PHL 323
Instructor: Dr. Bob Zunjic

Rene Descartes

Meditations On First Philosophy

An Outline

Third Meditation
Of God: That He Exists


By invoking the Cogito in the second Meditation Descartes was able to quell metaphysical doubts supervening on his initial victory over skepticism (the victory based on "natural reasons"). But the Cogito has refuted the metaphysical hypothesis of a deceiving God only temporarily - in regard to the self-certainty of our Ego. Being rather an exception than a universal rule, the first certainty of the Cogito could not set at rest the doubts stretching beyond the moment of self-consciousness. For instance, it did not guarantee the identity and the persistence of the subject through time. Descartes has envisioned his Self as a thinking substance but that positing was left isolated and dependent on the continuance of his self-reflection. Hence, the passage to other potential cognitions still remains doubtful. This is the situation where the third Meditation sets off.

Effacing the Senses:

Descartes starts by reiterating his resolve to keep his thoughts detached from the senses and sensory images: "I shall disregard my senses, I shall even efface from mind all the images of corporeal things."

A Thinking Self:

This mental discipline should shut off the thinker's interiority from all external contents and thus make it accessible in an undistorted manner: "By thus dealing only with myself …I shall try to make myself… better known and more familiar to myself." With the affirmation of the intellectual nature of the Self ("I am a thing which thinks") the focus inevitably shifts from sensory knowledge to thinking and reason.

Thinking = Mental Activity
Thinking includes not only pure intellectual acts (doubting, affirming, denying, knowing), but also emotions, volitions, imaginations and even sensing. Descartes obviously regards all mental acts as "thinking" under the pretext that they all participate in the contents of our consciousness. That it is so could be easily verified in the self-examination of one's mind. I am introspectively aware "that they reside and are found with certainty in myself" (my subjectivity).
Modes of Thought: The mind (consciousness) is the substantial container of all "thinking events" in the aforementioned sense (from "sensations and imaginations" to judgments and propositions). Conversely, these "modes of thought" determine the nature of the mind as its accidents and modifications. Viewed reflectively and objectively, these mental contents make up the realm of direct knowledge whose evident presence translates into the conclusion reached by the second Meditation: "I am a thinking being."

Note: In describing the "modes of thought" as mental contents, Descartes has created both a new type of language and a new type of looking at the world. Instead of speaking about people having sensations, feelings and desires, he began to speak about these states as if they are mental events and entities occurring within certain mental container - my mind.  

Foundational Propositions: Now Descartes wants to examine whether there are some other propositions that would possess the same certainty and veracity as the Cogito, the "propositions that would be relative to the objective validity of the subjectively necessary truths". His intention is not to provide an exhaustive list of metaphysical truths but rather to find out which of the modifications of consciousness along with the Cogito can serve as the foundations (principles) of metaphysical knowledge (First Philosophy).
The Principles of First Philosophy: The principles of First Philosophy (Metaphysics) can only be propositions expressing certain necessary connections between so called simple natures (for instance, between thought and existence, clarity/distinctness and truth, knowledge and God). A denial of these connections is self-contradictory, not in the sense of a logical contradiction (these notions are not identical and their connection is therefore not analytic), but in the sense of performing a contradictory activity. Any attempt to deny one part of the connection affirms the connection by reinstating the negated part in the very act of questioning it (for instance, if I were to say, I am thinking but I do not exist, or, I am writing this but I do not think - I would in fact confirm the opposite of the negation: I exist, I think). The necessary positive connections of this kind are not derived from some previous principles - they are analytically grasped from the reflection upon our mental acts and then only explicated.
1st Metaphysical Principle:

Whenever I reflect upon my thinking nature I clearly realize that if I am thinking I must exist. (The Cogito Principle)

The first principle states the primary self-evident truth which guarantees the existence of a self-conscious mind. This is the first certainty of my knowledge which does not depend on the veracity of my sensations and imaginations. It is based solely on the fact that I am undeniably aware of the presence of various mental acts as modes of thought.

However irrefutable, this certainty is not cognitively productive because it pertains only to myself and this only so long as I am aware of myself. We need to go further and expand our knowledge to include the things outside myself. In doing this, of course, we have to maintain the same level of assuredness and certainty throughout the whole process. This is possible only if we adopt another fundamental principle of knowledge which could be easily extracted from the fact that we clearly and distinctly intuit the connection between our thinking and our existence as we become aware of our thinking nature.

2nd Metaphysical Principle:

"Everything which we conceive very clearly and very distinctly is wholly true." (The Subjective Veritas Principle)

This principle is as reliable as the insight that whenever I think I must exist. If it is not possible to think and not to exist, it is no less impossible "that something which I conceived just as clearly and distinctly should prove false". Clear and distinct perceptions are simply irresistible and it is psychologically very difficult to doubt them at the same time as we are attending them. Therefore, this principle can serve as the criterion of reliable knowledge. Truly, the second principle appears sometimes compromised, but this happens only when our perceptions are misjudged or become doubtful extrinsically (with regard to something else). For example, under the hypothesis of a total deception (the fiction of an evil genius) we had all reasons to reject the natural certainty of clear and distinct perceptions. But under regular conditions, clear and distinct perceptions entail the same level of certainty and veracity as the first principle.

Note: A full vindication of the clare et distincte principle is given in the fourth Meditation where the origin of possible errors is explained along with the ultimate cause of clearness and distinctness: if clear and distinct perceptions are real, they cannot stem from anything which is less than an absolutely perfect being.

