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Descartes’ Third Meditation

Posted by allzermalmer on April 2, 2012

This is the third blog in a series of blogs on Descartes Meditation on First Philosophy, this is based on his third meditation. You can read the second meditation by clicking here. This meditation is called “Of God, that he exists”.

Descartes picks up from where he finished in the second meditation. It is still partially under the demon-hypothesis, or the dreaming hypothesis. He has already found one thing that was certain, which is the “I think, I exist”. He re-states what he has previously come to from his previous two meditations.

“I am a thinking thing, that is, one that doubts, affirms, denies, understands a few things, is ignorant of many others, wills this and not that, and also imagines and perceives by the senses; for as I have already remarked, although the things I perceive or imagine outside myself do not perhaps exist, yet I am certain that the modes of thinking that I call sensations and imaginations, considered purely and simply as modes of thinking, do exist inside me.”

He comes to realize that the is a thinking thing. Being a thinking thing means that he thinks, doubts, affirms, denies, understands a few things, ignorant of many other things, wills x and doesn’t will x, and imagines and perceives by the senses. This is the “I”. All though the things he perceives or imagines might not exist outside of himself, which is based on the dreaming and evil-demon hypothesis, it is still certain that these things happen, and these are ways of thinking which do, at least, exist inside of Descartes.

Those things that Descartes listed as part of his “I” are things that up till now in the meditation, are what he is certain of. It is a short list of things that he is certain of, but he is going to try to come up with some more things that he is certain of. His first act of knowledge was to affirm those things that he knows clearly and distinctly. It would be insufficient for him to affirm those things that he thought he clearly and distinctly perceived if it came that they were actually false. So he lays down a general rule that whatever he clearly and distinctly perceives is true. From this he was able to find those things related to the “I”, and there were other things that he held that he found out were not clear and distinct, even though his previous opinions made it seem like they were.

“For in this first act of knowledge there is nothing other than a clear and distinct perception of what I affirm to be the case; and this certainly would be insufficient to make me certain of the truth of the matter, if it could ever come to pass that something I perceived so clearly and distinctly was false. And therefore I seem already to be able to lay down, as a general rule, that everything I very clearly and distinctly perceive is true.”

There were some things, based on his previous general principles, that he thought were obvious and true. But through is method of doubt he has found sufficient grounds in which to cast some doubt on them. Some of these things that seemed obvious and true was that there was an earth, sky, stars, and everything else he became aware of through the senses. With all these things that he use to think were obvious and true, he comes to question if he really clearly perceived them. The thoughts of such things were present to his mind, and even now in his method of doubt he doesn’t deny that those ideas exist in him. There was something else he affirmed, in conjunction with those other things, which was that he used to believe that he clearly perceived them when he didn’t. He, in short, thought he was perceiving clearly that there were certain things existing outside of him which were resembled by what he experienced in his mind.This was found to not be known clearly and distinctly.

He originally found that he intuited the truth of something simple and universal like arithmetic and geometry.  These things could only be called into question when it comes to the evil-demon, and, in fact, he came to find that these things could be called into doubt because of this evil demon. He found that he could be deceived by these things that he took to be completely obvious, like 2+3=5. These things couldn’t stand up, even though clearly and distinctly conceived, when he is faced with this evil-demon. This type of demon, in regards to these type of things, he found that he would be easily mistaken. But he comes to say: “whenever I turn my attention to the things themselves that I think I perceive very clearly, I am so thoroughly convinced by them, that I cannot help exclaiming: ‘Let whoever can, deceive me as much as he likes: still he can never bring it about that I am nothing, as long as I think I am something; or that one day it will be true that I have never existed, when it is true now that I exist; or that perhaps two plus three added together are more or less than five; or that other such things should be true in which I recognize an obvious contradiction.’”

From these things Descartes comes to exclaim: “And certainly, since I have no grounds for thinking that any deceitful God exists—in fact, I do not yet sufficiently know whether there is any God at all—then a reason for doubting that depends wholly on the belief in a deceitful God is very slight, and, so to speak, metaphysical.” He brings up that from the previous position he was in, he finds that, metaphysically, he has no idea to know if there is a God, let alone one that is a deceiver. (As a side note, it should be pointed out that Descartes is more concerned with metaphysics, because First Philosophy is a title for Metaphysics, even though most people think that Descartes is strictly concerned with Epistemology, i.e. theory of knowledge). One of the reasons he can hold this opinion is based on his “I think, I exist”. He found that everything can be accounted, in a certain sense, based on this “I”. It was the only thing that could withstand the evil-demon or dreaming, and so there would be no need for a God or an evil-demon when we have the “I am”. In other words, solipsism is his escape from the evil-demon.

