February 01, 2007

René Descartes: Meditation III

another short writing assignment for my Modern Philosophy class:

What is Descartes' central claim about causation and why is this claim so important to his argument in favor of God’s existence?

In Meditation III, René Descartes presents his argument for the existence of God, that is, "a supreme deity, eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, and creator of all things other than himself." (Descartes, Meditation III, 73) His argument relies heavily on the concept of causation, specifically the causation of ideas, and even more specifically the idea of the all power being listed in the proceeding sentence.

Descartes' central claim concerning causation is the following: every idea must have a cause "in which there is at least as much formal reality as there is objective reality contained in the idea." (74) He argues that regardless of whether an idea is ultimately true or ultimately false, that idea undoubtedly exists in mind, and, because nothing comes from nothing, everything in existence - including an idea - must have a cause. With this logic, Descartes proceeds to explain that nothing in existence can be the product of a less perfect cause. An example Descartes uses in Meditation III concerns the creation of a stone. The cause of such a stone must have contained all the properties of the resultant stone for "how could the cause give that reality to the effect, unless it also possessed that reality?" (73) Again, nothing comes out of nothing, and, likewise, something must come from something.

This idea of causation is particularly important to Descartes' argument for the existence of God. With this logic in place, Descartes is able to deduct that the following: for there to be an idea, there must be "something else, that is the cause of the idea, that exists." (74) Because every idea must come from something, and since humans are in no way infinitely perfect we could not have been the cause of such an idea, so there must be a cause that is, in fact, infinitely perfect. The concept of causation is essential to Descartes' rationalistic conclusion that God must exist.

Descartes' central claim regarding a causation of equal or greater formal reality than its effect is key to his argument because without it he cannot explain the origin of his thoughts. If he cannot account for a causation then he must rely on "spontaneous impulse" (72) which is in no way rational. Descartes has already concluded that he exists - i think, therefore i am - but without any knowledge of causation, he must rationally conclude that he is alone in the world and that there is no other object outside of himself. Without a concept of causation he must continue to doubt the truth of all of his sensory ideas.


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