PHIL 2100: Introduction to Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Friday June 18, 2010

 

 

Immediately after suggesting clearness and distinctness as a criterion of true belief, Descartes realizes that there is a problem with it…

 

At the same time I have before received and admitted many things to be very certain and manifest, which yet I afterwards recognised as being dubious. What then were these things? They were the earth, sky, stars and all other objects which I apprehended by means of the senses. But what did I clearly [and distinctly] perceive in them? Nothing more than that the ideas or thoughts of these things were presented to my mind. And not even now do I deny that these ideas are met with in me. But there was yet another thing which I affirmed, and which, owing to the habit which I had formed of believing it, I thought I perceived very clearly, although in truth I did not perceive it at all, to wit, that there were objects outside of me from which these ideas proceeded, and to which they were entirely similar. And it was in this that I erred, or, if perchance my judgment was correct, this was not due to any knowledge arising from my perception. (Med III, Sober 216-17)

In the past, he thought that he “grasped clearly” that external objects exist, but it turned out that he was wrong.

 

So it is possible to think that a belief that you have is clear and distinct, even if it is not. Even if you think that your belief has the criterion of certainty (clearness and distinctness), it is possible that you are wrong.[1]

 

So now he wants to answer this question:

 

·         Given that any clear and distinct belief must be true, how can I be certain that a given belief really is clear and distinct?

 

 

[4.2.13.] God Exists and is No Deceiver.

 

Next Descartes says that the only reason he’s found for thinking that a belief that seems clear and distinct really isn’t, is that an omnipotent being is deceiving him (first it was God, then it was an evil demon). In other words, the only thing that is keeping him from being certain that a belief he thinks is clear and distinct is actually clear and distinct, is the possibility that God might be a deceiver:

 

But when I took anything very simple and easy in the sphere of arithmetic or geometry into consideration, e.g. that two and three together made five, and other things of the sort, were not these present to my mind so clearly as to enable me to affirm that they were true? Certainly if I judged that since such matters could be doubted, this would not have been so for any other reason than that it came into my mind that perhaps a God might have endowed me with such a nature that I may have been deceived even concerning things which seemed to me most manifest. But every time that this preconceived opinion of the sovereign power of a God presents itself to my thought, I am constrained to confess that it is easy to Him, if He wishes it, to cause me to err, even in matters in which I believe myself to have the best evidence. (Med III; Sober 217)

 

So now Descartes is motivated to ask questions about God: whether He exists, and if so whether or not he is a deceiver. If it turns out that God exists and is not a deceiver, then there will be no reason for thinking that the beliefs that he takes to be clear and distinct (and therefore certain) really are clear and distinct (and therefore certain).

 

Basically, what Descartes needs to do at this point is establish that his belief that God exists and is not a deceiver is foundational… he has to show that it is basic, epistemically certain, indubitable.

 

And to do this, he will have to come up with an argument the premises of which are all basic, epistemically certain, indubitable.[2]

 

 

[4.2.14.] The “Idea of God” Argument.

 

In order to understand this argument, we need to recognize a distinction between two types of reality: formal reality and objective reality. (The distinction did not originate with Descartes. He inherited it from medieval philosophy.)

 

Something has formal reality if it is actual or existing.

·         Formal reality comes in degrees. (This may seem like a very strange idea. Intuitively, reality seems to be all or nothing, not something that could come in degrees!)

·         What degree of formal reality a thing has is determined by how much perfection it has. The more perfect a thing is, the more formal reality it has. Because the Mona Lisa is more perfect than a portrait I happen to scribble on the back of my notebook, the Mona Lisa has more formal reality than the scribbled portrait. Because the Pope is more perfect than a trash can, the Pope has more formal reality than a trash can.

·         Even your ideas have formal reality, since they exist as ideas in your mind. Both an actual giraffe and your idea of a giraffe have formal reality. Your idea of a unicorn has formal reality, unlike unicorns themselves, which do not have formal reality (since they do not actually exist).

 

Representations, including ideas, also have objective reality. This is the reality it has, not as an existing thing (idea, painting, whatever), but as a representation—as a thing that represents something, that has an object. [Try to separate in your mind this use of the word “objective” and the use we learned earlier. Here it has to do with a representation having an object that it represents.]

·         Objective reality also comes in degrees, just like formal reality.

·         What determines how much objective reality a representation has? The degree of formal reality (and thus the degree of perfection) of its object. The more perfect the thing represented, the more objective reality its representation has.

·         So, if the object of an idea a has more perfection (and thus more formal reality) than the object of an idea b, then idea a has more objective reality then idea b.  For example, my idea of a stinky sock is less objectively real than my idea of a beautiful sunset (since stinky socks are less perfect than sunsets and thus less formally real).

