So I’m reading Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy not just in History of Modern Philosophy, but in Theory of Knowledge as well (although in that class we’re only concerned with the first two Meditations). I’ve been puzzling over Meditation Three (“God”) since last night (I only got a few hours of sleep because my brain was working overtime analyzing Descartes’s argument). I think I’ve got some responses to Descartes, but I’m still uncertain, so if you’re not convinced by what’s about to follow, then don’t be shocked. These ideas are still in their infancy.
First of all, despite Descartes’s fame, he was by no means the greatest philosopher or logician that ever lived. In my opinion, his major contributions to philosophy were in his epistemological work and his methodology. For instance, there are a few logical inconsistencies in his First Meditation. I won’t get into them here, but ask yourself: are you really unable to tell whether you’re dreaming right now?
Anyway, one thing I’ve been puzzling over is the list of attributes he claims God has. But before we get into that, let me fill you in on his line of reasoning at this point (which really is evident as early as the First Meditation). He’s working with this theory that causes cannot be any less real than their effects. So, in order for something more perfect to come into being, even in the mind, something more real (or perfect, perhaps; I’m not sure if that’s an adequate substitution, though) had to create it. Using this line of reasoning, he begins to wonder how the idea of a perfect being could have been created in his mind. He goes on to list the attributes of God:
- supremely intelligent
- supremely powerful
- created Descartes and everything else
To me, these all seem like attributes of the universe, so to me it seems like all Descartes has done is prove that the universe exists. Let me deal with them one by one.
- Infinite: This one should be obvious: anyone who has looked up at the sky knows that it’s infinite.
- Eternal: Time is a function of the universe, so by definition it is eternal.
- Unchangeable: The laws of physics cannot be changed. Although the elements of the universe may change, the fundamentals are eternally the same.
- Independent: This one is a little more puzzling because I’m not quite sure what Descartes means by “independent.” I suppose it means it doesn’t depend on an external source for its existence. In that case, the universe is clearly independent: it supports itself.
- Supremely Intelligent: This one requires that you subscribe to my epistemological views. I believe that we can only have knowledge of the natural world (as I have said elsewhere) and that therefore knowledge is a function of the natural world. Since the universe is the natural world, it is the source of all knowledge. Therefore, it is supremely intelligent.
- Supremely Powerful: Again, this one is obvious. The universe is the most powerful thing known to humanity.
- Creator of Descartes and everything else: Again, super-obvious.
I’m not sure how tenable all of this is, but it’s a start.
Also, I think I can use Descartes’s own conception of knowledge against him to force him into agnosticism. In case you’re unfamiliar with the Cartesian conception of knowledge, this is its basic formulation:
S knows that P iff
- S believes P
- P is true
- P is indubitable
This should be simple. Even is we grant that the proposition “God exists” is true, no reasonable person can claim that it is indubitable. Therefore, Descartes cannot truly claim knowledge that God exists.
Like I said, I’m not sure how tight these arguments are. I’ve been puzzling over them for a while and am not completely sold on them, mainly because I haven’t tested them in the laboratory of the classroom, where 30 other philosophers (one with a Ph.D.) can poke holes in them and force me to defend them.
For more on my theories of God, see my post from half an hour ago.