The Reality Of God


The Reality Of God Essay, Research Paper

In the Third Meditation, Descartes attempts to prove that God exists. Descartes bases this argument on the concept that God has infinite objective reality and thus, could not be caused by an imperfect being such as Descartes. Therefore, this idea must have been given to him by a being that does have the ability to conceive of perfection. Such a being, as Descartes sees it, could be none other than God himself. Offhand, such an argument may seem impenetrable, formulated with the built-in loophole whereby any level between oneself and ultimate perfection could have been caused by perfection itself. Thus, if one wishes to challenge Descartes’ argument, one cannot do so with counter-examples because such examples do not exist. Before one can criticize Descartes’ argument, one must first understand its terminology. Descartes believes that everything in existence has different levels of “perfection” or “formal reality.” Each substance’s duration, mutability, wisdom, self-awareness, and other such qualities determine this ranking. Thoughts or concepts, insomuch as they are thoughts, have formal reality because they do exist. Furthermore, when “considered simply as modes of thought, there is no recognizable inequality among them: they all appear to have come from within me in the same fashion” (pp. 27-28, sect. 40). However, “thoughts” can be further divided into a hierarchy based on each thought’s “objective reality.” Objective reality measures the perfection of a thought’s subject matter. If one conceives of a unicorn and of a horse, the concept of a horse has more objective reality than that of a unicorn only because we know that horses exist and unicorns do not. No matter how ideal something may seem, it would always be better if that something actually existed. However, if one conceives of Santa Claus and a unicorn, reality would not be a factor because neither one is known to exist. Nevertheless, one would still conclude that the idea of Santa Claus has more objective reality than the idea of a unicorn. In conventional terms, Santa Claus is infinite, self-aware, has the ability to speak, and can willingly transport himself from one place to another by touching his nose. Unicorns, when thought of in conventional terms, do not possess any qualities equal or greater to Santa Claus. As a last note, one must remember that objective reality only exists in virtue of the fact that the idea exists; objective reality only refers to the thought of a substance and not the substance itself. With this in mind, one may then consider Descartes’ assertion about cause and effect. Descartes believes that everything is caused by something else. He uses the example of a stone to emphasize that the stone would not exist unless it had been produced. In addition, the stone must have been produced from something with all the basic qualities of a stone, such as another stone. Naturally, it could have originated from something with qualities greater than the stone as well (i.e. a mountain). In either case, the source, or cause, of the stone is at least equal to the stone itself. Consistent with this logic, Descartes believes that all thoughts are caused by a preexisting matter that is greater than the idea itself. When one imagines a stone, that thought is merely a contrived representation of an actual stone; it is a relatively vague impression of the original subject. In this way, it is logical to see that a thought or impression cannot be more substantial than that which caused it. Be that as it may, Descartes is not yet sure that stone, or anything else, exists at all. For all he does know, the stone might be a contrivance of his own imagination. However, because Descartes has more formal reality than the stone, it is possible for Descartes to be the “cause” of that stone. Furthermore, any qualities attributed to the idea of that stone, that is to say, the concepts of a small, inanimate compression of earth, are not as great as the (formal) reality of Descartes, a living, breathing, self-conscious being. In other words, everything that Descartes continues to be is still greater than everything the stone ever could be. Therefore, it is possible that Descartes merely concocted this idea of stone in his own imagination. At this point, Descartes applies the same logic to the concept of God. Descartes’ definition of “God” is an incorporeal being who is “infinite, eternal, immutable, independent, supremely intelligent, [and] supremely powerful” (p. 31, section 45). Like the stone, Descartes wonders whether is it possible for him to have imagined the concept of God. Could Descartes, an inferior being, have the ability to imagine such a perfect entity? Descartes believes that such a task would be impossible. When considering the existence of the stone, Descartes reasoned that he could have made it up because everything that Descartes continued to be was ultimately more perfect than the qualities he imagined in the stone. However, Descartes believes that God is infinitely perfect in every way: infinitely powerful, infinitely wise, infinitely good, etc. Such an entity would represent something that is many times greater than what Descartes truly is. To use Descartes’ own terminology, the objective reality of Descartes’ God is greater than the formal reality of Descartes himself. Thus, because Descartes has already established that a cause must be greater, or more perfect, than the end result of that cause, it would follow that the thought of a perfect God could not have originated from an imperfect Descartes. In fact, according to Descartes’ logic, the only one who could conceive of an infinitely perfect being is an infinitely perfect being. That way, the cause of the thought (God) would be of at least equal quality to the subject of that thought (God).

Within his argument, Descartes assumes that it is possible for a greater substance to impose its thoughts or impressions upon an inferior substance. Such behavior can be seen in practical application when a human trains a dog. The human believes that biting a mailman is bad and imposes this belief on the inferior, less formally real, dog. Similarly, an ultimate being such as God could impose ideas upon Descartes. If Descartes conceived of angels (who represent a substance more perfect than Descartes), such thoughts could not have been Descartes’ own doing. However, God, an infinitely perfect being with more formal reality than angels have objective reality, could have created the concept of angels and given then this concept to Descartes. Likewise, God could conceive of himself and give that idea to Descartes as well. Therefore, Descartes concludes that God, the only being perfect enough to conceive of perfection, must have given this concept to Descartes. So God must exist. Unfortunately, there are several problems with Descartes’ neat and tidy argument. First, in claiming that a cause must have more formal reality than its result, Descartes assumes that everything has a cause to begin with. Although such an explanation may easily apply to sensory perceptions, such as stones and heat, it does not necessarily pertain to everything. In this case, it would be more accurate to say that everything Descartes has ever known, everything that he has had experience with, has had a cause. However, Descartes does not have experience with God so he cannot assume that such a concept would behave the same as those in the past. Intuitively, the concept of a stone is definitely not on par with that of God. A stone’s qualities are perceptible and already acknowledged (by most people) to be in existence. In contrast, Descartes’ idea of God is just the opposite and holds qualities far greater than the common stone. Indeed, anything that Descartes may have experienced in the past is not nearly as grand as his conceptualization of God. Thus, the idea of God cannot automatically be held to the same standards. Thus, with more perfection comes new capabilities and standards of conduct. So maybe dogs and stones cannot conceive of things greater than themselves, but then again, a stone cannot feel pain whereas dogs can. In turn, it is plausible that humans can conceive of ideas representing things greater than humans, whereas a dog cannot conceive of anything greater than a dog. Perhaps the powers of human reasoning and imagination are greater than Descartes would have us believe. In general, humans have the free will to do things that would be inconceivable for substances of less formal reality. For example, we have the ability to question our own existence. By applying one’s imagination, one might then contemplate many things that have the potential to be greater than oneself. Why would such thoughts have to be given to us? Descartes does not adequately provide answers to this critical question. Then too, we have no reason to accept Descartes’ definition of perfection. It is possible that non-existence is better than existence. Therefore, the idea of an orange could conceivably be greater than the actual orange. If my thought of an orange is twice as big and twice as sweet as any possible orange, then one could logically say that my conception has more objective reality than oranges have formal reality. Of course, this is with the understanding that the orange would not be better if it did exist. In this way, the theory of perfection would be preferable actual perfection; my conception of God could be greater than the actual God. So a perfect God would not have to exist at all. Personally, I do believe that a perfect God exists. Unfortunately, Descartes does not provide sufficient proof of such existence. His main premises, that an effect must have less objective reality than the cause has formal reality, is based on unfounded assumptions. In the end, Descartes’ answers are the merely the source of more questions. One can only wonder…does this mean that his answers have more formal reality than my questions do objective reality? I think not.


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