Errors: (a) We erroneously regard many sensory perceptions as obvious and certain although their objects are not perceived clearly and distinctly (for instance, "the earth, the sky, the stars and all other things I perceive through the medium of my senses" appear in a from that deviates from scientific conceptions). When we nonetheless accept these perceptions as the most evident facts, we mistake the presence of their ideas in our mind (which is undeniable) for clear and distinct perceptions of the objects themselves or we simply assume that external objects must be responsible for the existence of these ideas (which is questionable). In doing this, we only extrapolate the habit of believing in the external existence of objects into allegedly clear and distinct apprehension of them.
(b) Even the beliefs that are based on truly clear and distinct perceptions, like mathematical relations, cannot be taken as absolutely certain. Of course, they can be conceived so evidently that it is both logically and psychologically difficult to imagine they could be formulated otherwise. And yet they might be doubted. Why is that? The statements of Arithmetic and Geometry can be easily understood and convincingly explicated, but they cannot be accepted as evident under all circumstances as long as we cannot rule out the possibility that they appear as obvious only because an infinite power ("some God") has decided to make us believe that they are clearly grasped, while this may be just a divinely induced deception. The "supreme power of God" can "bring about that I am wrong even in those matters I perceive with the mind's eye with the greatest possible obviousness".
Solution: In order to establish the certainty of mathematics once and for all along with the unimpeded applicability of the second metaphysical principle (clear and distinct = true) we need to exorcise the possibility of the divine deception and secure the existence of a non-deceiving God. Having challenged the natural confidence of common sense by virtue of the hypothetical evil demon, Descartes now intends to save natural certainty of human mind by proving the existence of a different (= benevolent) supernatural being. Only in this way the natural validity of clear and distinct ideas could be assured against skeptical doubts.
Ensuing Tasks:

1. Immediate: To examine "whether there is a God", and
2. Derivative: To investigate "whether he can be a deceiver".
"As long as this is unknown, I do not see that I can ever be certain of anything."

Note: Here, so it seems, Descartes here addresses an objection of the theologians from the Sorbonne who wanted to avoid any subordination of divine omnipotence and will to the restrictions of human finite knowledge. Descartes got around the problem by rejecting beforehand malevolent manifestations of omnipotence. The need to demonstrate that God is not malevolent did not emerge in the process of revealing the certainty and the obviousness of the first metaphysical principle. This principle states an actual relation which must remain unshaken any deception notwithstanding. Contrary to the situation in mathematics, the certainty of metaphysical principles does not require a divine guarantee. In the case of mathematical statements we do not intuit the necessary connection as an actual relation that always must be so. Thus it makes sense to ask whether an omnipotent God could deceive us even about the things we perceive most clearly and distinctly.


In order to be able to accomplish (1) and (2), Descartes needs first to elucidate the idea of God, for one cannot sensibly ask whether God exists and whether it is compatible with his nature to do this or that without having an idea of God.
However, if the idea of God is to be conceived as the basis of all reliable knowledge, its status has to be clarified in the context of all other ideas. This requires a more comprehensive inventory of our mind which in turn accounts for a seemingly unnecessary digression on the classification of different ideas. The Cartesian division of all contents of consciousness, laid out pretty dogmatically and summarily, could be illustrated by means of the following chart:


A. By Kind

B. By Origin

C. By Reality

Proper Representative

1. Images of   Objects

1. Innate (Inborn)

2. Adventitious (Acquired)

1. Infinite Substances
2. Finite Substances
3. Incomplete Substances
4. Accidents, Modes


Other Mental Modes (representing "something"
or not)

1. Volitions

2. Emotions

3. Judgments

3. Fictitious (Invented)

4. Factitious (Scientific)


Aspects of Ideas:

How is it possible to designate so different states and phenomena with one and the single word? Obviously, by using it in a very general way. For Descartes, "idea" is whatever the mind "perceives", or better to say, everything that is of mental nature. Mental phenomena can be either (1) acts or (2) objects. When speaking about the contents of our consciousness in the sense of (1) Descartes uses the word "idea" to denominate any "form of thought", including sensations, emotions, judgments and imaginations. From the point of view of (2), "ideas" are only complete and distinct cognitive acts that represent something. We may wish that Descartes had reserved the term "idea" only for this latter usage, but he has not. Instead, he speaks about ideas in three different ways: (a) as operations of the mind (material aspect), (b) as awareness of a thought (formal aspect) and (c) as the subject-matter of a thought (objective aspect). 

(a) Material Aspect. Every idea in the material sense is a mental act occurring in the mind. Taken as mental acts all our ideas are equal. Contrary to some ordinary notions, ideas in this capacity cannot be true or false; they become true or false only by virtue of our judgments about their content (extrinsically). An idea is true if its object is conceived as it really exists. Strictly speaking though, truth and falsity are characteristics of assertions and propositions, not of ideas and concepts.

(b) Formal Aspect. When the word "idea" denotes "the form of any thought", then it refers solely to the aspect of consciousness of any mental act. For the self-reflecting subject ideas are "modes of thought" (states of consciousness) one is directly aware of. Ideas are directly related to the mind by representing to us internal objects of thought.

(c) Objective Aspect. On the other hand, with regard to their content and meaning, ideas are images (mental representations) of the "things outside of myself". "Ideas are like pictures" and "there can be no ideas which do not seem to us to represent objects." In this sense each and every idea is distinctly delineated from others. However, when speaking about representations Descartes does not mean only sensible images, but rather general objects. He does not think that we perceive real things directly. We know them through our own ideas produced by means of external stimulation of our organs.

Representation: "Through the organs of my senses" the objects send "into me their ideas or images and impress upon me their resemblances". Thus, when perceiving the world, we do not deal with objects themselves but with states of our consciousness ("objective ideas"). This additionally aggravates the critical question of the Cartesian epistemology: How do we know that there are objects out there? And closely related to this - how ideas represent objects? It seems that representation is in fact presentation.


The basis for the belief that our ideas correspond to external objects is twofold:
1. nature, that is to say, "certain inclination that leads me to believe" that it is so;
2. direct experience of objects that are not "dependent upon my will nor upon myself".

