We might already have an inkling that God is going to be important for Descartes’ argument. In the end, the concept of God acts as the ultimate guarantee of certainty for Descartes, for it ensures that my ideas are true, and that they are a true representation of the state of things. This is why the proof of the existence of God is so important for the Cartesian system, for without the existence of God, the whole edifice will fall down like a pack of cards. We must underline, however, that this proof of God for Descartes is a philosophical and not a theological argument. The existence of God, at least in this context, is not a matter of faith, but of reason, and Descartes needs the existence of God for philosophical reasons and not theological ones. The concept of God is a purely rational concept and not an object of feeling or sentiment. This is not to deny that Descartes was religious or even believed in God, but that we must understand the particular philosophical meaning of this word, which means understanding its function, which in turn means understanding the problem to which it is an answer.
At the end of the second mediation all we are left with is the certainty of the cogito, but we have to understand that this certainty contains more than we first might have suspected. For it contains not only the fact of thinking and the necessary existence of thinker if there is a thought, but also the object of the thought itself. When I think of a piece of wax, then this wax is object of my thought. In fact in the previous mediation, Descartes wished to show that this idea was fundamental to the sense perception of wax, for without the idea of wax I could not perceive the identity of wax through its perceptual changes. Now we have to be very careful here not to confuse the idea of the wax, the piece of wax as the object of thought with the external reality of the object that would correspond to this idea. At this stage we cannot say whether there is anything outside the object of thought that would correspond to it:
I have noted before, even though the objects of my sensory experience and imagination may have no existence outside of me, nonetheless the modes of thinking which I refer to as cases of sensory perception and imagination, insofar as they are simply modes of thinking, do exist within me – of that I am certain [AT VII, 35].Now there is a very important technical term that Descartes uses here that we need to be aware of, which is the expression ‘mode’. This is a scholastic philosophical definition, which Descartes would have expected any educated reader to know. Unfortunately we belong to another era, one in which philosophy is not a compulsory part of our education, so we are unlikely to know what this word means. What then is the meaning of the word ‘mode’ when we speak of ‘modes of thinking’? A mode is precisely a particular thought as opposed to thinking itself. What makes a thought different from any other thought is only the object of the thought. Thus the thought of the piece of wax is a mode of thinking, as is the thought of a unicorn. Each is a distinct object of thought, and thus distinct modes of thinking. Again we need to be on our toes here. We should not confuse the piece of wax as an object of thought with any real object, nor the unicorn as a object of thought with the unicorn as an existent reality, whether it exists or not. Indeed this is made clear to us when we speak of modes of thought, since we only speaking of the wax as something that is thought, the unicorn as something that is thought, and not as something real.
The next step is Descartes’ argument that the idea of something is much more clear than the mere perception of something. This should already be transparent to us from the previous meditation. Thus though I can doubt my perceptions of something as something external to me, I cannot doubt that I am now thinking that I am perceiving something, at least in the moment that I am thinking it. Thus for Descartes every idea must be true, in the sense that I cannot doubt that I am having an idea of a unicorn in the very moment that I having this idea. Where error creeps in is when I make a judgement. That is when I apply my ideas to the external world, for example when I say that there are such things like unicorns that exist independent of my mind. But at this stage I am making no such judgement. I am only saying that there are ideas in my mind, and that these ideas are only modes of thinking and nothing else.
Is there any way that I can order these ideas? Descartes thinks that there is. Of all the ideas that are in my mind, they seem to be of three kinds:
3. InventionsLet us go through these different types one at a time. Now it seems to be the case on first inspection that what determines the different kinds of ideas is their origin of cause. Thus when it comes to innate ideas, such as the idea of a thing, or the idea of truth, to use examples that Descartes uses, they seem to come from our own minds themselves. Thus if we define truth as certainty, the idea of certainty seems to come from ourselves, from our own capacity to grasp things intuitively through the light of our ‘natural reason. Again in the case of adventitious ideas, such as the idea of heat or colour, these seem to have their origin outside of us, because they seem to have the force to impose themselves upon us, whether we think them or not. Lastly, with the ideas of imagination, they seem to be made up of a combination of both internal and external material. Thus, though imaginary ideas seem to come from us, they are in fact made of material that come from outside of us, such as the idea of man with a lion’s head.
