Maarten Maartensz

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Meditations On First Philosophy
in which the Existence of God and the
Distinction Between Mind and Body are Demonstrated. 9

Meditation IV
Of the True and the False

Remarks by Maarten Maartensz







































(Note 1) The first point, as stated, is impossible. Descartes has gotten rid from his imaginations and sensations, mainly on the ground that they may be false, but he has not at all gotten rid of language. Back

(Note 2) The second point could comfort only people with an inclination to fanaticism. Back.

(Note 3) Descartes forgets (conveniently) that his own understanding of a perfect God may be imperfect, and he may e.g. have missed that God in his perfect goodness found it logically necessary that such beings as humans must have some false ideas, e.g. for the same sort of reasons as He may have found it logically necessary that beings that perceive in certain ways will thereby have to have certain illusions and systematic misperceptions. Back.

(Note 4) What I could say about this paragraph I have said repeatedly before. Concerning the stressed point one may well ask: Why did God not take care people are less prone to err? Back.

(Note 5) Indeed, as I remarked above. Descartes' answer follows: Back.

(Note 6) But this again is a mistake, and Descartes attempts to have his cake and eat it, i.e. on the one hand it pleases him to assume he is certain he is made by a perfect God, while on the other hand it pleases him to assume he is certain his own capacities are far from perfect. The correct inference from that is not the one Descartes makes, but the one I made above: That if one is pleased to believe in an infinite and perfect God, one should hold that one assumes something one does not really understand. Back.

(Note 7) I'll take up the points in the order offered.

Descartes does not speak as a psychologist when he says only his errors make him imperfect. Most ordinary people judge others by their external appearance or social status. Back.

(Note 8) The second point, that errors are due only to not properly using one's knowledge or one's free will is interesting for several reasons, among which is that Descartes does assume people have knowledge and have free will. Back.

(Note 9) The third point, that the Lord may have created men after his own image yet without his gifts, I have made myself repeatedly, and it seems to me Descartes does not face all possibilities involved in this point. Back.

(Note 11) The fourth point, that Descartes attributes to himself an extremely small and very limited faculty of comprehension can only be taken as a profession of humility that cannot be taken serious: Even if Descartes sincerely believed that compared to the God he believed in his faculties are negligible, the real point of writing and publishing his Meditations was that he believed also to have made philosophical discoveries no other man had made. Back.

(Note 12) The fifth point again is interesting, for Descartes claims in fact his capacity of free will does not essentially differ of the divine free will. Descartes' reason is that free will is the capacity of choosing from given alternatives that alternative that suits one's purposes best, while the difference between men and God is not in the extent or power of their free wills but in the the extent of their knowledge and their power to make things. Back.

(Note 13) The fifth point is strengthened in the sixth, which also is curious in that Descartes explicitly says that we act so that we are unconscious that any outside force constrains us in doing so which seems to create the possibility that even while human beings believe they act freely from their own initiative, in fact they don't. This is curious, because in the previous point Descartes derives his similarity to God mostly from his having a free will.

Incidentally, Descartes is quite right in stressing that the freedom of the will does not consist in being indifferent between alternatives, but in being able to choose that alternative one prefers, while being able also to choose the other.

The sixth point amplifies that indifference is not the essence of free will. ack.

(Note 14) This paragraph applies what has been said before, but is again somewhat curious for a believer in an omnipotent benevolent divinity: If Descartes is right about the discrepancy between what he really understands and the larger part of what he judges without really understanding, then why has the Lord engineered it that way? (Of course, if there is no omnipotent benevolent divinity that made Descartes, then Descartes' remarks are quite apt: indeed many mistakes of men do derive from their making judgements they should not have made because they lack the requisite knowledge or state of mind.) Back.

(Note 15) This I suppose to be sincere. The problem is that precisely the same holds for any sincere fanatic: The mere belief that something is clearly and evidently so is no guarantee whatsoever that it is so. (Indeed, by my own lights if one has no better reason for a belief than that it seems clear and evident to one, I conclude one lacks cogent grounds for the belief.)

This is one of the fundamental mistakes of Descartes, and it should be clearly stated what is the alternative:

  • To infer that a belief that something is true indeed is true in fact one needs explicit criterions to compare beliefs with what these beliefs are about.

