Descartes Fourth Meditation On human error

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1 Descartes Fourth Meditation On human error Descartes begins the fourth Meditation with a review of what he has learned so far. He began his search for certainty by questioning the veracity of his own senses. In the second Meditation, he established that he could not doubt his own existence as a thinking, conscious being. While he could doubt the existence of a world beyond his mind that might be causing his ideas, he was certain at least that it consciously seemed to him that there was such a world of objects. Error, Descartes claimed in the third Meditation, does not arise in our ideas (that is, in our conscious states) themselves, but rather in the judgment or inference we make that there is something distinct from our conscious ideas that causes these ideas to exist in our conscious minds. In the third Meditation, Descartes make his first step in breaking out of his own mind. He claims to prove the existence of at least one thing that exists outside of and independently of his conscious mind, namely, the existence of a supremely perfect God. Descartes is aware of himself as a being with limitations, and, from this awareness, he finds that he can at least conceive of a being without any such limitations or imperfections. By a complex and fascinating chain of reasoning, Descartes argues that this idea which he has discovered in his mind could only be there if caused to exist by a being that possessed at least as much reality as is represented in this idea. That is, only the existence of a completely perfect being could explain this idea that exists in his mind. But, having already established that he himself is not completely perfect, Descartes concludes that at least one thing must exist outside and independently of his conscious mind, an infinitely perfect being that is the source (i.e., cause or creator) of everything containing any degree of reality whatsoever. So Descartes begins the fourth Meditation having argued that he can know with certainty the existence of at least one thing outside of his own existence and his own conscious states. While there are plenty of questions we could ask about his reasoning in the third Meditation, we will set those aside and look at how Descartes continues in the

2 fourth Meditation. Descartes now finds himself with a new problem: how is it possible for him to make errors of judgment? Descartes speaks of his faculty of judgment. By this he means only that he recognizes that he has the ability to form beliefs about the truth or falsity of various claims. Since he was created by an all powerful and all good God, it would seem that this faculty of judgment, if used correctly, should never lead him into error. (An all powerful God would be able to give him a faculty of judgment that would never, if used correctly, lead him to make mistaken judgements, and all all good God would not want to deceive him by giving him such a misleading faculty.) And so it would seem that, being created by an all good and all powerful God, Descartes should never make errors of judgment. And yet clearly he does. Descartes task in the fourth Meditation is to explain the possibility of human error in a way that does not call the perfection of God into doubt. If Descartes can locate the source of human error (and if, as it turns out, this is source is within himself), then perhaps he can find a method for avoiding error. The first move Descartes makes is to clarify the problem before him: what he must explain is why he makes errors of judgment, not why it is that there are many things that he does not know. God, for Descartes is an infinite being, and there are infinitely many truths that God knows. But Descartes is a finite being, and consequently, there are only finitely many true beliefs that it is possible for such a finite being to acquire. This fact--that he is merely a finite being--is not, Descartes thinks, sufficient reason to question the perfection of God. The problem is not that he does not, like God, possess infinitely many true beliefs, but rather that he has some number of false beliefs. Error is not merely the lack of all possible true beliefs, but the presence of false beliefs. If God is the source of all truth, where does this falseness come from? Descartes question here is not only epistemological (he wants to know how to avoid error), but metaphysical--if the world is created by an all good and all powerful God, where does falsity come from? How did it get into the world to begin with?

