“Cogito ergo sum” is a Latin philosophical proposition by René Descartes usually translated into English as “I think, therefore I am”. The phrase originally appeared in French as “je pense, donc je suis” in his Discourse on the Method, so as to reach a wider audience than Latin would have allowed. Many of my generation and younger (I don’t know or want to know the current “hip” description for them- “hippie” was mine I have no idea who “millennial’s,” “X-Generation,” “baby boomers”-Hippies may overlap them) have used that phrase as a reason to deny the existence of a “God”.
They use this phrase, and many more taken out of context of the original writers overall thesis, and use it as the basis of what they wish to believe. All the science fiction movies and novels have added greatly to the depth of their beliefs so that it is virtually unshakeable. I like the ones who have used the “Star Wars” “May the force be with you” to generate a level of consciousness that we must all strive to obtain. So let us explain how incredible wrong they are about René Descartes and his belief about God and why they say it is not so- those few who are capable of debating in intelligent fashion.
René Descartes (1596–1650) is widely regarded as the father of modern philosophy. His noteworthy contributions extend to mathematics and physics. This entry focuses on his philosophical contributions in the theory of knowledge. Specifically, the focus is on the epistemological project of Descartes’ famous work, Meditations on First Philosophy. Upon its completion, the work was circulated to other philosophers for their comments and criticisms. Descartes responded with detailed replies that provide a rich source of further information about the original work. He indeed published the first edition (1641) of the Meditations together with six sets of objections and replies, adding a seventh set with the second edition (1642).
Most individuals ignore the rest of his entire work and concentrate on just that phrase in order to justify their beliefs. However, that is unfair, as that one statement is directly in opposition to his final thoughts and conclusions. So it behooves me to go through his Meditations and set everyone straight.
Famously, Descartes defines knowledge in terms of doubt. While distinguishing rigorous knowledge (scientia) and lesser grades of conviction (persuasio), Descartes writes:
I distinguish the two as follows: there is conviction when there remains some reason which might lead us to doubt, but knowledge is conviction based on a reason so strong that it can never be shaken by any stronger reason. (1640 letter to Regius, AT 3:65)
This passage (and others) clarify that Descartes understands doubt as the contrast of certainty. As my certainty increases, my doubt decreases; conversely, as my doubt increases, my certainty decreases. The requirement that knowledge is to be based in complete, or perfect certainty, amounts to requiring a complete absence of doubt — an indubitability, or inability to undermine one’s conviction.
In his First meditation he lays out his thesis to the esteemed Dean and Faculty of the Theological Center in Paris: “I have always considered that the two questions respecting God and the Soul were the chief of those that ought to be demonstrated by philosophical rather than theological argument. For although it is quite enough for us faithful ones to accept by means of faith the fact that the human soul does not perish with the body, and that God exists, it certainly does not seem possible ever to persuade infidels of any religion, indeed, we may almost say, of any moral virtue, unless, to begin with, we prove these two facts by means of the natural reason. And inasmuch as often in this life greater rewards are offered for vice than for virtue, few people would prefer the right to the useful, were they restrained neither by the fear of God nor the expectation of another life; and although it is absolutely true that we must believe that there is a God, because we are so taught in the Holy Scriptures, and, on the other hand, that we must believe the Holy Scriptures because they come from God (the reason of this is, that, faith being a gift of God, He who gives the grace to cause us to believe other things can likewise give it to cause us to believe that He exists), we nevertheless could not place this argument before infidels, who might accuse us of reasoning in a circle.“
Descartes states that he has put off examining the foundations upon which he has built all his false beliefs. But he must now do so, in order to establish firm and lasting truths in the sciences. Examining each of his opinions for falsehood would be tedious; rather, Descartes says that if he can simply show that there is cause for doubt for an opinion, then he can throw that opinion out. So he states”
“In the first Meditation I set forth the reasons for which we may, generally speaking, doubt about all things and especially about material things, at least so long as we have no other foundations for the sciences than those which we have hitherto possessed. But although the utility of a Doubt which is so general does not at first appear, it is at the same time very great, inasmuch as it delivers us from every kind of prejudice, and sets out for us a very simple way by which the mind may detach itself from the senses; and finally it makes it impossible for us ever to doubt those things which we have once discovered to be true.”