Here enters a further point that is very problematic for Descartes' position: Normally (with certain provisos I need not enter into) people accept other people's testimony that so and so did or did not occur as someone says, and the more people do independently support such a claim, the more likely it is supposed to be that what is said indeed represents what is so. For someone who insists only his very own conscious deliberations can be grounds to judge evidence this is difficult to grant. Back.

(Note 16) This I take to be rhetorics i.e. I don't believe Descartes was really indifferent. Back.

(Note 17) Indeed. But this is another fundamental Cartesian mistake: It is far more plausible to assume that in many cases human beings cannot rationally conclude with certainty but can rationally conclude with probability, than it is to assume that those cases human beings cannot conclude with certainty must be false.

That second alternative seems to amount to the assumption that any probabilistically qualified proposition thereby is false or invalid.

Such an assumption seems both false, in that one may safely assume one is sometimes right and sometimes wrong about those judgements one makes that one holds to be merely probably true, and very unwise, in that by such an assumption one discards a method of reasoning (namely with probabilities) that seems to be very helpful and in some respects more subtle and more precise than merely bi-valent logic, since it allows the making of distinctions that cannot be made in bi-valent logic.

Indeed, as far as I am concerned such a decision to hold false what one cannot prove to be true seems much like sawing of one's legs in order to run faster, on the ground that with the legs one has one cannot run as fast as one would like. Back.

(Note 18) Descartes himself doubted "the light of nature" above. And he seems to have been not clearly aware that in very many circumstances human beings simply have to make decisions on the basis of information they know to be incomplete, imprecize, imperfect etc.

Also, it should be remarked that one reason human beings (and animals) seem to have a free will is to be able to make decisions here and now to protect their bodies from harm and damage. Back.

(Note 19) Again, there seems to me to be a considerable difference between (i) not complaining Nature has not equipped one better than one has been equipped in fact and (ii) not complaining the Lord has not given one a nicer face and smarter brain. (For people pray to the Lord to have their desires gratified.)

Also, unless one uncovers rather precize reasons that show why and how one's understanding is limited, it seems rather useless to insist one has a finite understanding that is not capable of understanding many things.

Indeed, it seems to me that a sort of methodological presumption that is the basis of science is that

  • until proven otherwise human beings can eventually come to understand anything at least in schematic outline if not in full detail, if they try hard enough and long enough.

Unfortunately for human individuals, the true understanding they seek may eventuate long after they have died, even if their efforts and those of many others did contribute to that understanding. Also, it seems a fair guess that the knowledge human beings have as a group or species is normally such that each individual knows something about a domain others don't know, and no individual knows all that is known collectively to all. (Thus, there is more knowledge in physics, mathematics, biology etc. than any physicist, mathematician, biologist etc. knows.) Back.

(Note 20) As I said above, the freedom of the will does not consist in being indifferent between alternatives, but in being able to choose that alternative one prefers, while being able to also to choose the other.

The difficulty here is especially to explain the last part: That one may, when acting deliberately, choose to act on any alternative one discerns, including those one does not prefer. Back.

(Note 21) I suppose these are the sort of deliberations that come fairly naturally to a sincere and intelligent Catholic. But I don't understand them, since I cannot comprehend why a perfect omnipotent and benevolent God would not desire to see his creatures as perfect as he can make them. Back.

(Note 22) The latter part indeed describes how people do lead themselves: By making deliberate judgements about courses of action, and following these judgments later, in appropriate circumstances.

In the former part Descartes again seems to miss that very often people must act and decide on incomplete imperfect information, and cannot afford not to make a judgement until they have more information. Back.

(Note 23) The stressed part indeed is what Descartes concluded. I think I have given very good reasons not to assume what Descartes concluded:

  • it is often unwise not to form probabilistically qualified judgements when one cannot make judgments qualified as true or false;
  • clear and distinct ideas are not at all necessarily or evidently true; and
  • if there is a God, it seems wiser to assume He is beyond human comprehension rather than built firm castles in the air on one's supposed understanding of His perfect infinite intellect.  Back.

last update: Apr 16 2013