this paper, I will be analysing Descartes’ ‘Causal’ and ‘Ontological’ arguments
for the existence of God as portrayed in the Meditations on First Philosophy. I shall argue that the first
argument (causal) which is found in the 3rd
Meditation is the best out of two not so convincing arguments; with the
other proof coming from the ‘Ontological’ argument in the 5th Meditation. This is because the Ontological argument
is grounded on the presumption that God already exists in order to validate its
conclusion and is just an extension of the first argument. I will show that the
strongest objections by Kant and Gassendi go hand-in-hand in challenging the validity
of the Ontological argument and uncovering its failings. Therefore, I hold that
the Causal argument is the best argument not because it is convincing but
rather because the Ontological argument is insupportable. The motivation of this paper is to justify the
ongoing criticism for Descartes arguments due to their weak nature, proving
them immaterial in the contemporary debate concerning the existence of God.
first argument I shall analyse is argument of ‘Causal Adequacy’. The
reconstruction from the 3rd
Meditations runs as follows:
We have a clear and distinct idea of God
A cause must possess at least as much reality as its effect
The ideas of God cannot come from me (imperfect being)
Its cause must be God; therefore, God exists.
argument stems from Descartes’ philosophy in believing that ideas connect the
mind and to the external world. To justify this, he introduces us to two types
of reality involving ideas. Firstly, ‘formal reality’ can be defined as the
existence of a specific idea, whereas ‘objective reality’ can be defined as the
constituent of that idea. He then argues that in order for that idea to be
caused, the formal reality contained within the cause should be in equilibrium
to the objective reality in the idea itself. Furthermore, we can delve deeper
into the degrees of reality. Whilst all ideas have a consistent level of formal
reality, they differ in levels of objective reality. To represent this
hierarchal, ‘modes’ are considered as the lowermost degree of reality and often
depict the characteristic of an object, i.e. colour. The intermediary degree is
a finite substance and the uppermost is an infinite substance. Descartes
outlines that substances can cause modes as well as further substances, but
substances (higher) cannot be derived from modes (lower).
by using Descartes’ philosophy, we can derive P2 and P3. This argument has its
strengths if we classify Descartes as our finite substance, this will mean he
can only be the cause of consequential ideas regarding other substances and
modes. This begs the question of how it can be possible for Descartes as a
finite substance to be the cause of the idea of God which is effectively an
infinite substance, and thus holds greater objective reality. Therefore, the
only conceivable cause we are left with is that there must be an existing
infinite substance who causes the idea and, ergo, God exists.
further analyse this argument, we can see that the soundness of P1 is doubtful.
This is because Descartes assumes universal God-given innateness of these clear
and distinct ideas of God. However, this premise can easily be rejected by
saying that ideas as representations are subjective. Moreover, Gassendi in the 5th Objections affirmed that
our finite minds are unable to comprehend the idea of infinite substance and
thus the idea of God. However, Descartes disagrees and replies by saying that
it is our understanding that limits us, not the infinite substance itself. In
this Descartes fails, for me, in addressing the conditions for one to
experience a clear and distinct idea of God, leaving a significant amount for
the theory behind P2 convincing? Descartes provides no evidence or
argumentative sustenance behind the assertion that is P2. It is simply a
‘Principle of Sufficient reason’ where we must take Descartes word for the
soundness of this claim in order to truly see whether the argument is
convincing as a whole.
can also be considered unsound. This is due to Mersenne’s counter in 2nd Objections. Firstly, he
states that the idea of God can directly be derived from me (finite substance).
If we as finite substances can acquire some degree of perfection, we may be
able conjecture higher degrees of this perfection over time as to strike an
equilibrium between formal and objective reality. Descartes’ response to this
is charitable, he sees sense in the claim that the ideas can come from me.
However, he adds to this by saying that these ideas of formal reality are
innate and implanted by in our minds by God; finite substances would not be
able to perceive the idea of God if God did not exist.
this argument successful? Overall, this argument is not convincing as its
premises are somewhat unsound. To ultimately hold that finite substances
require an infinite cause merely begs the question of God’s existence.
second argument I will be analysing is the ‘Ontological’ argument as presented
in the 5th Meditation. The simplest reconstruction
is as follows:
The essence of God is to be a perfect being. (That is, I cannot conceive of God
as not being a perfect being.)
Existence is a perfection.
God’s necessary existence is part of God’s essence.
