me no less clearly than I find the ideas of figures and numbers. And I understand as clearly and distinctly that eternal existence belongs to His nature as that the things which I demonstrate of a figure or number belong to the nature of the figure or number. Accordingly, even if what I have thought up in the past few days hasn’t been entirely true, I ought to be at least as certain of God’s existence as I used to be of the truths of pure mathematics. At first, this reasoning may seem unclear and fallacious. Since I’m accustomed to distinguishing existence from essence in other cases, I find it easy to convince myself that I can separate God’s existence from His essence and hence that I can think of God as nonexistent. But, when I pay more careful attention, it’s clear that I can no more separate God’s existence from His essence than a triangle’s angles equaling two right angles from the essence of the triangle, or the idea of a valley from the idea of a mountain. It’s no less impossible to think that God (the supremely perfect being) lacks existence (a perfection) than to think that a mountain lacks a valley. Well, suppose that I can’t think of God without existence, just as I can’t think of a mountain without a valley. From the fact that I can think of a mountain with a valley, it doesn’t follow that a mountain exists in the world. Similarly, from the fact that I can think of God as existing, it doesn’t seem to follow that He exists. For my thought doesn’t impose any necessity on things. It may be that, just as I can imagine a winged horse when no such horse exists, I can ascribe existence to God when no God exists. No, there is a fallacy here. From the fact that I can’t think of a mountain without a valley it follows, not that the mountain and valley exist, but only that whether they exist or not they can’t be   389 separated from one another. But, from the fact that I can’t think of God without existence, it follows that existence is inseparable from Him and hence that He really exists. It’s not that my thoughts make it so or impose a necessity on things. On the contrary, it’s the fact that God does exist that necessitates my thinking of Him as I do. For I am not free to think of God without existence—of the supremely perfect being without supreme ­perfection—as I am free to think of a horse with or without wings. Now someone might say this: “If I take God to have all perfections, and if I take existence to be a perfection, I must take God to exist, but I needn’t accept the premise that God has all perfections. Similarly, if I accept the premise that every quadrilateral can be inscribed in a circle, I’m forced to the patently false view that every rhombus can be inscribed in a circle, but I need not accept the premise.” But this should not be said. For, while it’s not necessary that the idea of God occurs to me, it is necessary that, whenever I think of the primary and supreme entity and bring the idea of Him out of my mind’s “treasury,” I attribute all perfections to Him, even if I don’t enumerate them or consider them individually. And this necessity ensures that, when I do notice that existence is a perfection, I can rightly conclude that the primary and supreme being exists. Similarly, while it’s not necessary that I ever imagine a triangle, it is necessary that, when I do choose to consider a rectilinear figure having exactly three angles, I attribute to it properties from which I can rightly infer that its angles are no more than two right angles, perhaps without noticing that I am doing so. But, when I consider which shapes can be inscribed in the circle, there’s absolutely no necessity for my thinking that all quadrilaterals are among them. Indeed, I can’t even think that all quadrilaterals are among them, since I’ve resolved to accept only what I clearly and distinctly understand. Thus my false suppositions differ greatly from the true ideas implanted in me, the first and foremost of which is my idea of God. In many ways, I see that this idea is not a figment of my thought, but the image of a real and immutable nature. For one thing, God is the only thing that I can think of whose existence belongs to its essence. 390   CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty For another thing, I can’t conceive of there being two or more such Gods, and, having supposed that one God now exists, I see that He has necessarily existed from all eternity and will continue to exist into eternity. And I also perceive many other things in God that I can’t diminish or alter. But, whatever proof I offer, it always comes back to the fact that I am only convinced of what I grasp clearly and distinctly. Of the things that I grasp in this way, some are obvious to everyone. Some are discovered only by those who examine things more closely and search more carefully, but, once these things have been discovered, they are regarded as no less certain than the others. That the square on the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the squares on the other sides is not as readily apparent as that the hypotenuse subtends the greatest angle, but, once it has been seen, it is believed just as firmly. And, when I’m not overwhelmed by prejudices and my thoughts aren’t besieged by images of sensible things, there surely is nothing that I know earlier or more easily than facts about