More on Descartes and God

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:

  • infinite
  • eternal
  • unchangeable
  • independent
  • 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

  1. S believes P
  2. P is true
  3. 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.

A chat with some Mormon missionaries

So, I’m very interested in anomalistic psychology as well as the critical analysis of religious texts (the origin of the science of linguistics is in the study of religious texts), so last summer when some Mormon missionaries came through my neighborhood looking for recruits I invited them over for a chat in hopes of getting a free copy of the Book of Mormon. It worked, and I agreed to let them come back for as long as they felt like and teach me about their religion (Americans are notoriously ignorant of Mormonism, which to me is simply another silly form of Christianity). They stopped coming after I got short with them when I was in a bad mood and began attacking their religion. Anyway, they came back tonight after a few months’ absence to see if I have been praying. I told them no, they taught me how to pray their way (insisting that it’s the only right way), and then we had a discussion about God.

The thing about our discussion about God that really struck me was not the fact that my argument for agnosticism went over with a thud, but the fact that we apparently have very different ideas of what the nature of a perfect being might be like. I asked them why they thought God demanded to be worshipped and prayed to and such, and they explained to me that it was an issue of humility. God is our creator, so he wants us to know it. I found their use of the word “humility” very interesting, because my conception of a perfect being is one who is the epitome of humility (among other things). This is the very reason why I think the concept of a perfect being who demands adulation is self-contradictory. I was struck by the difference of opinion. It doesn’t help that perfection is largely subjective (although most people’s ideas of perfection converge on many points). I’ll have to read up on concepts of perfection and synthesize a definition for myself. Honestly, my own conception of perfection comes purely from my own imagination; aside from a few major philosophers who’ve written on the subject, I’m not that well-read in the literature of perfection.

The missionaries are coming back next Saturday and I told them I’d try praying their way. I highly doubt it’ll work, but seeing as it’s simply talking to myself, as long as I don’t do it in public, what harm can it do? I’ll humor them simply to see how it goes.

Some changes to the site

I’ve made some changes to the site. For one, I wrote a two brief primers: one on skepticism and one on atheism/agnosticism. I would appreciate feedback on them, because I wanted to keep them brief but I also want them to be informative enough for anyone who may not be familiar with the subjects. Please let me know what you think.

I’ve also added a few links. I highly recommend Hayley is a Ghost, since that particular blog was essentially what led me to start my own. Hayley and I are similar in that we both used to be true believers who eventually saw the light and decided to help others do so.

That’s all for now; I’m working on a post about ghosties and ghoulies for the new year. See you in 2012!