Descartes' Cartesian Circle as a Misinterpretation

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The Cartesian Circle as a Misinterpretation

The Ontological Argument for The Existence of God can be traced back to St. Anselm. Although refuted by several philosophers since, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, it was reinstated by Rene Descartes in his “Meditations on First Philosophy”. The Ontological Argument goes as such: The nature of God is that of a supremely perfect being. Existence is necessary to perfection. To deny any perfection of God is to misunderstand the term “God”. It follows then, anyone who can comprehend the idea of God can be led to see that God exists. Descartes Ontological Argument for the existence of God has been accused of circular reasoning, this is often known as the “Cartesian Circle”. However, in this paper, I will outline Descartes’ Ontological Argument for the existence of God and I will show that Descartes is not in fact guilty of circular reasoning.

Descartes’ reasoning is in the form of a reductio ad absurdum. He begins by doubting everything in the first meditation. He supposes that an evil genius has coaxed him into regarding reality as true, when in fact all external things are “bedeviling hoaxes of (his) dreams” (p.16). Descartes then arrives at the famous conclusion of the cogito ergo sum “I think, therefore I am”. Thus he arrives at the conclusion that while he may be able to doubt all other things he cannot doubt that he is a thinking thing: “let anyone who can do so deceive me; so long as I think that I am something, he will never bring about that I am nothing” (p.16). This is the first thing that the Meditator can perceive clearly and distinctly.

The Meditator continues on his journey to remove doubt: “in order to remove even this slight reason for doubt, as soon as the opportunity arises I must examine whether there is a God, and, if there is, whether he can be a deceiver”(p.25). If there is a supreme deceiver, then it can be shown that everything we know is false except “the cogito”. However, if God’s existence is proven, then we know our ideas are not deceptive. God cannot be deceitful for that is not a characteristic of a “supremely perfect being.” In this way Descartes relies on God’s existence to establish clear and distinct perceptions as verified. This is how the “Cartesian Circle” begins to be drawn. Further difficulties come to light, however, if we examine God as self-caused. He infers this by examining the nature of ideas and thoughts. In the following section of this paper I will illustrate how the God’s objective reality leads to the conclusion of his being a first cause.

Descartes distinguishes between different sources of thoughts. The first type are innate ideas which come from within us. The second type are adventitious ideas, these come from our sensory perceptions. The third type are those which we invent. Descartes realizes that all ideas are modes of thought and in this sense they have equal “formal reality”. However, what these thoughts represent are not in any sense equal and therefore different types of thoughts have a different “objective reality”. For example a human being has much more “objective reality” than a lead. Thus it follows that the idea of God has much more objective reality than the idea of a human being. Descartes then points out that all ideas must be born out of something with a greater objective reality than itself. This cannot go on forever though: “although one idea can perhaps issue from another, nevertheless no infinite regress is permitted here; eventually some first idea must be reached whose cause is a sort of archetype...”(p.28). Thus the idea of a first cause, or an “unmoved mover”, comes into effect.

The Meditator establishes that the idea of God is the most clear and distinct idea of all, and that it contains more objective reality than any other idea. He asserts that the idea of God cannot be adventitious or invented, and that therefore, it must be innate. The meditator must...
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