Weak Reasons:
Natural inclination to assume a close resemblance between our ideas and external objects is a spontaneous tendency, but it is rather a "blind and rash impulse" than a reliable basis for conclusions about external objects. Descartes, therefore, sharply contrasts "nature" in this sense with the "light of nature" which secures the truth of the first metaphysical principle.
Direct experience is not reliable either. It is reasonable to conclude that the origin of representative ideas lies outside myself and that external objects like heat, cold or similar impose on me their likeness. But even if caused by external objects, ideas/perceptions may be very dissimilar from them (the sun I perceive out there is very small and different from the astronomical sun and these two ideas are so dissimilar that they cannot be both true). Our judgments only mask this discrepancy by dogmatically affirming that ideas correspond to external objects. Hence, judgments of external causality and conformity should be set aside if we want to determine the objective validity of one idea.
Verdict: There is nothing in the ideas of corporeal objects that could not have been produced solely by myself. The ideas of corporeal objects possess "only a few elements… which I conceive clearly and distinctly" (primary qualities, substance, duration, number). But even these clear and distinct ideas "might have been derived from my ideas of myself": "since I am myself a substance it seems that they might be contained in my nature eminently", from which I may have projected this self-introspective concept into an extended thing. Moreover, "the fact that they (= these ideas) are not always in accord with my will" does not prove that they are not produced by me (as the contents of dreams amply show). Finally, we entertain ideas whose origin is not easy to determine (for instance, sirens, hippogriffs, chimeras).
Objective Validity: In order to lay the foundation for knowledge and "expand science" Descartes needs:
(a) to eliminate all thoughts that could produce deception, and
(b) to focus exclusively on the ideas that are representative, for only they are capable of yielding objective validity.
In pursuing these goals he sets to examine whether there is an idea which is in full conformity with the thing it represents, or, to put it from the other side of the representational relation, whether "among the things of which I possess ideas, there are some which exist outside of myself".



The most eminent idea and entity one can think of is the idea of a supreme, all powerful being. If an idea falls short even slightly of the object it is supposed to represent, it ceases to be the idea of that object. Therefore, this principle can serve as the most rigorous test of the conformity between ideas and represented objects. In order to be able to assess whether the idea of God closely resembles the object to which it refers, we must be certain that such a being exists. However, before we can assess the veracity and reality of this idea we must set certain standards that should lead our examination to the final conclusion. What follows is an extended and a very complex argument that stretches over several stages. Both premises and intermediary conclusions are formulated as common notions (rules).

  1. The Pre-containment Rule: A cause must pre-contain the reality of its effect. "For whence can the effect derive its reality, if not from its cause? And how could this cause communicate reality to the effect, unless it possessed it in itself?" This principle holds true for some cases (conceiving a baby contains in itself having a baby), but not for others (hitting a ball does not in itself contain a broken window). 
  2. The Gradation Rule: "Considering them (ideas) as images, of which some represent one thing and some another, it is evident that they differ greatly among themselves. For those that represent substances are undoubtedly something more…" This applies both to ideas and the ideas' objects. Represented objects differ as to the degree of their (represented) reality. As we will see, the discrepancy between "material" equality and "objective" inequality of ideas opens a window to accomplish the task of proving the existence of God.
  3. The Adequacy Rule: "The total efficient cause" possesses "at least as much reality" as "its effect". Conversely, there cannot be more in effect than there is in the cause. Ideas can fall short of the perfection of the original from which they have been drawn, but they can never contain anything greater or more perfect. This is a problematic pre-formationist assumption, which, if applied strictly, excludes the appearance of new properties. The only type of development would be then generatio univoca = the generation of the same from the same. Anyway, based on this assumption, Descartes contends that the degree of reality one idea attaches to an object depends on the degree of reality possessed by the object itself.
  4. The Ex nihilo nihil Rule: From nothing nothing can emerge. Hence, "something cannot be derived from nothing."
    Descartes is convinced that (3) and (4) are already contained in (1) and (2). Once we make them explicit, it becomes apparent that they entail an additional principle (5):
  5. The Causal Rule: Everything must have a cause. This rule, later elaborated by Leibniz, was subsequently questioned by Hume for stating something that is not self-evident ("something cannot exist without a cause"). Whatever the truth about this,  it clearly supports the next step in the argument:
  6. The Objectivity Rule: The objective reality of an idea must have a cause. "However imperfect may be this mode of being, by which a thing exists objectively or is represented by a concept of it in the understanding, certainly we can nevertheless say that this mode and manner of being is not nothing, and consequently the idea cannot derive its origin from nothingness."
  7. The Formal Rule: This origin (cause) must be the formal reality of something.
  8. The Quality Rule: "In order that an idea should contain one particular objective reality rather than another, it should no doubt obtain it from some cause in which there is at least as much formal reality as the idea contains objective reality." The absolute maximum of objective reality requires as minimum at least the maximum of formal reality in the cause (perfect equivalence). All the more so since the lesser cannot cause the higher. "The more perfect - that is to say, that which contains in itself more reality - cannot be a consequence of and dependent upon the less perfect."
Three Modes of Existence:

Here Descartes uses the scholastic distinction between objective, formal and eminent existence. An entity, say a coin, can exist objectively (in my imagination), formally (actually, in my purse) and eminently (most really in my banking account as a part of a bigger amount).

Objective Reality entails Formal Reality:

The above listed principles of general causation apply universally not only to all ideas and physical objects but hold true for relations between conceptual realities and actual objects as well. Let us not forget. For Descartes, the reality an idea "receives and borrows from mind" (the "objective reality" = the content) is not the only reality it possesses or implies. If we have an idea of something, then there must be something else outside the idea that is responsible for the content of the idea. The objective reality in my ideas needs to "be present formally or actually in the causes of these ideas". As a matter of fact, the manner of existing formally "belongs to the causes of these ideas" as much as objective existence belongs to the ideas. Not only the production of an actual stone implies the preexistence of something at least equally real as the existing stone, but the existence of the idea of stone in me presupposes the preexistence of something that has put that idea in me while possessing at least the same amount of reality as is contained in my idea of stone.

