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Descartes and God: How the Father of Modern Philosophy Approached Metaphysics

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etaphysics is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with explaining the first principles of things and the world that encompasses them; including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time and space. Based on the Greek ta meta ta phusika, metaphysics is concerned about things after/beyond the physics; that is to say, things beyond nature and natural things.

The role and place of God in René Descartes approach to metaphysics is prime-sequitur. Being that God is first and supremely perfect; perfect knowledge of all things that follows from God is also dependent upon God. This notion harkens us back to Jesus’ teaching on the vines and the branches, “. . .because without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5ff). The proof of this premise is bottled up tight in Descartes Sixth Mediation (71) of his Discourse on Method and Meditation on First Philosophy:

“And thus I see plainly that the certainty and truth of every science depends exclusively upon the knowledge of the true God, to the extent that, prior to my becoming aware of him, I was incapable of achieving perfect knowledge about anything else. But now it is possible for me to achieve full and certain knowledge about countless things, both about God and other intellectual matters, as well as about the entirety of that corporeal nature which is the object of pure mathematics.”

God arrives in His role and place in Descartes’ metaphysics by the means of what 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant called the ‘ontological’ argument. Ontology is the branch of metaphysics that treats the nature and meaning of being. It is widely agreed that Saint Anselm of Cantebury proposed the first ontological argument in his Proslogion in 1078, but there have been many variations since.

The basic structure of the ontological argument has three points; those being, (1) God is defined; (2) Why it is necessary for God to exist outside of the mind; and (3) Proof (therefore) that because God can be found beyond the physical, He must always be present in the physical.

The ontological argument hinges on the coherent definition of God. For Saint Anselm, God is a being which none greater can be imagined, and since no other greater thing can be imagined in the mind, therefore, it is necessary that God must be a real living being. He writes in Proslogion II.

“Thus even the fool is convinced that something than which nothing greater can be conceived is in the understanding, since when he hears this, he understands it; and whatever is understood is in the understanding. And certainly that than which a greater cannot be conceived cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is even in the understanding alone, it can be conceived to exist in reality also, which is greater. Thus if that than which a greater cannot be conceived is in the understanding alone, then that than which a greater cannot be conceived is itself that than which a greater can be conceived. But surely this cannot be. Thus without doubt something than which a greater cannot be conceived exists, both in the understanding and in reality.”

Those who might attack this definition of God by pointing to other great things that the mind can imagine, such as a unicorn, miss the point. That is to say, that as great and wonderful of a unicorn that the mind can image, God is still the greater of the two.

Without giving direct credit to Anselm, Descartes would like to build upon and safeguard his definition of a prime-sequitur God against attacks of presupposition by building it upon a failsafe predicate. In Mediation Three he writes, “. . . I now seem able to posit as a general rule that everything I very clearly and distinctly perceive is true.” Of these things that Descartes perceives clearly and distinctly to be true is the existence of God, and all else flows from that.

God is a supremely perfect being, whose existence is necessarily so because of His essence. Descartes, the consummate mathematician, argues that to suggest that there is a supremely perfect being that can exist in the mind, but not exist in reality, is to suggest that we can conceive in our minds a triangle that has interior angles that do not sum to 180 degrees. This essence must follow existence argument is to say that because of what God is, He must be. Without offering any empirical proof of God’s existence, Descartes argument becomes circular, but that is not necessarily a negative issue as long as he continues to build upon the coherency of his prime-sequitur definition of God.

Another important area where Descartes works on his attempt to build upon the necessary existence of a supremely perfect God is when he talks about His substance in Meditation Three. He finds that there is more reality in an infinite substance than a finite one, because from within his mind he finds an inner knowledge of something greater than himself. This is what he perceives, and because the source of this knowledge was somehow prior in him, it must be clearly and distinctly true. He writes:

“Thus there remains only the idea of God. I must consider whether there is anything in this idea that could not have originated from me. I understand by the name ‘God” a certain substance that is infinite, independent, supremely intelligent and supremely powerful, and that created me along with everything else that exists – if anything else exists. Indeed all these are such that, the more carefully I focus my attention on them, the less possible it seems that could have arisen from myself alone. Thus, from what has been said, I must conclude that God necessarily exists.”