C: Therefore, God exists. (Or I cannot conceive of God as not existing.) 1
argument like the ‘causal’ is based on the philosophy of innate ideas and the
principle of clear and distinct ideas. The theory of innate ideas is relevant
in the first premise where Descartes assumes that it is already implanted in
our minds that God is a perfect being and this is included in the idea. The
second theory validates P1 and P2. This is because Descartes states that it is
clear and distinct that the idea of God as a perfect being cannot be omitted
from the idea of existence itself.
possible misinterpretation of P1 regarding this claim of ‘thinking makes it so’
is one recognised by Descartes who clarifies this by saying: “merely because I
conceive a mountain with a valley, there is any mountain in the world, so likewise,
while I conceive God as having existence, it does not follow from that, that
there is a God who truly exists” (145). He further retorts to this by asserting
that the analogy is not between existence and mountains or God but rather
between the mountains and valleys and existence and God. The idea of existence
is excluded from the idea of mountains. But just as the idea of a valley is inferred
by the idea of a mountain, so the idea of existence is part of the idea of God.
Thus, Descartes states, ‘I cannot apprehend God without existence’.
what significance does this have? Just because we cannot grasp the thought of
God not existing, is that enough to have any bearing on whether God exists or
not? It can be argued that the leaps of our thought are occasionally
representative of some situational reality. This can be the case when our
thought discloses reality rather than manipulating it. Following this,
Descartes argues that the necessitous relation between existence and God is not
one he has conjured up himself but rather one he came to uncover: “the
necessity which lies in the thing itself, that is, the inevitability of the
existence of God, governs me to think in this way: for it is not in my control
to conceive a God without existence” (145). This argument is convincing in the
sense that it is not our thoughts which cause God’s existence but rather the
fact that in order to think of God in a certain way, God’s existence must be
essential as a prerequisite. Therefore, there is a theoretical relation amongst
the notion of God and God’s existence, and this necessitates that God’s must
is objected by Kant who states that the premise incorrectly adopts that ‘existence
is a property’ (perfection). He further explains that the error lies in
believing that God encompasses the idea of existence in terms of necessary
existence being a part of God’s essence. This is because existence does not
contribute anything to the debate of conceptual perception of these ideas but
rather acts as a ‘synthetic judgement’ (Kant, 1905). For example, an elephant
is a mammal. But if instead, we say the elephant in the corner is a mammal and
confirm that it exists; we have two incredibly dissimilar statements. Kant
would use this example to prove that to say it exists is just like describing
some actual property that relates to the perception of the ‘elephant’ and does
not directly inform us about the elephant as an elephant. Therefore, existence
is not a viable association to make with any concept even those regarding God-
so to say that ‘God exists’ is unlike stating that ‘God is omniscient’. Thus,
it is false to hold that the conclusion ‘God exists’ is sound or valid.
support of P3, Descartes juxtaposes the separation of existence with the
essence of God with geometry. Insofar that the three angles can form two right
angles can be separated from the essence of a triangle. However, Gassendi
constructs two strong objections to this comparison. Firstly, the comparison is
prejudicial. Essence is paralleled with essence but then existence is not
matched with existence. The existence of God is likened with a characteristic
of the triangle and thus it is unfair to demonstrate that God necessarily
exists to a greater extent than a triangle. Secondly, it can be said that
existence cannot be classified as a perfection- existence transcends the need
for perfection to be extant. Thus, Gassendi supports Kant’s objection in that
existence is not a property.
this argument successful? The Ontological argument is invalid. The only
conclusion that can be drawn from this argument is that if God does exist, this
existence is necessitous, if it is not than his existence is irrational. Thus,
we are still unable to conclude whether God exists or not.
conclude, Descartes’ ‘Causal’ and ‘Ontological’ arguments fall short of
convincing a reader of the Meditations on
First Philosophy that God exists. Both arguments are viciously circular in
the sense that his conclusion of God existing is solely grounded upon a clear
and distinct idea, yet the soundness of this clear and distinct idea is only
assured by the actuality of a non-deceiving God. Furthermore, Descartes fails
to address the conditions required for one to know they have a clear and
distinct idea of God. This is a substantial flaw, for me, which undermines both
arguments as ideas are representations and can therefore be misinterpreted or
turn out to be false. The key distinction between the first and second argument
is that the first relies on logical reasoning of substances and modes to arrive
at the conclusion that God exists. Whilst the second argument depends on (i) the
previously founded conclusion of God’s existence, and (ii) the supposition that
clear and distinct ideas are always representative and sound, and that these
are assured by God. Effectively, the second argument cannot be established
without presuming that God already exists, which significantly weakens the
argument as a whole. Therefore, by process of elimination, Descartes’ causal
argument is the most successful argument for God’s existence.
1 Uky.edu. (2017). online Available at:
https://www.uky.edu/~look/Descartes2.pdf Accessed 11 Dec. 2017.