Ideas and the Archetype:

The principle of causation ultimately implies an equation between the idea and its object, but from the perspective of the idea alone we can speak only about correspondence and resemblance between the two. This means that the principle of conformity presupposes two terms, a copy and the ideated model (archetype). The idea of God carries positively the burden of conformity between objective and formal validity. But the perfection of the objective reality falls short of the perfection of formal reality for the existence component. This is the reason why the the principle of causation is necessary to link objective reality with existence. On the other hand, making the idea of God a copy of an actual  archetype allows transition from an objective reality toward the formal reality. This explains why Descartes does not stick solely to the causation principle but revives the Platonic relation of reflection as well. Hence, the principle of resemblance (conformity) is not otiose. God as efficient cause and God as archetype will be finally reconciled in the notion of perfection which links the principle of causality with the principle of conformity into one and a single source of existence. However, God is not posited as the model of imitation, but as the ultimate cause, the formal reality whose effects are visible in the resemblance of the idea of him to him.
Finite Chain: Albeit some ideas may be derived from others (and not from objects themselves), the process of derivation cannot be extended indefinitely. The sequence of ideas proceeding from other ideas must eventually end with an idea which is first and whose "cause is like an archetype or source, in which is contained formally and in actuality all the reality or perfection that is found only objectively or by representation in the ideas". At a certain point we thus arrive at one idea which is the cause of all other ideas whereas its own cause is its own formal reality. By definition, this ultimate point cannot be causally superceded by anything else. A series of formal realities always terminate in the formal reality of the first cause, that is to say, it is not infinite. An infinite series of contingent beings is ruled out by the self-evident fact that I exist. Otherwise I would not ever have come to being. The question is not therefore whether I exist, but how do I exist?

Interim Conclusion:

Am I alone and self-sustaining being?

If the reality and perfection of some of my ideas surpass the reality and perfection that formally exist in me, then "it necessarily follows that I am not alone in the world, but that there is also some other entity that exists and is the cause of this idea". And the other way round, "if I find no such idea in myself, I will have no argument which can convince me and make me certain of the existence of any entity other than myself", especially not of any more real and perfect than myself.

Dilemma: Thus, Either solipsism (the view that only I exist) or theism (the view that God exists). In order to be able to resolve this dilemma Descartes needs to examine whether he possesses at least one idea whose object is at the same time its cause. Apart from the idea of himself ("a thinking thing") which matches its effect fully but does not go beyond his Self, there are five other candidates for the requested identity of existence and self-causation:
(a) corporeal and inanimate things
(b) animals and other animate beings
(c) other humans
(d) angels
(e) God
Ideas b-d could have been "formed by the mixture and combination of my other ideas", whereas (a) might have originated entirely from myself. "Thus there remains only the idea of God, in which we must consider if there is something which could not have come from myself."



From a purely logical point of view, the "what" (quid) question (what is God?) should precede the "whether" (quod) question (does God exist?). In metaphysical examinations regarding God, however, it is difficult to go by this methodological rule, because the determination of the divine essence can never be absolutely adequate and precise, especially not if it is entirely separated from the demonstration of its existence. On the other hand, to be able to carry out successfully the demonstration of existence we need at least a preliminary definition of God which explicates our implicit understanding of his nature. It is not just something to start with but an indispensable criterion of identification throughout the whole process of rendering the proof of existence.
Note: In the Principles of Philosophy Descartes openly departs from the general rule of "true logic" maintaining instead that only by proving the existence of God we come to know what he is (I, art. 22): "according to the laws of true logic the proposition 'does a thing exist' (an sit) must never be asked unless it is first understood 'what the thing is' (quod sit)". 

Definition 1: (The idea) "by which I conceive a supreme God" refers to the "eternal, infinite, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent and the universal creator of all things that exist outside of himself".
Definition 2: "By the word 'God' I mean an infinite substance, eternal, immutable, independent, omniscient, omnipotent, and that by which I myself and all other existent things, if it is true that there are other existent things, have been created and produced."
Identification: The idea of God is the idea of an infinite substance surpassing all C 1-3 objects (see the previous chart).
Assumption: If the object of my thought is by its essence more perfect than myself, then the idea by which I represent that object also exceeds myself. This can be true only if the said idea is identical with the object itself. As this could not be the case by definition, the idea needs to be taken in conjunction with the formal cause, which prompts the first proof for the existence of God.

Philosophical Lexicon

Light of Nature, from the Latin lumen naturale, a theological metaphor for the power of natural (human) reason as opposed to supernatural, divine reason; while the first operates according to the laws of human logic which is instrumental in discovering self-evident truths, the latter transcends all rational limitations. In the Principles of Philosophy Descartes defines the light of nature as the faculty of apprehending objects clearly and distinctly without any recourse to religion (I, 30).

Clare et Distincte, Latin for "clear and distinct"; in Descartes, clear knowledge consists of directly present and evident perceptions whose reality cannot be reasonably called into doubt even by an attentive mind; distinct perception is one which is so precise and sharply separated from everything else that it comprises only those things which appear evident to the knowing subject (Principles of Philosophy, I, 45). Clearness and distinctness usually go hand in hand, but they are not synonymous: an idea may be clear but not distinctive; a distinctive idea, on the other hand, has to be clear.

Substance, from the Latin substantia = that which stands underneath; while in Ancient philosophy this term denotes the essential mode of existence (ousia) as opposed to mere accidental beings (onta), in Descartes it designates something capable of independent existence and bearing different properties. In the Principles of Philosophy Descartes defines substance as that which exists by itself and does not need anything else to exist (I, 51). Strictly speaking, only divine substance meets this requirement, but Descartes applies this term to all those created things (including his own self) that, apart from the initial divine creation, do not need anything else for their existence.

Accidents, from the Latin accidens = that which accedes to; denotes properties or attributes that can occur or disappear without destroying the subject (or object for that matter); it is, therefore, regarded as contingent, not necessary quality.

Efficient Cause, from the Latin causa efficiens = that which brings about change; in the realm of creation, that which initiates generation or keeps the process going on (propelling cause).

Idea, from the Greek idea, eidos = look, shape, hence, the form; in Plato, it is the substantial unity of existence and essence, which subsists in itself and objectively grounds both the existence of sensory beings and our knowledge of the world; in Descartes, idea is (1) any mental act ("a way of thinking") or any mental content which exists in the intellect; this connotation establishes our current subjectivist usage of the word denoting any "object of understanding when a man thinks" (Locke); (2) in the strict sense, idea is only that state of mind which can be evaluated as true or false (representational aspect).

Formal Reality, from the Latin forma, formaliter = form, formally; in the language of the Schoolmen, which Descartes often follows, something is formal or exists formally when it exists actually (really) as opposed to sheer "objective existence", existence only in idea. Thus, contrary to our common usage, the true synonym of the adverb formally is actually (really), whereas the opposites are objectively (conceptually), eminently (potentially) and virtually (implicitly). All these adverbs indicate different levels of reality in accord with the Aristotelian substantial stratification of beings; Hobbes questioned the notion that "reality admits of degrees".

