Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Modern Philosophy 3

For the class in Modern Philosophy I'm taking this semester, we have to write 15 two-paged papers (minimum) on philosophers such as Descartes, Hume, Locke, and Leibnitz. In this essay, I wrote about Descartes' Meditations (third and fourth). The following is my submission:

Having believed that – through natural reason alone – he had established the certainty of his existence, Descartes begins his third meditation with the intention to show, if possible, what besides one’s own existence is indubitable. In his prefatory comments, Descartes mentions that the purpose of his third meditation is to demonstrate the existence of a perfect being – God – which avoids objections predicated on sensation.

While one may imagine or be deceived into believing in the existence of an external world, consciousness dictates that the particulars of one’s perceptions at least exist in the mind. Descartes uses this to argue that, given his classification of thought as pertaining to images, volitions, or judgments, judgment of ideas as innate, adventitious, or factitious is the point at which most, if not all, errors of the mind can be attributed. For instance, Descartes described his perception of heat as a spontaneous, external stimulus, but notes that he could possess a subconscious sixth sense whereby he produces such perceptions of heat “without the aid of external objects.” Such a hypothetical is representative of the difficulties which forced Descartes to admit he formerly – fallaciously – judged that other entities exist by “blind impulse.”

To circumvent these difficulties, Descartes, to demonstrate the existence of God, argued that ideas are effects which cannot be the product of an idea or existent whose capacity is not equal or superior to the idea itself, and that, since a chain of ideas cannot regress infinitely, a first idea must function as an ontological ground and “archetype” of all other, derivative ideas. Listing several ideas which may indeed be self-induced, Descartes arrives at the idea of a “substance [which is] infinite, [eternal, immutable], independent, all-knowing, all-powerful, [trustworthy], and by which I myself, and every other thing that exists, if any such there be, were created.” This idea, Descartes writes, is too perfect to have originated within his own mind, for, as he perceives that he is not infinite et. al., his apprehension of infinity et. al. must have been caused extrinsically. Moreover, given that any source from which this idea was caused would necessarily have to possess infinitude et. al. in order to be the first cause, God (the being which, by definition, possesses these – and possibly other – perfect attributes) must actually and objectively exist and have innately implanted this idea – or at least the potential for it – within Descartes, whom He conserves. Such an answer explains what perfection entails, how Descartes came to conceptualize it, and how Descartes knows his conception isn’t the result of deception. He ends his third meditation resolved to grow acquainted to reflecting only upon that which he certainly knows, viz. himself in relation to God.

The purpose of fourth meditation was to show that “all which we clearly and distinctly perceive is true” and to discern more clearly the nature of error in reason. So doing, Descartes believed he could validly universalize the clear perceptions of his third meditations so as to refute any who object to his system.

In the beginning of his meditation, Descartes asserts that God has given him a mind which cannot be led to error if utilized correctly – that is, when Descartes keeps at the forefront of his thoughts himself in relation to God. Notwithstanding this assertion, Descartes affirms that he has indeed fallen into error, which seems to imply an impious conclusion: God has bestowed upon him an imperfect mind. Given that Descartes has declared omnipotence to be a perfect attribute – which God must, therefore, possess – Descartes considers why God did not grant him a mind incapable of being deceived or why God allows circumstances to be such as they are, knowing – as God is omniscient – Descartes will be deceived. In essence, Descartes is pondering theodicy.

In reply to own query, Descartes strong-arms such criticisms by providing a blanket response: men are “not always capable of comprehending the reasons why God acts as he does,” nor is such an answer from God obligated. Nevertheless, Descartes offers an indulgent speculation: the idea that man possesses free will, the capacity to choose contraries, appeals to Descartes, as he claims he cannot conceive of anything else which would more capably demonstrate his existence is imprinted with the image of his creator; this might, perhaps, be an allusion to the archetypal argument for God’s existence. Regardless, Descartes uses this to argue that one’s errors stem from one’s own lack of restraint over one’s autonomous judgments. Even if this were this not the case, Descartes states that God’s sovereignty or omnipotence itself functions as the ground for His authority, presumably because God’s purpose in conserving man does not necessarily find its telos in man.

