# This is because the quality of extension is part of the essence of material objects.

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1 UNIT 1: RATIONALISM HANDOUT 5: DESCARTES MEDITATIONS, MEDITATION FIVE 1: CONCEPTS AND ESSENCES In the Second Meditation Descartes found that what we know most clearly and distinctly about material objects is not there sensible qualities, but the quality of being extended, having a certain shape, and being in motion. In fact, Descartes states here that these ideas are innate. Their truth is so open and so much in accord with my nature that, when I first discover them, it seems I am not so much learning something new as recalling something I knew beforehand. In other words, it seems as though I am noticing things for the first time that were in fact in me for a long while, although I had not previously directed a mental gaze upon them (42). This is because the quality of extension is part of the essence of material objects. Something s essence is the set of properties which make something what it is. It would be impossible for something to be X if that thing did not have the essential properties of X. For instance, it is part of the essence of a triangle to have three sides and to have all 3 angles add up to 180 degrees. Any figure which does not have these properties is not a triangle. This is important for Descartes because it proves that the reality of certain concepts. What I believe must be considered above all here is the fact that I find within me countless ideas of certain things, that, even if perhaps they do not exist anywhere outside me, still cannot be said to be nothing [ ] For example, when I imagine a triangle, even if perhaps no such figure exists outside my thought anywhere in the world and never has, the triangle still has a certain determinate nature, essence, or form which is unchangeable and eternal, which I did not fabricate, and which does not depend on my mind (42-43). Even if no actual triangles exist anywhere in the universe, there is still a concept of what it means to be a triangle (i.e. the essence of a triangle) which has a nature that cannot be changed and is not fabricated or made up by us. Furthermore, even if we never acknowledged the concept of a triangle it would still persist. These are properties I now clearly acknowledge, whether I want to or not, even if I previously had given them no thought whatever when I imagined the triangle. For this reason they were not fabricated by me (43). Descartes notes that it is misguided to think that this concept came to us from our sense perceptions. It is irrelevant for me to say that perhaps the idea of a triangle came to me from external things through the sense organs because of course I have on occasion seen 1

2 triangle-shaped bodies. For I can think of countless other figures, concerning which there can be no suspicion of their ever having entered me through the senses and yet I can demonstrate various properties of these figures no less than I can those of the triangle (43). Imagine, for instance, a chilliagon. You may have never actually seen a chilliagon in your entire life. But you can still understand the concept of a chilliagon (i.e. a closed figure with 1,000 sides). Again, it is these sorts of pure mathematical concepts about which Descartes believes we can be most certain. And I recall that even before now, when I used to keep my attention glued to the objects of the senses, I always took the truths I clearly recognized regarding figures, numbers or other things pertaining to arithmetic, geometry, or, in general, to pure and abstract mathematics to be the most certain of all (43). Whenever we form some idea, and see that certain properties are essential to that idea (extension is essential to the idea we have of material objects, 3 sides is essential to the idea we have of a triangle), we can be certain that those properties really belong to the idea. 2: THE ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD For Descartes, this is important because he thinks is provides another way of proving the existence of God. But if, from the mere fact that I can bring forth from my thought the idea of something, it follows that all I clearly and distinctly perceive to belong to that thing really does belong to it, then cannot this too be a basis for an argument proving the existence of God? (43) The argument that Descartes offers here is one version of what is known as the ontological argument for the existence of God. 2.1 ANSELM S VERSION OF THE ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT One earlier thinker who provided a version of the Ontological Argument was St. Anselm of Canterbury ( ) in his book Proslogion. In this argument he attempts to prove that God exists solely by considering the very idea of God itself. This is why he labels the atheist the Fool, because anyone who understands what the term God means should be able to see that God exists ANSELM S DEFINITION OF GOD Anselm defines God in the following way. Indeed, we believe You to be something than which nothing greater can be thought. At the outset of the argument Anselm defines God as the greatest conceivable being. This means that in order for some being to qualify as God it must possess all possible perfections to the greatest 2

3 possible degree. For Anselm, the idea that a being could both God and lack some perfection is a blatant contradiction. Just as contradictory as the idea of a 4 sided triangle or a married bachelor. Thus, when we imagine God we are imagining a being that has all possible perfections: the most power possible, the most knowledge possible, the most goodness possible etc GOD EXISTS IN THE UNDERSTANDING Anselm s next move is to point out that everyone, even the Fool who claims not to believe in God, understands this conception of God. Just like an artist can have a conception in her mind of the beautiful landscape she is about to paint, without actually thinking that it exists, so the Fool can imagine God even if he does not believe it to actually exist GOD CANNOT EXIST MERELY IN THE UNDERSTANDING At this point, however, Anselm notices something extraordinary. While it may be possible to for a beautiful landscape to be present merely in our imagination, and not in reality, this cannot be the case for God. Recall that our conception of God is the greatest possible being we can conceive of. However, if God did not exist then we would be able to conceive of a being greater than God. Namely, a being just like God but who also existed. This is a contradiction, and therefore it is impossible for God not to exist ANSELM S ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT We can formally outline Anselm s argument in the following way. Anselm s Ontological Argument P1 There is, in the understanding at least, a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. P2 If that being exists only in the understanding, then it s possible to conceive of something greater, namely the same being except existing in reality as well as in the understanding. P3 Contradiction! It is logically incoherent to conceive of something that is greater than the greatest conceivable being. C1 That being does not exist only in the understanding. P4 If that being does not exist only in the understanding, it exists in reality. C2 God, a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in reality. C3 God exists. 2.2 DESCARTES VERSION OF THE ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT Descartes version of the ontological argument functions in a similar fashion to the argument given by Anselm. The major difference is that Descartes argument does not depend upon our ability to imagine God. Instead, his argument simply notes that the very concept of God entails existence. In other words that part of God s essence is existence. Clearly the idea of God, that is, the idea of a supremely perfect being, is one I discover to be no less within me than the idea of any figure or number. And that it 3

