Descartes needs a non-deceiving god to trust his reason, yet to conclude god exists he must trust his reason. The purpose of this paper is to explicate this objection to Descartes’ argument, which I will do in section 1, illustrate potential responses, and show how those responses fail to adequately address the objection. In section 2 I will focus mostly on the response that these two kinds of reasoning discussed in the Cartesian circle are in fact separate, one being intuition and the other being logic. In section 3 I will examine the problems with this argument showing how Descartes himself does not consider the thought pattern from which he derives God to be intuition. In section 4 I will then entertain the idea that I am wrong, that his proof of God is intuition. I will show how even granting this does not help Descartes, as intuitions are so unreliable having one proves nothing. The Cartesian circle objection is valid because Descartes’ defense against the circle is contradicted within his own writings, and his defense relies on an unreliable form of proof, intuition
The Cartesian circle is rooted in Descartes need for a Non-Deceiving God(NDG) to explain how he can trust his reasoning. Descartes systematically doubts everything until he is reduced to knowing he is a thinking thing (something that is impossible to doubt). Descartes observes that “we have sometimes seen people make mistakes in such matters and accept as most certain and self-evident things which seemed false to us.” (Descartes, 194) He cannot trust his reason because something may be fundamentally wrong with his thought processes or mind, thus leading him astray. However, he needs his reason to progress any further in the project. His solution is to say that we were created by a NDG who would not create us with flawed reason. To get this NDG, he asserts that the content of the thought of a NDG affirms its existence because to attribute nonexistence to a being is to say it is less than perfect (Descartes, 197). He says that much in the way we cannot separate a triangle from the trait of having 3 sides, we cannot separate NDG from the trait of having existence. Through this he concludes NDG exists, gets his reason back, and begins the rest of his project.
The Cartesian is a critique of Descartes’ proof of NDG that claims the logic used to prove NDG is circular. Descartes does not trust his reasoning because he does not know he was created by a NDG. He then, through his reasoning, concludes that a NDG must exist. He needs his reasoning to get NDG, but employs his reasoning to conclude that NDG exists, thus resulting in a paradox known as the Cartesian circle. Descartes himself states that without NDG there is no way to know ones clear and distinct perceptions are the truth, saying that “the possession of certain knowledge will not be possible until [the mind] has come to know the author of its being”(Descartes, 197). Therefore, even a clear and distinct thought that NDG exists is meaningless without NDG in the first place. there is Descartes’ response to this apparent paradox is to assert that the way he gets to NDG, and the reasoning gained from NDG’s existence are distinct and separate.
Descartes asserts that certain facts can be known via “intuition.” An intuition can be grasped in one cognitive act, and once grasped, is impossible to doubt. Descartes characterizes them as things “the mind has within itself” (Descartes, 197), that we know independent of any experience. They are things we can “know perfectly,” which are self-evident. Descartes asserts that we do not “learn” these intuitions in the same way that we do other things, they are instead facts that we innately “know,” hence the name intuitions. An example of this would be the principle of non-contradiction, the idea that can be grasped in one cognitive act, once grasped seems intuitive, and is impossible to doubt.
Descartes claims that the “reasoning” used to derive NDG is intuition. That by merely thinking of NDG, in one cognitive act we affirm NDG’s existence, making NDG’s existence impossible to doubt, much in the same way that we cannot doubt that something cannot exist and not exist at the same time.
The main problem with Descartes’ argument is that it relies on us considering the argument for NDG an undeniable intuition, something that it is very plainly not. The other examples Descartes uses, such as the principle of noncontradiction, are(almost) universally regarded as true because it is near impossible to regard them as untrue. In addition, no formal logic is needed to explain the principle of noncontradiction, to consider it is to accept it, full stop. Descartes himself says that intuitions are “common notions… [of which] the mind will be convinced of the truth.” Thus, to be an intuition, an idea must be both undeniable, grasped in one cognitive act, and apparent at face value (as they already exist inside the mind, and merely need to be pointed out).
However, by writing an explanation at all for NDG’s existence, Descartes proves that NDG is not an undeniable intuition in the same way the principle of noncontradiction is. Descartes argues for NDG by saying that:
If this argument was an intuition, Descartes would merely need to write “NDG exists, as evident from the thought of a NDG. When talking about the principle of noncontradiction, it’s a waste of space to write out a proof for it, all the reader should need is the statement “something can’t exist and not exist at the same time.” Undeniable, simple, true. If NDG was truly in the same category as the principle of noncontradiction to Descartes, he wouldn’t defend it at all, he would just say “NDG exists,” and be done with it. Descartes betrays himself by considering NDG’s existence something that needs to be argued, because in doing so he shows it not to be an intuition.
