Descartes Sells Out

By the third meditation, the mediator, who I will call Alice*, has established only the following things. First, by virtue of the fact that she thinks and doubts that she must exist and, furthermore, that it can never be that she did not exist. Second, that all else is uncertain, due either to the unreliable and inadequate nature of sensory perceptions or to the possibility that there might be some daemon (Descartes is too good a Christian to elude too frequently to the possibility that it might also be God) that has planted in the mediator’s mind things which though they seem indubitable are in fact false (such as 2+3 truly equaling something other then 5). Alice tries to set up a template by which to clearly distinguish what it is that is certain, forgetting all that her senses have told her. Using that which she knows is certain, that is that she exists by virtue of the fact that she thinks which is totally independent of all sensory perception, she comes up with “That whatever I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true”.

It would seem that Alice’s dilemma is solved, however, if it were true that there was some omnipotent (or even merely supernatural) being that was deceiving her. It would follow that even ‘that which she perceives most clearly and distinctly’ is false. This would be true in all cases except that of her existence, for it is impossible to deceive ‘nothing’ into believing that it is ‘something’. So now, to be certain of anything more than that she exists, Alice must answer the question of the existence of God and what nature it possesses. * To assure a clear distinction between Descartes and the Mediator.

This is where we see the Cartesian circle. For Alice (and we) can only be sure of our clear and distinct perceptions if God exists, yet we can only know that God exists because we clearly and distinctly perceive the idea of God. Part (a) – that we cannot trust our ‘clear and distinct perceptions’ unless there is a benevolent and non-deceiving god cannot be proven without part (b)-that we can only ascertain that God exists through those same ‘clear and distinct perceptions’. Part (a) cannot be proven without Part (b) being true and Part (b) cannot be proven unless Part (a) is true. Nagel would condemn Descartes for leading Alice (and us) to a never ending circle of justification each dependent on the prior one.

So now, trapped in this treadmill, Alice must either make (and admit to taking) Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” or weasel her way out. She would do this by claiming that since her idea of god is so perfect, so infinite that she, who is so imperfect (grovel… grovel…grovel) and finite, could not possibly (“blessed are the meek and humble”) have formulated so glorious (please I’m nothing like Galileo), so magnificent in holy splendor ( I kiss your feet), an idea as that which God (her idea and Descartes vehminently insists his, too) possesses. And so for stability and freedom from persecution, Descartes has his meditation sell out. Oh, it also follows that since this most munificent and benevolent one who embodies all that is right and good would never deceive his humble and adoring sheep.

Now the Cartesian circle is solved. God exists (the value of G), we can substitute it into the equation if G then Y (clear and distinct perceptions) of X (whatever is in question) must equal T (truth) G= Y x X= T. Because we all know God equals truth (G=T).

A bonus of god existing is that, since we are most surely made in God’s own image (the end of humbleness), we may now begin to believe that such things as bodies could possibly exist. This is how Alice is able to trust the rabbit and begins to take seriously the ‘wonderland’ around her; it is no longer “all in her head”. So now Descartes is able to build upon his “unshakeable” foundation he has let his pursuit of truth slide in favor of stability, he sold out for peace of mind. He has allowed himself to doze.

Perhaps we should not be so hard on Descartes. At that point in time it was very risky to question god or more accurately the church. Descartes was educated by the church and was in good humor with the church and benefited by this good humor (he became teacher to the young queen of Sweden, though this job eventually caused his death). Even the way that the meditations were written ties into the church. The Spiritual Exercises written by the founder of the Jesuits St. Ignatius of Loyola's seems to be a template for the meditations. The six parts were meant to guide the reader (the mediator) through six days of sincere meditation where the book was merely a roadmap to self exploration. Descartes also imitates Loyola's three step program to enlightenment.

Purgation (skeptical doubt), illumination (proof of the existence of the self, of God), and union (linking this knowledge to the material world).