Truth suffers from too much analysis

Alleged Cartesian Circle

Posted by allzermalmer on February 24, 2012

This blog is based on a paper I once had to do for a philosophy class. The paper is about Renee Descartes and his book Meditations on First Philosophy. When this book came out, or right before it came out, Descartes gave a copy of the book to other intellectuals of his time. He wanted them to give feed back, and so some presented objections to certain parts of his book. One of the allegations made was that Descartes argued in a circle. The teacher asked us to give a defense of Descartes against this allegation. There were three things that had to be done in the paper: 1. State what the Cartesian Circle is suppose to be, 2. Give Descartes response to this allegation of a circle, and 3. Defend Descartes against this allegation. But the teacher wanted us to focuse more on the Evil Demon as part of the problem than the Memory. I received a B+ on the paper, which doesn’t mean much.

The Cartesian Circle is an alleged circle between Descartes idea of God and his truth rule, which he calls the Clear and Distinct rule. The Clear and Distinct rule states that something is true if and only if we clearly and distinctly think about it. Desecrate, supposedly, says that we are sure about what we clearly and distinctly perceive to be true because God exists, and we are sure that God exists because we clearly and distinctly perceive that God exists.

Descartes tries to formulate a theory of truth, and this theory of truth is to help him escape some skepticism that was set up in the First Mediation. These were skeptical arguments based on methodological doubt. The skeptical arguments, raised by Descartes are the argument from illusion, the dream argument, and the evil-demon argument. Descartes tries to escape these problems with his idea of clear and distinct ideas. Whatever can be clearly and distinctly is true, and this means we are not being deceived when we say that they are true. However, at the same time, God helps guarantee that whatever is clearly and distinctly perceived is true.

Antoine Arnauld, who read Descartes First Mediation, was the first to raise what is termed the Cartesian Circle. He states, in the second objection, in regards to the chapter of 5th mediation: “You are not yet certain of the existence of God, and you say that you are not certain of anything, and cannot know anything clearly and distinctly until you have achieved clear and certain knowledge of the existence of God. It follows from this that you do not yet clearly and distinctly know that you are a thinking thing, since, on your own admission, that knowledge depends on the clear knowledge of an existing God; and this you have not yet proved in the passage where you draw the conclusion that you clearly know what you are.”[1]

Descartes responds by trying to point out that he was only talking about knowledge of conclusions that we are no longer attending to with our thinking. This is pointing out that he was talking about knowledge while we are no longer currently thinking them. Descartes pointed out “I think, therefore I exist” only when thinking. That means that when we are not thinking, we do not exist. Moreover, when we are not thinking of some conclusion now, we are not certain of them. Nevertheless, this was specifically concerning a conclusion based on argument from which we deduced them, even though we are not thinking of those premises that lead to that conclusion. This is all dealing with “knowledge”, but not with “First Principles” or metaphysics.

Descartes says, “When I said that we can know nothing for certain until we are aware that God exists, I expressly declared that I was speaking only of knowledge of those conclusions which can be recalled when we are no longer attending to the arguments by means of which we deduced them. Now awareness of first principles is not normally called “knowledge” by dialecticians…”[2]

Descartes response is that God is a self-evident, or, as he says, “For what is more self-evident than the fact that the Supreme Being exists, or that God, to whose essence alone existence belongs, exists?”[3] In addition, it is from God that we are guaranteed the Clear and Distinct rule which forms the basis of knowledge. We, more easily, state that he holds that God is a First Principle.

A defense of Descartes could go something like this. Descartes called his work “First Philosophy”, and during the time at which he wrote, and even in modern times, is known as metaphysics. Metaphysics is about ontology, or reality qua reality. We can take reality as existing before we even have knowledge of it. So take a baby, reality exists before the baby has knowledge of this reality.

Descartes uses a method of doubt, which is methodological doubt. He brings up arguments from illusion, argument from dreams, and argument about an evil-demon that is constantly deceiving us by presenting things to our senses that do not exist independent of us. However, with all of these things, there is one thing that we do know which is that we think and so we exist, or that a thinking thing exists. This means that no matter what, we cannot be deceived that we exist because we are thinking.

