Ren’e Descartes (1596-1650) Ren’e Descartes (1596-1650) is one of the most important Western philosophers of the past few centuries. During his lifetime, Descartes was just as famous as an original physicist, physiologist and mathematician. But it is as a highly original philosopher that he is most frequently read today. He attempted to restart philosophy in a fresh direction.
For example, his philosophy refused to accept the Aristotelian and Scholastic traditions that had dominated philosophical thought throughout the Medieval period; it attempted to fully integrate philosophy with the ‘new’s sciences; and Descartes changed the relationship between philosophy and theology. Such new directions for philosophy made Descartes into a revolutionary figure. The two most widely known of Descartes’ philosophical ideas are those of a method of hyperbolic doubt, and the argument that, though he may doubt, he cannot doubt that he exists. The first of these comprises a key aspect of Descartes’ philosophical method. As noted above, he refused to accept the authority of previous philosophers – but he also refused to accept the obviousness of his own senses.
In the search for a foundation for philosophy, whatever could be doubted must be rejected. He resolves to trust only that which is clearly and distinctly seen to be beyond any doubt. In this manner, Descartes peels away the layers of beliefs and opinions that clouded his view of the truth. But, very little remains, only the simple fact of doubting itself, and the inescapable inference that something exists doubting, namely Descartes himself. His next task is to reconstruct our knowledge piece by piece, such that at no stage is the possibility of doubt allowed to creep back in. In this manner, Descartes proves that he himself must have the basic of thinking, and that this thinking thing (mind) is quite distinct from his body; the existence of a God; the existence and nature of the external world; and so on.
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What is important in this for Descartes is, first, that he is showing that knowledge is genuinely possible (and thus that sceptics must be mistaken), and, second, that, more particularly, a mathematically-based scientific knowledge of the material world is possible. Descartes’ work was influential, although his studies in physics and the other natural sciences much less so than his mathematical and philosophical work. Throughout the 17 th and 18 th Centuries, Descartes’ philosophical ghost was always present: Locke, Hume, Leibniz and even Kant felt compelled to philosophical engage (often negatively, of course) with this philosophical giant. For these reasons, Descartes is often called the ‘father’ of modern philosophy. This article provides an overview of Descartes’ philosophical thought following the order of his most famous and widely-studied book, the Meditations on First Philosophy. Table of Contents (Clicking on the links below will take you to that part of this article) o Life o The Discourse on Method and Meditation 1 o Context of Descartes’ Method; Clarity and Distinctness Religion, Science and Scepticism Hyperbolic Doubt Meditation 2 o Meditation 3 o Meditation 4 o Meditation 5 o Meditation 6 o Review; and the ‘Probable’ Argument from Imagination o On the Distinction Between Mind and Body The Existence of Extended Bodies; Space The Relation Between Mind and Body; Innate Ideas; Interaction The Validity of Sense Perception Life Descartes was born in a village near Tours in France in 1596.
He was educated at a Jesuit college which was firmly grounded in the scholastic tradition, and by no means adverse to the study of either the humanities, or science. At the school he was given privileges similar to those enjoyed by boys of noble birth, but on the grounds of his fragile health. Descartes studied a broad range of subjects, and excelled particularly in mathematics. It is clear he benefited greatly from this Jesuit education, yet Descartes (in common with many intellectuals of his time) was keen to stress the separation of reason and faith. This meant that he could be sceptical concerning the philosophical and theological positions taken by the Church, while maintaining his Catholic faith. After taking a degree in law from Poitier, Descartes enlisted in the Dutch and, later, the Bavarian milit aries.
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By 1619, under the influence of the Dutch mathematician and scientist Beekman, Descartes began his exceptionally fertile mathematical studies of natural phenomena. Also around 1619, Descartes may have begun the unfinished Rules for the Direction of the Mind which was his first major philosophical treatise on the proper method for pursuing either science or rational theology. Over the next decade, Descartes alternated spending time in Paris with the circle of mathematicians and physicists gathered around the figure of Father Mersenne, and travelling widely. In 1629 Descartes moved to Holland where he lived in seclusion for 20 years, only occasionally returning to France, and changing his residence frequently to preserve his privacy.
The scientific and technical studies of these years resulted in the three texts on optics, meteorology and geometry, which were only published in 1637, and ‘The World’ which was published posthumously. Nevertheless, Descartes was establishing quite a reputation as a forbid able mathematician. Descartes made a number of important contributions to mathematics and physics, among the most enduring of which was his foundation (with Galileo) of what is now known as analytic geometry. That is, broadly speaking, the use of geometrical analysis to solve complex algebraic problems, and vice versa. It is difficult to overestimate the importance for the history of mathematical physics of this bringing together of the sciences of geometry and algebra. With the exception of parts of the Rules and a few fragments, most of Descartes’ early ‘metaphysical’ writings are lost.
It was after he moved to Amsterdam that Descartes began working in earnest on the philosophical ideas upon which his fame now rests. The Discourse on the Method was published in 1637, together with the three treatises mentioned above. And in 1640, he enlarged upon the metaphysical issues therein, writing his Meditations on First Philosophy. The full title of this work is Meditations on the First Philosophy: In Which the Existence of God and the Distinction Between Mind and Body are Demonstrated. The work was first published in 1641 in Latin and was translated into French in the following year by the Duc de Luynes. The translation into French was relatively unusual and significant, for it testified to Descartes’ wishes to bring his work to a wider, non-specialised audience, who lay outside the accepted ‘authorities’ on theological and philosophical matters.
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Descartes was so pleased with the French translation that he made some additions and fully endorsed it for later publication. Descartes passed a manuscript of his Meditations onto his friend, Father Mersenne, who solicited comments from fellow scholars, including Thomas Hobbes. The comments were returned to Descartes. These, along with his lengthy replies – several times longer than the Meditations themselves – were included in the second published edition of the Meditations (1642).
The Principles of Philosophy followed in 1644. In 1649, Descartes moved to Stockholm at the request of Queen Christina of Sweden who employed him as a philosophy tutor.
Christina scheduled the lectures at 5 A. M. The early hours and harsh climate took their toll on Descartes’s already weakened condition. He died shortly after in 1650.