God. For what is more self-evident than there is a supreme entity— that God, the only thing whose existence belongs to His essence, exists? While I need to pay careful attention in order to grasp this, I’m now as certain of it as of anything that seems most certain. In addition, I now see that the certainty of everything else so depends on it that, if I weren’t certain of it, I couldn’t know anything perfectly. Of course, my nature is such that, when I grasp something clearly and distinctly, I can’t fail to believe it. But my nature is also such that I can’t permanently fix my attention on a single thing so as always to grasp it clearly, and memories of previous judgments often come to me when I am no longer attending to the grounds on which I originally made them. Accordingly, if I were ignorant of God, arguments could be produced that would easily overthrow my opinions, and I therefore would have unstable and changing opinions rather than true and certain knowledge. For example, when I consider the nature of the triangle, it seems plain to me—steeped as I am in the principles of geometry—that its three angles equal two right angles: I can’t fail to believe this as long as I pay attention to its demonstration. But, if I were ignorant of God, I might come to doubt its truth as soon as my mind’s eye turned away from its demonstration, even if I recalled having once grasped it clearly. For I could convince myself that I’ve been so constructed by nature that I sometimes err about what I believe myself to grasp most plainly—­ especially if I remember that, having taken many things to be true and certain, I had later found grounds on which to judge them false. But now I grasp that God exists, and I understand both that everything else depends on Him and that He’s not a deceiver. From this, I infer that everything I clearly and distinctly grasp must be true. Even if I no longer pay attention to the grounds on which I judged God to exist, my recollection that I once clearly and distinctly knew Him to exist ensures that no contrary ground can be produced to push me towards doubt. About God’s existence, I have true and certain knowledge. And I have such knowledge, not just about this one thing, but about everything else that I remember having proven, like the theorems of geometry. For what can now be said against my believing these things? That I am so constructed that I always err? But I now know that I can’t err about what I clearly understand. That much of what I took to be true and certain I later found to be false? But I didn’t grasp any of these things clearly and distinctly; ignorant of the true standard of truth, I based my belief on grounds that I later found to be unsound. Then what can be said? What about the objection (which I recently used against myself) that I may be dreaming and that the things I’m now experiencing may be as unreal as those that occur to me in sleep? No, even this is irrelevant. For, even if I am dreaming, everything that is evident to my understanding must be true. Thus I plainly see that the certainty and truth of all my knowledge derives from one thing: my thought of the true God. Before I knew Him, I couldn’t know anything else perfectly. But now I can plainly and certainly know innumerable things, not only about God and other mental beings, but also about the nature of physical objects, insofar as it is the subject-matter of pure mathematics. Meditations on First Philosophy Commentary and Questions This brief meditation is a transition to the more important sixth meditation. Though Descartes says at the beginning that he wants to investigate whether we can know anything about material things (so far, only God and the soul are known), he doesn’t solve that problem here. But he does take a significant step toward its solution. Along the way, he discovers a third proof that God exists. Again we find the typical Cartesian strategy at work. He wants to know whether material things exist independent of himself. How can he proceed? He can’t just look to see because he has put the testimony of the senses in doubt. So he must consider more carefully the idea of material things, which is all that is available to him. And again he finds that some of these ideas are confused and obscure, while others are clear and distinct. The latter are those of extension, duration, and movement—the qualities that can be treated geometrically or mathematically. Material things, if there are any, are essentially extended volumes.* Once we are clear about their essence, it makes sense to inquire about their existence; and that is the subject of Meditation VI. Note that these mathematical ideas are not just imaginary inventions. You cannot put them together any way you like, as you can construct fantastic creatures by combining heads, bodies, and hides at will. You may not yet know whether there are any triangular things outside yurself, but the idea of a triangle “can’t be said to be nothing” (p. 388). It has a nature that is “immutable and eternal.” This nature does not depend on me. The point can be put in this way. Suppose you imagine a creature with wings covered with scales, a long furry tail, six legs, and an elephantlike nose covered with spikes. Then someone asks you, does this creature have claws? You will have to invent the answer. You cannot discover it. But if you imagine a triangle and someone asks you whether the interior angles equal two right angles, you do not have to invent an answer. You could investigate *Review the discussion of the bit of wax in Meditation II and on p. 375.   