·         To find out how much objective reality is possessed by the idea of something that has no formal reality, e.g., my idea of a vampire, ask how much perfection (and thus how much formal reality) a vampire would have if vampires were to exist. Presumably, vampires would be pretty far down on the list of things with formal reality, since they are evil…

 

Scale of Formal Reality (Perfection)

Scale of Objective Reality

 

the Pope

 

beautiful sunsets

 

My ideas (of the Pope; of stinky socks]

 

stinky socks

 

[vampires would be here]

 

my idea of the Pope

 

my idea of beautiful sunsets

 

 

 

my idea of stinky socks

 

my idea of vampires

 

 

Where does the idea of God fit into this picture?

 

There is no doubt that those [ideas] which represent to me substances are something more, and contain so to speak more objective reality within them [that is to say, by representation participate in a higher degree of being or perfection] than those that simply represent modes or accidents; and that idea again by which I understand a supreme God, eternal, infinite, [immutable], omniscient, omnipotent, and Creator of all things which are outside of Himself, has certainly more objective reality in itself than those ideas by which finite substances are represented. (Med III, Sober 219)

 

Were God to exist, he would be at the very top of the list of things with formal reality, since he would be the most perfect being in existence:

 

Scale of Formal Reality (Perfection)

Scale of Objective Reality

 

God

 

the Pope

 

beautiful sunsets

 

My ideas (of the Pope; of stinky socks]

 

stinky socks

 

[vampires would be here]

 

my idea of God

 

my idea of the Pope

 

my idea of beautiful sunsets

 

 

 

my idea of stinky socks

 

my idea of vampires

 

This ranking according to Formal Reality is the basis for Descartes’ argument (the following statement of his argument is adapted from Sober 164):

 

The “Idea of God” Argument

1.      My idea of God is an idea of a perfect being.

2.      There must be at least as much perfection in the cause as there is in the effect.

3.      Therefore, the cause of my idea is a perfect being—namely, God himself.

4.      One thing cannot cause a second thing unless it (the first thing) exists.

5.      Therefore, God—a perfect being—exists.

6.      A perfect being is not deceitful.

7.      Therefore, God is not deceitful.

 

Let’s consider why Descartes believes each of the premises to be, not only true, but indubitable.

 

Premise 1: “My idea of God is an idea of a perfect being.”

 

 

...that idea … by which I understand a supreme God, eternal, infinite, [immutable], omniscient, omnipotent, and Creator of all things which are outside of Himself, has certainly more objective reality in itself than those ideas by which finite substances are represented. (Med III, Sober 219)

 

Recall TIM… the Thesis of the Incorrigibility of the Mental. Descartes believes that each one of us has infallible access to the contents of her own mind. Thus, he thinks he has perfect knowledge of any of his own ideas (not necessarily of the objects of those ideas—just of those ideas themselves). He can tell just by thinking that his idea of God is an idea of a perfect being.

 

 

Premise 2: “There must be at least as much perfection in the cause as in the effect.”

 

Now it is manifest by the natural light that there must at least be as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in its effect. For, pray, whence can the effect derive its reality, if not from its cause? And in what way can this cause communicate this reality to it, unless it possessed it in itself? And from this it follows, not only that something cannot proceed from nothing, but likewise that what is more perfect—that is to say, which has more reality within itself—cannot proceed from the less perfect. And this is not only evidently true of those effects which possess actual or formal reality, but also of the ideas in which we consider merely what is termed objective reality. To take an example, the stone which has not yet existed not only cannot now commence to be unless it has been produced by something which possesses within itself, either formally or eminently, all that enters into the composition of the stone [i.e. it must possess the same things or other more excellent things than those which exist in the stone] and heat can only be produced in a subject in which it did not previously exist by a cause that is of an order [degree or kind] at least as perfect as heat, and so in all other cases. But further, the idea of heat, or of a stone, cannot exist in me unless it has been placed within me by some cause which possesses within it at least as much reality as that which I conceive to exist in the heat or the stone.

… Thus the light of nature causes me to know clearly that the ideas in me are like [pictures or] images which can, in truth, easily fall short of the perfection of the objects from which they have been derived, but which can never contain anything greater or more perfect. (Med III, Sober 219-20)

 

 

Conclusion (3): Therefore, the cause of my idea is a perfect being—namely, God himself.

 

 

 

Premise 4: One thing cannot cause a second thing unless it (the first thing) exists.

 

·         Descartes does not say this explicitly, but he must be assuming it. Is it true?

 

Conclusion (5): Therefore, God—a perfect being—exists.

 

And when I consider that I doubt, that is to say, that I am an incomplete and dependent being, the idea of a being that is complete and independent, that is of God, presents itself to my mind with so much distinctness and clearness—and from the fact alone that this idea is found in me, or that I who possess this idea exist, I conclude so certainly that God exists … that I do not think that the human mind is capable of knowing anything with more evidence and certitude. (Med IV, Sober 226)

 

 

Premise 6: A perfect being is not deceitful.