Eminently, from the Latin per eminentiam = by superior/higher manner; existing not only in the fashion of formal reality, but existing in the very principle from which the being that represents one idea derives its reality. This superior level existence can representatively replace the being which is perceived because its reality is higher.

Objective Reality, from the Latin objectum = that what is lying over there; in Scholastic philosophy that what is thrown before the mind, what exists in the idea which represents it (for instance, a unicorn); thus "objective" in the medieval sense would be for us "subjective"; Descartes takes over that usage in claiming that objective reality (what constitutes an idea) is a representation of mind, not an entity subsisting in itself and independently. Objective existence is not therefore opposed to subjectivity, even though Descartes uses the word "object" to designate formal realities of which ideas are copies.


The first proof that God exists combines the conception of God as an archetype with the principle of causation as articulated by rules 1 through 8. It begins by stating that each of us has an idea of God and then asks what is the cause of that idea in me. The cause could be either a self-sustained being (ens a se) or a dependent being (ens ab alio). If the latter, the question only gets remitted further. Therefore we need to look for an infinite substance with as much reality as my idea.

Stage 1:

It is a fact that I possess the idea of God along with the notion of infinity and perfection. Witness my doubt and desire. I am deeply aware of these mental states as they constitute my human nature. But, aside from revealing certain lack in me, they  also point to something more perfect. "For how would it be possible for me to know that I doubt and that I desire - that is, that I lack something and am not all perfect - if I did not have in myself any idea of a being more perfect than my own, by comparison with which I might recognize the defects of my own nature?" This more perfect being is God.                           

Note: A "more perfect being" is not the same as "the most perfect being", but Descartes quickly turns the comparative into a superlative - the ultimate term which transcends any comparison. The idea of God, he says, does not exist in the mode of mere "deficiency".

Stage 2: I conceive infinity as "a real idea", not as a sheer negation of what is finite. Moreover, "I see manifestly that there is more reality in infinite substance than in finite substance" (this idea "contains more objective reality than does any other" idea). But I could not have created the idea of an infinite substance, because I am only "a finite being".                                     

Note: This is the weakest link in the whole chain of reasoning. Despite all Cartesian ingenuity, it is hard to accept that the idea of the most perfect being could not have come from other being than God himself. Why we would not be able to imagine a being more perfect than ourselves without any contradiction?  In addition, how could my idea of God be more perfect than myself if I am, according to Descartes' own words, a substance? In the Preface to the Meditations Descartes tries to answer the objection that from the fact that I have an idea more perfect than myself, it does not follow that the idea itself is more perfect, much less that that which this idea represents exists. He recognizes that the idea of God, taken "materially", as an act of my mind, is not more perfect than myself, but contends that it is such "objectively", in regard to its content.

Stage 3: I can have the idea of God only if there is a being who possesses formally all that which the idea of God possesses objectively. Only a perfect and infinite God possesses as much formal reality as the idea of God requires. The only thing apt to cause the idea of God objectively is God himself.             

Note: Once we approve stage 2 stage 3 follows and the other way round.            

Stage 4: Therefore a perfect and infinite God is the cause.
Stage 5: Therefore a perfect and infinite God exists.

The first proof unfolds on two tracks: (1) to prove God's existence from the idea that represents God to me and (2) to prove God's existence as I represent God to myself. The first strategy proceeds indirectly but aims to establish universal validity of clear and distinct knowledge. The second proceeds directly but takes one singular idea of archetypal source. Both are connected to prove the objective validity of our ideas and the existence of God. This goal goes against common sense prejudice that objective validity belongs primarily to adventitious ideas. Descartes shows, however, that if the idea of God necessarily possesses objective validity, then God exists necessarily as soon as there is an idea of God. A successful demonstration of the objective validity requires the application of the principle of causality and the principle of conformity between the idea and its content.


The second proof is a variant of the first except that it starts from the opposite ideas of imperfection and finitude. It begins by stating that I exist as a finite thinking subject and then asks what is the cause of my existence. The answer is that my existence is contingent on a being which exists in itself and by itself (ens a se et per se). Thus God is not any longer viewed as the cause only of one idea and his causal power is not restricted to the contents of my consciousness. Without resorting to the duality of principles (causality and adequacy) it proceeds more straightforwardly by eliminating all other causes for my dependency except God.

Preliminary Doubts:

Descartes first discusses two possible objections to the thesis that both the idea of God and the idea of lacking  perfections are of  non-human origin.

1. What if all these perfections which I attribute to the nature of God already subsist within myself potentially, although not yet actualized? In that case "my potentiality of acquiring these perfections" should be credited with the production of the idea of God.
Answer: Potentiality is something less than actuality and reality. Actuality is more than potentiality, and that "more" needs a real cause. "The objective existence of an idea can never be produced by a being that is merely potential and that… is nothing, but only a formal or actual being." If I possess these characteristics only potentially, then I am not the creator of the idea of God.

2. Why so many people on so many occasions do not realize that the idea of a being more perfect than their own existence is must necessarily have been imparted to them by a being that is actually more perfect?
Answer: Because human attention subsides with the flow of time and we do not consider these issues "carefully". As soon as we understand the relationship of dependency all these misconceptions disappear.

Counter-Questions: Whether I myself, who have this idea of God, could exist if there had been no God? If yes, "from what source would I have derived my existence?"
Four Possibilities: (a) From myself              

(b) From nowhere

(c) From my parents

(d) From other causes

Dependency in Creation: (a1) Will for Perfection: First possibility (that I am "the author of my own being") is contradicted by the fact that I experience doubts, desires and various other deficiencies. The creator of my existence could not suffer from these imperfections. If I were that creator, independent of anything else outside myself, "I would lack no perfection" simply because my will is infinite. "I would have endowed myself with all those perfections of which I had any notion, and thus I would be God himself."