But can any ideas really come from outside of us? Have we any right at this stage to talk of there being an inside or an outside, when we can not really be sure that any of our ideas have a origin outside of us, even those that most appear to do so? Again Descartes would readily agree that we couldn’t make such a certain claim that there are things outside of us that are the cause of our ideas. All he claims is that there are certain ideas that represent the objects of their ideas, as though they were external. Thus I cannot be sure that there is not some other origin that causes me to think that they are objects outside of me even though there are none. Even if these ideas were caused by external things, I cannot be sure at all that the ideas that I have in my mind could actually resemble these things which I acquire through my sense. Thus for Descartes the idea of the sun that is deduced from astronomical reasoning is quite different than the sun which appears no larger than the end of my thumb:
All these considerations are enough to establish that it is not reliable judgement but merely some blind impulse that has made me believe up till now that there exist things distinct from myself which transmit to me ideas or images of themselves through the sense organs or in some other way [AT VII, 39].But here Descartes does something very interesting. He says that it doesn’t really matter whether we talking about the innate, imaginary or external ideas, they are all the same if we treat them only as modes of thought. Why are they the same? Because as modes of thought, we are treating the idea of truth, the idea of the sun, and the idea of the unicorn, as the same; that is to say, as thoughts. We are completely discounting whether they are caused by something within or without us. All we know is that as thought they are all equally the same; namely they are all thoughts, and it doesn’t matter whether a thought is the thought of something external or internal it is nonetheless still that. We must distinguish between the immanent object of thought and the external object of thought; as an immanent object of thought, the idea of a unicorn exists just as much as the idea of the sun, which exists just as much as the innate idea of truth and so on:
But it now occurs to me that there is another way of investigating whether some of the things of which I possess ideas exist outside of me. In so far as the ideas are simply modes of thought, there is no recognisable inequality among them: they all appear to come from within me in the same fashion [AT VII, 40].We need to very clear to what extent ideas, whether we’re speaking of the sun, unicorns, or the truth, are the same, and to what extent they are not. For in the very next sentence, Descartes is going to say that they are not, and in so doing he’s going to introduce us to some more Scholastic terminology, which we’re going to have to learn, otherwise we shall never understand his proof for the existence of God. Ideas are the same to the extent that they are all thoughts, and thus as thoughts, they must have their origin in me. But what is represented in these thoughts, the object of the thought, are not the same. The object of a thought is that thought’s objective reality. What you need to remember is that objective reality is not external reality, it is only the object of a thought not the real thing that we might say, though at this stage we have no right to say, stands outside of us.
Let us briefly get these terminological distinctions in our mind before we get to the argument for the proof of the existence of God. Descartes makes three distinctions:
1. Objective reality
2. Formal Reality
3. Eminent realityNow what is very important here is that we are talking about ideas and not about things, otherwise you’re going to get very confused. The objective reality of the idea of the triangle, for example is the idea of the triangle insofar as it represents the triangle as a thing. The objective reality is not the thing represented, but the representation. One of the best ways to think of this is in terms of the operation of an image, though we should be careful here not thinking that Descartes thought that all representation were images. Thus when we say that a picture is the picture of something we can distinguish between what the picture is and what the picture represents. In the case of a picture of a tree for example, we can distinguish between the picture and the tree that is represented in the picture. What is much more difficult is the idea of formal reality in Descartes. It is much more difficult because Descartes himself seems to be confused about it. We could interpret formal reality to be the actual existence of the thing that is represented in the idea. But this would admit the existence of external things, whereas we are only talking about the nature of ideas. Formal reality is the description of the idea not the description of the thing. Many misunderstandings of Descartes have to do with confusing the formal reality of the idea with the reality of a thing. On the contrary, the formal reality of the idea describes the status of the idea itself. Whatever idea we speak of and whatever this idea might represent, the idea itself exists.
