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Issue #27 (November 1983)
After the loss of medieval wholeness in faith, the human need for certainty caused Western thinkers to turn to science and to pseudoscientific philosophy. The supposedly "clear and distinct" philosophic process of Descartes has been found to be [quoteright]muddled. It is remarkable that 330 years after he first published Discourse on Method in 1637, his analysts still contradict one another, as is seen in Descartes: A Collection Critical Essays (1967, Edited by Willis Doney). The earliest of these critics does a remarkable job: A. K. Stout (presented in a shortened version from his 1929 Mind essay). I recommend it highly, but wish to push beyond its scope by considering Descartes' Discourse, not just his Meditations and Rules for the Direction of the Mind.
The commentators universally have failed to recognize the fundamental error in Descartes because their intellectual milieu also presupposes the scientific preconception that bedazzled Descartes. Having lost the medieval certainties of religious faith, the modern mind seems to find security in mathematical proofs. Descartes himself found comfort in mathematics before he turned to philosophy. Most acclaimed 20th century philosophers interweave mathematical terms into their close, logical reasoning. It is not surprising that our current analytical fashion in philosophy should focus on Descartes, because he sought (however imperfectly) what they hunger for.
Descartes' flaw was to use his Rule III combined with Rule VIII as unstated premises in his proofs of the existence of God. From Rule III he combined "by no other means is knowledge gained [than by] what we can intuit clearly and evidently or deduce with certainty," with Rule VIII's restriction that "we must stop [when] our intellect is unable sufficiently well to perceive by intuition." The fallacy which Descartes fell into in merging these two rules shows up well only in the Discourse, Part Four. Descartes first resolved the doubt of his own existence with his immortal, "I think, therefore I am." In the second paragraph he demonstrated that the mind is more certain than the body. In the third paragraph he leaped to his proposition (recall Rule III) of a general rule that "the things which we conceive very clearly and distinctly are always true." Then in paragraph four Descartes uses an unstated generalization of his doubts in paragraph two into his Rule VIII extrapolated into the following exclusive extreme, implicitly: "Whatever is doubtful must be considered (at least for interim reasoning) as absolutely untrue, so that only what is clear with certainty can be the basis for further reasoning; moreover, whatever conclusions are thus obtained are sure."
Descartes in paragraphs four to seven proceeds with a quite nice Ontological Proof of the existence of God derived from the conception of a perfect Being. Given Descartes' unstated and improper extrapolation of Rules III and VIII, his proof holds, and he can rightly conclude Part Four by deducing the reality of the external world in the final two paragraphs. The problem is that his proof depends upon his rejection (in paragraph two) of the external world which though itself indeed uncertain, still could be the source of the ideas about a perfect God. I acknowledge for myself that the argument from the concept of perfection is impressive; I just deny that it is a proof. With no proof, certainty is gone, and the possibility exists of a God (or demon) who deceives, and nothing is left certain except the "I am" and perhaps mathematics.
Descartes had convinced himself, however, and in his Meditations he returned to his project even more boldly. In Meditation I, he explicitly introduced a malignant demon for consideration, who could deceive Descartes about everything. Promptly in Meditation II he revived his first principle of certainty that no deceiver could rob him of his self-reflection, "I am, I exist.., as often as I think." Then, parodying his second paragraph of the Discourse he brought back the demon to bolster total skepticism about the external world throughout Meditation II - Rule VIII now hypostatized to a malicious God.
It is only in line with the deified Rule VIII that Descartes could resume so confidently in Meditation III to find only the conception of a perfect God to be so clear that all truth could be referred back to His veracity. He exorcized the demon forthwith, "since I have no reason to believe that there is a God who is a deceiver." Neat trick! His Rule III & VIII Gargantua which eliminated all doubtful concepts, self-destructs and annihilates itself as itself subject to doubt! It is true that Descartes continued in this same paragraph to insist that he must yet investigate whether there is a God and whether he can be a deceiver. However, the latter promise is never fulfilled. Descartes again argued that the idea of God must have come from somewhere outside himself. However, he had by universal doubt excluded certainty about anything outside himself. Therefore, the idea of God must have come from God. Here it is again - Rule VIII deified, literally.
Descartes never raised the objection to his argument that the deceitful demon might have instilled in us the idea of God's perfection all the more to worry and disappoint us now and ultimately (such as through the consciousness of our own inferiority now and the crushing out later of our expectations). Even were the demon incapable of conceiving perfection, the case could be that God is distant and unconcerned for man, that God is dead, Descartes possessed, or that the demon conquered God, at least in Descartes' area. By his principles, however, Descartes did not need to consider any of these objections. His "contemplation of the all-perfect God" was so clear that he could implicitly rest upon Rule III in "knowledge gained ...intuited clearly."
Returning to the original comments in this essay about A. K. Stout, therefore, I come to full agreement with him by a different route. Stout concludes, "Descartes is fundamentally an intuitionist, who attempts to define the conditions of intuitive judgement. The appeal to the veracity of God - itself intuited - does not, as interpreted in this paper, mar the intuitional nature of knowledge. It is at bottom a claim that the world is rational and coherent and consequently capable of being known not in isolated fragments merely, but as a single and continuous system."
Descartes, at heart (by faith) an intuitionist, elaborated evidence for certainty, paradoxically in the form of unremitting doubt. He presented reasons for rejecting uncertainty and for accepting careful philosophic and scientific certainty. He was so successful at both that his science was only with difficulty superseded by Newtonian physics, and Cartesian philosophy ruled for generations.