During his life, Descartes’s fame rose to such an extent that (despite the theological controversies centering on him) many Catholics believed he would be a candidate for sainthood. As his body was transported from Sweden back to France, anxious relic collectors along the path removed pieces of his body. By the time his body reached France, it was considerably reduced in size. Descartes’ philosophy developed in the context of the key features of Renaissance and early modern philosophy. Like the humanists, he rejected religious authority in the quest for scientific and philosophical knowledge.
Although Descartes was a devout Catholic, he was also influenced by the Reformation’s challenge to Church authority, particularly the challenge against medieval Aristotelianism. Nevertheless, Descartes’ philosophical vocabulary is heavily determined by scholastic thought – Descartes was happy to borrow ideas or principles where he felt they were not against clear reasoning. For Descartes, reason was both the foundation and guide for pursuing truth. He was an active participant in the scientific revolution in both scientific method and in particular discoveries. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Descartes reacted strongly against the Renaissance resurgence of ancient Greek scepticism. Thus, we find in Descartes’ writings a relentless pursuit of absolute certainty.
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Descartes was hugely influential on individual, and key, philosophers throughout the 17 th and 18 th Centuries (Spinoza, Malebranche, Locke, Leibniz, etc. ).
His insistence on a radical philosophy that dispensed, as far as possible, with authority; his insistence on the perspective of consciousness in epistemology; his attempt to raise the standard of philosophical argumentation to a science akin to geometry; his close integration of philosophy and physical science; his emphasis on methodology, all were hugely important. Even philosophers who rejected his thought spent a great deal of time and energy doing so – Descartes could not be ignored.
Though Descartes’ mathematical works were unquestionably important, the particulars of his physics were less so. And yet Descartes’ general physics – the rational justification for a universal, mathematical/ quantitative understanding of nature – was hugely significant. However, despite all these influences, his philosophical and scientific work never became the ‘official’ new philosophy, as he had hoped it would. First, it suffered condemnation, usually on religious grounds; this began already during Descartes’ lifetime, and his work was officially ‘prohibited’ in 1663 by the Church in Rome. Then, by the early 18 th Century, it suffered the double blow of the rise of empirically-minded approaches in Britain and France, together with the triumph of Newtonian physics pretty much everywhere. The following article will provide an overview of the majority of Descartes’ philosophical ideas.
For convenience, we will follow the order and structure of his most famous and widely-read book, the Meditations on First Philosophy. The fame and influence of this small book makes it unavoidable as a guide to Descartes’ thought. However, along the way and where appropriate, a number of philosophical issues or alternative approaches from other key texts will be introduced. Back to Table of Contents The Discourse on Method and Meditation 1 Context of Descartes’ Method; Clarity and Distinctness Descartes’ philosophical method was also intended to be a method for science.
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His concern with scepticism in all its forms was therefore directed not only at religious scepticism, but at epistemological scepticism in general, according to which any attempts to know the natural world must be doomed. We might characterise Descartes’ general position in the following way: the world created by God was intended by Him to be known, provided only that human beings go about the activity of knowing properly. How the activity of knowing might be properly conducted is the issue of methodology. Descartes’ first discussion of scientific method is in an unfinished work of 1628 titled Rules for the Direction of the Mind.
The first 12 of the planned 36 rules deal with the general aspects of his proposed methodology, and are considered early versions of principles that made their way into his later writings. In 1633 Descartes prepared for publication a work on physics called Le Monde which defended a heliocentric view of the universe. That same year the Catholic Church condemned Galileo’s Dialogue (1632).
Descartes did not think Galileo’s views were prejudicial to religion and he worried that his own views might be censured. Thus he suspended publication of it.
In 1637 Descartes published a collection of essays titled Optics, Meteorology, and Geometry. Prefaced to these essays was a work titled ‘Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences.’ Most of the ‘Discourse’ was written before the 1633 condemnation of Galileo’s Dialogue. However, he later added a concluding section that explained that he insisted on publishing, in spite of political risks. The simple reason was that he counted on the public to help confirm his scientific theories. In the Discourse, Descartes offers a method of inquiry quite different from Francis Bacon’s as set out in the Novum Organum of 1620. Whereas Bacon advocated induction, Descartes insists on a more deductive approach, focusing on the right use of reason with respect to its own ideas.
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Most of the Discourse is autobiographical insofar as it traces Descartes intellectual development and how his method assisted him in his investigations. It is important to realise, however, that the first person ‘narration’ frequently found in his philosophy is closely linked to Descartes’ philosophical project: how can the individual consciousness come to know itself, its God, its world. Descartes realized that he needed to reject much of the teachings of his youth. This raised the question as to exactly how he should proceed in replacing old theories with new ones. He found his answer by analogy with how old parts of cities are replaced with the new. The more elegant cities are those which are methodically built from scratch, not those which continually renovate old sections.
Descartes explains that he had learned a variety of methodological approaches in a variety of disciplines. They all had limits, though. Syllogistic logic, he believes, only communicates what we already know. Geometry and algebra are either too abstract in nature for practical application, or too restricted to the shapes of bodies. However, he believed that a more condensed and universal list of methodological rules was better than a lengthy and varied list. The first was never to accept anything as true if I did not have evident knowledge of its truth; that is, carefully to avoid precipitate conclusions and preconceptions, and to include nothing more in my judgement’s than what presented itself to my mind so clearly and distinctly that I had no occasion to doubt it.
The second, to divide each of the difficulties I examined into as many parts as possible and as may be required in order to resolve them better. The third, to direct my thoughts in an orderly manner, by beginning with the simplest and most easily known objects in order to ascend little by little, step by step, to knowledge of the most complex, and by supposing some order even among objects that have no natural order of precedence. And the last, throughout to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so comprehensive, that I could be sure of leaving nothing out. (I, 120) Descartes commentator S. V.
Keeling argues that Descartes’ method, as expressed in the above rules, rests on three mental operations: intuition, deduction, and enumeration. These three abilities constitute our human reason. Intuition involves directly apprehending the simplest components (or ‘simple natures’) of a subject matter. Deduction is not merely syllogistic, but a process of inferring necessary relations between simple natures.
Enumeration is a process of review which we use when deductions become so long that we risk error due to a faulty memory. What, however, is meant by the criteria of ‘clarity’ and ‘distinctness’ by which Descartes describes the intuitive apprehension of simple natures and their relations? In various works, Descartes has a number of attempts at defining these important concepts. (E. g. Principles of Philosophy 1. 45; cf also Leibniz ‘Meditations on Knowledge, Truth and Ideas (1684).
