In this paper, I would like to critically discuss paragraph 24 in Descartes’ third meditation. First of all, I would like to give an explanation of the proposal that Descartes’ criticizes in this paragraph. Secondly, I will evaluate Descartes’ response to this proposal. Finally, I will give considerations that support the “finite first” and “infinite first” pictures and analyze which picture I think is more plausible. Firstly, I want to give the background of the proposal that Descartes criticizes in paragraph 24. In Third Meditation, Descartes argues the existence of God for the first time.
His argument is known as the cognitive causal principle and goes like this: 1) The cause of an idea must contain formally (or eminently) as much reality as the idea contains objectively. 2) My idea of God contains infinite reality objectively. 3) My idea of God is caused by something that contains infinite (unlimited) reality, eminently or formally. 4) Only God has unlimited reality. 5) Therefore, God exists. In this argument, Descartes means that the reality that exists in the world has formal reality, and the reality that exists in our mind as an idea has objectively reality.In order for an idea to contain objective reality, it has to have a cause that contains as much or more reality formally.
For example, we have an idea of a chair objectively, and chair that exists in the world has to contain as much or more formal reality to cause my idea of a chair. In the case of God’s existence, Descartes’ main idea of his argument is that we can understand God exists through our idea of God, because our idea of God contains infinite objective reality that is caused by God who has infinite formal reality.Descartes’ argument is striking and controversial. By looking at this argument on the surface, it is natural to question why we should think the cause of an idea has to have as much reality as the idea being caused, and why our idea of God has infinite objective reality. Descartes himself may expect many criticisms to his argument, so here is how Descartes advances his argument through criticizing this proposal in paragraph 24. If this proposal is not addressed and criticized, it will cause a problem for his first argument of the existence of God.This proposal is that, the acquisition of our idea of God simply begins with our cognition of finite things.
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When we cognize finite things, we negate finite things and remove the limits of finite things, then we can get an idea of the infinite. Our idea of God is merely how we cognize ourselves as finite and limited, thus we come up with an imagination that there is an infinite being who is limitless, and then we have the idea of God. If this proposal is true, Descartes’ first argument of the existence of God will become unsound, because our idea of God is simply our imagination that has no objective reality.Descartes’ response to this proposal points out we do not come up with this idea of an infinite being by beginning with our recognition of finite things. According to Descartes in paragraph 24, being able to negate finite things requires that we already see ourselves as limited/finite, which in turn that we must already have conceptions of the unlimited and infinite. In other words, in order for us to cognize that we are a limited/finite being, we must first have an idea of the unlimited. Therefore, Descartes believes that our idea of infinite being should come before our perception of us being finite beings.
If we do not have this idea of God first, we may never have a cognition that we are limited and may not even be able to negate finite things. I also think what Descartes believes is not that we cannot think of ourselves without being aware of an infinite being at first. In fact, I think Descartes actually does not deny that we get access to our idea of the infinite through being aware of the finite first. Our understanding of ourselves being finite beings can lead us to our idea of an infinite being/God.I think Descartes just wants to clarify that our being able to be aware of the finite and negating it presupposes that we already have a conception of the infinite innately prior to that. Our idea of the infinite is present in us with reality but not merely a negation of the finite that begins with the finite first. Here I think Descartes suggests a substantial claim about the essence of our idea of God.
From understanding Descartes’ claims, I would like to give considerations that support both the “finite first” and “infinite first” pictures for a further discussion.In the finite picture, I think it seems possible that our idea of good could merely be some extensions of our finite virtues. We do not negate our finiteness to infiniteness for the idea of God, but we extend our virtues to have the idea. For example, we have benevolence and we extend this virtue, thinking that there may be an infinite being with infinite benevolence, and then we may have an idea of God. If this finite first picture is true, we may not have a real idea of God that represents who he is, and our idea of God is merely our imagination from finite things and thus does not contain infinite reality.I think the ‘finite first picture’ is less convincing to me, so I would like to explain this with my consideration of the ‘infinite first picture’. I think our being able to extend virtues also presupposes that we already have a conception of the infinite, because being able to conceive something greater than us also means we are aware of our finiteness/limits.
As Descartes discusses, being able to cognize the finite presupposes that our idea of God is already in us prior to it. For example, we have an idea of God being infinite through realizing us being finite.On the other hand, we also can have an idea of God who has infinite benevolence through realizing we have benevolence. Our being able to extend virtue is another way that presupposes our idea of God is already in us enabling us to do this. Therefore, I think the “infinite first picture” is more convincing that all of our understandings of our idea of God, which are negating the finite, extending virtues, enlarging abilities (e. g. I can read signs of human behaviors but God could read people’s mind) and etc, depends on our innate idea of God/the infinite which is already in us prior to these.
To conclude, I think we can understand the plausibility of Descartes’ first argument of God’s existence (that there is an infinite being/God who has infinite formal reality causes my idea of God that has infinite objective reality) through this proposal he criticizes and his responses in paragraph 24, because it gives a sense why our idea of God contains infinite objective reality. His argument seems more plausible with a convincing claim that the idea of God already possesses in us prior to all of our cognitions of God. .
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