RENE DESCARTES PROOF OF GOD’S EXISTENCE: ACRITICAL EXPOSITION
The question of God is a perennial subject of debate in the history of philosophical scholarship and can be located in nearly all the epochs of philosophy. The subject however occupies a central space in the medieval epoch that was characterized by religious thinkers. The debate is largely between two schools of thought. There are those who opine that there is no such entity as God. To such thinkers, the question of God does not amount to anything but is largely a product of human imagination. On the other hand, there are certain group of thinkers who insist that God is a reality that exist and must be given due consideration. Thus, the onus lies on the one who affirms the existence of God to explain who or what this God is and to prove his existence. The subject of God may have being difficult to explain because the term God does not refer to any physical entity in the universe. Rene Descartes who is widely revered as the father of modern philosophy affirmed the existence of God and proffered two arguments for the existence of God. Many scholars have bore their minds on the question of God, but our aim in this paper is to examine the various ramifications of Descartes’ proof of God’s existence. To achieve this aim, our exposition shall follow this outline:
Life and works of Descartes
Who is God?
The historical trajectory of the problem of God
The cogito: a background to the Cartesian prof of God’s existence Descartes’ proof of God’s existence
Criticisms of the Cartesian proof of God’s existence
Life and works of Rene Descartes
Descartes is the first major philosophical thinker of the modern period and the father of modern philosophy. He was born in La Haye, a small town near Tours in France on the 3rd of March he received a Jesuit education at the Jesuit college of La fleche in Anjou, one of the best schools of his time. Upon completion of his studies, he went to Holland where he joined the army in 1618. The following year, he travelled to Germany where he began to develop his ideas concerning how knowledge should be acquired.
Descartes returned to France in 1628 but soon returned to Holland where he remained until 1649, when he went to Sweden at the request of Queen Christina to come and tutor her in philosophy and knowledge in general. He is said to have died of pneumonia on the 11th of February 1650. Descartes has many achievements to his name, he invented the analytic geometry and the Cartesian coordinate system named after him. His major works include: The Rules for the Direction of the Mind (1628), the world (1629), Discourse on Method (1637), Optics (1637), Meteorology (1637), Meditations on first Philosophy (1641), Principles of Philosophy (1644) and Passions of the soul (1649). Who is God?
Much of the disagreement about “proofs” of God’s existence is due to different conceptions of God. Classical theism, for instance, characterizes God as a supreme metaphysical being. Despite extensive writing on the nature of God, these classical theists did not believe that God could be defined. They believed that it would be contradictory to the transcendent nature of God if mere humans are able to define him. By contrast, much of Eastern religious thought (chiefly pantheism) presents God as a force inherent in every accessible and conceivable experience. In modern times, the concept of God typically entails a monotheistic, supreme, ultimate, and personal being, as found in the Islamic, Christian and Hebrew traditions. A historical trajectory of the problem of God.
Since the ancient epoch of philosophy, philosophers have always grappled with the problem of the existence of God. Thus we shall examine the general posture that the discourse of God assumed before and after the advent of Descartes. This would properly position us to understand the background from were Descartes emerges. The ancient Western tradition of philosophical discuss of the existence of God began with Plato and Aristotle, who made arguments that would today be categorized as cosmological. In the medieval epoch of philosophy, other arguments for the existence of God have been proposed by St. Anselm, who formulated the first ontological argument; Avicena Averroes and Thomas Aquinas, who refined the cosmological argument (the kalam argument and the first way, respectively). In the modern period, Descartes, asserts that the existence of a benevolent God is logically
necessary for the evidence of the senses to be meaningful; and Immanuel Kant, also contended that the existence of God can be deduced from the existence of good.
The cogito: a background to Descartes prof of God’s existence Descartes was skeptical of the knowledge he acquired over the years, because he thinks that real knowledge requires certainty. To attain certainty, we need a foundation and then, we need a way of building from that foundation to other truths. Descartes describes his foundation in the first meditation. His starting point is the collection of beliefs. Thus he looks for grounds of doubt for certain basic beliefs and having found certain grounds for doubt, all other beliefs based on the basic beliefs will tumble. He rejects beliefs acquired through sense perception on the ground that we could be dreaming. He further rejects a priori beliefs for example mathematical truths on grounds that there could be an evil deceiver who is so powerful and possibly responsible for making him conceive of these beliefs. Having doubted his beliefs, Descartes discovers that he exists, for even if there is a powerful deceiver, he must exist.
The reason for his certainty about this belief is that he is thinking, whether this thinking consists of being deceived by the evil deceiver or not. In other to be thinking, he must exist. He avers cogito ego sum-I think, therefore I exist. Thus, his existence serves as a model for acquiring other kinds of knowledge. However, Descartes has not totally extricated himself from his self-imposed doubt and to do so, he proves the existence of a God who is not a deceiver. The Cartesian proof of God’s existence.
Descartes proffered two arguments for the existence of God in the meditations, neither is original. The first is a version of the cosmological argument espoused by ancient thinkers and the second is a reformulation of Anselm’s ontological argument the starting point for the two fold argument is his clear and distinct idea of God. That is, he infers the existence of God from his idea of God. The causal argument for the existence of God
Descartes’ first argument can be summarized as an attempt to prove God’s existence by causal reasoning. He asserts that his idea of God could only have been caused by God. Below is a concise presentation of his causal argument: •All effects including ideas are caused by something.
•There must be at least as much reality in the cause as there is in the effect. •I have an idea of God as an infinite and perfect being.
•The idea of God in my mind is an effect that was caused by something •I am finite and imperfect and thus could not be the cause of the idea of an infinite and perfect God. •Only an infinite being could be the cause of such an idea. •Therefore, God (an infinite and perfect being) exist.
