Descartes’ Meditations, 2/3

This is the second post in the series and covers the third and fourth meditations. To read the first part, which covers the first two, CLICK HERE.

The Third Meditation

Of God; That He Exists

In the third meditation, Descartes does two things; Firstly, he takes us through a deep analysis of the objects in our minds, describing how they are characterised and divided, and gives us a full taxonomy of the kinds and powers of mental phenomena. Secondly, he takes us through how he believes he can prove God’s existence though the nature of mental phenomena.

Descartes wonders if there is any more knowledge than that which we have already happened upon within us. What he declares is that we can be certain that we have perceptions, however, being certain that these perceptions are true is another thing. This is something he has already stated, but now he wants to unpack it further.

The contents of our minds can be understood as being formed of Ideas (capital ‘I’ intended). Ideas are, at a most basic understanding, any impression upon the mind. You look at a tree, the tree impresses on your mind, the mental representation, independent of the real tree, is the Idea of the tree. There are also Additions, such as willing, fearing, affirming, denying. These are so called because they are coupled to our basic Ideas. Additions can be divided into two things, Volitions and Judgements. These two things are self-explanatory; Volitions are those things which, when coupled with Ideas, become willed causes. Judgements are those things which, when coupled with Ideas, are our judgments to qualify truth factors- is something good/bad? Right/wrong? Hot/cold?

Ideas are true in and of themselves as whole phenomena. Volitions are always true in and of themselves too. They are not the sort of thing which can be true or untrue. Judgements, however, are inherently giving of error. Judgements are what stipulate the truth value of an Idea when it corresponds to the outside world. Therefore, an Idea is true in our head, but when an Idea is coupled with a Judgement, it is giving of uncertainty.

Ideas are of two kinds in nature, internal and external. Internal ideas are those that are born from within, whilst those which are external are adventitious, they impress upon us and appear in our minds by our perceiving them. Internal ideas are created by compounding, adding and subtracting from other stored ideas in order to create new ones. These Ideas build in complexity to advance concepts and more detailed understandings of things in the world. But Descartes wonders if we can ever truly trust internal ideas. Internal ideas lead us to both good and evil.

There is always a difference by degree and character from our internal idea and the truth of an object to which the idea corresponds. Descartes draws the sun as an example. Our adventitiously impressed idea of it is of a small round yellow/orange circle in the sky. Advancements in astronomy, for example, have taught us that it is incredibly hot, far bigger than we could imagine, and so forth.

Descartes calls these formed ideas of the outside world ‘modes’ of understanding. These things also have inherent truth values to them, up to the point of them proving us wrong. Our ideas (adventitious) do not need to correspond to those external phenomena because we can use our rationality to come to better knowledge of the outside world than our senses give us. Our subjective experiences bring us to objective truths.

From here, he takes us from a discourse of ontology to an argument in which he intends to prove God’s existence. The steps he takes us though are-

  1. Objective facts contain smaller facts. God is the highest conceivable objective reality. Therefore, the idea of god must contain all other ideas and realities.
  2. There must be more power in any cause than in its effect.
  3. If you follow any chain of causes, Ideas must be put into me.
  4. There must be a first cause. A chain of causes can’t go on infinitely.
  5. Some ideas within me are inherently imperfect- such as hot and cold- is one a privation of the other, or are they inherent values? They are subjectively implied values with relative truth factors, and are therefore not objectively true. Ideas of properties must come from within us.
  6. The idea of God could not come from within us because God is infinite, and we are not. No non-infinite being can conceive of infinity since implied qualities must have a self-relation to object-relation value.
  7. Therefore, God is the first cause. The greatest conceivable thing must be the first cause, and that is God.

The Fourth Meditation

Of Truth and Error

In the fourth meditation, Descartes wishes to examine the faculty of judgement. He first declares that God does not deceive us. God has given us the faculty of judgement, he says. To use judgement correctly is to lead us to truth, and to use judgement incorrectly is to lead us to falsity. Therefore we deceive ourselves whenever we are deceived, due to the fact that we are in control of the faculty of judgement.

We are, as extant lifeforms, halfway between God and nothingness. God, we have granted, if we are to believe Descartes, if infinite. We are finite. Therefore, our faculties are finite, including our faculty of judgement. What we can derive from this is that only God can have infallible judgement.

Error in judgement is not a negation of perfection, as it may seem to be. Error in judgement is a lack of the relevant pieces of information which lead us to perfect judgement. We can have the inherent potential to reach perfection, even whilst being in error. A craftsman who was born without the nature of perfection would never create something perfect. However, God’s creations are perfect since God is perfect. The faculty of judgement can therefore lead us to perfection in understanding, or severe error in understanding. This is at the mercy of our free will.

Our errors are products of two things- Understanding and will. Ideas are not errors in and of themselves. We are not lacking in anything just because our free will is finite- it already has extension beyond our need. Whether it is infinite or not, it is relatively, or effectively infinite since it is still more than we could ever use. Other faculties such as understanding and memory are far more finite than free will. Our free will directs us to work with and build these faculties, but their limitations are what assures us that we exercise our judgements and engagements with the world. Descartes believes we can prove that we are free because we feel inclined to decide to do one thing over another. Having inclinations is freedom of will because it allows us to choose.

This leads us to the conclusion of the earlier statement that we cannot blame God for our errors. They are errors of our judgements caused by our free will. Therefore judgements are directed by our free will. Our will extends further than our understanding. Knowledge is a kind of understanding, but beliefs about right and wrong are also understanding. Therefore free will, coupled with limited levels of other faculties is what guides us to make decisions of ethics and morality. It is this combination that helps us decide between right and wrong.

I am able to judge that an idea is right or wrong. That gives me the option to doubt it, and that option to doubt it brings me to the state of imperfection. I am deceived when I decide to doubt my ideas. Doubt is self deception. I will reach perfection if I direct my judgement via my free will towards the things I am more sure of, not the things I am less sure of. This brings us to the end of Descartes’ fourth meditation.

CLICK HERE to read part 3.

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