391 and discover that the answer is yes. With respect to these geometrical properties, there are truths.* And these, remember, are the very properties that determine the essence of material things. Since the idea of a material thing is the idea of something extended, and since extended things can be treated geometrically, it follows that the idea of a material thing is clear and distinct. Material substances have an essence or nature that would make a science of them a possibility—if only we could be assured that they exist. And we know that such a science is a possibility merely from an examination of their ideas. So, provided we can discover a proof that some formal reality corresponds to the subjective reality of our ideas of material things, we can have a science of material things. In this way, then, he hopes to give a metaphysical foundation to his mechanistic physics. The discovery that certain ideas have a nature or essence of their own, quite independent of our inventions, also supplies Descartes with material for a third proof of God’s existence.† If we simply pay close attention to what is necessarily involved in our idea of what God is (his essence or nature), we can discover, Descartes argues, that God is (that he exists). God’s existence is included in his essence. Notice that, unlike the first two arguments, this is not a causal proof. In its bare essentials, it looks like this: 1. God, by definition, is a being of infinite perfection. 2. Existence is a perfection (that is, no being could be perfect that lacked it). 3. So God exists. *Socrates thinks that we can never be taught anything other than what we in some sense already know; what we call “learning” is in fact just remembering. (See p. 169.) Descartes alludes to this doctrine here; in discovering the properties of a triangle you are “noticing for the first time something that had long been in [you] without [your] having turned [your] mind’s eye towards it.” Descartes is not, however, committed to the Socratic doctrine of the preexistence of the soul as an explanation of this phenomenon, since he thinks God’s creation of a soul possessing certain innate ideas will suffice. †This proof is a version of the ontological argument first worked out by Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century. See Chapter 15. 392   CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty Q40. Is the argument valid? Q41. Can the premises be questioned? This last proof of God’s existence allows Descartes to lay to rest a final worry that has been tormenting him. You really cannot help believing, he suggests, that your clear and distinct thoughts are true—while you are thinking them. But later you may not be so sure! You may then think you were dreaming what earlier seemed so certain. But now this worry can be dealt with. And Meditation V closes on a note of reassurance. Q42. How are the dream and demon worries finally disposed of? Q43. Can an atheist do science? (See the last paragraph.) Meditation VI: On the Existence of Material Objects and the Real Distinction of Mind from Body It remains for me to examine whether material objects exist. Insofar as they are the subject of pure mathematics, I now know at least that they can exist, because I grasp them clearly and distinctly. For God can undoubtedly make whatever I can grasp in this way, and I never judge that something is impossible for Him to make unless there would be a contradiction in my grasping the thing distinctly. Also, the fact that I find myself having mental images when I turn my attention to physical objects seems to imply that these objects really do exist. For, when I pay careful attention to what it is to have a mental image, it seems to me that it’s just the application of my power of thought to a certain body which is immediately present to it and which must therefore exist. To clarify this, I’ll examine the difference between having a mental image and having a pure understanding. When I have a mental image of a triangle, for example, I don’t just understand that it is a figure bounded by three lines; I also “look at” the lines as though they were present to my mind’s eye. And this is what I call having a mental image. When I want to think of a chiliagon, I understand that it is a figure with a thousand sides as well as I understand that a triangle is a figure with three, but I can’t imagine its sides or “look” at them as though they were present. Being accustomed to using images when I think about physical objects, I may confusedly picture some figure to myself, but this figure obviously is not a chiliagon—for it in no way differs from what I present to myself when thinking about a myriagon or any other many sided figure, and it doesn’t help me to discern the properties that distinguish chiliagons from other polygons. If it’s a pentagon that is in question, I can understand its shape, as I can that of the chiliagon, without the aid of mental images. But I can also get a mental image of the pentagon by directing my mind’s eye to its five lines and to the area that they bound. And it’s obvious to me that getting this