The first premise of the causal argument derives from a commonly held belief that has long being a premise in other arguments for the existence of God. The logic behind Descartes’ second premise can be explained thus, he says a cold object such as a pot of water cannot become hot unless something else causes that heat. But, the cause must have a high degree as the effect. For it is impossible for one level of reality (the boiling water) to be produced by a cause that is less than the effect (a cold stove). Just as heated water is an effect that requires a cause, so Descartes’ idea of an infinite and perfect being is an effect or a phenomenon that needs to be accounted for. It is possible that Descartes could have produced the idea of God himself. But for him, a finite object can only produce another finite object. Hence, Descartes says ordinarily, the idea in his mind does not tell him if there is the existence of any external reality.
However, the idea of perfection is unique. If he could not have manufactured it himself, then it will necessarily follow that he is not alone in the world, but that some other thing which is the cause of this idea exist. That thing can only be God therefore, God exists. Descartes further corroborated his argument by demonstrating that his sustained existence requires an adequate cause. Using a variation of his causal argument, he argues that a being such as himself who contains the idea of perfection cannot come from an imperfect cause. In the cause of searching for an explanation for his own sustained existence, he introduces the principle that there cannot be an infinite regress of causes therefore; these causes must culminate in an ultimate cause and that cause is God. He conceives God as an infinite substance who is Omniscient, omnipotent, everlasting, unchanging, perfect, and the creator of all things. The ontological argument.
In the meditation, Descartes employed a version of Anselm’s ontological argument to buttress the existence of God. Descartes begins by stating that the essence of a thing is different from its existence. The essence of a thing is that property without which it cannot be what it is. He argues that, to be a perfect being, a being must include in itself all perfection. Existence is perfection, therefore a perfect being (God) necessarily exist. The main outline of Descartes’ version of the ontological argument is as follows:
•I have the idea of a God that possess all perfection,
•Existence is a kind of perfection
•If the God I am thinking of lacked existence, then he will not be perfect
•Hence, if I can have the idea of a perfect God, I must conclude that existence is one of God’s essential attributes.
•If existence is one of God’s essential attributes, he must exist
•Therefore God exist.
Descartes’ bases his argument on the notion that when one clearly understands the nature of something, one would be lead to conceive of all its essential properties. The idea of God according to Descartes is always thought to be the idea of a perfect being. As such, such a being cannot lack perfection of any kind, including existence. And no other being has existence as a part of its essence. Thus Descartes says, it would be contradictory to say, I think of a perfect being who necessarily has existence as its property but who does not exist. Having proved the existence of God, Descartes uses the existence of God to explain his existence. He now sees God as the source of his existence and sustenance. Prior to his discovery of God, he had no idea of why he existed, for he could find no power within him that could bring about his existence. He now realizes that he is imperfect finite and dependent on God. Criticisms of the Cartesian proof of God’s existence.
There are many problems with Descartes’ argument. Perhaps, the most obvious are his reliance on the causal principles, his acceptance of his previous scholastic beliefs about the degrees of reality of ideas and of things and his claim that his idea of God is clear and distinct. Descartes posits that the light of nature teaches us how to distinguish what is clear and distinct from what is not. One problem that still remains a puzzle concerns how we can know when the infallible light of nature is guiding us and when our natural impulses are leading us since we do not have any means of detecting when our natural impulses are leading us from those instances where we are led by the light of nature. Several theologians of Descartes’s time challenged the claim that infinity and perfection must precede all thoughts of finitude and imperfection.
One of such critics puts it thus, “I can surely take a given degree of being, which I perceive within myself, and add on a further degree of being, and thus construct the idea of a perfect being from all the degrees which are capable of being added on.” If finite minds can construct the idea of infinity or perfection in this manner, we do not need to look outside of ourselves in an attempt to account for the origin of our idea of infinity.’ Though many theologians who used this argument agree that there is the existence of God, they simply think that Descartes provided an inadequate argument for the existence of God. Many philosophers have also objected that existence is not a property at all, hence cannot be derived from the concept of God in the same way as God’s benevolence or omnipotence. We can also question Descartes’ claim that his idea of God is clear and distinct. Perhaps, the idea of a supremely perfect being contains a contradiction. Even if we were to grant Descartes that reality or existence is a property, why must we think that there is a most perfect being-that is, that there is a top to the scale, at which actuality is reached?
From our exposition, it is apparent that Descartes’ rationalistic method has led him out of the slit of doubt. He is now certain of the existence of himself and God. The existence of God for him is particularly important because it released him from the prison of his mind. He now knows that something exists outside his own mind and its ideas. Thus, he uses his certainty of the existence of God as a bridge to the external world. It is important to note however that Descartes aim is to show that all knowledge can be derived from reason. He begins with the ‘cogito’ which shows him that he exists as a thinking thing. From the cogito, he knows that what he clearly and distinctly perceives by the ‘light of nature’ must be true. Then he discovers certain clear and distinct principles which together with a clear and distinct idea of God enable him to derive God’s existence. And ones he has done this, he is able to remove the evil demon as a ground of doubt since an even more powerful benevolent perfect deity exist.
We have successfully examined the issue of the existence of God. We began by examining the ambiguous nature of the concept of God after which we attempted to understand how the truth of the cogito led Descartes to the discovery of the existence of God and the terrestrial world. from our exposition, we can say that conclusions on the existence of God can be divided along numerous axes, producing a variety of independent classifications such as; Theism and atheism, Gnosticism and agnosticism, Ignosticism, and Apatheism. Though Descartes can be criticized and has been criticized on many fronts, his contribution to the God question cannot be over emphasized. He has inspired many after him who have also contributed their quota to the problem all in a view to proffer solution to the perennial problem of God.
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