Descartes’ argument for god not only fails the “grasped in one cognitive act” test, but also the “apparent at face value” test. This can be proven rather simply by asking any future modern philosophy class if they fully understand Descartes’ argument after having read the text. Unless every single one of them gives an emphatic yes, then it’s apparent that the argument, even when fully understood, is possible to doubt. Descartes could respond that those people are wrong through some vice or earthly failing, but it seems unlikely that an entire classroom or population could be flawed in the same way such that they all doubt the same “intuitive” concept.
If we grant that Descartes has proven his argument for God to be an intuition and that all the above criticisms are invalid, we still must still contend with whether intuitions are a valid source of information in the first place. There are any number of judgements that people consider intuitive that others disagree with. For instance, there is still a wide swath of the population that “just knows” that being gay or transgender is wrong in some way. Descartes could respond that these assertions fail the undeniability, as others can (and do) deny these assertions.
But if we take a better example, we see where intuitions fail. When first introduced to fractions, most children make mistakes with them because they think that, for instance, ½ is smaller than 2/5, because 2 and 5 are larger than 1 and 2. If we take a step back from our more advanced knowledge of math for a minute, this makes logical sense. And without further information, like knowledge of decimals, there is no way to correct this intuition without telling children that ½ is larger “because I say so.” These children, like Descartes, start with a premise(I am a thinking thing/big numbers are bigger than smaller numbers) and from that intuit a conclusion that to them is indubitable(to think of NDG is to affirm its existence/the fraction with the bigger numbers is bigger,) and requires no more than one cognitive action(affirming god/big > small.)
From this relatively simple example we can see that saying intuitions are indubitable and apparent at face value may be accurate, but it does not make the intuition true. Descartes reliance on intuitions therefore cannot be trusted to lend accurate information, as his conception of god may be just as wrong as ½ > 2/5.
Descartes could argue that this fraction example is inaccurate and misrepresents his idea of an intuition; however I would argue that it resembles his logic quite a bit. One cannot argue against the fraction example without using some sort of logic, reasoning, or outside knowledge. But per Descartes, an intuition is a self-contained idea that is complete in and of itself. Thus, bringing in any sort of outside information would no longer make it an intuition. So, per Descartes definition, intuitions can be wrong, and more importantly, without outside reason or information there is no way to correct them.
Further, I would argue that the entire category of moral judgements fall into this category. We, almost universally, regard murder as wrong. When asked why, most people will say “murder is wrong,” and the occasional person will slip in something like “murder is bad for society at large,” or “murder causes more harm than good.” All these responses rely on a presupposition that harm is bad, that death is bad, or both. And when asked to justify these beliefs, most of us have no answer. “Harm is bad because hurting people is bad,” is the tautological answer I would provide. Thus, we are forced to conclude that “harm is wrong” is an intuition, something that Descartes would most likely agree with.
But for more subjective moral statements, like the ones mentioned earlier (“being gay is wrong”), we oftentimes find ourselves appealing to the same “intuitive” reasons, saying “being gay is ok because there is nothing wrong with being gay,” a tautological statement. Without bringing in any outside information (like data, deaths in lgbt populations, etc..), there is no way to prove this intuition correct or false. If Descartes wants to preserve moral judgement, he must either say that intuitions can be wrong, or that so many of us have “wrong” intuitions that the concept becomes useless as a way to derive knowledge, neither of which are attractive options.
Descartes could respond to this criticism by saying that moral knowledge isn’t something we can “know” in the same way we can know the natural world. However, the fact that we can have intuitions about moral knowledge renders this objection moot, as Descartes makes no attempt to limit what we can have intuitions about when he discusses them, only characterizing them as “common notions” and things about which the mind “will be convinced of the truth” (Descartes, 197).
Thus, Descartes is forced to possibly say intuitions are not indubitable and that some people simply are making judgements about things beyond what they do not “clearly and distinctly understand.” This is a possible response, but would mean that Descartes would have to conclude that it is entirely possible that he is having wrong intuitions about NDG, undermining his project. If he thinks people can have things they think are intuitions but aren’t, then he must admit he is susceptible to the same thing, and could just be completely wrong about NDG.
So, Descartes must at least acknowledge that some intuitions are wrong, and from this must acknowledge that his intuition about NDG could be wrong in the first place, undermining his project from the very start. Even if Descartes manages to prove his argument an intuition, those intuitions are not guaranteed to be accurate, and thus cannot be the foundation his project rests upon.
In this paper I have addressed the circularity of Descartes’ logic and his possible responses. I have provided two arguments disqualifying his proof of NDG from being an intuition, showing that it both fails the “apparent at face value” and “indubitability” tests. I have then shown that even if we prove his argument is an intuition, intuitions can be wrong, and if they have the potential to be wrong, Descartes can hardly rest the base of his project upon them. For this battery of reasons, we would most likely be correct in saying that Descartes fails to address the circularity of his logic, and that the Cartesian Circle objection stands.
Descartes, René, and John Cottingham. The philosophical writings of Descartes. 17th ed. New York: Cambridge U Press, 2005. Print.
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