But now, if from the simple fact that I can draw from my thought the idea of anything it follows that all that I recognise clearly and distinctly to pertain to this thing pertains to it in reality, can I not draw from this an argument and a demonstration of the existence of God? It is certain that I do not find in me the less the idea of him, that is, of a being supremely perfect, than that of any figure or of any number whatever; and I do not know less clearly and distinctly that an actual and eternal existence belongs to his nature than I know that all that I can demonstrate of any figure or of any number belongs truly to the nature of that figure or that number: and accordingly, although all that I have concluded in the preceding meditations may not turn out to be true, the existence of God ought to pass in my mind as being at least as certain as I have up to this time regarded the truths of mathematics to be, which have to do only with numbers and figures: although, indeed, that might not seem at first to be perfectly evident, but might appear to have some appearance of sophistry. For being accustomed in all other things to make a distinction between existence and essence, I easily persuade myself that existence may perhaps be separated from the essence of God, and thus God might be conceived as not existent actually. But nevertheless, when I think more attentively, I find that existence can no more be separated from the essence of God than from the essence of a rectilinear triangle can be separated the equality of its three angles to two right angles, or, indeed, if you please, from the idea of a mountain the idea of a valley; so that there would be no less contradiction in conceiving of a God - that is, of a being supremely perfect, to whom existence was wanting, that is to say, to whom there was wanting any perfection - than in conceiving of a mountain which had no valley.

But although, in reality, I might not be able to conceive of a God without existence, no more than of a mountain without a valley, nevertheless, as from the simple fact that I conceive a mountain with a valley, it does not follow that there exists any mountain in the world, so likewise, although I conceive God as existent, it does not follow, it seems, from that, that God exists, for my thought does not impose any necessity on things; and as there is nothing to prevent my imagining a winged horse, although there is none which has wings, so I might, perhaps, be able to attribute existence to God, although there might not be any God which existed. So far from this being so, it is just here under the appearance of this objection that a sophism lies hid; for from the fact that I cannot conceive a mountain without a valley, it does not follow that there exists in the world any mountain or any valley, but solely that the mountain and the valley, whether they exist or not, are inseparable from one another; whereas from the fact alone that I cannot conceive God except as existent, it follows that existence is inseparable from him, and, consequently, that he exists in reality; not that my thought can make it to be so, or that it can impose any necessity upon things; but on the contrary the necessity which is in the thing itself, that is to say, the necessity of the existence of God, determines me to have this thought.

For it is not at my will to conceive of a God without existence, that is to say, a being supremely perfect without a supreme perfection, as it is at my will to conceive a horse with wings or without wings.

And it must not also be said here that it is necessarily true that I should affirm that God exists, after I have supposed him to possess all kinds of perfection, since existence is one of these, but that my first supposition is not necessary, no more than it is necessary to affirm that all figures of four sides may be inscribed in the circle, but that, supposing I had this thought, I should be constrained to admit that the rhombus can be inscribed there, since it is a figure of four sides, and thus I should be constrained to admit something false. One ought not, I say, to allege this; for although it may not be necessary that I should ever fall to thinking about God, nevertheless, when it happens that I think upon a being first and supreme, and draw, so to speak, the idea of him from the store-house of mind, it is necessary that I attribute to him every sort of perfection, although I may not go on to enumerate them all, and give attention to each one in particular. And this necessity is sufficient to bring it about (as soon as I recognise that I should next conclude that existence is a perfection) that this first and supreme being exists: while, just as it is not necessary that I ever imagine a triangle, but whenever I choose to consider a rectilinear figure, composed solely of three angles, it is absolutely necessary that I attribute to it all the things which serve for the conclusion that there three angles are not greater than two right angles, although, perhaps, I did not then consider this in particular.


Source: The Philosophy of Descartes in Extracts from His Writings. H. A. P. Torrey. New York, 1892. P. 161
To sum up the passage from above:
  1. I know that I exist since I can think.
  2. When I think I have ideas.
  3. I have an idea of God which I did not cause; my idea is an effect.
  4. My idea of God is of God as perfect.
  5. Perfection entails existence.
  6. A cause must have at least as much reality as an effect.
  7. The cause of my idea is not me since I am imperfect.
QED, God exists.


Descartes' Proof for the Existence of God, defined in Meditation III in his "Discourse on the Method," is one of the most studied of all of his ideas. It is more respected than the proof offered by Anselm in his "Proslogion," since Descartes removes the premise of "I believe in God," isolating theological nature from his argument.