Note: Here Descartes consciously runs a risk of assimilating the concept of deity (the idea of God) with an anthropological projection: what we would like to be if our powers were unlimited. In fact, he takes God in this argument as the tacit goal of human strivings, as that what humans aspire to be. But he does not identify human positive idea of deity with the deity itself. Whatever human strivings may be up to (the "extravaganza" of wanting to be like a God), it does not define the divine nature as such. On the contrary, the fact that we want to overcome all our limitations proves that we are limited, though aspiring toward actually existing infinity. By my idea of the infinite is not derived from the infinity of my will. If it were, there would be no necessity to go outside of my will.

(a2) Self-caused: Descartes just wants to say that, given human strivings, our imperfections were inexplicable unless we were not the creators of our own existence. If I could not endow myself with all perfections, this could only mean that they exceed my creative abilities. And the other way round: if I was caused by myself, my godlike self-creation would have suffered not only from current imperfections (which would be very strange, not to speak about the contradictory nature of an imperfect God) but would have been incomprehensible in regard to the apparent discrepancy between my miraculous beginning and my much less impressive finalization. If I was able to emerge from nothingness by my own will it should have been much easier for me (the Ego) to attain all these perfections (absolute knowledge, power, etc.), because they are only accidents of some substance. By creating myself I would have created my own substance and "I would not have denied myself any of these qualities which I see are included in the idea of God".

Note: To produce infinite attributes is easier than to create something out of nothing. To create a finite substance is a greater deed than to acquire perfections I lack. The gap between nothingness and finitude is therefore bigger than the one which yawns between finitude and infinity. To bridge the first one needs omnipotence, to bridge the second omnipotence is not logically required.

(a3) Finitude: Another evidence in favor of my dependency upon a powerful creator comes from my own finitude. The argument is based on the old Aristotelian dictum that the more perfect precedes and conditions the less perfect. I cannot be aware of my finitude without having the idea of the infinite, which precedes the idea of the finite: "my notion of the infinite is somehow prior to that of the finite, that is, the notion of God is prior to the notion of myself". Thus, without the awareness of the idea of infinite I would not be able to acquire the awareness of myself as a finite being. Hence the idea of my finitude necessarily implies the idea of an infinite being. From this Descartes ventures the next step: If I exist then the most perfect and infinite Being must exist as well.

Conclusion 1: Starting from the given state of my finitude, I realize that it is possible to possess more perfection with regard to any of my abilities. The lack of all of these supreme qualities suggests that I was not absolutely independent in my coming to be. If I was not able to acquire all the perfections i lack, this means that I was even less able to create myself. Since my existing nature is not what I would wish it to be, I must be dependent on a being which possesses these perfections. The totality of individual perfections makes up the absolute supreme and infinite being. This infinite substance must possess as much reality as in my idea in accord with the principle of adequacy.


Dependency in Duration: (b) No Causation: The second possibility that my existence has not sprung from any cause at all is refuted by the necessity to recreate myself at each instant of time.  If every moment is independent from others, how can I exist at any next moment? If I came to be without any cause (that is, if I am an uncaused being) I would not be able to continue my existence any further since there would be no power to create and conserve myself every moment anew. The only creative power capable of sustaining me through time is God. 

Two presuppositions:
(1) Discreteness of existence and
(2) Continuous recreation of existence.             

Descartes believes that the Self exists from moment to moment and therefore needs to be sustained in time. Thus the fact of discontinuity along with my present existence requires and implies a constant sequel of initial creation. This opens the question of duration, change and movement. Change and movement have to occur instantly (mini-creation), while duration appears to be a sum of these moments characteristic of substances.

Note: The doctrine of continual creation, strange as it is, follows from Descartes' belief that time is not a continuous substance but a serious of discrete units. This is a kind of cinematographic conception of time according to which it consists of consecutive but separate moments. Indivisible atoms of time represent the ultimate "simple natures" of reality that could be expressed geometrically (spatially) and measured. Since the present does not depend on the preceding time, it is indispensable that I am being created every moment anew. This necessity emerged after Descartes recognized that the Cogito guarantees his existence only as long as he thinks while the origin and the continuance remain entirely unsecured. In this sense the discontinuity of time fits in the contingent nature of created beings.

Conclusion 2: Although human mind differentiates between big initial creation and small instant recreations, for God, there is only eternity beyond time. Time, therefore, depends on finite existence, but persistence of existence in turn depends on God. God is not only the cause that has brought me into being but also the cause in being which conserves me at the moment.
Biological Dependency: (c) Parental Begetting: The third possibility, that I was created by my parents, is obviated through the insight that they cannot account for my continued subsistence in time. In a very ostensible sense I owe my birth to my parents, but not my existence thereafter (conservation).
My parents are, therefore, not the "ultimate cause" of my existence but only secondary causes that are placed in between God and myself. "They have produced certain arrangements in the matter within which I have so far believed that the real I, that is, my mind, is enclosed." But they have not produced my soul ("thinking substance") and all the changes I have been going through ever since then. Even if I have always been as I am now, this does not exclude the idea of divine creation and sustenance: "I would still have to recognize that it is necessary that God is the author of my existence" and the cause that "conserves me". The endurance of a substance through time is being accomplished thanks to the same power that produces it. Creation and preservation are different only in our thinking.
Conclusion 3: Since I am not aware of any power residing in me that would guarantee my existence through time, "I recognize evidently that I am dependent upon some other being different from myself". But my parents are not that being, because they are themselves dependent on something else. They owe their own existence to an entity much more powerful and perfect than we humans are. That being is God ("creative substantiality").
Dependency in Perfection:

(d) Less perfect causes: If my parents could not have made me more perfect than they are themselves, what about some other external causes? Could it be that various perfections are caused by different causes and not by a single omnipotent being?
No, none of these causes matches the level of perfection already contained in the effect possessing the idea of God. Various perfections are not caused by various causes because the infinitely perfect is conceived as united in my idea. Thus some other less than perfect (partial) causes may have played only an intermediary role in my creation. But they could not have produced me entirely and even less imparted into me the idea of all those perfections that are joined in God. By definition they lack the totality and the unity of these perfections precisely because they are only partial. "And certainly the idea of this unity of all God's perfections could not have been placed in me by any cause from which I had not also received the ideas of the other perfections."
If my creators are thinking beings, and they must be at least that, then they will possess the idea of God (i.e. of ultimate perfection) as well. If that idea is self-caused, it is identical with God himself, if not, it would point back to God.

