Descartes's Method of Doubt

4. Proof and Role of God

Book cover: Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction by William L. Rowe

In the previous sections, I argued that Descartes was rather careless in his application of his method of doubt to the problems of consciousness and the infinite. In this section, I examine whether he fared any better in applying his method to determining the existence and attributes of God. Borrowed from the neoplatonists is Descartes's belief that the infinite has the most positive reality and is the most perfect. For Descartes [1641b: 268], God, 'the amplest of beings', was 'the infinite'. However, I think this assumption is mistaken. We can clearly imagine other 'perfect' entities that possess qualities to an infinite degree. We can entertain the possibility of a perfect solvent, a chemical that can dissolve any substance, and a perfect lifter, a being who can lift any weight, even an infinite weight. Descartes avoided putting a case for thinking that only God could possess the attributes of perfection and infinite. Similarly, he failed to elucidate the necessary connection between reality and perfection.

In what does God's perfection consist? One way to judge whether something is perfect is to compare it to its original manifestation. We judge whether something is a 'perfect replica' by seeing how closely it relates to an archetype or model. However, God is not a replica of something else. Another way is to evaluate how well it satisfies a pre-existing purpose, as when we say of something that it is a 'perfect design'. Here, again, God is not the vehicle for the furthering of some pre-existing objective. One way around the difficulty is to say that God conforms to his own standard; that divine perfection consists in that to which God conforms. But then, Euthyphro-fashion, saying that God conforms to perfection is just to say that God conforms to whatever God conforms to. This is true, but trivially true.

Descartes had a possible way around this dilemma. He intuited that

. . . all that I had to do in order to know God's nature, as far as my own allowed, was to consider, as regards every property of which I found any idea in myself, whether the possession of it was a perfection or not; and I was certain that no property that indicated any imperfection was in God, but that all others were. Thus, I saw that doubt, inconstancy, sorrow, and so on could not be in God; for I myself should have liked to be rid of them.

[Descartes 1637: 33f]

It is not at all clear that even from the short list of imperfections that Descartes lists that they are, in fact, imperfections. Getting rid of doubt, for example, leads to obstinacy and dogmatism, characteristics that Descartes surely detested. In another case, getting rid of sorrow leads to aloofness and hardheartedness, these also being less than perfect characteristics.

Even if Descartes resisted this counterargument, some other people as intelligent and empathetic as Descartes would disagree with him in his judgments about what are imperfections. This objection goes to the heart of the fundamental weakness with Descartes's approach. And that is that his method reduces the theological investigation about God's attributes to a narrow psychologism in which what gets on or stays off the list depends exclusively on what a particular theologian 'liked'.

A second, related objection is that Descartes's list of divine attributes is constrained, as he himself admitted, by his own human 'nature'. This epistemic limitation is understandable and we ought not be too hard on Descartes on that count. However, this parochial standpoint raises the possibility that some characteristics that Descartes added to his list would require removing if our thinking were not limited by our imperfect human nature. We just don't know and there is no in principle argument that Cartesians could give that would lift the epistemic scales from our eyes.

The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism by A. C. Grayling

As a second proof of God's existence, Descartes [1641a: 103f] utilised a form of the traditional ontological argument. Mackie [1982: 41–9] provides convincing objections against Descartes's formulation, drawing on Kant's analysis and the concept of existential quantification. So, I will not add to his critique here. I have also dealt with a more robust and modern modal version of the ontological argument in my Allan [2017].

An important question to ask is whether Descartes's introduction of God saved his epistemology based on innate intuitive truths. For Descartes, God's existence is required to stamp the mark of indubitability on all of his clear and distinct ideas. Otherwise, he could be deceived whenever he would 'add two and three, or count the sides of a square, or do any simpler thing that might be imagined' [1641a: 64]. The problem for Descartes, though, is that his initial scepticism over the principles of mathematics applies equally to his non-mathematical principles. For the sake of consistency, Descartes's scepticism ought to extend to the principles he used in his deductive proof for the existence of God. Descartes offered no reason for granting the premises used in his deductive proof any epistemic privilege over his doubtful mathematical principles. For Descartes to rely, therefore, on 'clear and distinct' principles to prove the existence of God, who in turn is required to underwrite the veracity of the 'clear and distinct' principles used in the deductive proof of his existence, is as clear a case of question begging that we could ever imagine.

In his Reply to Objections [1641c], Descartes attempted to avoid this devastating critique by replying that God's existence is only required to guarantee the reliability of our memory of previous steps in a deductive argument, and not of the truth of the principles. For Descartes [1641c: 42f], 'we can entertain the same firm and immutable certainty as to these conclusions [because] the faculty of understanding given by Him must tend towards truth'. However, even if we grant the incorrigibility of Descartes's 'clear and distinct' principles, his move will not save him from the charge of question-begging. This is because Descartes's proof of the existence of God is, itself, a piece of deductive logic utilizing a number of steps, each of which requires us to remember the previous steps in the argument.

Without the surety of Descartes's God to underwrite the veracity of his 'clear and distinct' principles and his capacity to remember faithfully the steps in a deductive argument, Descartes appears to be caught between a rock and a hard place. It seems that applying his method of doubt, Descartes had not been able to inoculate himself successfully against a deceiving demon. In his Reply to Objections, he seemed resigned to this radically sceptical conclusion. Descartes [1641c: 41] conceded that the principles we regard, after critical scrutiny, as certain may, nonetheless, be 'absolutely speaking, false'. However, Descartes [1641c: 41] still claimed victory on pragmatic grounds: 'We have assumed a conviction so strong that nothing can remove it, and this persuasion is clearly the same as perfect certitude.' The weak underbelly of Descartes's method that he exposed here is the same as that revealed in the discussion above of Descartes's proof of God's attributes. And that is that the certainty of his 'clear and distinct' intuitions is not grounded in a rock-solid foundation, as he had intimated earlier, but is floating on the sea of human psychological vagaries. For Descartes, it turns out, our 'perfect certitude' is measured by no more than the strength of our subjective feeling of 'conviction'.

Book cover: An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth by Bertrand Russell

I will end this section by making one final point about Descartes's approach to the status of logical laws and how it impacts the cogency of his method of doubt. On the basis of God's omniscience, Descartes argued that logical laws are necessarily true only through God's fiat. For Descartes, this fluidity even applies to the law of contradiction. Descartes [1641b: 291] concluded that 'nothing can have obliged God to make it true that contradictories cannot be together, and that consequently he could have done the contrary'.

Once Descartes allows the possibility that God could have made it true that contradictories can be together, then everything is possible. It could be the case that contradictories cannot be together in this world (as Descartes believed) and, at the same time, that contradictories can be together in this world. Descartes could have objected that this description of the state of affairs is itself a contradiction. However, given Descartes's view of God's omnipotence, then this contradictory state of affairs is not a bother for God. The upshot here is that on Descartes's schema, it's possible for God to be a deceiver in this world at one and the same time as him not being a deceiver. Descartes's [1641a: 91] assumption that God 'cannot be deceitful', it seems, has the same level of certainty as the belief that God is deceitful. Not only does this implication destroy the foundation for all of his other certainties about mathematics, matter and mind, but it leads to the absurd conclusion that for every proposition we can think of, it's possible that its contrary is true at one and the same time.

Copyright © 2017

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