Descartes began his meditations with four procedural rules:

  1. Doubt everything
  2. Break all ideas down into the simplest form
  3. Start from the simple and move to the complex
  4. Omit nothing
Soon afterward, he had emerged from his meditations with the statement, "I think, therefore I am." He began to build on that, and eventually, came to his proof.

In short, Descartes states his cogito, that when he thinks, he has ideas, and he has an idea of God which he did not cause - The idea is an effect. He says his idea of God is of a perfect being, and that perfection entails existence. He finally states that a cause must possess as much reality as its effect, and the cause of his idea of God is not himself, since he is imperfect. Therefore, reasons Descartes, God exists.

It is a worthy argument, and when you assume all of the premises are valid, the conclusion must be true. This is why this is indeed a compelling argument that could convince your non-believer of average intelligence. However, it fails to impress me.

Descartes' first two premises are valid. There's no reason to discuss them then. Where Descartes' argument falls short is on his third premise. His idea of God existed previous to him sealing himself off and performing the meditations that led him to this proof. Even if he truly was able to get rid of all ideas obtained prior to the meditation, the fact remains he was still thinking in human language - Something which, by adolescence, would have become nearly hard-wired into his brain's language and thought centers.

In that language there were words - one of which was "God." Had he successfully forgotten everything he had learned, he would have no idea of the word "God," let alone of the concept of him. His bias in this area shows through.

Further, he states that his idea of God is an effect, which obviously, must have a cause. He rationalizes that this cause is God's very existence. I put forth that the cause was the information gene of religion being implanted in his brain. This information gene, or meme, gained enough of a prominence to remain even after he had "forgotten" everything else that he obtained through his senses, and thus, its existence and prominence led him to create this proof.

This peg knocked out, one no longer needs to spend time finding flaws in his fourth, fifth, and sixth premises, because the seventh immediately becomes an invalid one. With at least two flawed premises, the conclusion is no longer true. So it is my opinion, that, when interpreted sans analysis, the proof appears to be readily valid. But like a coin fresh off the mint which has the appearance of perfection, it doesn't look the slightest bit perfect when examined with an electron microscope. The magnification of intellectual analysis will find the weaknesses in any argument that appears true on the surface.

In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Rene Descartes outlined two proofs for the existence of God – one in Meditation III and a second in the fifth meditation. Proof of the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and all good deity (Descartes’ concept of ‘God’ being firmly rooted in the Christian tradition) is necessary, according to Descartes, for the meditator to proceed from the state of Cartesian doubt into reliable knowledge of the external world. The claims Descartes lays in order to make this step are the ‘trademarkargument and the ontological argument, the latter of which shall concern this investigation. It is necessary to discuss this argument and its refutations in order to critically examine its validity.

The Ontological Argument

The ontological argument is an a priori argument in that it does not rely on experience to prove its point – that God exists. Descartes professes this argument in Meditation V as such:

“When I concentrate, it is quite evident that existence can no more be separated from the essence of God than the … idea of a mountain can be separated from the idea of a valley… Hence it is just as much of a contradiction to think of God (that is, a supremely perfect being) lacking existence (that is, lacking a perfection) as it is to think of a mountain without a valley.”
In this way, Descartes is presenting the idea that God has ultimate perfections, one of which is existence. Were God not to exist, he would not have all perfections. It therefore follows from the (Christian) definition of God that he exists just as it follows from the definition of a triangle that the total of the three vertices is equal to two right angles. This can be summarised as
  1. God has all perfections
  2. Existence is a perfection
    ------
    Therefore, God exists.
There are several counter arguments to this – those that oppose the premises themselves and those that accept the argument but not its consequences.

Existence is not a property

The first and most cited criticism of Descartes’ ontological proposition is that the idea of ‘existence’ is not a property as such can be applied to something as could colour or shape or strength: it is not a predicate. Kant illustrates this with a comparison between the ideas that “God is merciful” and “God is existent”. These two sentences are not of the same logical form: existence or non-existence does not change the essence of God, whereas to negate “God is merciful” would alter the concept of God itself. Hirst summarises this as follows – “The God who exists does not have an extra quality as against a God who does not exist: in idea he is exactly the same.” This refutation is in turn countered by Malcolm, who argues that it makes no sense to speculate on an eternal being ceasing to exist, as comparisons of God to finite things are just irrelevant. Malcolm stresses Descartes’ point (what he made in the replies to the objections to the Mediations) of the necessary existence of God – God is a unique case and for God existence is a property – which frees the ontological concept of internal contradiction as highlighted by Kant. In Descartes’ own words:

“…In the case of God necessary existence is in fact a property in the strictest sense of the term, since it applies to him alone and forms part of his essence as it does no other thing.”
This point can again be refuted, however, by looking at Gassendi’s objection –
“Neither in God nor in anything else is existence a perfection, but rather without that there are no perfections… Existence cannot be said to exist in a thing like perfection; and if a thing lacks existence, then it is not just imperfect, it is nothing at all.”
From this we can extrapolate the idea “If God exists, then he exists”, which is, from the contender’s perspective, all that Descartes, Malcolm and other supporters of the ontological argument can achieve with the stated argument. The ‘Fregean solution’ appears to support this: mathematician Gottlob Frege’s ontology poses the idea of existence being a ‘second level’ concept. He suggested that rather than ‘existence’ being a property of an object, it is that of a concept. This property of existence is there “just in case it has a non-empty extension” – i.e. just in case God exists.

Absurd consequences

A second criticism of the ontological argument is that which demonstrates the absurdity of the consequences of applying the argument to other forms than God. Were the ontological argument valid, the perfect desert island, boyfriend, society and so on could all be defined into existence. This is, quite obviously, not the case! It may well be possible to define the concept of a perfect desert island, but not possible to just make it exist. To defend the ontological argument against this sort or criticism, it could be argued that the perfect island, boyfriend or society are only perfect examples of different types of things, and, again, a supremely perfect deity does not fall into the same category, as the deity has, and is, all perfections, so is a “special case”.

Nothing perfect could exist

A further development of the idea “If God exists, then he exists” is the idea that nothing that is perfect might exist. Descartes states theories about triangles – “…its three angles equal two right angles” in abstraction as to whether anything triangular exists or not. Similarly, it can be argued, he presents theories about God in abstraction from whether God exists or not. This idea was put forth by Hume – that something can be thought of as existing, but that has no bearing on the thing’s actual existence. Take for example the existence of $100: the can be thought of as existing, yet that holds no bearing on whether it exists immediately. Even if in spite of the other refutations existence is accepted as a component of perfection, this is perfectly compatible with nothing perfect existing, as Kenny concludes “…If nothing is perfect then nothing is divine, and there is no God, and so Descartes’ proof fails.”

To prove God’s existence is a necessary stage for Descartes in the Meditations. Unfortunately, as shown by the refutations of Descartes’ proposition in the fifth meditation, the ontological ‘proof’ is not sound. It can be countered as the idea of existence being a perfection is questionable, also that if the ontological argument was sound, it would allow all sorts of things to be defined into existence, which are, quite frankly, impossible. Furthermore, a perfect thing might not even exist, so God may have every perfection, but still may not exist. However, it should be considered that the ontological argument is one of two such proofs in the Meditations, therefore (unlike St. Anselm!) Descartes did not design this as an independent, self contained proof of God’s existence, so perhaps it should not be judged as such. Although the ontological argument does not prove the existence of God, neither do the refutations prove his non-existence. In this way it can be said, as Hirst argues, that the ontological argument shows only that the question of God’s existence cannot be settled by conceptual thoughts of God.

Coming soon... The Trademark Argument!

Sources: http://plato.stanford.edu Beck, L. The Metaphysics of Descartes Oxford University Press (1965, 1967) Oxford
Descartes, R. (Translated by Anscombe, E.) Philosophical Writings Nelson (1954) London
Descartes, R. (Translated by Cottingham, J.) Objections and Replies to the Meditations Cambridge University Press, (1986, 1987) Cambridge
Gale, R. On the Nature and Existence of God Cambridge University Press (1991) Cambridge
Hanfling, O. Fundamental Problems in Philosophy Open University Press (1972) Bristol
Hirst, R. Philosophy Routledge (1968) London
Houston, J. Is it reasonable to believe in God? Handsel Press (1984) Edinburgh
Jaspers, K. (Translated by Manheim, R.) Leonardo, Descartes, Max Weber Routledge (1937, 1964)London
Kenny, A. A Brief History of Western Philosophy Blackwell (1998) London
Magee, B. The Great Philosophers BBC Books (1987) London
Miller, B. From Existence to God Routledge (1992) London

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