The senses seem like a good place to start, since they often mislead us. But would it not be insane to reject also such deliverances as that we have hands, eyes, etc.? Probably. We have no clear criterion for distinguishing between our waking and sleeping lives. But whatever we dream, Descartes suggests that the constituting elements of them, i.e., ‘simples’, must surely have a basis in reality. The idea is that ‘simples’ are that out of which we form complex ideas (e.g., of a unicorn). So if we find the simplest elements in nature, we will have found the most universal, which then must be true. The mathematical and physical sciences, then, which don’t depend on composites, might be considered to be indubitable. Can 1 + 2 not be 3? People often make mistakes in the above disciplines. So we can both doubt that God is benevolent and the capacity of our reason to deliver true judgments. Thus, Descartes resolves to throw out all his previous beliefs, and assume that God is maliciously bent on deceiving him. His famous saying is in this Meditation, but I will deal with it later.
He writes on to the Professors:
“In the second Meditation, mind, which making use of the liberty which pertains to it, takes for granted that all those things of whose existence it has the least doubt, are non-existent, recognizes that it is however absolutely impossible that it does not itself exist. This point is likewise of the greatest moment, inasmuch as by this means a distinction is easily drawn between the things which pertain to mind—that is to say to the intellectual nature—and those which pertain to body.”
He asks what is there concerning which he can have not the slightest occasion for doubt? It is that he exists. This follows, he argues, from the fact that even if he denies that he has a body, or that the world exists, or that he is not being deceived by a malicious God, there is still an object of those denials: himself. While he can suppose his body to not belong to him, he can’t suppose thinking to not belong to him. Thus, he knows only that he is a Thinking thing –one who “doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, and that also imagines and senses.”
Continuing to write:
“In the third Meditation it seems to me that I have explained at sufficient length the principal argument of which I make use in order to prove the existence of God. But no ne the less, because I did not wish in that place to make use of any comparisons derived from corporeal things, so as to withdraw as much as I could the minds of readers from the senses, there may perhaps have remained many obscurities which, however, will, I hope, be entirely removed by the Replies which I have made to the Objections which have been set before me. “
Descartes notes that his being certain of his being a thinking thing, which is a “first instance of knowledge,” reveals what is needed for him to be certain of anything: a clear and distinct perception of what is affirmed. But if it could be that something so clear and distinct could be false, he would not be certain of the thing’s truth. Thus, everything he perceives clearly and distinctly is true.
“In the fourth Meditation it is shown that all these things which we very clearly and distinctly perceive are true, and at the same time it is explained in what the nature of error or falsity consists. This must of necessity be known both for the confirmation of the preceding truths and for the better comprehension of those that follow.”
Descartes now moves to deduce other truths from those that he has established: that God exists, and that Descartes depends on him for his existence at all moments. From the previous Meditation, God can never deceive Descartes. He says that while deception may seem like “an indication of cleverness or power, the will to deceive undoubtedly attests to maliciousness or weakness. Accordingly, deception is incompatible with God. Descartes wonders then, if God won’t deceive, why he has endowed us with judgments that seem given to frequent error.
Why, then, does error come about? Descartes offers that it is because though our intellect is finite, our will is infinite. Errors in judgment are caused by indifference of the will, which occurs when the will affirms or denies despite there being no (good) reason to do either. A will that is properly inclined by a clear and distinct perception on the part of reason prevents error in judgment. In concluding, Descartes argues that God does not owe us, who have not merited anything, an infinite intellect, which, besides, is not proper to us. In addition, though God concurs in our actions, he has responsibility only for the good in our actions; the bad are a result of negation. We are responsible for our sins, because we can choose to abstain from willing/judging things that we do not understand, and only will/judge things that we perceive clearly and distinctly.
“In the fifth Meditation corporeal nature generally is explained, and in addition to this the existence of God is demonstrated by a new proof in which there may possibly be certain difficulties also, but the solution of these will be seen in the Replies to the Objections. And further I show in what sense it is true to say that the certainty of geometrical demonstrations is itself dependent on the knowledge of God.”
Now Descartes seeks to return to the subject of whether material things exist, which was pushed aside in the first Meditation. A natural starting point is the ideas that we have of objects. He says that he has 4 distinct ideas of extension, which he is able to enumerate parts in and to which he is able to ascribe such properties as size, shape, motion, etc. there are no external objects, he is able to think of triangles at will, and upon their essences, which are not fabricated. He can demonstrate their properties in his mind. He can use the truths of geometry, arithmetic on these objects and find the sine and cosine and they would be correct. If it follows from the fact that whatever he perceives clearly and distinctly to belong to an idea of something he brings forth, that it belongs to that thing, then it follows that God exists.
