Type: Definition Essays
Sample donated: June Wong
Last updated: December 23, 2019
1.) Descartes’ criterion for truth in the Meditations aims to unambiguously establish that which is perceived clearly and truly to be real. The criterion of truth states that all information, and therefore knowledge, is received through the mind by chains of logical inferences derived from irrefutable premises. Secondly, something is true and real if and only if it is in proper relation to other beliefs by appeal to deductive reasoning.
Therefore, we have a distinct and clear perception of something if and only if when we consider it, we cannot doubt it to be true. In Meditation III, Descartes defends this criterion by arguing that he is absolutely certain that he is a thinking and perceiving being because he can distinctly and clearly observe this phenomenon. Conversely, he would not be certain of that fact if all of the distinct and clear perceptions leading to the certainty were not present. Therefore, he can safely conclude that he is a thinking and perceiving being. Descartes also provides an example contemplating the nature and existence of God in order to reinforce his criterion.
This argument is Descartes’ ontological argument. Either way, both the self-reflective justification for the criterion, and Descartes’ ontological justification for the criterion suffer from vicious circularity. For the purpose of this question, I will focus on discussing the vicious circularity of the former, (as the latter is discussed in the second question). Descartes’ personal example of “I think, therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum) is an example of circular reasoning as “I think” presupposes the conclusion of the argument, that “I am”. Even more so, Descartes seems to be ambiguous in his phrasing as he fails to adequately distinguish between the experiencer and the experience itself, take for example what we have experienced (I am) which actually is not the true reality behind the self, (I). By this same token, this utilization of ‘I’ seemingly implies that our personal view on the world is the reality, as if it were singular, however in reality this cannot be, at least not given the premises that Descartes has provided us in his argument for the criterion. However, at the same time, I believe that Descartes might have been on to something, because if ‘I think’, ‘I’ therefore must actually exist. And, I must be that thing, as I am currently thinking.
This rephrasing of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum seems to amend the vicious circular reasoning and prevent the logic from being critically exploited. As a result, this reading of his famous quote does in fact make it clear and distinct. Consequently, I am confused about whether the burden of distinguishing whether Descartes’ logic in his argument is valid lies on the author or the reader.
I believe that the misunderstanding lies in the ambiguity and depends completely on the first-person experience of the reader. I can personally see both sides of the argument and I believe it ultimately comes down to the fact that all logical statements in this form that Descartes has provided (cogito ergo sum) rely on circular statements to create a logical and coherent argument from beginning to end. Descartes nevertheless does not fail to establish his criterion and, for the most part, clearly argue his point, at least from one interpretation that ignores the vicious circular reasoning.2.) Descartes utilizes two arguments in his Meditations to prove the existence of God in order to provide irrefutable evidence for the cause of our clear and distinct perceptions, to reaffirm that there could be no deceiver creating a false reality.
Descartes firstly utilizes the ontological argument then follows it up with a second more complex argument concerning itself with two sorts of reality, formal and objective. Formal reality is how real something is in relation to itself, reality that is intrinsic to itself, or in virtue of itself. For example, an an earthworm possesses formal reality because it actually exists. However, a unicorn also possesses formal reality because despite it not being an actual existing thing, when a mind actively thinks of it, it is really existing in the mind as a real concept, so the idea does have formal reality, just as the idea of the earthworm has formal reality. To Descartes, there are three different kinds of reality: infinite, finite, and modal. The reality of an infinite substance is greatest, with finite following, and then modal. By this logic, a mode’s formal reality depends on the formal reality of a finite substance, which gains its formal reality from an infinite substance.
Therefore a mode is less real than a finite substance which is still less real than an infinite substance. According to Descartes, God is the only thing with infinite formal reality according to Descartes, and all other substances have finite formal reality. The objective reality of a thing is the type of reality a substance possesses in relation to it being a representation of something. Taking that the idea of the earthworm and the idea of a unicorns represent things to the mind. Objective reality is how an idea represents itself to the mind, a collection of things that exist separately of humans and do not depend on our understanding to exist, yet every human is able to comprehend every aspect of the objective reality of a principle. For example, Triangularity and Equality are both principles that are able to be understood by all, in theory, and are every-present and always true. Similarly, there are also three levels of objective reality that are the exact same as formal reality, and the amount of objective reality a substance has is directly determined by how much formal reality the substance possesses based on our mind’s interpretation of it. Descartes starts off the argument by claiming that all humans have an idea of God’s infinite formal reality, and this is inborn and innate.
Because God has infinite formal reality, He must also have infinite objective reality. Due to this, Descartes reasons that since something cannot come from nothing: there must be as much reality in a cause of something as in the effect of the same thing, therefore, there must be as much formal reality in the cause of an idea as there is objective reality in the same idea. Since we have an idea of a being with infinite formal reality, there must be some higher power that caused this idea, a being with infinite formal reality, God. Therefore, Descartes concludes that God must exist. Descartes’ argument is valid but unsound because one of the premises is flawed. Descartes claims in his last premise that we have an idea of God in our soul, and uses this in order to prove that God exists, yet he fails to give a clear enough account of what the “idea of God” really entails.
For example, earthworms have definite shape, size and color that I can imagine when I think of, however we have no idea or image of God, we are incapable of conceiving of him. There is seemingly no idea of God that is inborn in all of us, there is no one singular idea that everyone has of God, the closest we can get is tracing all causes back to one cause that has no traceable cause. This is the only evidence we have for God, and it is weak. Descartes fails to provide sufficient evidence for this premise which makes it unpersuasive to me.