mental image requires a special mental effort different from that needed for understanding—a special effort which clearly reveals the difference between having a mental image and having a pure understanding. It also seems to me that my power of having mental images, being distinct from my power of understanding, is not essential to my self or, in other words, to my mind—for, if I were to lose this ability, I would surely remain the same thing that I now am. And it seems to follow that this ability depends on something distinct from me. If we suppose that there is a body so associated with my mind that the mind can “look into” it at will, it’s easy to understand how my mind might get mental images of physical objects by means of my body. If there were such a body, the mode of thinking that we call imagination would differ from pure understanding in only one way: when the mind understood something, it would turn “inward” and view an idea that it found in itself, but, when it had mental images, it would turn to the body and look at something there which resembled an idea that it had understood by itself or had grasped by sense. As I’ve said, then, it’s easy to see how I get mental images, if we supposed that my body exists. And, since I don’t have in mind any other equally plausible explanation of my ability to have mental images, I conjecture Meditations on First Philosophy that physical objects probably do exist. But this conjecture is only probable. Despite my careful and thorough investigation, the distinct idea of bodily nature that I get from mental images does not seem to have anything in it from which the conclusion that physical objects exist validly follows. Besides having a mental image of the bodily nature that is the subject-matter of pure mathematics, I have mental images of things which are not so distinct—things like colors, sounds, flavors, and pains. But I seem to grasp these things better by sense, from which they seem to come (with the aid of memory) to the understanding. Thus, to deal with these things more fully, I must examine the senses and see whether there is anything in the mode of awareness that I call sensation from which I can draw a conclusive argument for the existence of physical objects. First, I’ll remind myself of the things that I believed really to be as I perceived them and of the grounds for my belief. Next, I’ll set out the grounds on which I later called this belief into doubt. And, finally, I’ll consider what I ought to think now. To begin with, I sensed that I had a head, hands, feet, and the other members that make up a human body. I viewed this body as part, or maybe even as all, of me. I sensed that it was influenced by other physical objects whose effects could be either beneficial or harmful. I judged these effects to be beneficial to the extent that I felt pleasant sensations and harmful to the extent that I felt pain. And, in addition to sensations of pain and pleasure, I sensed hunger, thirst, and other such desires— and also bodily inclinations towards cheerfulness, sadness, and other emotions. Outside me, I sensed, not just extension, shape, and motion, but also hardness, hotness, and other qualities detected by touch. I also sensed light, color, odor, taste, and sound—qualities by whose variation I distinguished such things as the sky, earth, and sea from one another. In view of these ideas of qualities (which presented themselves to my thought and were all that I really sensed directly), I had some reason for believing that I sensed objects distinct from my   393 thought—physical objects from which the ideas came. For I found that these ideas came to me independently of my desires so that, however much I tried, I couldn’t sense an object when it wasn’t present to an organ of sense or fail to sense one when it was present. And, since the ideas that I grasped by sense were much livelier, more explicit, and (in their own way) more distinct than those I deliberately created or found impressed in my memory, it seemed that these ideas could not have come from me and thus that they came from something else. Having no conception of these things other than that suggested by my sensory ideas, I could only think that the things resembled the ideas. Indeed, since I remembered using my senses before my reason, since I found the ideas that I created in myself to be less explicit than those grasped by sense, and since I found the ideas that I created to be composed largely of those that I had grasped by sense, I easily convinced myself that I didn’t understand anything at all unless I had first sensed it. I also had some reason for supposing that a certain physical object, which I viewed as belonging to me in a special way, was related to me more closely than any other. I couldn’t be separated from it as I could from other physical objects; I felt all of my emotions and desires in it and because of it; and I was aware of pains and pleasant feelings in it but in nothing else. I didn’t know why sadness goes with the sensation of pain or why joy goes with sensory stimulation. I didn’t know why the stomach twitchings that I call hunger warn me that I need to eat or why dryness in my throat warns me that I need to drink. Seeing no connection between stomach twitchings and the desire to eat or between the sensation of a pain-producing thing and