Thursday, August 11, 2011

Descartes' argument from the idea of God

To: Paul M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes' argument from the idea of God
Date: 26 March 2004 14:52

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 17 March, with your fourth University of London timed essay in response to the question, ''It is impossible that the idea of God which is in us should not have God himself as it's cause' (Descartes). Why did Descartes think it was impossible? Was he right?'

You are doing well. In my view, you will have no difficulty getting a '2/i' grade. None of your essays (including this one) has succeeded in getting a First. However, this is *not* something to get disheartened about. Generally, Firsts are awarded to about one student in ten. I think you could do it. You have demonstrated a certain independence of mind, which is a necessary prerequisite.

The question is a hard question to answer because it is difficult for a contemporary reader to sympathize with an argument that goes, 'I have an idea of God. Only God could have caused it. Therefore God exists.'

That said, recent work in the philosophy of mind and language does bear out, to some extent, Descartes' claims about content. You might think that it is truistic that the content which we give to our thoughts and ideas depends on us, not on the world. In fact, there is a powerful argument, both in the case of proper names and also for natural kind terms, for viewing mental content as necessarily dependent on external factors. I cannot form a meaningful thought about Napoleon, or gold, unless Napoleon, or gold, actually exists. (The catchphrase for this approach is 'externalism' concerning the mind, as contrasted with 'internalism'.) See, e.g. Gareth Evans 'Varieties of Reference' (OUP), Saul Kripke 'Naming and Necessity' (Blackwell). Other philosophers who have pioneered this approach are John McDowell and Hilary Putnam.

In the case of our concept of infinity, one would have to go to the work of a continental philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas in 'Totality and Infinity', which Levinas uses Descartes' account of our idea of infinity as the model for knowledge of 'the other'. Proof of the existence of 'other minds' (to revert to the analytic idiom) involves recognition of the radical asymmetry of self and other, the infinite distance or immeasurable height which separates I from thou. That is how, in Levinases view, recognition of the other can be a source of ethical commands. In analytic philosophy, by contrast, much effort has been expended attempting to demonstrate the symmetry of self and other.

Levinas is extremely difficult to grapple with, however, and I am not at all confident that I could produce an argument in defence of Descartes on Levinasian lines. But it is certainly something which (if you have done a bit of reading) would be worth mentioning in an essay.

You give a good summary of the text, and navigate neatly round the perplexingly archaic distinction between 'formal' and 'objective' reality. However, your conclusion, that innate ideas have to be assumed from the start in order for the argument to have any credibility, is rather unsatisfactory. Granting the existence of innate ideas would not make the argument from the infinite idea of God plausible, unless we assume from the start that innate = 'planted in the mind by God'. If this assumption is not made, we are left with Descartes claim about the nature of infinity.

While an examiner would not expect you to discuss Levinas, or even Kripke or Putnam, I do think that you need to say something about the concept of infinity as such. It seems to me that that is one of the things that the question is looking for. To me, it is a very perplexing question how one can possibly form an idea of infinity, or the infinite. *Are* human beings able in fact to form a coherent idea of infinity? and, if they are, what explanation would one give of this remarkable ability? What *is* infinity?

There is an excellent book which you might be interested to read, 'Infinity' by A.W. Moore (Routledge).

Of course, it is one thing to be able to form a concept of infinity as such, quite another to interpret this in a theistic sense as the concept of an infinite being. Either way, if we wish to resist Descartes' conclusion then the onus is on us to offer an alternative account. What *is* this concept, where does it come from, if not from an infinite being?

In answering this question, it would help to feel gripped by Descartes' question. If you can't see what the fuss is about, then that limits the possibilities somewhat!

All the best,

Geoffrey