Descartes: Ontology or Cosmology?

Essay by thapestCollege, UndergraduateA+, November 2009

download word file, 6 pages 0.0

Downloaded 3289 times

Descartes: Ontology or Cosmology?Descartes' argument for the existence of God, which he proposed in the Third Meditation, is more like the ontological argument than the cosmological argument for a number of reasons. The argument that Descartes put forth to prove the existence of God can be found in his work entitled Meditations, which was written in order to introduce the ideas of physics to religious peoples of the 17th century. Out of fear of the Inquisition, Descartes attempted to hide his scientific ideas and theories behind a veil of religion, slowly introducing religious institutions to science. Nonetheless, his ideas, no matter how hard he tried to mask them, were scientific to the core. In order to prove the existence of god, Descartes offers two proofs to his argument. Both of the arguments are simple and concise, which allows the author to achieve his goal that much easier. The first argument goes as follows:[E]xistence can no more be separated from the essence of God thancan having its three angles equal to two right angles be separated fromthe essence of a [rectilinear] triangle, or the idea of a mountain from theidea of a valley; and so there is not any less repugnance to our conceivinga God (that is, a Being supremely perfect) to whom existence is lacking),than to conceive of a mountain which has no valley.

(204) (Palmer 168)In that statement, Descartes not only outlines his first argument, but also defines what God is—a Being supremely perfect. Descartes compares his argument to a geometric demonstration, stating that the mere existence of God cannot be removed from the idea of God in the exactly the same way that thefact that the sum of all three angles of a triangle equal the sum of two right angles. Though this analogy, Descartes emphasizes the incredible simplicity of the argument. He claims that God's existence is simply as obvious and self-evident as the most basic mathematical truth. The second argument, which author Donald Palmer broke down in his text, is paraphrased as follows:(A) The fact that I doubt proves that I am an imperfect being. (A perfect being would know everything, hence would have no doubts.)(B) I can only know that I am imperfect if I already understand that idea of perfection.

(C) My idea of perfection could only be caused in me by something perfect. (Nothing can be more perfect than its cause, and nothing in my actual existence is perfect enough to cause the idea of perfection in my mind.)(D) Therefore, a perfect being (God) exists. (Palmer 168)Descartes advocated using both logic and doubting, which is a form of thinking to him, to come to the conclusion that God exists. Because both of the proofs are so simple, they are easy to understand and make the existence of God something much more plausible. Descartes' argument, as stated previously, is much more similar to the ontological argument presented by Saint Anselm that the cosmological argument of Saint Thomas Aquinas. In order to understand why, it is necessary to look at both of these arguments by themselves.

The first argument that is going to fall under examination is the one thought of by Saint Anselm. Anselm of Canterbury lived between the time period of 1033 and 1109, was a philosopher later inducted into sainthood. The demonstration that Saint Anselm came up with to show the existence of God is called the ontological argument in modern times “...because it is derived not from observation but from the very idea of being” (Palmer 118). His argumentation, in and of itself, is clearly influenced by the works of another philosophical giant—Plato—and greatly echoes some basic ideas. For one, the entire ontological argument is wholly “...a priori—that is, it makes no appeal whatsoever to sensorial observation; it appeals exclusively to pure reason” (Palmer 121). Another way which Plato's influenceon Anselm can be seen is in the way the ontological argument corroborates with the Platonic idea that something that is the most real is equivalent to something that is the most perfect—or in this case—God. The root of the word ontological is ontology, which is defined as “theory of being; the branch of philosophy pursuing such questions as, What is real? What is the difference between appearance and reality? What is the relation between minds and bodies? Are numbers and concepts real, or are only physical objects real?” (Palmer 416). In his demonstration, Anselm proposed that in order to prove the existence of a divine being, or God, one must start by looking to the fool of Psalms 53:1. According to the Anselm, the fool:says in his heart, 'There is no God.' But, said Anselm, even thefool is convinced that something exists in the understanding atleast, that which nothing greater can be conceived. For when hehears of this he understands it...And assuredly that than whichnothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understandingalone. For suppose it exists in the understanding alone; then it canbe conceived to exist in reality, which is greater...Hence, there isno doubt that there exists a being than which nothing greater can beconceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality...andthis being is thou art, O Lord, our God. (Palmer 118-119)What Anselm is trying to say with this argument is that in order to prove or disprove the existence of God, it is necessary, firstly, to form a specific appropriate concept. That concept is one that is embodied in the statement "than which nothing greater can be conceived" (Palmer 118). After that concept is formed, the idea of God is the one that arises in the mind. However, pretty much nothing dealing with reality springs up from the ideas that are created in the mind because many times, people think about things that do not, or even cannot, exist in all actuality. In the case of this special concept concerning the existence of God, however, Saint Anselm proposed that what we can think of and imagine must, in fact, truly exist independently of whether or not we imagine or think it up. Therefore, the brilliance ofthe ontological argument proposed by Anselm lies in “...its demonstration that the sentence “God does not exist” is a self-contradictory sentence” (Palmer 120). The similarities between Anselm's argument and those of Descartes are striking, which is why Descartes' argument is one written in the ontological vein.

The cosmological argument, which was penned by Saint Thomas Aquinas, was the philosopher's attempt to reconcile the worlds of science and religion—a way to blend the philosophical with the theological. The reason that his five arguments, presented in his work titled Summa theoloigca, are called cosmological arguments is “...because they all begin with the observations derived from the natural world” (Palmer 137). Out of all five argument, three of which are quite similar and slightly repetitive, it is perhaps the second that is the most convincing:In the world of sensible things we find that there is an order of efficientcauses. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in whicha thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would beprior to itself, which is impossible. Now in the efficient causes it is notpossible to go on to infinity...Now to take away the cause is to takeaway the effect. Therefore if there be no first cause among efficientcauses, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause...

Therefore, it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to whicheveryone gives the name of God. (Palmer 137)This argument is actually quite clear to understand, with Aquinas simply stating that there must exist some sort of cause for every single effect. In turn, all of the causes that bring about effects must have come from some being which, in itself, is uncaused and simply is. If there was no uncaused being, there would be only exist a world that is regressing infinitely and perpetually into nothingness. Aquinas based his arguments on a posteriori claims, which are “...beliefs, propositions, or arguments the truths of which can be established only through observation” (Palmer 408). This fact is only one of a multitude of ways that the cosmological argument of Aquinas differs from the ontological argument ofAnselm.

In conclusion, it can be said without a shadow of a doubt, that the arguments for the existence of God presented by the philosopher Rene Descartes are clearly more ontological in nature than they are cosmological. For one, Descartes' first proof for his argument is almost an exact copy of the ontological argument of Saint Anselm, the creator of the entire ontological argument itself. Additionally, Descartes bases all of his arguments on the notion of a priori knowledge, which is something that goes undeniably hand in hand with the philosophies of Anselm and his ontological argument. The cosmological argument that was proposed by Aquinas, on the other hand, bases all of its proofs and suppositions on the existence of a posteriori knowledge. Those are just a few reasons why the philosophical work of Rene Descartes on the topic of God's existence is more like Anselm's ontological argument than the cosmological argument of Aquinas.

Works CitedPalmer, David. Looking at Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter. 4th ed., McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., New York, NY, 2006..