the consequent awareness of sadness, I could only say that I had been taught the connection by nature. And nature seems also to have taught me everything else that I knew about the objects of sensation— for I convinced myself that the sensations came to me in a certain way before having found grounds on which to prove that they did. But, since then, many experiences have shaken my faith in the senses. Towers that seemed round 394   CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty from a distance sometimes looked square from close up, and huge statues on pediments sometimes didn’t look big when seen from the ground. In innumerable such cases, I found the judgments of the external senses to be wrong. And the same holds for the internal senses. What is felt more inwardly than pain? Yet I had heard that people with amputated arms and legs sometimes seem to feel pain in the missing limb, and it therefore didn’t seem perfectly certain to me that the limb in which I feel a pain is always the one that hurts. And, to these grounds for doubt, I’ve recently added two that are very general: First, since I didn’t believe myself to sense anything while awake that I couldn’t also take myself to sense in a dream, and since I didn’t believe that what I sense in sleep comes from objects outside me, I didn’t see why I should believe what I sense while awake comes from such objects. Second, since I didn’t yet know my creator (or, rather, since I supposed that I didn’t know Him), I saw nothing to rule out my having been so designed by nature that I’m deceived even in what seems most obviously true to me. And I could easily refute the reasoning by which I convinced myself of the reality of sensible things. Since my nature seemed to impel me toward many things that my reason rejected, I didn’t believe that I ought to have much faith in nature’s teachings. And, while my will didn’t control my sense perceptions, I didn’t believe it to follow that these perceptions came from outside me, since I thought that the ability to produce these ideas might be in me without my being aware of it. Now that I’ve begun to know myself and my creator better, I still believe that I oughtn’t blindly to accept everything that I seem to get from the senses. Yet I no longer believe that I ought to call it all into doubt. In the first place, I know that everything that I clearly and distinctly understand can be made by God to be exactly as I understand it. The fact that I can clearly and distinctly understand one thing apart from another is therefore enough to make me certain that it is distinct from the other, since the things could be separated by God if not by something else. (I judge the things to be distinct regardless of the power needed to make them exist separately.) Accordingly, from the fact that I have gained knowledge of my existence without noticing anything about my nature or essence except that I am a thinking thing, I can rightly conclude that my essence consists solely in the fact that I am a thinking thing. It’s possible (or, as I will say later, it’s certain) that I have a body which is very tightly bound to me. But, on the one hand, I have a clear and distinct idea of myself insofar as I am just a thinking and unextended thing, and, on the other hand, I have a distinct idea of my body insofar as it is just an extended and unthinking thing. It’s certain, then, that I am really distinct from my body and can exist without it. In addition, I find in myself abilities for special modes of awareness, like the abilities to have mental images and to sense. I can clearly and distinctly conceive of my whole self as something that lacks these abilities, but I can’t conceive of the abilities’ existing without me, or without an understanding substance in which to reside. Since the conception of these abilities includes the conception of something that understands, I see that these abilities are distinct from me in the way that a thing’s properties are distinct from the thing itself. I recognize other abilities in me, like the ability to move around and to assume various postures. These abilities can’t be understood to exist apart from a substance in which they reside any more than the abilities to imagine and sense, and they therefore cannot exist without such a substance. But it’s obvious that, if these abilities do exist, the substance in which they reside must be a body or extended substance rather than an understanding one—for the clear and distinct conceptions of these abilities contain extension but not understanding. There is also in me, however, a passive ability to sense—to receive and recognize ideas of sensible things. But, I wouldn’t be able to put this ability to use if there weren’t, either in me or in something else, an active power to produce or make sensory ideas. Since this active power doesn’t presuppose understanding, and since it often produces ideas in me without my cooperation and even against my will, it cannot exist in me. Therefore, this power must exist in a substance distinct from me. And, for reasons that I’ve noted, this substance must Meditations on First Philosophy contain, either formally or eminently, all the reality that is contained subjectively in the ideas that the power produces. Either this substance is a physical object (a thing of bodily nature that contains formally