) By ‘clarity’ is meant something like the presence of an idea or object for attentive inspection by the mind, so that all its qualities can be observed. Descartes often uses the analogy of viewing a material object close up and in good light. By ‘distinctness’, on the other hand, is meant that the relationships between the idea or object and anything else are themselves clear, such that what truly belongs to the idea or object can be distinguished from its relationships. The reader should also notice the phrase ‘never to accept anything as true’ in Descartes’ first rule. A quite radical initial procedure of doubting (testing whether it can be accepted as true) thus forms part of Descartes’ method. This idea is pursued with the utmost ruthlessness in the Meditations.
Descartes realized that he needed a provisional set of moral guidelines to carry him through the transition from abandoning his prejudices to establishing the truth of things. He presents four such rules: (1) obey the laws of his country and adhere to his faith in God, (2) to be consistent in following positions, even if they seem doubtful, (3) change his desires rather than the order of the world, (4) to choose the best occupation he could (i. e. , that of a philosopher).
Although Descartes’ method had its advocates, it was also criticized by his contemporaries, such as the mathematician Pierre de Fermat, and ultimately dismissed. Leibniz says that Descartes’ rules amount to saying ‘take what you need, and do what you should, and you will get what you want.’ Back to Table of Contents Religion, Science and Scepticism Descartes dedicates the Meditations to the faculty of the Sorbonne, which was the divinity school of the University of Paris. For centuries, the Sorbonne was center of Catholic theology. By dedicating his work to the Sorbonne faculty, Descartes’ was announcing that his philosophy was consistent, so far as he was concerned, with traditional Catholic theology. Descartes was a devout Catholic and had no desire to offend the Church, though he certainly hoped to make a contribution to its understanding.
Descartes announces at the opening that there are two driving issues behind the Meditations: proving the existence of God and the immortality of the soul through natural reason. One would expect divinity school faculty to approve of this plan. However, it is not entirely clear that these issues (especially the latter) are his chief concern in the Meditations. Partly, of course, Descartes is emphasis ing common ground in order to ease the way for what he knows will appear to be some very radical ideas. For example, he believed that Aristotelianism had no place in the new scientific age. Cautioned by the fate of Galileo, Descartes proposed his new anti-Aristotelian theories diplomatically.
In his Principles of Philosophy, for example, he cautiously suggests a theory of the solar system similar to Galileo’s. He expresses his hope that his theory could ‘be used in Christian teaching without contradicting the text of Aristotle.’ Returning to the Dedication, Descartes discusses the importance that the Sorbonne faculty themselves place on rational proofs. He also notes that he intends to follow the method of investigation proposed in his Discourse on the Method. According to Descartes, geometricians rarely show the falsehood of accepted truths and demonstrations. By contrast, philosophers typically show the falsehood of contentions without venturing to explore truth. Descartes closes the dedication pleading with the faculty of the Sorbonne that their support and influence is necessary for the Meditations to be seen as a successful refutation of scepticism.
The refutation of scepticism being another instance of the common ground he was trying to emphasise between himself and the Catholic theologians. In his earlier Discourse on the Method, Descartes also discusses the existence of God and the nature of the human soul. In the ‘Preface’ to the Meditations, he explains that the earlier discussion in the Discourse was intentionally brief. The Discourse was published in French, as opposed to Latin, and thus available to common readers. Accordingly, he toned down the arguments in the earlier work to keep ‘feeble minded’ people from losing the thread, or leaping to conclusions too quickly.
The Meditations, by contrast, were written in Latin and not originally intended for the casual reader – although, as we know, Descartes welcomed a French translation. Back to Table of Contents Hyperbolic Doubt Descartes opens his Meditations by reiterating his desire to have only true beliefs, expressed as the first rule in the Discourse on the Method. Descartes proposes to systematically follow a process of doubt. The doubt is not a simply common sense one, though, as when I doubt whether black cats are harbingers of bad luck. Instead, his doubting process is a philosophical one, and sometimes called ‘hyperbolic’ (or exaggerated) doubt, in which the issue is whether a class of knowledge can be in any way doubted. The goal of this doubting process is to arrive at a list of beliefs that are certain and indubitably true.
It thus may be viewed as a systematic doubting experiment. Descartes does not intend to doubt the truth of every specific judgement that comes into his head – an impossible task – but to undermine wherever possible the foundations of his views. Descartes can do this by discussing broad classes of supposed knowledge: for example, knowledge from the senses, or knowledge from mathematical reasoning. If we assume that beliefs within each class will, from their nature, have similar foundations, then doubt in any area of the class will throw the whole into doubt. The main class of knowledge he brings under suspicion is the reliability of sensory information. The experiment consists of articulating several reasons by which sensory information can be brought into question.
When he presents the last of these reasons, there are virtually no items of knowledge he can have confidence in. Much of Descartes argumentation rests on a distinction that, later in the history of philosophy, became known as that between primary and secondary qualities. Briefly, we look at an apple and perceive qualities of redness, sweet smell, roundness, and singularity. Descartes recognized that the qualities of redness and sweet smell do not really belong to the apple. Instead these qualities exist only in the mind of an observer – as a product of the relation between the apple, my sense organs, and my mind – and are then illegitimately imposed onto the apple as it is in itself. These have been traditionally called secondary qualities.
By contrast, the qualities of roundness and singularity belong to the apple itself, and are not products of the relation to the observer’s mind. These have been termed primary qualities. Secondary qualities arise from (what are assumed to be) objects of the senses, and primary qualities from objects of mathematics. The following illustrates the connection: Type: Objects Properties Secondary Objects of Sense hardness, heat, light, odour, colour, taste, sound Primary Objects of Mathematics quantity, shape, time, magnitude An apple would be a secondary object, or object of the senses, when we consider only its secondary qualities of redness and sweet smell. On the other hand an apple is a primary object, or object of mathematics, when we consider only its primary qualities of shape and singularity (quantity).
In Descartes’ version of this distinction, the root of the primary / secondary distinction is the attribute of extension (or existence in space, including motion).
