What was the role of God in the writings of Descartes and Pascal?

Topics: René Descartes, God, Philosophy Pages: 6 (1780 words) Published: November 10, 2013
What is the role of God in the writings of Descartes and Pascal?

Both the idea of God and the existence of God play a major role in the writings of Descartes and Pascal. Both certainly appear to believe in him though they argue the case for his existence very differently and they also give Him a very different sort of role in their works. Whilst Descartes claims that he is certain of the existence of God, using a large part of his Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire la raison, et chercher la verité dans les sciences to prove the supreme being’s existence, Pascal’s approach to philosophy cannot allow anything to be certain. He instead asserts that he knows God and that, through the use of his famous Wager, it is better for anyone to believe. The contrasting views of the two early-modern philosophers highlight the contrast between religious certainty and faith and also the key differences between metaphysical reasoning, a key element of Cartesianism, and Pascal’s more Aristotelian approach to philosophy.

In his Discours sur la méthode, René Descartes sets out to provide his readers with a method of reasoning that has worked for him and he therefore recommends. The very basis of his method revolves around his letting go of any opinions and knowledge that he has previously garnered in order to start afresh because life has only taught him one thing - to be certain of nothing. In Part III of his Discours however, he claims that he feels morally obliged to accept the customs of his religion.

“retenant constamment la religion en laquelle Dieu m’a fait la grâce d’être instruit dès mon enfance, et me gouvernant”

This of course immediately presents a paradox and this paradox is further deepened when we find out that his whole system in fact relies upon the supposed given that is the existence of God and the reason that God gives us

“car Dieu nous ayant donné à chacun quelque lumière pour discerner le vrai d’avec le faux”

In addition to this, in a number of responsive letters to his contemporary, Mersenne, Descartes claims that the very existence of God is incomprehensible

"I say that I know it, not that I conceive or comprehend it, because it is possible to know that God is infinite and all-powerful even though our soul, being finite, cannot comprehend or conceive him”

From the very outset then, Descartes’ reasoning seems to be flawed as he draws supposed parallels between the existence of God and the idea of God without fully reasoning either of them and this appears to leave us going in circles rather than allowing us to properly build up our own reason, as is Descartes’ supposed intention.

Further flaws can be drawn from Descartes’ presentation of God as he presents his two ‘proofs’ for God’s existence, using arguably weak methods that have basis in medieval philosophy. His first proof is based on the idea that, although Descartes himself is imperfect, he has a number of perfections. Through a method of induction, similar to an early version of the watchmaker analogy, he claims that his perfections must have been created. Based on his famous “Je pense, donc je suis”, he cannot be the creator of these perfections himself since if he is thinking of them and if he were able create them, he would make himself perfect and in turn become an all-powerful, infinite being himself. His argument breaks down when, as Jean-Marie Beyssade points out

“There thus remains a considerable gap [...] between two conclusions which (following Doney) we may call "A" and "B": a "more perfect being" [A] falls far short of "the most perfect thing which we are capable of conceiving" [B].

The transition between these two beings is merely explained by Descartes as follows

“De façon qu’il restait qu’elle eût été mise en moi par une nature qui fût véritablement plus parfaite que je n’étais, et même qui eût en soi toutes les perfections dont je pouvais avoir quelque idée, c’est-à-dire, pour m’expliquer en un mot, qui...
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