the reality that the idea contains subjectively), or it is God or one of His creations that is higher than a physical object (something that contains this reality eminently). But, since God isn’t a deceiver, it’s completely obvious that He doesn’t send these ideas to me directly or by means of a creation that contains their reality eminently rather than formally. For, since He has not given me any ability to recognize that these ideas are sent by Him or by creations other than physical objects, and since He has given me a strong inclination to believe that the ideas come from physical objects, I see no way to avoid the conclusion that He deceives me if the ideas are sent to me by anything other than physical objects. It follows that physical objects exist. These objects may not exist exactly as I comprehend them by sense; in many ways, sensory comprehension is obscure and confused. But these objects must at least have in them everything that I clearly and distinctly understand them to have— every general property within the scope of pure mathematics. But what about particular properties, such as the size and shape of the sun? And what about things that I understand less clearly than mathematical properties, like light, sound, and pain? These are open to doubt. But, since God isn’t a deceiver, and since I therefore have the God-given ability to correct any falsity that may be in my beliefs, I have high hopes of finding the truth about even these things. There is undoubtedly some truth in everything I have been taught by nature— for, when I use the term “nature” in its general sense, I refer to God Himself or to the order that He has established in the created world, and, when I apply the term specifically to my nature, I refer to the collection of everything that God has given me. Nature teaches me nothing more explicitly, however, than that I have a body which is hurt when I feel pain, which needs food or drink when I experience hunger or thirst, and so on. Accordingly, I ought not to doubt that there is some truth to this.   395 Through sensations like pain, hunger, and thirst, nature also teaches me that I am not present in my body in the way that a sailor is present in his ship. Rather, I am very tightly bound to my body and so “mixed up” with it that we form a single thing. If this weren’t so, I—who am just a thinking thing—wouldn’t feel pain when my body was injured; I would perceive the injury by pure understanding in the way that a sailor sees the leaks in his ship with his eyes. And, when my body needed food or drink, I would explicitly understand that the need existed without having the confused sensations of hunger and thirst. For the sensations of thirst, hunger, and pain are just confused modifications of thought arising from the union and “mixture” of mind and body. Also, nature teaches me that there are other physical objects around my body—some that I ought to seek and others that I ought to avoid. From the fact that I sense things like colors, sound, odors, flavors, temperatures, and hardnesses, I correctly infer that sense perceptions come from physical objects that vary as widely (though perhaps not in the same way) as the perceptions do. And, from the fact that some of these perceptions are pleasant while others are unpleasant, I infer with certainty that my body—or, rather, my whole self which consists of a body and a mind—can be benefited and harmed by the physical objects around it. There are many other things that I seem to have been taught by nature but that I have really accepted out of a habit of thoughtless judgment. These things may well be false. Among them are the judgments that a space is empty if nothing in it happens to affect my senses; that a hot physical object has something in it resembling my idea of heat; that a white or green thing has in it the same whiteness or greenness that I sense; that a bitter or sweet thing has in it the same flavor that I taste; that stars, towers, and other physical objects have the same size and shape that they present to my senses; and so on. If I am to avoid accepting what is indistinct in these cases, I must more carefully explain my use of the phrase “taught by nature.” In particular, I should say that I am now using the term “nature” in a narrower sense than when I took it 396   CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty to refer to the whole complex of what God has given me. This complex includes much having to do with my mind alone (such as my grasp of the fact that what is done cannot be undone and of the rest of what I know by the light of nature) which does not bear on what I am now saying. And the complex also includes much having to do with my body alone (such as its tendency to go downward) with which I am not dealing now. I’m now using the term “nature” to refer only to what God has given me insofar as I am a composite of mind and body. It is this nature that teaches me to avoid that which occasions painful sensations, to seek that which occasions pleasant sensations, and so on. But this nature seems not to teach me to draw conclusions about external objects from sense perceptions without first having examined the matter with my understanding— for true knowledge of external things seems to belong to the mind alone, not to the composite of mind and body. Thus, while a star has no