All primary qualities are features that necessarily (and really) belong to extended objects. All secondary qualities, by contrast, do not necessarily (or really) belong to extended objects and, thus, are spectator-dependent. (Please compare the discussion beginning at Principles, part one, SS 48, I, 208 ff. ) However, it should be pointed out that Descartes has not yet offered a complete proof that extension is the key feature of spatial objects, and that all other properties are ‘secondary’. Nor has he even proved that there are any spatial objects at all! He will return to extension and space towards the end of the Meditations. In any case, in view of this primary / secondary distinction, when Descartes doubts the reliability of his senses, he must find reason to doubt both his primary and secondary perceptions.
The initial importance of this distinction, then, is that Descartes needs two sets of arguments in order to place into doubt the reality of both primary and secondary objects. That which can be doubted is that which belongs to a class of ‘knowledge’ that has ever in the past failed, or which it can be imagined will fail under a (not impossible) hypothesis. Descartes begins his systematic doubting experiment by pointing out an obvious credibility problem with our senses: optical illusions. Descartes begins doubting the reliability of his senses by noting that we perceive distant objects to be much smaller than they really are. In other words, in some instances, the class of sensory knowledge has been known to break down; and for this reason, it can never be absolutely trusted.
This, though, is somewhat trivial, and does not undermine the general reliability of the senses, since it is precisely through other sensory knowledge that we know that the object is further away. If the class of sensory knowledge is self-correcting in this fashion, it is perhaps not radically unreliable. Continuing his doubting experiment, Descartes suggests the possibility that he his dreaming. Here, Descartes is proposing a hypothesis, which is not intrinsically impossible (I am dreaming even though I believe myself to be awake), but which calls into question the basic validity of the class of sensory knowledge.
This, though, only brings into question the existence of objects of the senses (i. e. , secondary qualities), and does not affect objects of mathematics (i. e. , primary qualities).
The basic mathematical principles of space and time, Descartes says, are the ‘components’ from which my elaborate dreams are constructed – and as such cannot be doubted along with the existence and secondary qualities of the particular objects, on the basis of the dream argument.
Taking his doubts further, Descartes initially speculates that God is deceiving him about all of the things that he believes or perceives. This would happen if God were actively putting ideas into my head that, prima facie and in all cases, seemed to have some other source. (The notion of deception, as Descartes is using it here is more limited that that which he employs from Meditation 4 onwards. Please see Meditation 4 for our discussion of com missive and deceptions.
) Descartes includes primary objects in this hypothetical deception – thus, God deceives me even about the ideal objects of mathematics. Descartes writes: … [S]in ce I sometimes believe that others go astray in cases where they think they have the most perfect knowledge, may I not similarly go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square, or in some even simpler matter, if that is imaginable? (II, 14) Suggesting that God is a deceiver causes him problems, though, because according to traditional Christian theology, infinite goodness is one of God’s necessary attributes. Goodness and deception seem opposed. If backed into a corner, some might deny God’s existence rather than admit that he is the cause of deception. And yet, denying God, Descartes argues, could only make him more vulnerable to deception.
This takes him into a discussion of scepticism, and he reflects on how far astray his doubts may take him, and to what extent they are justified. Discussions of scepticism during the modern period often drew a distinction between speculative and action al scepticism. A speculative sceptic merely uncovers theoretical problems, and an action al sceptic continues by recommending a course of action. With religious beliefs in particular, action al scepticism was viewed as more dangerous as it might recommend that act as though there were no God.
However, Descartes only proposes theoretical doubt. In any event, he revises his doubt so not to run counter to traditional Christian belief and, accordingly, proposes that a malevolent demon or genius (and not God) deceives him. Simply considered as hypotheses, there is no way of comparing the plausibility of the existence of an infinitely good deity, with the existence of a malevolent demon. With the demon hypothesis, Descartes’ procedure doubt has reached its peak.
Such a demon could cause ideas to appear within Descartes’ mind such that he was deceived not only about the existence and nature of secondary qualities, but even about the existence and nature of primary qualities. It follows that if there is to be knowledge, then either there must be a new, as yet unmentioned ground of knowledge, or new reasons must be found that independently remove the above doubts. In either case, there must also be a means of testing (a ‘rule of truth’) whether such knowledge is indeed beyond doubt. Descartes’ philosophy now moves to explore such issues.
There are, however, a few features of Descartes’ method of doubt that are worth pulling out at this point. First, and reasonably enough one might think, Descartes never doubts that his ideas arise in some fashion. The source might be external objects, or his own dreams, or a hidden faculty of self-deception, his own activity of thinking, or God, or an evil genius. (This problem of the sources of ideas corresponds with the notion of a ‘class’ of knowledge introduced above. ) Because there are so many possible sources for my ideas, and because there is no fool-proof way of deciding between them, Descartes is able to doubt the veracity of most of the ideas he formerly held to be true. This question of the origin of his ideas is key.
For, in Meditation 6, Descartes will be able to solve his initial epistemological scepticism by eliminating all but one of the sources. (Moreover, the question of the origin of ideas also forms the basis of Descartes’ proof for God’s existence in Meditation 3. ) Second, Descartes is offering a broadly representational picture of how ideas might relate to reality. Ideas of particular objects ‘represent’ the world. This in turn has several consequences. (a) Ideas are different from things in the world.
(This already moves Descartes towards a broadly realist epistemology, and thus can be interestingly contrasted with the idealism of Berkeley. ) (b) Ideas (at least of secondary qualities) do not resemble the world: my idea or feeling of hunger (to take one of Descartes’ favorite examples) has no resemblance to whatever may be happening in my stomach, if I have a stomach. Because of this lack of resemblance, there is no intrinsic difference between an idea that does not correspond to a real world, and one that does. Without that intrinsic difference, Descartes is initially unable to trace his ideas of things back to their source. (The situation is more complicated in the case of primary qualities, however. Although my idea of a triangle is not triangular, nevertheless Descartes suggests it does have a relation of adequacy that ideas of secondary qualities often or always lack [see the beginning of Meditation 5].
) Issues of this type, as we shall see, lead Descartes to worry about the notion of innate ideas. (c) Finally, representation means that there are two different ways in which an idea can be ‘false’. First, it can represent real things falsely (as in the case of distant objects appearing smaller).
Second, it can represent as existing things that do not exist. Again, there is no intrinsic way of distinguishing between these cases. Our inability to distinguish between these two types of falsehood is what makes the dreaming and malevolent demon hypotheses so powerful.
