Stanley Tweyman is Professor of Philosophy at York University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.
Philosophers have traditionally held that there are three ways to attempt to gain knowledge of God – through revelation, through reason (e.g. the Ontological Proof), and through Nature (e.g. through Natural Religion).In this essay, I want to point to a fourth way, which has not been widely recognized, namely, the proof put forth by Rene Descartes in his third meditation.
In the Replies to the Second Set of Objections, Descartes informs us that the aim of his Meditations on First Philosophy is to provide the first principles of human knowledge, i.e. what must be known before anything else can be known. Because these principles are first principles, they cannot be established deductively, but rather they are self-evident, and must, therefore, be grasped through intuition. In the Replies to the Second Set of Objections and elsewhere, Descartes urges that there are two requirements in order to enable us to intuit these first principles – the first is the removal of all sensory prejudice (the influence of the senses), and the second is that we give full attention to what Descartes has written in his Meditations to guide us to the relevant innate ideas, through which these first principles can be intuited. In his third meditation, Descartes maintains that before anything can be known, he must know that God created his mind, and that God is not a deceiver. Given that, at this stage, he does not know anything beyond his existence as a thinking thing, Descartes attempts to establish what he needs to know about God through the innate idea he has of God.
Although Descartes offers two so-called proofs of God’s existence in the third meditation, it is clear that, by Cartesian standards, these proofs cannot be held to be the means through which he ultimately knows God. Each of his proofs involves calculations regarding the amount of formal or eminent reality required in the putative cause of his idea of God in order to account for the objective reality in the idea of God. And he concludes that the objective reality of the idea of God is so great that neither he, nor any other being, can be considered the cause of this idea. However, in the first meditation, and again at the beginning of the third meditation, Descartes cautions against trusting mathematical calculations before he knows that a veracious God created him. In short, although these two so-called proofs can assist as pedagogic devices in knowing God, they cannot be regarded as indubitable and definitive proofs regarding his knowledge of God.
Toward the end of the third meditation (the third last paragraph), Descartes raises the question as to the manner in which he has acquired his idea of God from God. Ruling out that he has received this idea through the senses, or that it can be a fiction of his mind, given that it possesses a fixed nature, Descartes concludes that the idea of God is innate in him, just as his idea of the self is innate in him. And he continues, in the penultimate paragraph of the third meditation, that God has placed his idea in him “to be like the mark of the workman imprinted on his work; and it is likewise not essential that the mark shall be something different from the work itself”. When Descartes is questioned about this in the Fifth Set of Objections, he clarifies his meaning through the analogy of a painting by Appeles:
When you ask whence I get my proof that the idea of God is, as it were, the mark of the workman imprinted on his work, and what is the mode in which it is impressed, and what is the form of the mark, it is very much as if I, coming across a picture which showed a technique that pointed to Appeles alone as the painter, were to say that the inimitable technique was, so to speak, a mark impressed by Appeles on all his pictures in order to distinguish them from others, but you replied with the questions: “what is the form of that mark?” and “what is its mode of expression?” Such an inquiry would seem to merit laughter rather than any reply.
The issue I would like to raise at this point is whether Descartes is at all convincing in his attempt to get to know God, as he explains in the passage above. Now, it is clear what it is that Descartes is attempting to do with his analogy between the idea of God and the technique of a painting. The technique of a painting is contained within the painting, that is, the technique is inseparable from the content of the painting, and not a separate reality. Similarly, therefore, on Descartes’ account, the idea of God is contained within the idea of the self, that is, it is inseparable from the content of the idea of the self, and not a separate idea. Just as attending to the painting can reveal both its content and the technique by which it was brought into existence, similarly, according to Descartes, attending to the idea of the self can reveal both the self and the technique by which he was brought into existence, i.e. God who created us. Now, it is this point that I have difficulty with Descartes’ position.
Inquiries regarding the technique of a painting can reveal the brush strokes employed by the artist, the type of paint utilized, the figures that are represented, proportions utilized by the artist in creating the painting, the type of canvas, etc. Through such analyses, a knowledgeable art critic is often able to identify the artist responsible for the painting, through other works of art of the artist, with which the art critic is familiar. Note, though, that the artist is not in the painting, but rather s/he can be discerned inferentially, by analogy, through the art critic’s familiarity with other works known to have been created by this artist.
Now, to prove that God created Descartes, an analogous situation would have to obtain, namely, Descartes would have to be able to discern God’s technique in the idea of the self, and through familiarity with other beings that God created, who manifest the identical technique of creation, Descartes could conclude, by analogy, that it is very probable that God created Descartes. But Descartes is unable to do this, because he knows of no other existent that was created by God, and because Descartes claims to have intuitive, not analogical, knowledge of God, through the idea of himself.
Picking up on Descartes’ claim that his knowledge of God is intuitive, a second approach to knowing God can be developed, although it will be seen to be no more successful than the first approach. Beginning with his point that the idea of God is contained within the idea of the self, Descartes holds (in the final paragraph of the third meditation) that, through meditation, he is able “to contemplate God Himself, to ponder at leisure His marvellous attributes, to consider, and admire, and adore, the beauty of this light so resplendent…”. Now, what Descartes does not mention, or develop, is what such meditation actually reveals regarding the manner of Descartes’ creation, and ultimately of the nature of God, Descartes’ creator. And, in this second approach, as I showed in the case of the first approach, the analogy between the idea of God and a painting created by Apelles, provides no guidance whatsoever as to how a knowledge of God can be obtained intuitively, or what the intuition actually reveals. Since Descartes holds that the mind lacks spatial dimensions, there can be nothing in the mind analogous to what constitutes the technique of a painting. In short, I conclude that Descartes’ analogy of the painting by Appeles is entirely unhelpful and inappropriate for assisting us with coming to understand how Descartes can obtain intuitive knowledge of God through the idea he has of himself.
Those familiar with Hume’s critique of the Argument from Design in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion know that one of Hume’s criticisms centers around the uniqueness of the design of the world and the uniqueness of God. Accordingly, he argues that since the world bears no specific resemblance to any type of machine of human contrivance (the world does not look like a fountain pen or a television set, etc.) it is impossible, in any meaningful way, to establish anything about the nature of God, through a comparison between the design of the world and the design of machines. My critical comments in this blog owe much to Hume in the Dialogues, in that my argument against Descartes is based on the absence of similarities between Descartes’ mind and a painting by Appeles.
1. All references to Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy are taken from Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy In Focus, Edited and with an Introduction by Stanley Tweyman, originally published by Routledge, London and New York, 1993, reprinted by Caravan Books, Ann Arbor Michigan, 2002, by arrangement with Routledge.