“to proceed in an orderly fashion, I should first divide up all my thoughts into definite categories, and examine to which of these truth and falsity can properly be said to pertain. Some of these thoughts are apparently images of things and to these alone the name ‘idea’ is properly applied: for instance, when I think of a human being, or a chimera, or the heavens, or an angel, or God. But others have certain other forms as well; thus, when I will, or fear, or affirm, or deny, I am always in fact apprehending something as the subject of this thought, but I am including something further within the thought than the mere likeness of the thing; and of thoughts of this kind some are called volitions, or affects, whereas others are called judgments.”

He comes up with two categories that he is going to work within to divide up all of his ideas. The first is that of apparent images of things, which he calls “Ideas”. When you have something that you apprehend with your senses or imagination, this could be anything like human, cat, or etc, this forms the basis of an idea. Now this idea doesn’t need to be a representation of something in the external world itself. The other category is what he wills, fears, affirms, or denies, that he is apprehending something, an idea, but that he includes something further into these ideas that they are in fact the likeness of the thing he has the idea of. He goes from having an idea of something, and goes on to judge if it does represent something else outside of the idea itself and he judges or wills if it does or not.

When he considers these “Ideas” in and of themselves, which are sensations or idea, he finds that they don’t represent anything external to themselves. This means that he can’t be deceived in this regard. Remember, part of this deals with the evil-demon and dreaming argument. There is also nothing in the will itself, or its affects, that makes something false. This is because he can will something wicked or something that doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean it is true because he wills it. This now leaves only the judgement that comes into question and not “Ideas”. He has to take caution based on his judgements, because judgements are the only thing that can deceive him because he holds to a false judgement and is deceived by this judgement that he holds to. “The most glaring and widespread error that can be found in them consists in my judging that the ideas that are in me are similar to or in accordance with some things existing outside me. For certainly, if I conceived the ideas themselves purely and simply as modifications of my thinking, and did not connect them with anything else, they could scarcely give me any occasion to err.” So the problem with judgement comes not from the senses or imagination or will, but comes from judgement. The basis of being deceived with judgement is based on judging that what appears in the senses or imagination represents something external to himself, and this is because the senses and imagination (as is the case with the “I am”) cannot be connected with anything else that is external to him, or represents something external to him, in and of itself.

“Of these ideas, some seem to me to be innate, others adventitious, others produced by myself. For understanding what a thing is, what truth is, what thought is, is something I seem to possess purely in virtue of my nature itself. But if I am now hearing a noise, seeing the sun, feeling the heat of a fire, up to now I have judged that such sensations derive from things existing outside myself. Finally, sirens, hippogriffs, and suchlike creatures are inventions of my own imagination. But perhaps I can think that all my ideas are adventitious, or all innate, or all produced by me: for I have not yet clearly discovered their true source.”

Those things that show up in thought or his senses, they seem to be either innate, adventitious, or produced by himself. Now he gives the example of understanding something, what truth is, what thought is, or something possessed by the the virtue of his own nature, are innate. Those things that comes from the senses, like feeling heat from a fire, he judged that they came from things external to himself. Those things he produced himself are those things that he imagines. He finds that he has these three opportunities for avenues to go, and he is going to try to figure out where his “Ideas” come from. Do they come from an innate source, an adventitious one, or produced by himself?

He first questions the adventitious source of his ideas. Take the example of heat from a fire, which he comes to know from his senses. What reason does he have for thinking that these ideas come from things outside of him? Nature itself seems to teach him this. It is, also, something he comes to accept through long regularity of thinking so. He also finds that it does not come from his will, because he does not will to have these experiences and yet they happen to him. He finds that he opens his eyes and he sees something which he didn’t wish to have the experience of.

“When I say here that ‘I am taught by nature’ to think so, I mean only that I am prompted to believe this by some spontaneous inclination, not that it is shown to me to be true by some natural light. The two things are very different: for whatever is shown to me by the natural light (for instance, that, from the fact that I am doubting, it follows that I exist, and suchlike) can in no way be doubtful, because there can be no other faculty that I could trust as much as this light, and that could teach me that such things are not, after all, true. But when it comes to natural inclinations, I have before now often judged in the past that I have been led by these in the wrong direction, when it was a matter of choosing the good, nor do I see why I should trust them more in any other domain.”