Conclusion 4: First, the persistence of the idea of God turns into an undeniable quality: "This idea is very clear and distinct and contains more objective reality than does any other, so that there is no other which is more true from its very nature, nor which is less open to the suspicion of error and falsity." Second, the idea of God, my subsistence and the content of my idea of God, are intricately connected. I can exist along with my idea of God only if there is a being who possesses formally all that which the idea of God possesses objectively. "We must necessarily conclude from the mere fact that I exist and that I have an idea of a supremely perfect Being, or God, that the existence of God is very clearly demonstrated." All this despite the admission that by nature I as a limited being do not and cannot comprehend the infinity along with many other things in God. But these relations are intelligible.

Note: I cannot comprehend God because he is entirely incommensurable with me, but he is fully commensurable with the idea I have of him, which makes him intelligible.

3rd Metaphysical Principle: "It would not be possible for my nature to be what it is, possessing the idea of God, unless God really existed - the same God, I say, the idea of whom I possess, the God who possesses all these high perfections of which my mind can have some slight idea…"

Existential dependence points to God, God provides certainty and clearness to the consciousness of our imperfect Self. "I exist, therefore God exists" - this is the final form of the Cogito. The finite thinker knows himself through the infinite God.

Causa sui: In accord with the insight that the self-sufficiency of God exceeds self-sufficiency of the "I", the second proof  rests on the notion of divine self-causation as the essential characteristics of God. This is a departure from the Scholastic view according to which God is a being without a cause. The notion of God as self-caused will be explicitly introduced in the fifth Meditation.
Conclusion 5: "And from this (that he is all-perfect God) it is quite evident that he cannot be a deceiver, since the light of nature teaches us that deception must always be the result of some deficiency." Thus the hyperbolic doubts from the first Meditation must finally be put to rest.
Of course, as the fourth Meditation states, the ability to deceive could be an indication of cleverness, but the will to deceive is an evidence of malice. If my clear and distinct perceptions could be false, then only God would be able to make them seem clear and distinct. But he is not a deceiver.
Therefore, there is no reason why beliefs based on clear and distinct perceptions should not be trusted; they cannot be false.
They can appear as doubtful only to someone who does not possess knowledge of the veracity rule - but that knowledge is now fully secured through the existence of God.


Accomplishments The two proofs from the third Meditation are the glue for the whole argumentative structure of the Meditations. The thinking Self proves to be the Self having the idea of God which unravels the ultimate cause of existence and knowledge. The successive stages of awareness as revealed in the meditative process are therefore presented as inferences from the basic knowledge of God's existence. In demonstrating that God is an efficient cause of our ideas and existence the proofs establish that we have certain knowledge of God's nature and that our science is both possible and reliable. The Cogito was the subjective formal condition of all representations up to the third Meditation. It was the formal principle in the sense of finding the positive consciousness as the precondition for all self-knowledge. But the Cogito was not sufficient to determine the validity and the quality of the content of our representations. The self-consciousness of the Cogito is crippled without the consciousness of the perfect. This is the chief reason why now the content of one single idea becomes the material principle of everything. In securing both the quality and the validity of our representations the third metaphysical principle is an objective principle of scientific knowledge. The idea of a superb perfect being becomes also a condition of the Cogito, because the notion of the infinite precedes the notion of the finite. The result: I am not any longer enclosed inside myself and the need to confirm my certainty every single moment vanishes. The certainty of God's existence supplants the certainty of the Cogito which was not able to assure its own certainty. As Descartes claimed at the end of the second Meditation that the knowledge of the Self is easier than the knowledge of material things, now he can say that God is better known than the thinking Self (in the Preface he has announced to prove that the knowledge of God's existence is the easiest thing to acquire).
Failures: The proofs explicate the connection between the knowledge of the Self and the knowledge of God. The idea of God stands allegedly to God in the same relation as the Self, which possesses the idea of God stands to God. Descartes claims that the idea of the Self, which we possess directly as an intuition, necessarily includes the idea of God. Maybe so, but this relation is not a necessary connection like the one between thought and existence, a mountain and a valley, or even between movement and duration. The awareness of God as obtained through the intuition of the Self does not possess the same evidence and certainty as the intuition of the Self. Plus it does not entail the existence of an actual cause. As some contemporaries have objected during Descartes'  life-time, the objective reality is just a concept whose content remains conceptual (nominalism). That the objective reality of the idea of God is such that it requires formal (= actual) reality of God is exactly what needs to be demonstrated (quod erat demonstrandum). Another assumption is that an infinite regress is not possible and that there must be a cause of the entire implicatory series beginning with our imperfect Self.

The idea of God is not invented by the human mind although the proofs may create the impression that, as we proceed with demonstration, the idea is being constructed by expanding on human imperfections. In fact, the proofs simply develop and make its content explicit in a way of self-discovery. The idea of God is not acquired either through the senses or produced by human imagination. If it has not come from without, the only remaining possibility is that we are born with it. The persistence of the idea and my own endurance are intricately connected, so much so that the idea of God must be innate. It is characteristic for innate abilities that they are not always actually present, but they can produce and reproduce themselves allover again. It does not provide either a necessary or a complete grasp of the divine nature; but it serves as a starting point for self-reflection of a thinking thing.

Note: Though not always explicated, innate ideas can have more objective validity than adventitious ideas. While judgments of causation cannot establish the validity of adventitious ideas, the judgments of objective validity for innate ideas can establish the causal implication.

Trademark: Both proofs presuppose a kind of similarity between the cause and the effect, a similarity which makes God traceable in its creatures. Of all creatures man has the maximum resemblance with the Creator for man is the only being having the idea of God. This similarity establishes a recognizable link between being created by God and having the idea of God. In that respect there is an analogy between the way how craftsmen sign their products and the way how we have been marked by our Creator. "God, in creating me, put this idea in my nature in much the same way as an artisan imprints his mark on his work." As artifacts bear marks of their manufacturers, so we possess the idea of God as a trademark of God's existence stamped into our mind. This trademark could not be extracted from us -  it is not "something different from the work itself". And it should not be separated from the work because it helps us grasp and retrace the path of resemblance that leads to the Creator. By conceiving that resemblance we can explicate the idea of God and discover the nature of our dependency. Thanks to the idea of God I recognize both the difference and similarities.

