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 V
Of the essence of material things,
and, again, of God, that He exists

Remarks by Maarten Maartensz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





 

 

 



(Note 1) Indeed. It is difficult to say how much of what Descartes says in his Meditations about himself is more or less literally true. As a matter of autobiographical detail it may interest the reader that I myself had somewhat similar experiences when I was 20, and lived in a garret at the border of the Vondelpark in Amsterdam.

Here I read philosophy, at the time mainly Ayer and Carnap, and tried to decide what I really knew about reality and myself. One result of this was the poem "My me" I quoted before; another was an intense experience to the effect that I did not know what was true or false and how I could decide it.

Unlike Descartes, who - as we saw in the previous Meditation - in the end threw himself in God's arms, as he no doubt was instructed to do when at La Flèche as a boy, my conclusion was that I needed to know more logic, since I did know that it appeared to me that my arguments to the effect that there was nothing at all I could safely conclude at least were arguments, stated in language, and presuming logical principles. Back.


(Note 2) As I remarked repeatedly, it seems obvious to me that one can have a clear and distinct belief in what is definitely false. Back.


(Note 3) In short, Descartes lists some of the marks of things in space and time. Back.


(Note 4) This is indeed a fairly striking fact if one thinks about it - that, in Descartes' terms, one can perceive things which were already present to my mind, although I had not as yet applied my mind to them. If one does not oneself "perceive" this, one should recollect that one knows how to count on and on and on; that each of the numbers one reaches thus has specific individual and shared properties and stands in many definite relations to specific other individual numbers; and that all of this and much more seems to follow from a few very general assumptions that seem quite obviously true (and are these days known as 'Peano's Postulates').

Next, apart from mathematics, something similar holds for language: If one knows a language, then thereby one somehow knows how to represent extra-ordinarily many distinct kinds of facts and relations. Back.


(Note 5) As so often, Descartes, who was a great writer, very clearly expresses a problem and the striking facts related to it - although it must be remembered that he describes his experiences rather than that he explains them.

But indeed, thus it appears to one if one knows a language or mathematics (which itself is a sort of language): That consequently one knows very many things that can be described by or represented in such a language, and that at least part of this knowledge arrives as it were automatically, willy-nilly, and incontrovertibly as soon as one starts thinking about it.

As Chomsky first pointed out clearly, this is very good evidence that human beings are born with certain kinds of structures, which allow them to learn language and mathematics. Back.


(Note 6) Actually, it is NOT perfectly clear that all that is true is something, as Descartes might have realized himself, contemplating a tautology like "it rains or it doesn't rain". That is: There seem to be two kinds of truths, namely those whose denials are simply false, and those whose denials are not possibly true. And while the former clearly exclude something (namely their denials), the latter do not exclude anything, and therefore Descartes' conclusion that "all that is true is something" is at least not "perfectly clear".

The latter part of the quotation I do not really believe, since it seems that human beings first (and more easily) come to conclude that things are e.g. green or sweet or hard rather than e.g. are of a prime number or are of the shape of a dodecahendron. Back.


(Note 7) To answer the question: No, this does not follow.  Back.


(Note 8) The initial question of course is merely rhetorical, but personally I find the conclusion rather incredible, since it seems obvious that people with completely different faiths agree on mathematics. Back.


(Note 9) Yes, indeed.  Back.


(Note 10) The first remark indeed seems quite appropriate, and the second remark is needlessly confusing, since Descartes gives no reason why existence should be related to God as is a valley related to a mountain, and with the consequence that in either there case there is not the one without the other.

Also, the reason he should have raised that question is that 'existence' is a much more general term than is 'valley'. Back.


(Note 11) Indeed. But Descartes much wanted to conclude there is a God, so he reasoned as follows:  Back.


(Note 12) The first point does not answer my remark about the difference between terms like 'valley' and the term 'exists' and its cognates. Back.


(Note 13) And the second point in the end is again subjective - or at least it is within my power to think of God without existence. Likewise, I see no reason to conclude the existence of a supremely perfect Being from the mere thought about it, and every reason not to, since this seems a purely verbal and conventional conclusion that is of no help in judging matters of fact.  Back.


(Note 14) Actually, this is not very relevant.  Back.


(Note 15) The first two points I have answered repeatedly, and indeed the matter mostly reduces to my denial that 'existence is a perfection'.  Back.


(Note 16) The last point is quite weak in that it explicitly admits that Descartes' argument only holds for a perfect God, and not for other things (such as a perfect woman: apparently God in his goodness allowed me to conveive of such a possibility, but forever denied me the pleasure of meeting such a creature).

Also, I do not see precisely how Descartes wanted to prove monotheism from perfection: What if it pleased the Lord, in his incomprehensible infinite wisdom, to divide himself so as to conform e.g. to the Ancient Greeks' conceptions of divinities?  Back.


(Note 17) The first remark is perfectly correct for Descartes to make, and indeed what I reject. Also, it may be sensible to add what it is I reject: It seems fair to agree that for me to be persuaded by something, it is necessary I must have a clear idea about it. But having a clear idea about something is not at all sufficient, for me, to conclude that, therefore, it must be true. As I remarked earlier, to judge that an idea is true I need some sort of criterion that allows me to pronounce on the relation between what I think about what is the case, and what really is the case. And this criterion should be oriented not to the clarity of my ideas but to the supposed facts these ideas represent.  Back.


(Note 18) That Descartes believes he could understand God better than anything else, provided he could keep meditating upon Him, is consistent with his earlier remarks, though I also find it a bit odd Descartes here seems more convinced of God's existence than of his own existence.  Back.


(Note 19) The last remark I again completely reject. I have given quite a few reasons to do so, and here add another: It seems to me that one easily creates social conflicts insisting that one personally does have some superior insight in the plans and wishes of the Lord, and it also seems me that if one finds that one cannot do without such a belief, at least one should remember that one can hardly be certain and firm in one's beliefs about something one admits to be far greater and far more complex than one is oneself. Back.


(Note 20) The first point I merely stressed to have Descartes' sum-up in his own words. Back.


(Note 21) The last point founders on Chuang-Tzu's problem, that he dreamt - one may suppose: with apparent clarity and evidence - he was a butterfly.  Back.


(Note 22) The only thing I remark here is that I keep having doubts about Descartes' sincerity, since I find it very difficult to convince myself that a supremely intelligent man, as Descartes no doubt was, even when thoroughly brainwashed by his Jesuit instructors while a boy, would, when trying to think as clear and as validly as he can, accept these conclusions. Back.

last update: Jun 19 2003