more effect on my eye than a flame, this does not really produce a positive inclination to believe that the star is as small as the flame; for my youthful judgment about the size of the flame, I had no real grounds. And, while I feel heat when I approach a fire and pain when I draw nearer, I have absolutely no reason for believing that something in the fire resembles the heat, just as I have no reason for believing that something in the fire resembles the pain; I only have reason for believing that there is something or other in the fire that produces the feelings of heat and pain. And, although there may be nothing in a given region of space that affects my senses, it doesn’t follow that there aren’t any physical objects in that space. Rather I now see that, on these matters and others, I used to pervert the natural order of things. For, while nature has given sense perceptions to my mind for the sole purpose of indicating what is beneficial and what harmful to the composite of which my mind is a part, and while the perceptions are sufficiently clear and distinct for that purpose, I used these perceptions as standards for identifying the essence of physical objects—an essence which they only reveal obscurely and confusedly. I’ve already explained how it can be that, despite God’s goodness, my judgments can be false. But a new difficulty arises here—one having to do with the things that nature presents to me as desirable or undesirable and also with the errors that I seem to have found in my internal sensations. One of these errors seems to be committed, for example, when a man is fooled by some food’s pleasant taste into eating poison hidden in that food. But surely, in this case, what the man’s nature impels him to eat is the good tasting food, not the poison of which he knows nothing. We can draw no conclusion except that his nature isn’t omniscient, and this conclusion isn’t surprising. Since a man is a limited thing, he can only have limited perfections. Still, we often err in cases in which nature does impel us. This happens, for example, when sick people want food or drink that would quickly harm them. To say that these people err as a result of the corruption of their nature does not solve the problem—for a sick man is no less a creation of God than a well one, and it seems as absurd to suppose that God has given him a deceptive nature. A clock made of wheels and weights follows the natural laws just as precisely when it is poorly made and inaccurate as when it does everything that its maker wants. Thus, if I regard a human body as a machine made up of bones, nerves, muscles, veins, blood, and skin such that even without a mind it would do just what it does now (except for things that require a mind because they are controlled by the will), it’s easy to see that what happens to a sick man is no less “natural” than what happens to a well one. For instance, if a body suffers from dropsy, it has a dry throat of the sort that regularly brings the sensation of thirst to the mind, the dryness disposes the nerves and other organs to drink, and the drinking makes the illness worse. But this is just as natural as when a similar dryness of throat moves a person who is perfectly healthy to take a drink that is beneficial. Bearing in mind my conception of a clock’s use, I might say that an inaccurate clock departs from its nature, and, similarly, viewing the machine of the human body as designed for its usual motions, I can say that it drifts away from its nature if it has a dry Meditations on First Philosophy throat when drinking will not help to maintain it. I should note, however, that the sense in which I am now using the term “nature” differs from that in which I used it before. For, as I have just used the term “nature,” the nature of a man (or clock) is something that depends on my thinking of the difference between a sick and a well man (or of the difference between a poorly made and a wellmade clock)—something regarded as extrinsic to the things. But, when I used “nature” before, I referred to something which is in things and which therefore has some reality. It may be that we just offer an extrinsic description of a body suffering from dropsy when, noting that it has a dry throat but doesn’t need to drink, we say that its nature is corrupted. Still, the description is not purely extrinsic when we say that a composite or union of mind and body has a corrupted nature. There is a real fault in the composite’s nature, for it is thirsty when drinking would be harmful. It therefore remains to be asked why God’s goodness doesn’t prevent this nature’s being deceptive. To begin the answer, I’ll note that mind differs importantly from body in that body is by its nature divisible while mind is indivisible. When I think about my mind—or, in other words, about myself insofar as I am just a thinking thing—I can’t distinguish any parts in me; I understand myself to be a single, unified thing. Although my whole mind seems united to my whole body, I know that cutting off a foot, arm, or other limb would not take anything away from my mind. The abilities to will, sense, understand, and so on can’t be called parts, since it’s one and the same mind that wills, senses, and understands. On the other hand, whenever I think of a physical…
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