As long as Descartes remembers that he clearly and distinctly perceived once that there is a God, who doesn’t deceive, no counterargument can be given that puts doubt on any of his clear and distinct beliefs. But this still leaves out the existence of material objects. Do we perceive them clearly and distinctly, apart from their ideas?
Finally in the Sixth I distinguish the action of the understanding from that of the imagination; the marks by which this distinction is made are described . I here show that the mind of man is really distinct from the body, and at the same time that the two are so closely joined together that they form, so to speak, a single thing.
As long as he remembers that he clearly and distinctly perceived once that there is a God, who doesn’t deceive, no counterargument can be given that puts doubt on any of his clear and distinct beliefs. But this still leaves out the existence of material objects. Do we perceive them clearly and distinctly, apart from their ideas?
Descartes begins his project of determining whether we can know that external objects exist by distinguishing between the imagination and intellect. Imagination is a faculty that we use for picturing what we’re thinking about.. We can think of the earth by imagining in our mind. But the conceive of the earth as an eight sided octagon takes a bit more understanding of a complex combination of ideas. Thus, Descartes argues, imagination is not essential to our mind. Understanding is. He conjectures that perhaps the imaginative faculty belongs to something distinct from his mind, a body maybe.
Various themes about innate truths are introduced in the Fifth Meditation. Among them concerns the effects of repeated meditation: truths initially noticed only by means of inference might eventually come to be apprehended self-evidently. In the build-up to the passage claiming that the Evil Genius Doubt is finally and fully overcome, Descartes has his mediator say:
“But as regards God, if I were not overwhelmed by preconceived opinions, and if the images of things perceived by the senses did not besiege my thought on every side, I would certainly acknowledge him sooner and more easily than anything else. For what is more self-evident [ex se est apertius] than the fact that the supreme being exists, or that God, to whose essence alone existence belongs, exists?
Although it needed close attention for me to perceive this, I am now just as certain of it as I am of everything else which appears most certain. And what is more, I see that the certainty of all other things depends on this, so that without it nothing can ever be perfectly known”. (Med. 5, AT 7:69)
First, he sensed that he had hands, feet, etc. Further, he judged what was beneficial and what was harmful, what opportune, what inopportune, by means of his sensation of pleasure and pain. He also sensed colors, odors, etc., on whose basis he distinguished, say, sky from seas. Ideas bombarded him constantly, in other words. Why then did he think there were external bodies? Because, the ideas they presented were more vivid, more explicit than he could muster through meditation, nor could he not sense them when they were present, or imagine them when they were not. With regard to his having a body, he sensed, by nature’s teaching, which his body was his, since his will to eat, e.g., was always connected to hunger in his stomach. In addition, his moods shifted in accordance with the particularity of his sensations.
Because God is not a deceiver, what nature teaches us is probably true. So, our bodies are tightly joined with our minds, so much so that they constitute one thing. Nature also teaches us that there are other bodies around us. Descartes clarifies that by “nature” he means only what pertains to our composite minds and bodies, and so what we are allowed to infer on the basis of sense appearance
The full statement that the progressives steal part of is: “What of thinking? I find here that thought is an attribute that belongs to me; it alone cannot be separated from me. I am, I exist, that is certain. But how often? Just when I think; for it might possibly be the case if I ceased entirely to think, that I should likewise cease altogether to exist. I do not now admit anything which is not necessarily true: to speak accurately I am not more than a thing which thinks, that is to say a mind or a soul, or an understanding, or a reason, which are terms whose significance was formerly unknown to me. I am, however, a real thing and really exist; but what thing? I have answered: a thing which thinks.”
When I try to doubt my own existence, I immediately apprehend that I must exist in order to be attempting the doubt. Similarly (on this interpretation), when I try to doubt God’s existence, or omnipotence, or benevolence — or any other attribute contained in the very conception of an all-perfect being — I immediately apprehend, as Descartes writes, that any such skeptical conception of God “implies a conceptual contradiction — that is, it cannot be conceived” (1643 letter to Voetius, AT 8b:60).
If our schools had only taught critical thinking in high school classes, we might have an entirely different world out thinking of thinking rational beings. Instead we have a group that when told that Rhett Butler said “Frankly, Ma’am. I don’t give a damn” they now know all about Gone With The Wind and the Civil War.