3 This is an old question: if God is all good and God created everything, where does all the bad stuff come from? Known as the problem of evil, this is a standard argument against the existence of God. (An all powerful being would be able to prevent evil in the world. An all good being would want to. But evil exists in the world. So, there doesn t exist any being that is both all powerful and all good.) But if the question is old, so are the theistic responses to it: Evil, the standard response goes, is the result of human free will. God gave us a free will (and that is a good thing--better than a world in which nothing had a free will). But having a free will gives us the ability to do bad things. Rather than choose to do God s will, we can freely choose, for example, to hurt one another. So bad things happen in the world because human being choose to misuse their free will. Evil, that is, is not God s creation, it is ours. It is the result of sin. Of course, this raises at least as many interesting philosophical questions as it claims to answer. I m not going to even pretend to try to address them here. But if you understand the thrust of this answer, you can see that is the very same kind of answer that Descartes gives here. Human error may not seem evil in the sense, say, that the Holocaust was evil. But the metaphysical problem is the same: if the world was created by an all good an all perfect being, where does it come from? The answer Descartes gives is exactly the response the theist gives to the problem of evil: from a misuse of human free will. The issue for Descartes is errors of judgement. We can judge that something is true or that it is false. We can judge that some course of action should be pursued, or that it should be avoided. Sometimes we are correct, but other times we make mistakes. To explain how this is possible, Descartes analyzes our faculty of judgment. Our ability to judge that something is true or false, Descartes claims, is not a simple mental ability or faculty, but the result of two distinct faculties: the faculty of understanding and the faculty of will. ( Faculties, again, are simply abilities that we have.) Our faculty of understanding (or intellect ), Descartes, says, is our ability to form ideas in our minds. This faculty is finite, in that there are only finitely many ideas that we can form in our finite lives. But, strictly speaking, this faculty is not capable of error. There is no error in

4 simply having an idea. Even if we picture flying horses, or imagine doing bad things to others, there is no error in simply having the idea. Error arises only when we choose to believe that the idea is true, or that the action is something we should pursue. So, our faculty of judgment, Descartes claims, is a combination of two distinct faculties, that of understanding (or intellect ) and will ( volition ). Our faculty of understanding--our ability to form ideas--is finite, but contains no errors because it (in itself) makes no judgments. Our faculty of will likewise contains (in itself) no imperfections. In fact, Descartes says, our faculty of will is infinite. In and of itself, our faculty of will is no different than God s. God has more power than us, and so is able to exercise his will on many more things than we are, but if having a free will is simply having the ability to accept or reject a proposition, to pursue a goal or to avoid something, then our free will is no different than God s. A free will, Descartes is saying, is essentially something that one either has or does not have. It doesn t come in degrees. So if we have one, then there is some part of us that is made in the image and likeness of God. What Descartes says about free will is interesting in many ways that go beyond what we can talk about here. But his goal here is simply to explain how we make mistakes of judgment in a way that is consistent with our being created by an all powerful and all good God. Our understanding is finite, but that is not inconsistent with God s perfection. God didn t have to create us, or to give us any understanding at all. Our understanding is finite, but contains no errors, so there is no error in what God has given us. Our will, on the other hand, is infinite. There is no error in our will, as such, and so no error in what we have been given by God. So, there is no error in either our understanding or our will. God created everything, and God is all good. We, his creatures, are not infinitely good (which simply means that we are not God), but there is no badness in what God created. Errors arises because of the fact that while our understanding is finite, our will is infinite. That is, we can freely choose to believe certain things to be true even when we lack sufficient evidence. This is the core of Descartes analysis of errors of judgment.

5 Errors of judgment are possible because judgment is the result of a combination of a finite understanding and an infinite will. We make errors of judgment when we misuse our free will to believe things without sufficient evidence. It is this misuse of our free wills that is the source of human error and sin. This is Descartes answer to the metaphysical question about where error comes from. (Whether or not it is a good answer, I will leave for you to ponder.) But that still leaves Descartes with the epistemological question: how is he to avoid error? If he makes mistakes in judgment because he willfully chooses to believe things without sufficient evidence, how is he supposed to keep his (sinful) will in check? More to the point, what actually counts as sufficient evidence for judging that some idea is, in fact, true? Descartes answer is that I should accept (affirm to be true) only those ideas that are clear and distinct. Descartes doesn t do much here to tell us precisely what it is for an idea to be clear and distinct. Elsewhere he describes a clear and distinct idea as something that we can simply see by the light of reason to be manifestly true. If an idea is clear, it is not fuzzy or ambiguous. We can see that it simply cannot be false. If it is distinct, it is limited. We can see what it does and does not contain. It is, if you will, clear through and through (and so cannot, in itself, be mistaken), and has clear boundaries as to what it contains and what it doesn t (and so cannot include anything outside of itself that might not be clear). If I had to give a plausible example of a clear and distinct idea, I could only appeal to mathematical truths. I have, I think Descartes would say, a clear and distinct idea that 1+1=2. This is not something I know on the basis of sense experience. Rather, it is something that I can simply see by the light of reason to be true. Descartes (and rationalists in general) seem to have in mind something like a pure intellectual perception. We seem to be able to see that 1+1=2, not through our physical senses, but by a pure act of mind or reason.

