Type of paper: Essay

Topic: God, Descartes, Human, Belief, Meditation, Intellect, Education, Knowledge

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2021/02/11

Descartes’ Meditations is an exceptional work not because it lays downs the groundwork for any particular truth or even because it contains any immutable truth. Its worth lies in the fact that it was the first time a single person had formulated a single system of philosophy from which to derive all other thoughts from – he laid the groundwork for people to think and investigate on their own. In other words, he laid the foundations for the Enlightenment and the liberation of Europe from the myths and superstitions of the Middle Ages. One of the most fascinating sections in his Meditations on First Philosophy is the fourth Meditation which deals with the nature of god and human imperfection and limitation. His belief that all things stem from god and are planned by him is problematic in light of the Meditations which preceded it because it entails that free will and the agency of individual human beings is a fallacy. This paper will attempt to show that the fourth Meditation, though fascinating in terms of its content, is contradictory to the Meditations which came before it.
Given the aim of the paper and Descartes’ own structuring of the Meditations, one must first look at the ideas developed in the first three meditations before moving on to the fourth. The first meditation provides a base – it establishes the tenets and criteria which will be required for all further analysis in the book. His belief is that anything which can be doubted should be doubted and, if enough reason exists, should be altogether dismissed. Most important of all was his rejection of the ‘testimony of the senses’, which is the foundation of his rationalism.
With this base, the second meditation moves on to analyze the human mind and body. He draws the conclusion that the mind is more ‘knowable’ than the body insomuch that ideas are more accessible to then mind than sense perception. This provides a justification for the idea that pure thought is sufficient to arrive at truth (an idea which he also uses in his Discourse on the Method). The third meditation is much more closely related to the fourth – it deals with the existence of God. Of all the meditations, this is probably the most impressive because it is tour de force of pure rationalism which arrives at the conclusion that god does, in fact, exist, is infinite, benevolent, perfect, good and not a deceiver.
The points made in the third meditation - that god exists, he is infinite, benevolent, not a deceiver, and that he is the creator of all things including himself (Descartes) and his faculty of judgment. These ideas bring about a problem – if god is the originator of all things, and not a deceiver, then the human faculties of reason and judgment should be infallible. The simple fact is, nobody is infallible, therefore, either the infinite, benevolent, true god has made a mistake or Descartes has made a mistake in his conception of god. This is famously known as the ‘Problem of Error’.
Descartes’ first attempt at solving this problem is to posit that god had created humans not only as finite beings but that he created them as intermediaries between himself and ‘nothingness’. This argument states that, as far as god’s own creation of the human is concerned, nothing he has created in the human is ‘wrong’, merely limited. This permits that, given the limitations of the self, it is inevitable to err in numerous ways by virtue of the fact that humans are created finite with the ability to look into the infinite. Error is therefore a natural corollary of the limitations of the human mind and not the result of any faulty creating on god’s part.
But this answer is not finally satisfactory because numerous questions still remain. If god knew the results of human limitations (which, according to Descartes, he certainly did, by virtue of being infinite), why would he permit it? This essentially questions Descartes’ idea that god is benevolent and the ultimate good. As a response, Descartes provides two ideas – firstly, the reasons for god’s creation of the world are incomprehensible and cannot be known to the limited mental facilities of humans; and secondly, if one were to put aside the imperfections of ones own being, the natural world (apparently) provides so stunning an example of god’s grace and perfection that it cannot be doubted that this is a benevolent and good god who created the world this way and ultimately proves his perfection and benevolence through his creation. Even if one were to accept all these arguments, it still does not explain why humans are such erroneous beings. At this point, one can, at best, guess and say that perhaps what is perceived as erroneous might be part of a grand scheme wherein all things work together for the greater good.
This guess is extended much more elegantly by Descartes when he states that thing, when viewed in isolation, seem imperfect, whereas, if one were to consider them as part of a greater creation and that the parts are meant for nothing more than the function for which the creator fashioned them, then one can see that god indeed does not err or create error, it is a problem of the range and extent of human knowledge and our ability to ‘know’ what is true. This absolves god from being called a deceiver, but not from being mean spirited. The question changes from why god created all things the way they are to why did he create us the way are? The problem with the human faculties of knowing and judging is not that they are erroneous, but that they are inadequate.
Descartes posits another two possibilities as to where error comes from. He identifies two sources of error – first, the faculty of knowledge, or intellect, and second, the faculty of choice, free will or freedom which constitutes the ‘will’. It is now necessary to define these faculties. According to Descartes, one’s intellect, or the ability to ‘know’ is a mechanism by which the mind sieves through information presented to it and creates concrete ideas or knowledge, which it then presents to the faculty of the will. The Will is the system whereby humans not only choose, but also make judgments. Judgments must pertain to some actual ‘object’ or idea, it is the faculty of the intellect which provides these ideas which the will can pronounce judgments. Judgments are essentially processes by which the will affirms or denies that which the intellect places before it.
It is in the faculty of the intellect that Descartes’ places error. This is because he believes that the mind is limited in terms of the amount of knowledge it can acquire and use, but not limited in the number and ways it can pronounce judgment on those pieces of knowledge. The intellect, operating on its own, is not capable of understanding the parameters for judgment and therefore is prone to making errors in its search for knowledge. But, by Descartes’ own logic, this is not the only source of error. The ‘will’, as a result of being forced to act upon false knowledge, also creates false judgments and makes errors. Limitations are, therefore, all important. At this point, it seems very likely that Descartes amended the Platonic dictum ‘Know thyself’ to meaning nothing more than ‘know thy limitations’. By placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of human intellect and free will, Descartes does seem to have absolved god from the accusation of creating erroneous creations. But the fundamental question still has not been answered.
While Descartes’ arguments are very elegant and do seem to ‘add up’, he does not consider the full extent of his arguments. Most important of all is the question of what can, to a finite intellect, actually be true? There are certain ideas which seem self-evidently true – that the sun rises in the West or that a sandwich satisfies hunger. Using Descartes’ own method of extreme skepticism, one can see that if the intellect has erred in one area, there is no reason why it should not err elsewhere as well. Both the mind and the body are part of the same, very fallible being and there does not seem to exist any reason to privilege one over the other. In other words, the fourth meditation is in contravention of the first.
There is a certain continuity of reason in the Meditations which makes it clear that if the base of the edifice is undermined, the rest of the structure will collapse. If the fourth meditation does in fact contradict the first meditation, the Meditations as a whole cannot hold up. Despite some incredible reasoning and lucid imaginings, Descartes’ Meditations cannot absolve god or explain humans.

Work Cited

Descartes, Rene. Meditations. trans. Jonathan Bennett. New York: Penguin. Print.

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