4 belongs to God s nature that he always exists is something I understand no less clearly and distinctly than is the case when I demonstrate in regard to some figure or number that something also belongs to the nature of that figure or number. Thus, even if not everything that I have meditated upon during these last few days were true, still the existence of God ought to have for me at least the same degree of certainty that truths of mathematics had until now (43-44). We can outline Descartes argument in the following way. Descartes Ontological Argument P1 Whenever I clearly and distinctly that some properties must belong to some idea, we can be certain that those properties belong to the idea (i.e. we can be certain that 3 sidedness belongs to our idea of a triangle). P2 I clearly and distinctly perceive that, because God is a being with all perfections, existence is part of God s essence. C I can be certain that God exists. It is true that in other cases that we separate existence and essence from one another. However, this is not the case with God. But nevertheless, it is obvious to anyone who pays close attention that existence can no more be separated from God s essence than its having three angles equal to two right angles can be separated from the essence of a triangle, or than the idea of a valley can be separated from the idea of a mountain. Thus it is no less contradictory to think of God (that is, a supremely perfect being) lacking existence (that is, lacking some perfection), than it is to think of a mountain without a valley (44). Just as the concept of a triangle implies three sidedness, so the concept of God implies existence. To think otherwise would be to think that a being with all perfections can lack some perfection. While the concept of a triangle as including three sides does not imply that any triangles exist, and the concept of a mountain implying a valley does not entail that any mountains exist, but the concept of God does entail that God exists. 2.3 WHY A SECOND ARGUMENT? We should remember that, in Meditation Three, Descartes already provided an argument for the existence of God. We might wonder, then, why does Descartes provide a second argument for the existence of God in Meditation Five? If the argument in Meditation Three was sufficient to show that God exists, then what is the purpose of the second argument? Descartes does not make it completely clear to us why he does this. There is, however, one possible explanation that we will consider here. 1 It is important to see that there is an important difference in how each argument establishes its conclusion. The Causal argument from Meditation Three is an a posteriori argument. This means that it is based upon experience in some way. Namely, it is based upon the fact that we have an idea of 1 See C.G. Prado, Starting with Descartes,

5 God and that there is nothing in nature which could have provided us with that idea. The Ontological Argument, however, is an a priori argument. This means that the argument is conceptual in nature and is based upon reason. God s existence is shown merely through considering the very concept of God. Earlier, in Meditation One, Descartes called into question the knowledge we gain both through the senses and through reason with the dream argument and evil demon hypothesis respectively. In building a foundation for our knowledge, then, we ought to work in a parallel way. By offering both an argument for the existence of God that is based upon experience, and one that is based upon reason, Descartes shows that God s existence can be demonstrated both through experience and reason. No matter what method for knowledge we choose, we should be able to see that God exists. 3. GOD AS THE GUARANTOR OF KNOWLEDGE Descartes also takes the opportunity to establish that God acts as the foundation of our knowledge. He notes that, were it not for God, we might be uncertain about even those things that we perceive clearly and distinctly. Often the memory of a previously made judgment may return when I am no longer attending to the arguments on account of which I made such a judgment. Thus, other arguments can be brought forward that would easily make me change my opinion, were I ignorant of God. And thus I would never have true and certain knowledge about anything, but mere fickle and changeable opinions. Thus, for example, when I consider the nature of a triangle, it appears most evident to me, steeped as I am in the principles of geometry, that its three angles are equal to two right angles. And so long as I attend to its demonstration I cannot help believing this to be true (46). Whenever we actively consider the nature of a triangle (and the relevant proofs) we cannot help but affirm that it has three sides that are equal to 180 degrees. However, when we are not actively considering these proofs, there might be other arguments that can dissuade us of this. Most notably, the sort of skeptical doubts that Descartes introduced in Meditation One, and the idea that we have been wrong in the past, might lessen our confidence. Importantly, then, the force of our clear and distinct perceptions themselves depends upon the presence of a non-deceiving God. But once I perceive that there is a God, and also understood at the same time that everything else depends on him and that he is not a deceiver, I then concluded that everything that I clearly and distinctly perceive is necessarily true. Hence even if I no longer attend to the reasons leading me to judge this to be true, so long as I merely recall that I did clearly and distinctly observe it, no counterargument can be brought forward that might force me to doubt it (46-47). Once we know that God exists, and that God is not a deceiver, then we also know that everything we plainly understand must be true (47). Even the possibility that we could be dreaming is now seen to be irrelevant. Even if it does turn out that we are dreaming, our clear and distinct perception of what is implied by a certain concept remains true. 5

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