6 I will leave it to you to think about whether or not you find such intellectual perceptions in your own experiences. Descartes was certainly not alone in claiming that there are certain truths that we can simply see, by the natural light of reason, to be true. In fact, philosophers have claimed that there are many such things that we can know by reason alone. (Leibniz is fascinating, in part, because of how much he thinks we can know by reason alone.) The trouble is that they disagree about these truths we can see by reason alone. But if something is such that we can simply see that it must be true, what are we to say if someone else disagrees? If I told you that I sincerely believed that 1+1=3, what could you possibly say to me? If I really believed that, could you even make sense of me? All of this leaves Descartes with something of a problem. I can, at least in principle, avoid error if I refrain from choosing to believe any ideas which are not clear and distinct. That is, as long as I choose to believe only clear and distinct ideas, I will never make mistakes. Now, maybe because I am an imperfect human being, this is not something I can actually do. But at least, Descartes thinks, I know what I need to try to do. I can avoid error as long as I choose to believe only clear and distinct ideas. My clear and distinct ideas simply cannot be false. How do I know this? Descartes answers this at the very end of the fourth Meditation: If I restrain my will so that I form opinions only on what the intellect clearly and distinctly reveals, I cannot possibly go wrong. Here is why. Every clear and distinct idea is something real and positive; and so it can t come from nothing, and must come from God. He is supremely perfect; it would be downright contradictory to suppose that he is a deceiver. So the clear and distinct ideas must be true. Hmmmm... So, I can trust my clear and distinct ideas because they are real and positive, and everything real and positive must come from God, who is the source of all positive reality. (Evil seems to be a kind of negative reality, and it comes from us, not God.) But since God is infinitely good and fully perfect, God is not a deceiver, and so my clear and distinct ideas must be true. Whatever we may think about all this, many claim that Descartes is now arguing in a circle, in that his argument (in the third

7 Meditation) for the existence of God presupposed that he could trust his clear and distinct ideas. So, he knows there is a God because he knows he can trust his clear and distinct ideas, and he knows he can trust his clear and distinct ideas because he knows there is a God. If this is true (if this is really the structure of Descartes reasoning), then Descartes first positive step in reconstructing his system of beliefs is fatally flawed. And that seems to leave him (and us, if we are going through all this reasoning with him) back where he ended the second Meditation: stuck within his own mind and his own conscious experience. Welcome to solipsism! Descartes s fifth Meditation contains some claims about the concept he has of material things, as well as another argument for the existence of God. (Maybe he had a sinking feeling that his first one didn t quite work!) When we move on to the sixth Meditation, we will find his argument that there is indeed a world of material objects outside his mind. This argument will depend heavily on his claim that God is not a deceiver. So, if the arguments of the third and fourth Meditations are not convincing, that part of the sixth Meditation will be equally unsatisfying. But the sixth Meditation also contains more of Descartes arguments for mind/body dualism. So, if we put aside questions about whether or not we can really trust our senses that there even is any material world, we can look at Descartes argument that mind, or the subject of conscious experience, is essentially something non-material. And this is just what we will do.

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