Note: From the conclusion that God has created me Descartes draws another conclusion - that my creation was performed in the "image of God". However, the quantity of perfection in an idea cannot be evaluated by its resemblance to the object, since this resemblance is not known a priori - it has to be established a posteriori. Only in that way the existence of a machine design can point to a designer.

Traditional Arguments: Both proofs represent a Cartesian combination of the causal or a posteriori argument and the idea of God (ontological argument). Both proceed from certain effects to cause as traditional cosmological argument do and in both versions God appears in the position of a predicate within the argument. But Descartes does not make reference to any physical effects in the world taking instead his own meditative experience as the starting point. The contents of subjectivity are more reliable than the knowledge of external objects. In contrast, the Thomistic proof relies on the succession of efficient causes in the realm of sensible objects. Descartes claims that there one cannot see why an infinite regress would not be possible. For him, the presence of the idea of God is the cardinal effect that requires explanation in regard to the gap that separates its bearer and its content. And the explanation is being sought on the following principle: There must exist the object (cause) which the idea of God represents and it is a non-deceiving God himself (first proof) who is responsible for the existence of the "thinking thing" that possesses the idea of God (second proof). "One might imagine that such a being does not exist, nevertheless one cannot imagine that that the idea of it does not represent anything real." This reasoning may lead to the impression that, in the final analysis, Descartes has welded the causal argument with the ontological one and that he argues the way ontological proof proceeds. In the third Meditation, however, he does not start from the necessary connections between the various predicates that are united within the idea of God and does not subsequently isolate one predicate whose reality should be eventually derived by means of being entailed by that bundle logically, as is the case in the ontological argument (cf. the fifth Meditation). Similarly in the second argument, he claims that God is the cause of me who possess the idea of him by pointing to the absolute perfection of the supreme Being. But again the proof is not based on the concept of God's nature; it springs from self-realization of the thinking subject. 
Charge of Sophism: Descartes is very often accused of simply stating some arbitrarily chosen divine properties and then only demonstrating that these properties apply to an infinite and perfect being. Had he proceeded that way he would have only explicated the meaning of the word 'God' as he understands it without really proving anything. Fortunately, his demonstration is much more subtle. It is a kind of double-track procedure: he explicates the content of the innate idea of God parallel to the exposition of its existential basis so that only at the end of the demonstration the implicit divine properties acquire their full meaning.
Cartesian Circle: If the knowledge that God exists is the precondition for a full vindication of the claim that clear and distinct perceptions are true, and if this knowledge for its part presupposes the validity of clear and distinct perceptions needed to perform the proof of God's existence, then one can speak about a circle in the demonstration or even a fallacy (petitio principii). This objection was formulated already by Antoine Arnauld who has first pointed to a potential circulus in Descartes' reasoning: in order to be able to secure the veracity of clear and distinct perceptions by means of a recourse to God's existence Descartes must already know that whatever he perceives clearly and distinctly is true. Descartes' reply was that one has to distinguish "between what we in fact perceive clearly and what we remember having perceived clearly on a previous occasion". This distinction seems to suggest that God's existence and veracity are needed to back only the memory of the past clear and distinct perceptions, not the reliability of the present clear and distinct perceptions, which are anyway indubitable. Thus the circle in reasoning dissipates. Another strategy to avoid the circle is to restrict the need for the divine guarantee only to the general rule about the truth of clear and distinct perceptions. According to this strategy, this type of guarantee is not required for particular clear and distinct perceptions (this is similar to the memory-defense). However, it becomes necessary when the isolated "flashes of cognition" get connected to build up scientific knowledge. Then the general doubt about the validity of the clear and distinct principle has to be overcome and the veracity of knowledge secured. But in that context, which translates the indubitability of particular statements into the truth of systematic knowledge, the proof for the existence of God is not any longer based solely on our clear and distinct perceptions. Descartes is certain of God's existence due to adduced rational reasons and only subsequently, in a kind of retrospective recollection, as it were, he refers to the clarity and distinctness of his intuitions.
Theology validates Reason Impossibility to doubt clear and distinct ideas was grounded on our subjective (psychological) convictions. Now it gains  support from an absolutely objective source: the veracity of God's existence guarantees the correspondence of our ideas and objects. But this conformity in turn presupposes the veracity of our psychological criteria. The circle cannot be avoided totally. The Cogito remains ineluctably tied to God as long as it is to be a clear (not obscure) abstraction of myself. The accomplishment of the ultimate clarity must be a product of the unity of the finite intellect and the infinite idea.

Question 1: Does Descartes contradict himself when he says that one cannot doubt those propositions that are perceived utterly clearly and distinctly during the time when they are perceived, given his contention that an omnipotent God can deceive us even about most clearly and distinctly perceived things? No, the first is a psychological impossibility, the second an open logical possibility.

Question 2: Is it a contradiction when Descartes affirms the existence of God based on the existence of the idea of God, that is to say, our knowledge of God, while at the same time admitting that the idea of God is beyond our comprehension? Descartes allows knowledge of the infinite but always with a qualification: "insofar as the eye of my darkened intellect permits". The infinite could be represented and understood only as incomprehensible.

Question 3: Is the idea of God hopelessly "indefinite" (vague) and has Descartes failed to secure mutual compatibility of different attributes within the divine "supreme perfection"? Specifically, how many attributes does he list and does he realize that perfection contradicts infinity? He has never aspired to provide an exhaustive list of attributes, particularly not one deductively ordered or reduced to a unitary formula. If a systematic deduction of all attributes is not possible, a fairly illuminating enumeration of mutually connected attributes is within our reach. Rather than contradicting each other these attributes help us understand the immanent complexity of the divine nature. Infinity entails our inability to fully comprehend it, but perfection remains intelligible as long as we rely on our intellectual abilities that relate our existence analogously with God.



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