Through the first and second meditations Descartes leaves us with the idea that the only thing which we can know for certain is that we exist as a thinking things. This foundation seems to be a reasonable one with little room for doubt. However, in regards to Descartes’ Third Meditation, I have compiled an argument against five different aspects concerning his proof for the existence of God. I will present these in the order in which they become relevant within the Meditation itself. His ultimatum seems to come about on page 36 when he states, “the idea that enables me to understand a supreme deity, eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, and creator of all things other than himself clearly has more objective reality within it than do those ideas through which finite substances are displayed”. I find this claim hard to take straight up, so I will instead break it into pieces which can be more easily managed. By splitting his argument into the parts of innate thoughts, the light of nature, perfection and infinitude, God’s comparison to beings themselves, and the Great Chain of Being I will hope to prove that God is not an essential element to his philosophy.
One of the first proposals Descartes brings up is that there exist three methods by which we obtain ideas. The first two I can manage as they are straightforward, being either adventitious (from outside) or produced by himself (within his mind). The third is the one which I have difficulty with as it is abstract and unclear. It claims that thoughts can be innate (such as existing within you from birth), and further, that his ideas of God are probably formed through this way. In dealing strictly with innate ideas themselves he seems to be using Plato’s idea of recollection, not realizing the absurdity of having knowledge of things before you are even conscious of yourself. It seems to be a claim of something coming from nothing, which he claims to be impossible later on. If you were to ask someone where their ideas came from it seems silly to think that they would respond with, “I was born with them, and have since come to realize some”. Instead I think it to be much more feasible that they would have come up with them through perceiving things through their senses and formulated new ones through either being informed of them, or using their imagination to combine them. Descartes seems to take a more spiritually-oriented approach and takes for granted that ideas are innate. He seems also to avoid providing the same scrutiny over this idea as he had previously applied to those of ideas being perceived externally.
In order to come to realize these innate ideas he must have a method for triggering them. This seems to be realized through the “light of nature” that is continually brought up, which translates loosely to the Latin quod erat demonstrandum which Spinoza so frequently uses to mean, “that which was to be proved”. Within this context it has less scientifically validity though, as it often makes generalizations that don’t seem completely empirical. More so, it has a slight spiritual connotation throughout much of its uses that seemingly gets you to side with his ideas though they can be called into question.
Yet here I would like to back up and discuss whether the idea of God is truly innate. We see that he never directly uses which method, of the three, is used to form his “objective reality” of God, but instead merely notes its relation to finite substances. We see it extensively discussed later in the meditation, but it remains vague in its mode. Concern of what can be ruled out, it seems, would be any way to get this idea of God externally, for this would involve perceiving Him directly through the senses. So we are left with the other two methods, of which one seems much more feasible than the other. If we use the skeptical idea that the idea of God is, in fact, innate (or even put there by God himself, as Descartes seems to think) we run into difficulties right off. For this seems to directly violate his own claim that, “just as the objective mode of being belongs to ideas by their very nature, so the formal mode of being belongs to the causes of ideas, at least to the first and preeminent ones, by their very nature” (37). But where might this formal mode of being exist for God if not everywhere, seeing as he is infinite. If this were so it would seem that we could, in fact, perceive him through the senses (unless we are to take Spinoza’s theory that God exists in everything that is nature). Yet without this there is no cause for the idea of God to even exist. Given that it might be only our idea of God’s existence that is infinite, it still seems as abstract an idea, “as light and colors, sounds, odors, tastes, heat and cold, and other tactile qualities …and whether the ideas I have of them are ideas of things or ideas of non-things” (37). He tries to further claim such an idea of God could not come from within him at all due to its objective reality being so strong that it could not possibly exist in him. I again disagree on this point and have a hard time believing that God could have any formal reality at all (let alone more than substances or modes). His solution seems to be that this idea of an infinite and perfect being must come from God himself or nothing at all. But this argument, mainly that, “God puts the ideas of God within me, for who else could do this but God?” seems paradoxical and circular while there ultimately seems to be another way for it to come about.
He makes a statement on page 38 that, “although the idea of substance is in me by virtue of the fact that I am a substance, that fact is not sufficient to explain my having the idea of an infinite substance, since I am finite, unless this idea proceeded from some substance which really was infinite”. I believe this should be modified to reflect what he says prior to this; mainly that he is not a substance but rather a thinking thing, and seems to have infinite potential for thought in being so. Otherwise he needs to revise his initial conditions to reflect both his being a substance and being limited. If he were to revise this statement he could in fact be able to explain his thoughts of Gods through his own ideas, not making them necessarily explained through God himself and innately.
If we were to instead use the second method of receiving ideas (as produced within his own mind) it seems to be explained much more easily. For it might be that we could build the idea of God from other ideas which we perceived externally or were told by others (which is an idea which Descartes seems to forget in his state of solitude). Through doing so he could create his own individual idea of God containing the proper attributes of perfection and infinitude.
We can use Descartes’ own example regarding his perception of the sun as a parallel to his ideas of God. For just as with God, the sun too is perceived through his senses as something entirely different from what thinks it to be in actuality. Therefore it could be that God is merely an idea perpetuated by the generations of believers before him, and he was just brought up to think the things he does as a compilation of ideas given to him. This more simple explanation for the origin of the ideas of God make his existence true only if you choose to believe in them and leaves the choice in the hands of the individual whose responsibility it is to choose for himself.
Let us now, for arguments sake, concede that God does exist, for there are still more accounts on which we can catch Descartes on false statements.
In order to further prove God’s existence, Descartes states that all ideas of corporeal substances must be modes and contained within God eminently, leaving us only with the idea of God. Because my thoughts have only the potential to be perfect they (and I) are hence finite and can never have accurate ideas of God, “for nothing more perfect than God, or even as perfect as God, can be thought or imagined” (39). But a contradiction is made in stating that I am both a substance and a thinking thing, which allows me to neither have formal ideas nor modes of formal ideas. What is left behind is any form of transcendence between the two. His attempt to remedy this contradiction is brought about through the claim that because ideas within us continually grow and never reach perfection they are by default finite in nature.
The Great Chain of Being seems to be the underlying idea behind this proof. For it claims that the more substance something has the greater its existence will inherently be. This leads to an infinite substance, in this case God, having corresponding infinite existence. This idea is similar to that of the light of nature in that its reasoning seems just to be “because Descartes said so”.
But it could be that Descartes was just a product of his time and place and may not have known any better; for it seems entirely reasonable that his ideas would have been significantly different if he were raised at some other point in time. I think what’s most fascinating is to speculate what would have become of his philosophy if it had had a chance to be conceived 200 years later during the time when Darwin was postulating his theories on Evolution.
At this point I hope to have brought up at least a few good arguments against Descartes’ proof for the existence of God. And though I don’t wish to discredit his entire philosophy (on the contrary, I find the first two Meditations fascinating) I do think his arguments concerning, in particular: the light of nature, innate thoughts (either themselves or of God), and the Great Chain of Being governing God’s perfection and superiority over us, within Meditation Three were unsoundly based and given more credit than were deserved.