For, if in any case I could so distinguish, then I would be able to eliminate some of the hypothetical sources of my ideas. Descartes’ concerns about the various modes of falseness return in his discussion of judgement and will, beginning in Meditation 3. Metaphorically speaking, we might say that this representational model of the relation between ideas and the world has placed Descartes ‘at a distance’ from his world, and made both possible and necessary the method of doubt. On Religion and Scripture Spinoza begins the treatise by alerting his readers, through a kind of ‘natural history of religion’, to just those superstitious beliefs and behaviors that clergy, by playing on ordinary human emotions, encourage in their followers.
A person guided by fear and hope, the main emotions in a life devoted to the pursuit of temporal advantages, turns, in the face of the vagaries of fortune, to behaviors calculated to secure the goods he desires. Thus, we pray, worship, make votive offerings, sacrifice and engage in all the various rituals of popular religion. But the emotions are as fleeting as the objects that occasion them, and thus the superstitions grounded in those emotions subject to fluctuations. Ambitious and self-serving clergy do their best to stabilize this situation and give some permanence to those beliefs and behaviors.
‘Immense efforts have been made to invest religion, true or false, with such pomp and ceremony that it can sustain any shock and constantly evoke the deepest reverence in all its worshippers.’ Religious leaders are generally abetted in their purposes by the civil authority, which threatens to punish all deviations from theological orthodoxy as ‘sedition’. The result is a state religion that has no rational foundations, a mere ‘respect for ecclesiastics’ that involves adulation and mysteries but no true worship of God. The solution to this state of affairs, Spinoza believes, is to examine the Bible anew and find the doctrines of the ‘true religion’. Only then will we be able to delimit exactly what we need to do to show proper respect for God and obtain blessedness.
This will reduce the sway that religious authorities have over our emotional, intellectual and physical lives, and reinstate a proper and healthy relationship between the state and religion. A close analysis of the Bible is particularly important for any argument that the freedom of philosophizing — essentially, freedom of thought and speech — is not prejudicial to piety. If it can be demonstrated that Scripture is not a source of ‘natural truth’, but the bearer of only a simple moral message (‘Love your neighbor’), then people will see that ‘faith is something separate from philosophy’. Spinoza intends to show that in that moral message alone — and not in Scripture’s words or history — lies the sacredness of what is otherwise merely a human document. The Bible teaches only ‘obedience [to God]’, not knowledge.
Thus, philosophy and religion, reason and faith, inhabit two distinct and exclusive spheres, and neither should tread in the domain of the other. The freedom to philosophize and speculate can therefore be granted without any harm to true religion. In fact, such freedom is essential to public peace and piety, since most civil disturbances arise from sectarian disputes. The real danger to the Republic comes from those who would worship not God, but some words on a page: ‘It will be said that, although God’s law is inscribed in our hearts, Scripture is nevertheless the Word of God, and it is no more permissible to say of Scripture that it is mutilated and contaminated than to say this of God’s Word. In reply, I have to say that such objectors are carrying their piety too far, and are turning religion into superstition; indeed, instead of God’s Word they are beginning to worship likenesses and images, that is, paper and ink.’ From a proper and informed reading of Scripture, a number of things become clear. First, the prophets were not men of exceptional intellectual talents — they were not, that is, naturally gifted philosophers — but simply very pious, even morally superior individuals endowed with vivid imaginations.
They were able to perceive God’s revelation through their imaginative faculties via words or real or imaginary figures. This is what allowed them to apprehend that which lies beyond the boundary of the intellect. Moreover, the content of a prophecy varied according to the physical temperament, imaginative powers, and particular opinions or prejudices of the prophet. It follows that prophecy, while it has its origins in the power of God — and in this respect it is, in Spinoza’s metaphysical scheme, no different from any other natural event — does not provide privileged knowledge of natural or spiritual phenomena.
The prophets are not necessarily to be trusted when it comes to matters of the intellect, on questions of philosophy, history or science; and their pronouncements set no parameters on what should or should not be believed about the natural world on the basis of our rational faculties. Spinoza provides an equally deflationary account of God’s election, or the ‘vocation’, of the Hebrews. It is ‘childish’, he insists, for anyone to base their happiness on the uniqueness of their gifts; in the case of the Jews, it would be the uniqueness of their being chosen among all people. The ancient Hebrews, in fact, did not surpass other nations in their wisdom or in their proximity to God. They were neither intellectually nor morally superior to other peoples. They were ‘chosen’ only with respect to their social organization and political good fortune.
God (or Nature) gave them a set of laws and they obeyed those laws, with the natural result that their society was well-ordered and their autonomous government persisted for a long time. Their election was thus a temporal and conditional one, and their kingdom is now long gone. Thus, ‘at the present time there is nothing whatsoever that the Jews can arrogate to themselves above other nations.’ Spinoza thereby rejects the particularism that many — including Amsterdam’s Sephardic rabbis — insisted was essential to Judaism. True piety and blessedness are universal in their scope and accessible to anyone, regardless of their confessional creed. Central to Spinoza’s analysis of the Jewish religion — although it is applicable to any religion whatsoever — is the distinction between the divine law and the ceremonial law. The law of God commands only the knowledge and love of God and the actions required for attaining that condition.
Such love must arise not from fear of possible penalties or hope for any rewards, but solely from the goodness of its object. The divine law does not demand any particular rites or ceremonies such as sacrifices or dietary restrictions or festival observances. The six hundred and thirteen precepts of the Torah have nothing to do with blessedness or virtue. They were directed only at the Hebrews so that they might govern themselves in an autonomous state. The ceremonial laws helped preserve their kingdom and insure its prosperity, but were valid only as long as that political entity lasted.
They are not binding on all Jews under all circumstances. They were, in fact, instituted by Moses for a purely practical reason: so that people might do their duty and not go their own way. This is true not just of the rites and practices of Judaism, but of the outer ceremonies of all religions. None of these activities have anything to do with true happiness or piety. They serve only to control people’s behavior and preserve a particular society. A similar practical function is served by stories of miracles.