 

·         Descartes says: “He cannot be a deceiver, since the light of nature teaches us that fraud and deception necessarily proceed from some defect.”  (Med III, Sober 225)[3]

 

·         Again, Descartes expects us to accept this premise based on “the light of reason.”

 

Conclusion (7): Therefore, God is not deceitful.

 

 

Each step (inference) in this argument is valid. But are the premises true? We need to consider that question with regard to all of these:

·         premise 1

·         premise 2

·         premise 4

·         premise 6

 

(The other lines of the argument all follow from earlier premises; so if 1, 2, 4 and 6 are all true, then so are the other lines in the argument, including 7.)

 

[4.2.15.] Solving the Problem of the Criterion.

 

Recall Descartes’ strategy for disproving skepticism about the external world:

 

Prove that God exists (and is no deceiver)

in order to

Solve the Problem of the Criterion

in order to

Be certain that beliefs about the external world are true

in order to

Disprove skepticism regarding knowledge of the external world

 

Descartes how thinks he has completed the first step, proving that God exists (and is no deceiver), and that this will open a door to disproving skepticism about knowledge of the external world:

 

And it seems to me that I now have before me a road which will lead us from the contemplation of the true God (in whom all the treasures of science and wisdom are contained) to the knowledge of the other objects of the universe. (Med IV, Sober 226)

 

He will now reason as follows (this is my interpretation of what is going on in the Meditations; this argument is never set out explicitly by Descartes):

 

The “Clearness and Distinctness” Argument

 

  1. God exists and is no deceiver. [from the “Idea of God” Argument]

 

He reiterates this toward the beginning of Med IV:

 

For, first of all, I recognise it to be impossible that He should ever deceive me; for in all fraud and deception some imperfection is to be found, and although it may appear that the power of deception is a mark of subtilty or power, yet the desire to deceive without doubt testifies to malice or feebleness, and accordingly cannot be found in God. (Med IV, Sober 226)

 

  1. If God exists and is no deceiver, then any of my beliefs that (after my best effort to make it clear and distinct) seems to me to be clear and distinct really is clear and distinct.

 

Descartes alludes to this idea here…

 

In the next place I experienced in myself a certain capacity for judging which I have doubtless received from God, like all the other things that I possess; and as He could not  desire to deceive me, it is clear that He has not given me a faculty that will lead me to err if I use it aright. (Med IV, Sober 226)

 

…and he spends much of the rest of Med IV explaining it. We will not consider that explanation in its entirety, but instead focus very briefly on just one part of it. Here is the key idea:

·         Humans have both understanding and will. By way of the former, we come to understand a given claim; by way of the latter, we accept the claim as either true or false.

·         The understanding is finite, limited; but the will is infinite, unlimited, in the sense that by it we can accept as true any claim whatsoever, even if we don’t understand it (God has given each individual “a will more ample than [his or her] understanding”—Med IV, Sober 230).

·         If we accept as true a claim that does not seem clear and distinct to us, then we are not using our will “aright”—that is, we are misusing our will.

·         But if, by our will, be withhold our acceptance of any claim that we do not perceive clearly and distinctly to be true, then we are correctly using our will, and in that case we will not be fooled:

 

But if I abstain from giving my judgment on any thing when I do not perceive it with sufficient clearness and distinctness, it is plain that I act rightly and am not deceived. But if I determine to deny or affirm, I no longer make use as I should of my free will, and if I affirm what is not true, it is evident that I deceive myself; even though I judge according to truth, this comes about only by chance, and I do not escape the blame of misusing my freedom; for the light of nature teaches us that the knowledge of the understanding should always precede the determination of the will. (Med IV, Sober 229-30)

 

 

  1. Therefore, any of my beliefs that (after my best effort to make it clear and distinct) seems to me to be clear and distinct really is clear and distinct. (follows validly from 1 & 2 – modus ponens)

 

  1. Clear and distinct beliefs are certain (and must be true).

 

  1. Therefore, any of my beliefs that (after my best effort to make it clear and distinct) seems to me to be clear and distinct is certain (and must be true). (follows validly from 3 & 4)

 

Once he reaches the conclusion that any belief he has which, after he has tried his best to make it clear and distinct, does seem to him to be clear and distinct is certain (and therefore true), he will be able to argue that there really is an external world consisting of physical objects, in steps like this:

6.      My belief that there is a book in front of me seems to me to be clear and distinct.

7.      Therefore, my belief that there is a book in front of me is certain (and must be true).

8.      Therefore, there really is a book in front of me.

 

So the “Idea of God” Argument and the “Clearness and Distinctness” Argument are really one long chain of reasoning, intended to show that a belief like “there is a book in front of me” can be certain and that skepticism about the external world is false.