While, British author James Allen would say ‘as a man thinketh, so is he,’ Descartes would say something related, but even more profound. He would say, ‘What a man perceives, so it is,’ because for him, what he becomes consciously aware of to be clear and distinct is true; beginning with the prime-sequitur, which is the supremely perfect God. That is essentially the first fruit of Descartes’ cosmological argument; that it is clear that we possess an idea of God, and the cause of that idea can only be God Himself.

The role and place that God plays in Descartes’ metaphysics is grounded in the fact that he perceives his existence (that is, being a ‘thinking thing’ – ‘he thinketh’) and the fact that he can perceive an idea of God is because God exists. Concerning this finding, he writes in this Third Meditation:

“Finally, as to my parents, even if everything I ever believed about them were true, still it is certainly not they who preserve me; nor is it they would in any way brought me into being, insofar as I am a thinking thing. Rather, they merely placed certain dispositions in the matter which I judged to contain me, that is, a mind, which now is the only thing I take myself to be. And thus there can be no difficulty here concerning my parents. Indeed I have no choice but to conclude that the mere fact of my existing and of there being in me an idea of a most perfect being, that is, God, demonstrates most evidently that God too exist.”

While within the confines of Descartes’ ontological argument, the God that he perceives would exist only on the peripheries of Divine revelation as the Catholic Church defines it. What he is dealing with here is an individual verifiable knowledge of God that a singular supremely perfect God has deposited within him. While this rational and reasoned private revelation is distinct from Divine revelation, Descartes’ edition of it can be reconciled to Christianity and a number of other monotheistic religions.

Furthermore, this verifiable knowledge of God that God has deposited in Descartes is the prime-sequitur of all other truths that God has also deposited in him. That is to say that, perfect knowledge of mathematics all other truths are necessarily built upon the knowledge of the Creator and dispenser of those same truths. To affirm this we must return again to a portion of the opening quote of this paper from Descartes Sixth Mediation:

“And thus I see plainly that the certainty and truth of every science depends exclusively upon the knowledge of the true God . . .”

Therefore, having become secure in the existence of God and that He is prime-sequitur of all other truths, Descartes is now sure that he is able to inquire into and attain certain knowledge; even perfect knowledge should God ‘allow’ us access to it.

While it can be said that all men pursue the truth, Descartes believes that he is certain to arrive at it, because the same God who created him has also made certain truths innate within him. Conversely, Descartes would argue that the absence of this supremely perfect God would render man unstable and uncertain, because being not able to discern what is true, man could only be a fickle-minded and relativistic being.

While Descartes’ metaphysics seems to take place in his thinking mind; that is, where he exists, it remains to be a highly personal encounter with God. This is a personal encounter with God that is distinctly detached from the body, imagination, and the possibly errant senses. Yet, it is highly personal because it takes place in the part of Descartes (i.e. the mind) that he believes is true part of him that best represents what God made him to be; that is, a living thinking being.

This personal encounter where the mind meets God is prime-sequitur, and it is also an essential prerequisite of being human. For, what follows from this first encounter with the knowledge of God that was deposited by God within man is an ongoing journey of new and revisited encounters with God through every piece of knowledge that we become certain of.

In other words, what we become certain of we are only certain of it because God deposited that knowledge of it in us and allows us to discover it. Therefore, whenever we discover truth, we discover God. In this way, the man who seeks the truth, discovers God over and over again to the degree that God deigns what is important for us to know.

Altogether, Descartes approaches metaphysics by cleaving to the necessary primacy of God over all things; beginning with his own existence as a thinking human being.

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