The idea of him coming to the idea of something bringing about his sensation of heat being an external source, has, as he says in one sense, come from natural inclination. But he divides things even further into “Natural Inclination” and “Natural Light”. These two things are distinct from one another. His idea that what he experiences comes from an external source is based on a spontaneous inclination, which is “Natural Inclination”. Those things that come from natural inclination can be doubted because he has found that natural inclination has lead him to certain beliefs that were found to be false. This is another natural inclination, and so it becomes doubtful as well. This seems to follow from the argument of illusion as well. What comes from “Natural Light” are not capable of being doubted, and this showed up with the “I am, I exist” already. Natural Light lead him to that belief. So Natural Inclination can be doubted and Natural Light cannot be doubted.

Now when it comes to having these experiences that happen when he doesn’t will it, he has also found that he has had experiences that did not depend on his will when he was dreaming. This shows that he is still capable, in one sense or another, of producing those things that he experiences against his will without anything external to him to bring it about. There could also be another capability that he has which he is not yet aware of, and this source is what produces those things that he experiences against his will. These doubts are sufficient to break from this idea of things external bringing about his sensations or idea.

Another thing he points out is that even if we do grant that something external brought about these sensations, it doesn’t follow that they are in any way similar to the way they are presented. Take for example that you experience a human being by his sensations. It very well could be produced by something that is like a microbe, and not anything at all like that human being that he is seeing. This is beyond his senses and so he can’t really think that what he experiences resembles that which produced his sensations against his will. He brings up the example of two suns: “For instance, I find within me two different ideas of the sun. One appears to be derived from the senses, and it would absolutely have to be placed in the category of ideas I class as ‘adventitious’. This idea represents the sun as very small. The other, however, derives from astronomical reasoning—that is to say, it is derived from some notions innate within me, or has been produced by me in some other way. This idea represents the sun as several times larger than the earth. But certainly, both cannot be like one and the same sun existing outside me; and reason persuades me that the one that seems to have flowed directly from the sun itself is in fact the one that is most unlike it.” He finds that he is lead to a contradiction between how he thinks the external thing is and the way it is presented to his senses. All of this eliminates that he gets these ideas from the adventitious avenue.

“But there is yet another way that occurs to me by which I could investigate whether any of those things of which the ideas are in me exist outside me. Certainly, in so far as these ideas are only various modifications of my thinking, I acknowledge that they are all on the same footing, and they all seem to derive from me in the same way. But, in so far as one represents one thing, another, it is plain that they differ widely among themselves. For beyond doubt those ideas that represent substances to me are something greater, and contain, if I may use the term, more ‘objective reality’ in themselves, than those that represent merely modes or accidents. And by the same token, the idea by which I conceive a supreme God, eternal, infinite, omniscient, all-powerful, and the creator of all things that exist beside himself, certainly has more objective reality in itself than those by which finite substances are represented.”

He comes up with a new division, which is based on formal reality and objective reality. Those things that are formal reality are all on the same footing, and are derived from Descartes in the same way. But insofar as they represents one thing and another, they differ widely among themselves. Formal reality is the what sort of thing the object is. Objective reality is what sort of content it contains. He looks through and finds that he has the idea of God, which is supreme, eternal, infinite, omniscient, all powerful, and creator of all things besides itself. This idea contains more objective reality than those things that are finite substances that are represented to himself. And we should keep in mind that from meditation two that Descartes found that he exists so long as he is thinking. This means that Descartes, in some sense, isn’t infinite or eternal.He is hinting at a differing degree of those things that contain objective reality, like one thing is greater than another, while all formal reality things are on the same footing in and of themselves.

“But now it is manifest by the natural light that there must be at least as much reality in the total and efficient cause as in its effect…it follows, both that nothing can come from nothing, and that what is more perfect (that is, what contains more reality within itself ) cannot derive from what is less perfect…For instance, a stone that did not previously exist, cannot now begin to be, unless it is produced by some thing in which everything exists, either formally or eminently, that enters into the composition of the stone. Nor can heat be brought about in a subject that was not hot before, unless by a thing that belongs to at least the same order of perfection as heat; and the same is true elsewhere…there is at least as much formal reality as the idea contains objective reality… if we suppose that something is found in the idea that is not in its cause, it would have this something from nothing; and however imperfect the kind of being by which a thing exists objectively in the understanding in the form of an idea, it is certainly not nothing, and therefore cannot come from nothing…And although perhaps one idea can be born from another, we cannot here have an infinite regress, but in the end we have to arrive at some first idea, the cause of which takes the form of an archetype, which formally contains all the reality that is only objectively in the idea. So that it is clear to me by the natural light that the ideas in me are of the nature of images, which can easily fall short of the perfection of the things from which they derive, but cannot, however, contain anything greater or more perfect.”