Again if we go back to our picture example, being mindful that ideas are not pictures for Descartes, so that this is only an analogy, then we can make a distinction between the picture, on the one hand, and what the picture represents on the other. Now the picture, on this analogy, is the formal idea. That is to say the idea of the tree itself, and not the tree that is represented in the idea. Now for Descartes ideas themselves are not just what they represent in the idea, but have degrees of reality. The best way to understand what Descartes means by ‘degrees of reality’ here is degree of perfection, otherwise again you’re going to get confused and think that he is speaking about real external things. Now for Descartes it is possible to say that some ideas, formally speaking are more perfect than others. The idea itself is more perfect and not just what is represented in the idea (though it is true to say that when we are speaking about perfection these two are connected). Thus to use Deleuze’s example from his own lectures, the idea of frog is less perfect than the idea of God. It is the idea itself that is more perfect, that is to say its formal reality, and not just what is represented in the idea, that is to say its objective reality. The idea of God does not just have more objective reality than the idea of frog; rather it has more formal reality than any other idea. The idea of God, therefore, for Descartes, has eminent reality. Of course the immediate question we need to ask is why it is the idea of God more perfect than any other idea? But before we get to this question we need to think about how Descartes explains the relation between objective and formal reality, for this is the basis of the proof of the existence of God
This relation is essentially causal for Descartes. That is to say that the formal idea is the cause of the objective idea. We might put it this way. In the absence of the idea of the frog, they would be no ‘frog’ as an object of the idea. This means for Descartes that the idea of the frog is the cause of the objective reality of the frog. It is not just the causality of ideas that we need to be aware of, but also, as we have already seen, that reality means for Descartes ‘degrees of perfection’. The proof for the existence of God is a combination of causality and perfection. Thus the formal reality not only causes the objective reality to exist, but also the degree of perfection that this idea has. Descartes regards it as a fundamental axiom that more cannot come from less. If the formal reality is the cause of the objective reality, then there must have been as much reality as this reality. We need to be very careful that we are speaking about ideas and not objects, and the best way to thing about it is again in terms of a picture. Descartes’ argument is that a picture will have more reality than any other one the more reality that the object of the picture has. Thus to use Bernard William’s example: a picture of a pile of sticks will have more reality than a picture of a complex machine, precisely because the complex machine, as an objective reality, has more reality than a pile of sticks. The best way to think of the relation between objective and formal relations is therefore backwards. From the complexity of the object of thought we go back to the complexity of the idea which is the origin of this thought (Williams 1978). So Descartes argues:
In order for a given idea to contain such and such objective reality, it must surely derive it from some cause which contains at least as much formal reality as there is objective reality in the idea [AT VII 41].The question then is how do I get from this relation between formal and objective reality of ideas to the proof of the existence of God. Again we need to remember that this is a causal relation for Descartes. The idea must have as much reality, perfection or complexity, as the object that it represents. In Descartes language, it contains formally as much reality as the object contains objectively. But this does not prevent it having more reality than the object it represents. In this instance, Descartes says it contains eminently what the object of thought only contains formally. But how does this further distinction get us any closer to the idea of God? Descartes asks whether it is possible that there is one idea that contains formally what I cannot be the cause of objectively; that is to say, whether there is an idea whose objectively reality, whose object of thought cannot have its origin in me.
If the objective reality of any of my ideas turns out to be so great that I am sure the same reality does not reside in me, either formally or eminently, and hence that I myself cannot be its cause, it will necessarily follow that I am not alone in the world, but that some other thing which is the cause of this idea also exists [AT VII, 42].Thus if I look at all the content of my ideas, I can see that they can all have their origin in me, but the objective reality of the formal idea of God cannot. Why is that? What is it about the idea of God that means that its objective reality cannot be inside of me and that it must exist outside of me? It is because the very formal idea of God, the definition of God, contains an objective reality that I could not be the cause of because I know that I myself am an imperfect being. We have already agreed that what has less perfection cannot be the cause of something that has more perfection. I could be, Descartes argues, the cause of all my other ideas, since objectively they contain nothing more than I contain formally, but I cannot be the origin of the content of the formal idea of God, the objective reality of God, since this objective reality contains more perfection than I do. That is to say my picture of God is less than the objective reality of the idea, and thus could not be its cause. This idea must be caused by something that existed outside of me, and it must contain formally speaking as much reality as the objective reality of the idea of God. Only God could be the cause of the idea of God:
By the word ‘God’ I understand a substance that is infinite, eternal, immutable, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful and which created both myself and everything else…that exists. All these attributes are such that, the more carefully I concentrate on them, the less possible it seems that they could have originated from me alone. So from what has been said it must be concluded that God necessarily exists [AT VII, 45].But there are problems with this. First of all, let us look at Descartes’ problem. Is it not possible that I could get to the idea of God from myself? Could I not just negate my own perfections and thus obtain the idea of the perfect? But the infinity of God, for Descartes is not something merely negative. It is not simply the opposite of the finite, rather the infinity of God is a positive infinity. It expresses the way that God’s being is more than my being positively, and not just opposite or negative to my being. It is this positive sense of infinity that God is beyond my comprehension and knowledge, and although the idea of God is in my mind, I cannot be said to be origin of it. But this puts Descartes in problem of having his cake and eating it as many of the early commentators noticed. It seems to imply that I both have an idea of God and not at the same time. If God is beyond my comprehension, then how come I do have an idea of God, which seems pretty definite, that is to say, seems to have quite a determinate content as is given by the definition? Indeed, Descartes needs the idea of God to start the proof, but at the same time seems to be saying that the content of this idea is beyond our ability to think it, and must have its cause from something else than our minds.