Summarizing the results of his meditation, Descartes writes: “I can never be deceived, because every clear and distinct conception is doubtless something, and as such cannot owe its origin to nothing, but must of necessity have God for its author – God, I say, who, as supremely perfect, cannot, without a contradiction, be the cause of any error; consequently, it is necessary to conclude that every such conception [or judgment] is true.”

The third and fourth meditations provide significant answers to questions relating to the epistemological soundness of Descartes’ “superstructure” which I had after reading the except of his “Discourse on Method” and the beginning of his “Meditations.” If we accept the above summarization as representative of the justificatory basis upon which Descartes makes other claims, Descartes is able, by grounding his epistemology in the ontological existence of God, to purport a sound philosophy of language, a historical account of the means by which he comes to clear and distinct ideas (such as his own existence), and he avoids Hume's "is-ought dilemma" and problems which assume the reliability of memory. He is even able to rebuke the idea that a “deceptive demon has imprinted false thoughts of perfection onto his mind,” as Descartes claims to have clearly perceived a perfect, trustworthy God causes clear perceptions which cannot, by definition (due to origin), be erroneous.

That having been said, Descartes would have done better to realize the purpose of epistemological endeavors should ultimately be self-referential rather than for another’s benefit. The soundness of an epistemological foundation does not rest on the acceptance of it by one who holds an alternate first principle. The atheists who Descartes claimed would have to submit to his reasoning could very well reject Descartes’ epistemology on the basis that Descartes could be lying about what he perceives as “clear and distinct.” After all, they cannot know what Descartes truly thinks, for such reasoning already presupposes Descartes is external. Opining the rejection of his epistemology by atheists should not discourage Descartes; it should simply cause him, if he was honest, to content himself with the self-satisfaction of having demonstrated to himself that which is certainly true.

There are, however, questions Descartes leaves untouched, such as “which God is true?” Surely he opined a diversity of opinion on this matter, but he does not here proceed to a further examination. Also, with regard to his “free will defense” provided against the alleged problem of evil, if Descartes is autonomous, God’s knowledge must necessarily be contingent on actualization of Descartes’ will; as Descartes is a temporal creature, God could not be eternally omniscient. As both free will and God (who is infinite, eternal, immutable, and omniscient) are said to be “clear… conceptions,” atheists could falsify Descartes’ first principle by reducing it to absurdity; hence, Descartes should simply discard the notion of free will, as it is not indubitable.

This implies a greater problem: subjectivity. Descartes’ belief in a proposition inconsistent with his world-view as “clear and distinct” implies a general criticism: in order for a being to claim to know a proposition is indubitable presupposes that he knows it's truth is not contingent or, if it is, said being knows that upon which the veracity of the proposition is contingent. Descartes is admittedly fallible and finitely knowledgeable. Unless, then, Descartes’ grounds his epistemology in the source of God’s revelation – which would, in Descartes’ case, be the Bible – he will seemingly be continually suspect to this criticism.


Frank said...

i really enjoy your writing. you still in school?

Ryan said...

Thank you. My "short bio" is up-to-date. I'm still an undergrad math major looking to become certified as a teacher, but I also plan to attend a local seminary in the near future. That's not hammered out yet.

Frank said...

awesome. i just started Bible college, and i'll be following that up with seminary as well. i'm 23, but ive only been in school for a few weeks lol. still getting adjusted. what seminaries are you considering?

Ryan said...

It will depend on where I can get a full ride. Emory Theological Seminary, Columbia Theological Seminary, and Reformed Theological Seminary are the top choices (in no particular order). I visited RTS with my high school Bible teacher and really enjoyed listening to Fesko's lecture in Systematics (I or III, I can't remember). He's moved on, but the campus itself was nice. I'll just see where God leads me.