Scripture speaks in a language suited to affect the imagination of ordinary people and compel their obedience. Rather than appealing to the natural and real causes of all events, its authors sometimes narrate things in a way calculated to move people — particularly uneducated people — to devotion. ‘If Scripture were to describe the downfall of an empire in the style adopted by political historians, the common people would not be stirred… .’ Strictly speaking, however, miracles — understood as divinely caused departures from the ordinary course of nature — are impossible. Every event, no matter how extraordinary, has a natural cause and explanation. ‘Nothing happens in nature that does not follow from her laws.’ This is simply a consequence of Spinoza’s metaphysical doctrines.
Miracles as traditionally conceived require a distinction between God and nature, something that Spinoza’s philosophy rules out in principle. Moreover, nature’s order is inviolable in so far as the sequence of events in nature is a necessary consequence of God’s attributes. There certainly are ‘miracles’ in the sense of events whose natural causes are unknown to us, and which we therefore attribute to the powers of a supernatural God. But this is, once again, to retreat to superstition, ‘the bitter enemy of all true knowledge and true morality’. By analyzing prophecy in terms of vividness of imagination, Jewish election as political fortune, the ceremonial law as a kind of social and political expediency, and the belief in miracles as an ignorance of nature’s necessary causal operations, Spinoza naturalizes (and, consequently, demystifies) some of the fundamental elements of Judaism and other religions and undermines the foundations of their external, superstitious rites.
At the same time, he thereby reduces the fundamental doctrine of piety to a simple and universal formula, naturalistic in itself, involving love and knowledge. This process of naturalization achieves its stunning climax when Spinoza turns to consider the authorship and interpretation of the Bible itself. Spinoza’s views on Scripture constitute, without question, the most radical theses of the Treatise, and explain why he was attacked with such vitriol by his contemporaries. Others before Spinoza had suggested that Moses was not the author of the entire Pentateuch. But no one had taken that claim to the extreme limit that Spinoza did, arguing for it with such boldness and at such length. Nor had anyone before Spinoza been willing to draw from it the conclusions about the status, meaning and interpretation of Scripture that Spinoza drew.
Spinoza denied that Moses wrote all, or even most of the Torah. The references in the Pentateuch to Moses in the third person; the narration of his death and, particularly, of events following his death; and the fact that some places are called by names that they did not bear in the time of Moses all ‘make it clear beyond a shadow of doubt’ that the writings commonly referred to as ‘the Five Books of Moses’ were, in fact, written by someone who lived many generations after Moses. Moses did, to be sure, compose some books of history and of law; and remnants of those long lost books can be found in the Pentateuch. But the Torah as we have it, as well as as other books of the Hebrew Bible (such as Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) were written neither by the individuals whose names they bear nor by any person appearing in them.
Spinoza believes that these were, in fact, all composed by a single historian living many generations after the events narrated, and that this was most likely Ezra. It was the post- leader who took the many writings that had come down to him and began weaving them into a single (but not seamless) narrative. Ezra’s work was later completed and supplemented by the editorial labors of others. What we now possess, then, is nothing but a compilation, and a rather mismanaged, haphazard and ‘mutilated’ one at that.
As for the books of the Prophets, they are of even later provenance, compiled (or ‘heaped together’, in Spinoza’s view) by a chronicler or scribe perhaps as late as the Second Temple period. Canonization into Scripture occurred only in the second century BCE, when the Pharisees selected a number of texts from a multitude of others. Because the process of transmission was a historical one, involving the conveyance of writings of human origin over a long period of time through numerous scribes, and because the decision to include some books but not others was made by fallible human beings, there are good reasons for believing that a significant portion of the text of the ‘Old Testament’ is corrupt. Now in 1670 there was nothing novel in claiming that Moses did not write all of the Torah. Spinoza’s most radical and innovative claim, in fact, was to argue that this holds great significance for how Scripture is to be read and interpreted. He was dismayed by the way in which Scripture itself was worshipped, by the reverence accorded to the words on the page rather than to the message they conveyed.
If the Bible is an historical (i. e. , natural) document, then it should be treated like any other work of nature. The study of Scripture, or Biblical hermeneutics, should therefore proceed as the study of nature, or natural science proceeds: by gathering and evaluating empirical data, that is, by examining the ‘book’ itself — along with the contextual conditions of its composition — for its general principles.
I hold that the method of interpreting Scripture is no different from the method of interpreting Nature, and is in fact in complete accord with it. For the method of interpreting Nature consists essentially in composing a detailed study of Nature from which, as being the source of our assured data, we can deduce the definitions of the things of Nature. Now in exactly the same way the task of Scriptural interpretation requires us to make a straightforward study of Scripture, and from this, as the source of our fixed data and principles, to deduce by logical inference the meaning of the authors of Scripture. In this way — that is, by allowing no other principles or data for the interpretation of Scripture and study of its contents except those that can be gathered only from Scripture itself and from a historical study of Scripture — steady progress can be made without any danger of error, and one can deal with matters that surpass our understanding with no less confidence than those matters that are known to us by the natural light of reason. Just as the knowledge of nature must be sought from nature alone, so must the knowledge of Scripture — an apprehension of its intended meaning — be sought from Scripture alone and through the appropriate exercise of rational inquiry. When properly interpreted, the universal message conveyed by Scripture is a simple moral one: ‘To know and love God, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself’.
This is the real word of God and the foundation of true piety, and it lies uncorrupted in a faulty, tampered and corrupt text. The lesson involves no metaphysical doctrines about God or nature, and requires no sophisticated training in philosophy. The object of Scripture is not to impart knowledge, but to compel obedience and regulate our conduct. ‘Scriptural doctrine contains not abstruse speculation or philosophic reasoning, but very simple matters able to be understood by the most sluggish mind.’ Spinoza claims, in fact, that a familiarity with Scripture is not even necessary for piety and blessedness, since its message can be known by our rational faculties alone, although with great difficulty for most people.