 

[4.2.16] Is Descartes Assuming Too Much?

 

In order for a conclusion like (8) to be certain, Descartes needs to do more than simply give a sound argument for it; he has to give a sound argument that meets 2 conditions:

 

A.     he can be certain that the premises are true

B.     he can be certain that the logic is deductively valid

If either of these conditions is not met, then the conclusion (“there really is a book in front of me”, or any other belief about the external world) is not certain and Descartes has not proven skepticism to be false.

 

To see this point in a different way, consider that there are two different standpoints from which to view an argument. So far in this class we’ve only taken one of them:

·         metaphysical: is the argument sound, in reality? Are the premises in fact true, and is the logic in fact good? [this is the standpoint we’ve taken so far]

·         epistemological: how justified am I in thinking that the argument is sound? How justified am I in thinking that the premises are true and that the logic is good? Can I be certain that the argument is sound?

 

Descartes has set himself extremely high standards. Not only does he need an argument that is in fact sound; he needs an argument that he can be certain is sound, i.e., he needs premises which are certain, and he needs to be certain that each step in the argument is valid.

 

But how can he hope to succeed? The whole argument is designed to eliminate the possibility that what he takes to be clear and distinct (and therefore true) beliefs really aren’t clear and distinct. So Descartes cannot use the criterion of clearness and distinctness with the first premises of the argument; i.e., he cannot point to the fact that his first premises seem to him to be clear and distinct in order to ensure that they are true, since at that point in the argument, he hasn’t yet proved that beliefs that seem to him to be clear and distinct are in fact true.

 

So it seems as if he is begging the question / engaging in circular reasoning…


Recall the “Idea of God” Argument:

 

 |

 |

 |

 |

 |

 |

 |

 |

 |

 |

 |______________

 
we are supposed to accept premises 1, 2, 4, and 6 because we clearly and distinctly see that they are true; and we are supposed to accept the inferences to 3, 5 and 7, because we clearly and distinctly see that they are valid

1.      My idea of God is an idea of a perfect being.

2.      There must be at least as much perfection in the cause as there is in the effect.

3.      Therefore, the cause of my idea is a perfect being—namely, God himself.

4.      One thing cannot cause a second thing unless it (the first thing) exists.

5.      Therefore, God—a perfect being—exists.

6.      A perfect being is not deceitful.

7.      Therefore, God is not deceitful.

 

 

and the “Clarity and Distinctness” Argument:

 

1.   God exists and is no deceiver. [from the “Idea of God” Argument]

2.   If God exists and is no deceiver, then any of my beliefs that (after my best effort to make it clear and distinct) seems to me to be clear and distinct really is clear and distinct.

3.   Therefore, any of my beliefs that (after my best effort to make it clear and distinct) seems to me to be clear and distinct really is clear and distinct.

4.   Clear and distinct beliefs are certain (and must be true).

5.      Therefore, any of my beliefs that (after my best effort to make it clear and distinct) seems to me to be clear and distinct is certain (and must be true).

 

 

This is a classic case of circular reasoning, or begging the question. This famous (alleged) problem with Descartes’ Meditations is known as the Cartesian Circle:[4]

 

 


                     →        “God exists & is no deceiver” is beyond doubt

 

                                    becomes a premise in

 

   the Argument from Clearness and Distinctness

 

which is supposed to prove that

 

  “Clear and distinct beliefs cannot be false”

 

which is supposed to show that

 

the premises and inferences in the Idea of God Argument are beyond doubt,

because they are clear and distinct

 

and that argument is supposed to show that

                                                                        

       ←      “God exists & is no deceiver” is beyond doubt

 

 

Stopping point for Friday June 18. For next time, read:

·         Hume’s Enquiry (pp.246-53);

·         ch.15

·         ch.17

 

 



[1] Here Descartes is returning to a point that he made in Meditation I: it is possible for your belief to be false, even when it seems absolutely obvious to you that it is true, e.g. that 2 + 3 = 5. Now he is making the same point in terms of clearness and distinctness.

[2] This is because the conclusion of an argument cannot be made more epistemically secure by its premises than those premises are themselves. If Descartes is going to rely on a single chain of reasoning to establish the existence (and non-deceitfulness) of God, the last link in that chain (the conclusion) can be no more secure than its weakest link (its least secure premise).

[3] He also makes this point in Med IV: “...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. (AT  VII 53; Melchert 349)

[4] For a different perspective on this alleged problem, see Lex Newman, “Descartes’ Epistemology,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2010/entries/descartes-epistemology/>.




Intro to Philosophy Homepage | Dr. Lane's Homepage | Phil. Program Homepage

This page last updated 6/18/2010.

Copyright © 2010 Robert Lane. All rights reserved.

UWG Disclaimer