He finds that “Natural Light” has shown him that “there must be at least as much reality in the total and efficient cause as in its effect”. From this it follows that “nothing can come from nothing”. So when Descartes has an idea, this idea can only contain as much reality as it’s cause, but the cause can be greater than the effect, because the cause contains more reality than the effect. He finds that an idea can come from another idea, but we can’t have an infinite regress, and so we arrive at a first idea. The cause of this first idea becomes like an archetype which contains. By natural light, he also comes to ideas in him are the nature of images that fall short of perfection of the things that they are derived from, but cannot contain anything greater or more perfect. This means that the ideas that he has are not as perfect, and their cause would be greater than those that he has. He finds that he clearly and distinctly comes to this understanding, which is mostly through natural light. One way to understand his idea of the effect is contained within the cause is by understanding that the consequent is contained within the antecedent. Or that all the theorems of mathematics are contained within the axioms and definitions.

Descartes is now going to try to find out where his ideas come from. “[I]f the objective reality of some one of my ideas is so great that I am certain that that reality does not exist in me either formally or eminently, and therefore that I myself cannot be the cause of this idea, it necessarily follows that I am not alone in the world, but that some other thing also exists that is the cause of this idea. But if in fact no such idea is found in me, I shall certainly have no argument that can convince me with certainty of the existence of anything distinct from myself; for I have examined all these things very closely, and up to now I have found no other such argument.” He is no going to see if the ideas in his mind, which are the consequent, either come from something other than him or not. If it does come from something other than himself, then he has discovered another thing that exists. If he doesn’t find anything else that brought about this idea, then he is all alone. This is where he tries to escape his solipsism.

He is going to try to check his inventory of ideas, like that of God,other bodies and inanimate things, angels, other animals, and other human beings like himself. He is going to try to see if these ideas come either from him or from something else other than him. With bodies he finds that they come from him, which was shown in meditation two when he dealt with the piece of wax and from the dream argument as well. He can even come up with the idea of substance, duration, and number, based on his own experience. This shows that these ideas come from himself as well and doesn’t show anything else. This would mean that other humans, animals, and inanimate things can all be accounted from coming from himself. This means that they are the affects of him, which means that they are contained within him. Now he is going to check out the idea of God and see if that idea comes from him or from something else, i.e. God.

“By the name ‘God’ I understand an infinite, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful substance, by which I myself and whatever else exists (if anything else does exist) was created. But certainly, all these properties are such that, the more carefully I consider them, the less it seems possible that they can be derived from me alone. And so I must conclude that it necessarily follows from all that has been said up to now that God exists.”

Descartes now comes to the idea of God and finds that he understands it to be infinite, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful substance, and other things which exists was created by. When he check through is own mind, he finds that this idea does not come from himself. Descartes has the idea of a substance, thing capable of existing by itself, which is what he is suppose to be. But he finds that he is a finite substance and so the idea of an infinite substance cannot be derived from himself. He also finds that by the idea of infinite he means what is complete while he finds that he is finite and lacks something. He already has this idea of something perfect, and finds that he is imperfect, so this idea of something perfect cannot come from him. This idea of perfect is an effect, but the cause contains this and more, and he doesn’t contain as much as  the idea of perfect he has. This idea can’t come from nothing, so it came from something that is perfect, which he understands to be God.

Descartes tries to find out if he might actually have some powers that he is not aware of, and these powers could account for the ideas he has so that he is the cause of them and not something else. He has found that through this meditation he has slowly increased knowledge more and more. With this increase he can imagine that he would keep on until he reached infinity, which is to reach complete knowledge and not lack any knowledge any more. It would be like a closed circle and nothing is missing from it. He holds that the idea of gradual growth up to this infinite shows a lack of perfection, and God lacks no perfection and so this can’t be how he derived the idea. He finds that he has the potential to keep increasing, as well as actually increasing his knowledge, but the idea of God is that which has no potential and is all actual. Thus the Idea of God doesn’t come from him, he is not the cause of the idea. He also finds that Natural Light leads him to these conclusions that he is not the cause of his idea of God.

He comes up with another argument from God besides the one based on what Natural Light presents as cause and effect. This one is slightly different.

“I cannot elude the force of these reasons by supposing that perhaps I have always been as I now am, as if it followed from that that there is no need to seek an author of my existence. For since all the time of a life can be divided into innumerable parts, of which each particular one in no way depends on the rest, it does not follow from the fact that I existed not long ago that I have to exist now, unless some cause, so to speak, creates me again at this moment, or in other words, conserves me in being. For it is clear, if one considers the nature of time, that the same power and action is required to conserve anything, whatever it may be, in being during the individual moments in which it continues to exist, as would be needed to create the same thing from the start if it did not yet exist. So clear is this in fact that we may add to the list of things manifest by the natural light that the distinction between conservation and creation exists purely in our thought.”

