Reality and the Existence of God

When Descartes decided to tear down his beliefs and start fresh, he needed a foundation upon which to build his ideology. When judging what reality is, God must be considered. He/she must be taken out of a religious concept and proven to exist, exist in a way in which we cannot be deceived into only thinking is real. The proof of the existence of God in this way forms the backbone of Descartes’ further forays into proving what is reality. God, being the supremely powerful, all-knowing all-seeing force that created the world and everything in it, was central in most 17th century philosophies.

When investigating the importance of god in Descartes’ philosophy, one must first understand the science of the times. The basic principle of mechanism is that everything in the universe could eventually be explained in terms of mechanical laws, and with these laws there is no free will. The universe moves like a complex clock, with everything pre-determined and in accordance with the laws of matter. Pierre Simon de Laplace stated “We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of the past and the cause of the future.

An intellect which at any given moment knew all of the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit the data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom; for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes. ” (http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Mechanism_%28philosophy%29)

Unfortunately for mechanism, the mind is impossible to define in mechanical terms, as it is not a corporeal substance that can be measured. Descartes responds to this problem with dualism, saying that the mind is a “thinking thing” which is the essence of himself. This “thing” doubts, believes, hopes and thinks, all the while existing only in a metaphysical sense as a non-extended, thinking thing; while the body is a non-thinking, extended thing. With this he had a clear and distinct idea of both mind and body, and whatever he could conceive, God could create.

This led him to believe that the mind could be separate from the body, a substance whose essence was thought. Thus the idea of dualism was founded by the existence of God. As Descartes did not completely agree with mechanism or materialism, he had to essentially obliterate all his beliefs, wipe his proverbial slate clean, and start again. To reevaluate what was real and what was false, Descartes had to doubt everything, including the existence of God, and if he/she exists, whether or not God was a deceiver.

Descartes put forward the question of whether or not there are any attributes to the idea of God which couldn’t have originated in himself, God being “infinite, eternal, unchangeable, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful…” He came to the conclusion that none of these attributes could have come from him alone, as he possesses none of them. In this sense, God must exist. He then postulates the hierarchy argument, where the idea of God could not have been thought of by him, or man in general, as the attributes seen in God belong to some higher form.

It does not matter that he cannot “grasp the infinite”, or touch the attributes of God as he himself is finite; the very nature of something being infinite is that it cannot be grasped by something finite. Thus, since the ideas of God are in some higher form, they must be the truest and most clear and distinct of all Descartes’ ideas. He then decided to ask how he could have received the idea of a perfect being from God, as he has never encountered such from the senses. He comes up with the idea of a craftsman, who, when he invents something, may fiddle and change parts of his creation as he chooses.

The idea of God, in Descartes’ mind, could not be changed or interfered with; therefore he could not have created it himself. This leads to the belief in the idea of God being innate in him. He again uses the idea of a craftsman, with the idea of God as a “mark of the craftsman” stamped on his work, man. Descartes’ then postulated that he could not exist with the innate idea of God in his mind without God existing. This fostered his belief that God could not possibly be a deceiver, since for something to be fraudulent or deceitful it has to have some defect, which in God there is none.

This began to form the foundation on which Descartes would continue to prove existence through methodical doubt. After he determined that yes, God exists, Descartes turned his attention to truth and falsity. He has determined that God would never deceive him, as wanting to deceive is a sign of malice or weakness, traits not pertaining to God. If God, then, does not deceive him, errors on his part must be of his own judgment. He uses God as a benchmark, saying he is somewhere between God and nothingness, between supreme being and non-being.

In meditation number four, again he uses the craftsman analogy, that the more skilled the craftsman, the more perfect the creation. Since God created Descartes, he must be perfect, which leads him to believe that his making mistakes may be better than not doing so. Human free will is an issue that philosophers of every generation tackle in some form or another, and Descartes was no exception. When dealing with will, he believed that will is simply one’s ability to do or not do something, to accept or reject a proposition.

This will is such that when a decision is presented to us, we have no sense that we are pushed one way or another by any external forces. He believed that freedom is strengthened by natural knowledge and divine grace, and that since God gave him the power of willing, it cannot be the cause of his mistakes. Simply, a mistake is made when one’s will extends beyond their intellect, when one applies will to matters they do not understand. This philosophy states that God has given him the freedom to choose his destiny in situations of which he does not have complete understanding, a view quite inconsistent with the beliefs of the time.

Descartes could not have been an atheist and have come to the conclusions he did. The science of the time was a rigid belief that everything in the universe was bound by the laws of matter, and that it moved like a complex clock, everything pre-determined from the time it was created. A strong supporter of the idea of dualism, Descartes believed that the mind was not bound by the laws of matter and was intangible, a substance whose essence was thought.

Since God created him, whatever he could conceive could also be created by God which is the founding principle of dualism. When he began to tear down his belief system, he needed a foundation on which to build his new knowledge. He proved the existence of God by using the hierarchy theory, that since none of the traits of God could be attributed to himself, they must have come from God. With this knowledge, Descartes tackled truth and falsity, the essence and existence of material things, and the real distinction between mind and body.

All of which in some for or another were based on his foundation: that God exists and is not a deceiver. If he could prove the existence of God through methodical doubt, he could prove anything. He made this quite clear near the end of his fifth meditation; “I see plainly that the certainty and truth of all knowledge depends strictly on my awareness of the true God. So much that until I became aware of him I couldn’t perfectly know anything.