This is, however, only the first of Descartes’ proof of the existence of God in the Third Meditation. The second proof also relies on the principle of causality, and degree of reality, but begins with the question as to whether it is possible for me to bring myself into existence, or whether this existence requires some external cause. Again existence here means existence as a thinking substance, which at this stage of the meditation, because of the cogito I am certainly aware that I am. If I were the cause of my own existence, why would I have created myself as an imperfect being? I know that I am imperfect because of the idea of perfection. I have an idea of perfect knowledge and so on, and yet I know that I cannot reach this standard since I am a being that can doubt and be uncertain:
From whom, in that case, would I derive my existence? From myself presumably, or from my parents, of from some other beings less perfect than God; for nothing more perfect than God, or even as perfect can be thought of or imagined. Yet if I derive my existence from myself, then I should neither doubt nor want, nor lack anything at all [AT VII, 48].The argument relies on the axiom that again something less perfect cannot be the cause of the existence of something more perfect. If I was perfect, I have the idea of what perfect is, then why would I create myself as something imperfect? The notion of degrees of reality here comes with the distinction between attributes and substance. Descartes is saying that it takes more power to create substance, than attributes. Thus if I could create my own substance, that is create my own existence, why would I give myself imperfect attributes? But how does this contradict the argument that I have not been brought into existence by myself or any other being, but have always existed? Descartes responds to this objection with the principle of conservation. It takes as much power to continue to exist as it does to come into existence. Thus, when we are speaking of the existence of something, as opposed to its non-existence, we are not just speaking of some event that existed in the past, but of every instant of time. At t1 and at t2 I exist, but what ensures the continuation of my existence between these times, that although I exist at t1 that I will continue to exist at t2. ? Now my immediate response to this question it that it is my own existence that ensures that I continue to exist over time. But this, for Descartes would bring us right back to the original question, which is whether I can be the cause of my own existence. Since it takes more power to create the existence of a substance, in this instance, my existence as a thinking substance, then any attribute of a substance, and substance must have more reality than any attributes, since attributes needs substance to exist, but not substance attributes, why would I have created my existence with less perfection than the idea of perfection?
For it is quite clear to anyone who attentively considers the nature of time that the same power and action are needed to preserve anything at each individual moment of its duration as would be required to create that thing anew in it were not yet in existence. Hence the distinction between preservation and creation is only a conceptual one [AT VII, 49]From the previous argument, the power to create existence or create existence does not lie in me, but manifestly I exist, therefore my existence must come from somewhere else. It cannot come from any lesser power than is represented objectively by the idea of God, since the same questions would emerged as have in relation to self-creation or self-preservation. Thus Descartes concludes:
I recognise that it would be impossible for me to exist with the kind of nature I have – that is, having within me the idea of God – were it not the case that God really existed [AT VII].But why could not God create me with a faculty with complete knowledge, in the same way that he could have created a fly that reads Descartes? First of all, the reason for God’s creation is beyond my powers. I cannot really know why God created me in the way that he did, I can only know what I am. The reasons for existence are beyond the power of the human mind. Secondly, even if God could have created me as a more perfect being, this does not mean that with my imperfections, the universe as a whole is less perfect or would be more perfect in their absence, just as it does not make the universe less perfect because the fly cannot read Descartes.
WIllimas, B. (1978) The Project of Pure Enquiry, London: Harvester Press: 138--9