He finds that he exists now, but it does not follow that he existed in the past or will exist in the future. In fact, he did say in meditation two that he exists so long as he thinks, and he listed all the things that went into that. He finds that he can imagine his life as a line and he can divide up this line into different parts, and this way no one part depends on the other part. So it follows that just because he existed a little while ago, it doesn’t follow that he has to exist now unless there was a cause for his existence. This cause would create him again at the moment, which is just another way to say that it conserves him from moment to moment. So there has to be the same power that conserves him from moment to moment in order for him to continue to exist, which is similar to having to create it from start as if it did not exist before. So natural light shows that the distinction between conservation and creation exists only in thought. This means that creation and conservation are not different in actuality, but only in thought. Things existing from one moment to another has a cause for each of these moments, even though we think that they are not created anew at each moment.

Descartes tries to find out if his “I” is what brings about his continued existence or creation. He finds that he exists now, but he is trying to see if he is the cause of himself existing a moment from now. He finds he has no idea of him being able to continue his existence, which shows that he is not the one that allows for him to exist form moment to moment. He did not bring about his creation or his conservation, which are one and the same thing. He doesn’t have this power in himself when he inspects his mind. But now he wonders if it is something like his parents that brought this about. But Natural Light has already said that there must be as much in the effect as there is in the cause, and he finds that his parents and others don’t have as much cause in their effect, and so it doesn’t come from his parents. And since he is a thinking thing, it would have to be another thinking thing that brought him about. The affect is a thinking thing, and there would have to be a greater cause that brought it about, which itself would be a greater thinking thing.

“And then of this thing too we can ask whether it exists of itself or by virtue of some other thing. For if it exists of itself, it is clear from the above that it must itself be God, because since it has from itself the power to exist, it undoubtedly has the power to possess in reality all the perfections of which it has the idea in itself, that is, all the perfections I conceive to be in God. But if, on the other hand, it exists in virtue of some other thing, then we shall ask whether this thing too exists of itself, or in virtue of some other thing, until finally we come to an ultimate cause: and this will be God.”

Now he is going to try to figure out if the thing created himself, and see if it exists either in virtue of itself or of something else. If it exists of itself, then it is what he considers to be God because it has from itself the power to exist. It would contain reality in all of its perfections. If what created him exists in virtue of something itself, then we ask if it exists of itself or because of something else. If it exists because of itself then it is also what is known by God. Now this can’t go on ad infinitum as Descartes pointed out earlier, so we are eventually going to end at something that exists in and of itself, which is to be what he understands to be of God, and it can’t come from nothing as he already pointed out as well.

“we must necessarily conclude that, from the bare fact that I exist, and that in me there is an idea of a supremely perfect being, that is, God, it is proved beyond question that God also exists.”

This basically comes down to two slogans that were used by Descartes, or at least attributed to Descartes in their Latin form. “Cogito ergo sum”; “Sum, ergo Deus est”. This can be stated in English as follows: I think, therefore I am; I am, therefore God exists.

He originally set out to see if the idea of God were innate, came from the senses, or was something he imagined. He found that it neither was from the senses (and neither was body), and neither did it come from his imagination. He finds, eventually, that the idea of God is an innate idea that he has. It is something that comes from Natural Light, which is similar to that of “I am”.


Descartes “I” is a thinking thing, which doubts, affirms, wills, judges, has imagination and has perception of appearances. He comes to divide things up into “Ideas” and Judgements. Ideas of themselves cannot deceive him. Judgements are the things that can deceive him. He judges his ideas to be either true or false while the Ideas themselves don’t show if they are true or false. So he must be careful of when he makes judgements. Ideas are not said to represent things external to him, which means that when one sees a cat they are not seeing something external to themselves that this cat represents. He goes into error when he makes that judgement that they do. He finds that either his ideas are innate, adventitious, or produced by himself. He goes through and finds that they are not adventitious, and they are not produced by himself. He finds that Natural Light has lead him to the idea that the effect contains as much as the cause, and from this it follows that nothing comes from nothing. They must be as much reality in the effect as there is of cause. He finds that he has the idea of God, and he finds that this idea is not derived from himself, which means that it has to come from something. This something is God. He also finds that through natural light that conservation and creation are one and the same thing, and he exists from moment to moment. There would have to be a cause of this, and he finds that God is the only one that has the power to do this. He also found that Natural Light is what leads him to the belief in God, and Natural Light is beyond deception while Natural Inclination leads to deception.

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