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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Essay on Rene Descartes' Proof of God's Existence

Philosophers have proposed different arguments to prove God’s existence.  Aristotle suggested that God is the unmoved mover and constructed his argument based on this idea.  St. Anselm advanced the Ontological Argument saying that God’s existence can be proved without any need for evidence.  St. Thomas Aquinas advanced the Cosmological Argument theorizing that the perfect harmony in the physical universe suggests the existence of a Supreme Being.  These arguments have their own strengths and flaws.  However, I find Rene Descartes’ argument one of the most logical and convincing.

Rene Descartes is one of the philosophers who provided sound arguments on the existence of God.  He patterned his theory after St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument.  The main difference is that St. Anselm referred to God as a being that than which nothing greater can be conceived.  The ontological argument was later on criticized and destroyed by St. Aquinas.

Descartes’ argument was so-called because it relies on the essence of God as a necessary being as one of the presumptions.  Descartes considered God as a necessary being as contradistinguished from contingent being.  As a necessary being God must exist otherwise we will be negating the very concept of God.

Descartes’ Proof of God's Existence can be restated as follows: Premise 1.  I think, therefore I am.
Premise 2.  I cannot be mistaken about the ideas that I have.
Premise 3.  There can never be more objective reality in the effect (i.e., the idea) than there is formal reality in the cause (i.e., object of the idea).
Premise 4.  I have an idea of perfection or infinite substance.
Premise 5. My idea of perfection is the most objectively real idea that I have.
Premise 6. The only possible formal cause of that idea is infinite substance.

Premises 1 and 2 are the foundations of Descartes’ philosophy.  He thought that our existence is proved by the fact that we are able to doubt our existence.  Since we are able to doubt our existence and argue about it then it follows that we exist.  In other words, it could not be possible for a non-existing being to be able to think.  The act of thinking also brings about ideas.  These ideas are mere reflections of an actual reality.  It follows that if the reflection is real then the cause of these ideas are also real since the effect could not be more real than its cause.  For instance, the idea horse came is just a result of the actual and existing horse.  The existence of an idea horse is as real as the actual horse.  Since an idea is simply an effect it follows that there is a cause behind the effect.  In the same manner, the idea perfection is just an effect of a real perfect being that actually exists.  Since our idea of perfection is real it follows that there exists a perfect being.  However, no human being is perfect.  Thus, the idea of perfection could only come from a perfect being which is God.

Though Descartes’ argument is sound there are criticisms against it.  One of the criticisms against Descartes’ argument is that it relies heavily on the idea of perfection that is in one’s mind which is stated in Premises 4 and 5.  It strength lies in the logical necessity of the idea of perfection because the idea exists in the mind.  Descartes’ argument, however, is contrary to human experience.  It can be argued that it is still possible for a person to create in his mind an idea of a perfect marriage or a perfect world without them having an independent existence outside of the mind.  In this case, my idea of a perfect president could not have an independent existence because no such being exists.  It is therefore possible that the idea of perfection is just a pigment of a person’s imagination which has no outside existence.

Descartes’ Proof of God's Existence is incomplete, insufficient and weak.  Instead of proving God’s existence it only affirmed and defined God’s quality of perfection.  Proving is different from defining.  Descartes made the error of defining God’s characteristics and relied on these characteristics without actually proving God’s existence.  However, Descartes’ argument’s strength lies in his use of Skepticism to prove that God’s existence is a logical necessity.

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