‘He who, while unacquainted with these writings, nevertheless knows by the natural light that there is a God having the attributes we have recounted, and who also pursues a true way of life, is altogether blessed.’ It follows that the only practical commandments that properly belong to religion are those that are necessary to carry out the moral precept and ‘confirm in our hearts the love of our neighbor’. ‘A catholic faith should therefore contain only those dogmas which obedience to God absolutely demands, and without which such obedience is absolutely impossible… these must all be directed to this one end: that there is a Supreme Being who loves justice and charity, whom all must obey in order to be saved, and must worship by practicing justice and charity to their neighbor.’ As for other dogmas, ‘every person should embrace those that he, being the best judge of himself, feels will do most to strengthen in him love of justice’. This is the heart of Spinoza’s case for toleration, for freedom of philosophizing and freedom of religious expression. By reducing the central message of Scripture — and the essential content of piety — to a simple moral maxim, one that is free of any superfluous speculative doctrines or ceremonial practices; and by freeing Scripture of the burden of having to communicate specific philosophical truths or of prescribing (or proscribing) a multitude of required behaviors, he has demonstrated both that philosophy is independent from religion and that the liberty of each individual to interpret religion as he wishes can be upheld without any detriment to piety. As to the question of what God, the exemplar of true life, really is, whether he is fire, or spirit, or light, or thought, or something else, this is irrelevant to faith.
And so likewise is the question as to why he is the exemplar of true life, whether this is because he has a just and merciful disposition, or because all things exist and act through him and consequently we, too, understand through him, and through him we see what is true, just and good. On these questions it matters not what beliefs a man holds. Nor, again, does it matter for faith whether one believes that God is omnipresent in essence or in potency, whether he directs everything from free will or from the necessity of his nature, whether he lays down laws as a rule or teaches them as being eternal truths, whether man obeys God from free will or from the necessity of the divine decree, whether the rewarding of the good and the punishing of the wicked is natural or supernatural. The view one takes on these and similar questions has no bearing on faith, provided that such a belief does not lead to the assumption of greater license to sin, or hinders submission to God.
Indeed… every person is in duty bound to adapt these religious dogmas to his own understanding and to interpret them for himself in whatever way makes him feel that he can the more readily accept them with full confidence and conviction. Faith and piety belong not to the person who has the most rational argument for the existence of God or the most thorough philosophical understanding of his attributes, but to the person ‘who best displays works of justice and charity’. God’s Existence Finally, we pause for a quick look at Hume’s views on religion. In his own time, he was often regarded as a great enemy of organized religion. The posthumously published Dialogues offer an extended treatment of the intellectual interchanges among facile orthodoxy, natural theology, and philosophical skepticism.
There Hume took great care to expose what he believed to be the great mistake of trying to prove that god exists. The newly-popular argument from design supposes that the order and beauty of the universe reflect the greatness and demonstrate the reality of its ultimate cause. Hume noted that since this analogical argument claims to infer a cause from presumed effects, it must be grounded as a matter of fact on the experience of a constant conjunction. But since in fact we have not observed repeated instances of gods creating universes, we cannot have formed the habit of associating our experience of the one with our inferences about the other.
No causal relationship can ever be established from the observation of a unique example. What is more, Hume argued that even if it were possible to engage in causal reasoning in this case, it could not warrant the intended conclusion. The presumed cause must always be supposed to be proportional to the observed effect, so the manifest imperfections of this world could never support belief in the perfection of its creator. The argument from design is a two-edged sword, as likely to persuade us of the frailty or malevolence as of the power and benevolence of the presumed cause of the world as we know it. MiraclesDescartes’ Ontological Argument Descartes’ ontological (or a priori) argument is both one of the most fascinating and poorly understood aspects of his philosophy. Fascination with the argument stems from the effort to prove God’s existence from simple but powerful premises.
Existence is derived immediately from the clear and distinct idea of a supremely perfect being. Ironically, the simplicity of the argument has also produced several misreadings, exacerbated in part by Descartes’ failure to formulate a single version. The main statement of the argument appears in the Fifth Meditation. This comes on the heels of an earlier causal argument for God’s existence in the Third Meditation, raising questions about the order and relation between these two distinct proofs. Descartes repeats the ontological argument in a few other central texts including the Principles of Philosophy. He also defends it in the First, Second, and Fifth Replies against scathing objections by some of the leading intellectuals of his day.
Descartes was not the first philosopher to formulate an ontological argument. An earlier version of the argument had been vigorously defended by St. Anselm in the eleventh century, and then criticized by a monk named Gau nilo (Anselm’s contemporary) and later by St. Thomas Aquinas (though his remarks were directed against yet another version of the argument).
Aquinas’ critique was regarded as so devastating that the ontological argument died out for several centuries.
It thus came as a surprise to Descartes’ contemporaries that he should attempt to resurrect it. Although he claims not to be familiar with Anselm’s version of the proof, Descartes appears to craft his own argument so as to block traditional objections. Despite similarities, Descartes’ version of the argument differs from Anselm’s in important ways. The latter’s version is thought to proceed from the meaning of the word ‘God,’ by definition, God is a being a greater than which cannot be conceived. Descartes’ argument, in contrast, is grounded in two central tenets of his philosophy — the theory of innate ideas and the doctrine of clear and distinct perception. He purports not to rely on an arbitrary definition of God but rather on an innate idea whose content is ‘given.’ Descartes’ version is also extremely simple.
God’s existence is inferred directly from the fact that necessary existence is contained in the clear and distinct idea of a supremely perfect being. Indeed, on some occasions he suggests that the so-called ontological ‘argument’ is not a formal proof at all but a self-evident axiom grasped intuitively by a mind free of philosophical prejudice. Descartes often compares the ontological argument to a geometric demonstration, arguing that necessary existence cannot be excluded from idea of God anymore than the fact that its angles equal two right angles, for example, can be excluded from the idea of a triangle. The analogy underscores once again the argument’s supreme simplicity. God’s existence is purported to be as obvious and self-evident as the most basic mathematical truth. It also attempts to show how the ‘logic’ of the demonstration is rooted in our ordinary reasoning practices.
In the same context, Descartes also characterizes the ontological argument as a proof from the ‘essence’ or ‘nature’ of God, arguing that necessary existence cannot be separated from the essence of a supremely perfect being without contradiction. In casting the argument in these terms, he is implicitly relying on a traditional medieval distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence. According to this tradition, one can determine what something is (i. e. its essence), independently of knowing whether it exists. This distinction appears useful to Descartes’ aims, some have thought, because it allows him to specify God’s essence without begging the question of his existence.
o 1. The Simplicity of the ‘Argument’ o 2. The Distinction between Essence and Existence o 3. Objections and Replies o Bibliography o Other Internet Resources o Related Entries 1.