There is one idea that Descartes has, which is that of God. This idea of God contains that God is not a deceiver because God is good and fraud and deception are a defect. God being good means that God does not deceive. God is also perfect, and this is the highest of all ideas, that of God. God forms the foundation of the world, in some sense. Moreover, all our faults in reasoning rely on ourselves because we do not clearly and distinctly perceive our ideas. We form faulty ideas.

The faulty ideas we form are not because of God, because God is not a deceiver. It is because of our own limitations that we form mistakes, not because of God. It is because of God that we can ignore the evil-demon. The evil-demon is not perfect and is not good. While God is, perfect and is good. God forms the “First Principle” from which we form and build our knowledge. We first come to find that we exist, and when we find that, we exist and come to find the idea of God in our thoughts or mind. This idea is greater than any other idea that we can form.

The Clear and Distinct rule comes after we find God to be self-evident. In addition, it is because of God that the Clear and Distinct rule obtains its force. Without God, we would not be able to use the Clear and Distinct rule. This is because we would have to contend with an evil-demon that is constantly deceiving us, except for our own existence, because it would need something to exist to be deceiving. The evil-demon could fool us into believing something like 2+2=4, even if we Clearly and Distinctly come to this idea. This would make all knowledge we have, besides our own existence, to be faulty.

Moreover, some might say that God is not self-evident to them. However, there are some things that most of us Clearly and Distinctly know, while others might not. “Some of the things I Clearly and distinctly perceive are obvious to everyone, while others are discovered only by those who look more closely and investigate more carefully; but once they have been discovered, the latter are judged to be just as certain as the former.”[4] In other words, all people who know geometry would find that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the square on the other sides of a right-angled triangle. This is self-evident, if not clear and distinct. While others might not have discovered it, when they are taught it becomes self-evident to them. This too would be with the case of God.

However, those who do not come to this self-evident truth are set on all sides with knowledge that could change like the tides of the sea, and would be constantly deceived. It is for this reason that Descartes comes up with arguments for the existence of God in order to bring them to the self-evident that they themselves have not investigated more carefully.

Now take the example of God being the Earth, the foundation. This is reality or the ground of reality. Now that we have reality, we want to come to know of reality further. The Clear and Distinct rule is what we use to build knowledge of reality upon this foundation, and it gives us certain knowledge of the world. It is like a crane that picks up the pieces of cinder block and puts them together to form a building. Without this foundation for the crane to stand on, the crane would fall apart, we would have no knowledge of reality qua reality, and there would be no building. This building would be the building of knowledge.

Further, those who do not believe in God would have a building of knowledge without a sturdy foundation and would collapse as if it was hit by a earthquake without a sound foundation. Without God, no matter how many Clear and Distinct ideas you have, this would only be based on psychological certainty and not epistemological certainty. This means that one would only be psychologically certain that 2+2=4 and not epistemologically certain that 2+2=4. No one who knows of that the building isn’t sturdy would want to go to live in that unsturdy building. This is why Descartes uses arguments to present the self-evident to those who are not aware of it, which they might not be aware of the self-evident, like to construct an equilateral triangle on a given finite straight line.

For example, in the book done by Spinoza called Principles of Cartesian Philosophy. Spinoza tries to lay out the philosophy of Descartes from his Meditations, which is laid out in a geometrical form. He defines some terms, and gives some axioms. From this, Spinoza derives the Cartesian philosophy. One thing to be noticed is that the first four propositions deal with things related to the “I am” or “I think”. The next eight propositions deal with God. Now, the first 12 propositions don’t deal with the Clear and Distinct rule. It is not till the 13th proposition that Spinoza brings up the Clear and Distinct Rule. Now if we are to consider Spinoza to be faithful to the Cartesian philosophy set out in the Meditations, then that means that there is no Cartesian Circle of needing God to prove the Clear and Distinct rule and needing the Clear and Distinct rule to prove God.

[2] Ibid. pg. 139

[3] Ibid. pg. 109

[4] Ibid. p. 108


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