The Simplicity of the ‘Argument ” One of the hallmarks of Descartes’ version of the ontological argument is its simplicity. Indeed, it reads more like the report of an intuition than a formal proof. Descartes underscores the simplicity of his demonstration by comparing it to the way we ordinarily establish very basic truths in arithmetic and geometry, such as that the number two is even or that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to the sum of two right angles. We intuit such truths directly by inspecting our clear and distinct ideas of the number two and of a triangle.
So, likewise, we are able to attain knowledge of God’s existence simply by apprehending that necessary existence is included in the clear and distinct idea of a supremely perfect being. As Descartes writes in the Fifth Meditation:  But if the mere fact that I can produce from my thought the idea of something entails that everything which I clearly and distinctly perceive to belong to that thing really does belong to it, is not this a possible basis for another argument to prove the existence of God? Certainly, the idea of God, or a supremely perfect being, is one that I find within me just as surely as the idea of any shape or number. And my understanding that it belongs to his nature that he always exists is no less clear and distinct than is the case when I prove of any shape or number that some property belongs to its nature (AT 7: 65; CSM 2: 45).
One is easily misled by the analogy between the ontological argument and a geometric demonstration, and by the language of ‘proof’ in this passage and others like it. Descartes does not conceive the ontological argument on the model of an Euclidean or axiomatic proof, in which theorems are derived from epistemically prior axioms and definitions. On the contrary, he is drawing our attention to another method of establishing truths that informs our ordinary practices and is non-discursive.
This method employs intuition or, what is the same for Descartes, clear and distinct perception. It consists in unveiling the contents of our clear and distinct ideas. The basis for this method is the rule for truth, which was previously established in the Fourth Meditation. According to the version of this rule invoked in the Fifth Meditation, whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing. So if I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence pertains to the idea of a supremely perfect being, then such a being truly exists. Although Descartes maintains that God’s existence is ultimately known through intuition, he is not averse to presenting formal versions of the ontological argument.
He never forgets that he is writing for a seventeenth-century audience, steeped in scholastic logic, that would have expected to be engaged at the level of the Aristotelian syllogism. Descartes satisfies such expectations, presenting not one but at least two separate versions of the ontological argument. These proofs, however, are stunningly brief and betray his true intentions. One version of the argument simply codifies the psychological process by which one intuits God’s existence, in the manner described above: Version A: 1. Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.
2. I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God. 3. Therefore, God exists. The rule for truth appears here in the guise of the first premise, but it is more naturally read as a statement of Descartes’ own alternative method of ‘demonstration’ via clear and distinct perception or intuition.
In effect, the first ‘premise’ is designed to instruct the meditator on how to apply this method, the same role that the analogy with a geometric demonstration serves in passage . When presenting this version of the argument in the First Replies, Descartes sets aside this first premise and focuses our attention on the second. In so doing, he is indicating the relative unimportance of the proof itself. Having learned how to apply Descartes’ alternative method of reasoning, one need only perceive that necessary existence pertains to the idea of a supremely perfect being. Once one attains this perception, formal arguments are no longer required; God’s existence will be self-evident (Second Replies, Fifth Postulate; AT 7: 163-4; CSM 2: 115).
Descartes sometimes uses traditional arguments as heuristic devices, not merely to appease a scholastically trained audience but to help induce clear and distinct perceptions.
This is evident for example in the version of the ontological argument standard ly associated with his name: Version B: 1. I have an idea of supremely perfect being, i. e. a being having all perfections. 2. Necessary existence is a perfection.
3. Therefore, a supremely perfect being exists. While this set of sentences has the surface structure of a formal argument, its persuasive force lies at a different level. A meditator who is having trouble perceiving that necessary existence is contained in the idea of a supreme perfect being can attain this perception indirectly by first recognizing that this idea includes every perfection. Indeed, the idea of a supremely perfect being just is the idea of a being having all perfections. To attempt to exclude any or all perfections from the idea of a supremely being, Descartes observes, involves one in a contradiction and is akin to conceiving a mountain without a valley (or, better, an up-slope without a down-slope).
Having formed this perception, one need only intuit that necessary existence is itself a perfection. It will then be clear that necessary existence is one of the attributes included in the idea of a supremely perfect being. While such considerations might suffice to induce the requisite clear and distinct perception in the meditator, Descartes is aiming a deeper point, namely that there is a conceptual link between necessary existence and each of the other divine perfections. It is important to recall that in the Third Meditation, in the midst of the causal argument for the existence of God, the meditator already discovered many of these perfections — omnipotence, omniscience, immutability, externality, simplicity, etc. Because our mind is finite, we normally think of the divine perfections separately and ‘hence may not immediately notice the necessity of their being joined together’ (First Replies, AT 7: 119; CSM 2: 85).
But if we attend carefully to ‘whether existence belongs to a supremely perfect being, and what sort of existence it is’ we shall discover that we cannot conceive any one of the other attributes while excluding necessary existence from it (ibid.
To illustrate this point Descartes appeals to divine omnipotence. He thinks that we cannot conceive an omnipotent being except as existing. Descartes’ illustration presupposes the traditional, medieval understanding of ‘necessary existence.’ When speaking of this divine attribute, he sometimes uses the term ‘existence’ as shorthand. But in his more careful pronouncements he always insists on the phrase ‘necessary and eternal existence,’ which resonates with tradition.
Medieval, scholastic philosophers often spoke of God as the sole ‘necessary being,’ by which they meant a being who depends only on himself for his existence (a se esse).
This is the notion of ‘aseity’ or self-existence. Since such a being does not depend on anything else for its existence, he has neither a beginning nor an end, but is eternal. Returning to the discussion in the First Replies, one can see how omnipotence is linked conceptually to necessary existence in this traditional sense.
An omnipotent or all-powerful being does not depend ontologically on anything (for if it did then it would not be omnipotent).
It exists by its own power:  when we attend to immense power of this being, we shall be unable to think of its existence as possible without also recognizing that it can exist by its own power; and we shall infer from this that this being does really exist and has existed from eternity, since it is quite evident by the natural light that what can exist by its own power always exists. So we shall come to understand that necessary existence is contained in the idea of a supremely perfect being… (ibid. ) Some readers have thought that Descartes offers yet a third version of the ontological argument in this passage (Wilson, 1978, 174-76), but whether or not that was his intention is unimportant, since his primary aim, as indicated in the last line, is to enable his meditator to.