Additionally, Descartes utilizes circular reasoning in proving his argument; he uses the ‘existence of God’ in order to prove clear and distinct perceptions, yet uses the ‘existence of clear and distinct perceptions’ to prove the existence of God, the contradiction here is evident and cannot be ignored.3.) Hume discusses a “new science of man” in this introduction of his Treatise of Human Nature. This new science of man essentially aims to understand and explain the human mind and all of our reasoning, including our morals, tastes, ideas, and opinions. Hume feels that comprehension of these aspects of the human are imperative in order to fully understand all of the other disciplines we aim to learn about, such as mathematics, philosophy, politics, and biology.
This is because all rely on how we can interpret them, basically our basic understanding of them. Upon examining many of the facets of human nature: ideas, imagination, morals, and emotions; Hume asserts that a new and improved foundation will be established, one in which we have a near total understanding of the inner machinations of our minds and thus we will have a more complete understanding of all the other disciplines, and one that can actually hold its water. This is what Hume means when he emphasizes “built on a foundation almost entirely new” (xvi). This science of man was based on recording observable behavior, yet it went much deeper than this as it aimed to attempt to answer fundamental questions about society and morality. This science of man undoubtedly represents a naturalist approach to the study of man. This is because it follows the assumption that the world is operated totally by natural and observable forces, (nothing supernatural exists) which is the way of thinking of a naturalist. Hume also suggests using the scientific method in order to examine the human psyche which adheres to naturalism.
Also, in order to actually conduct the scientific method on the science of man, Hume assumes all other sciences are faulted since the fundamental base (the science of man) has not been proven yet, which is a very methodical and precise method of undertaking the process. A naturalist would approve of this since it sets out to learn that which nature really is, testing hypotheses in order to find out natural causes of events: the naturalistic method. One major problem with Hume’s naturalism is that it fundamentally rejects the theory of human free will or autonomy since he claims that humans have ‘natural beliefs’ that are innate in all humans and have been there since even before our existence. Even more troubling to the question of free will, Hume seems to think that human actions are no different than any other type of action in nature, having necessary natural causes and effects. For example, we as humans have knowledge and understanding of the actions of people in the past and present, referred to as determinism; and we make assumptions, that people’s behavior will remain consistent. Given this, it seems that there is some universal governing force or nature in humans that is common to all that allows this understanding and similarities in people. If so, it seems that there are necessary human causes and effects, which looks bleak for any chance of free will existing. On the other hand, a possible redemption for Hume in the possibility for free will lies in his definition of ‘liberty.
‘ Hume defines liberty as: within the confines of the universal power, the choice to act or not to act. Moreover, there is a chance that there is free will under Hume, however, he makes a very strong and convincing argument against free will, or at least how we understand our free will to be. According to Hume it seems to be a binary, either we choose to act, or we choose not to act. However, we cannot choose what this action is. Consequently, there seems to be a much stronger case that there is no free will in Hume’s naturalism. 4.) Hume identifies ideas and impressions as two different entities in his Treatise of Human Nature. According to Hume, impressions are lively and vivid perceptions that are taken from personal experience.
Ideas, on the other hand, are taken from memory and are thus less vivid and less real as a consequence. Every simple idea has a corresponding simple impression because every simple idea arises as a result of a simple impression. The most basic way to determine whether a perception is an impression or idea is to analyze the root of the perception. According to Hume impressions comprehend “all our more lively perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or will.” (Hume). There are also simple impressions, and complex impressions, and Hume highlights the distinctions between the two. Simple impressions are the most basic building blocks of all cognitive activities and experiences, for example, basic shapes, such as: triangles or squares; or basic colors, such as: red or blue, and basic sense perceptions, such as certain tastes, such as: sweet or spicy.
Complex impressions are more specific, for example: the shape, color, and taste of an apple. Therefore, a seemingly fair way to categorize the two is that simple impressions are individual traits, and complex impressions are the composition of a substance as a whole, as we perceive it in the physical world. As a result, every complex impression is the composition of two or more simple impressions due to it being a composition, the same way that an apple as we perceive it is merely a composition of all of its traits. Likewise, ideas can also be simple or complex. Simple ideas are duller copies of the simple impressions from which they are ultimately derived and to which they perfectly correspond. So, they cannot be broken down into any simpler parts. They are usually observed by one sense, however there are exceptions, such as motion, which can be felt and seen. For example, a simple idea is the color white, a horse, or a horn, none of these concepts can be broken down into simpler substances that we can identify.
Whereas a complex idea is a composition of simple ideas bundled together, or ideas of relations between objects, such as one object being smaller/taller than another. Another example of a complex idea is the idea of God. This is problematic however because these complex ideas do not directly correspond to anything in our sense faculty, yet logically they should have to because all complex ideas are assimilations of simple ideas that come from impressions that are observed through the senses in the first place. For God, no such physical experience or experience can be presented.
Hume argues that without possessing the necessary experience, a human cannot have an idea of the experience, because he/she has no corresponding impression of the experience. Take Hume’s ‘missing shade of blue’ example (p.6) which states that if someone has seen all the shades of blue except for one, and all the previously seen colors are laid out on a spectrum in front of him/her, then by using the imagination, he/she will be able to form an idea of the color without ever having really perceived it. This is an exception to Hume’s statement that all simple ideas are copies of simple impressions, because the missing shade of blue can be imagined as an idea without having a corresponding impression. Hume dismisses this example as unimportant and trivial, however in reality is is absolutely critical in reassessing Hume’s entire outlook in analyzing human nature. It simply cannot be ignored. If we can form an idea of a color without deriving it from an impression then it is not impossible to imagine that we can form other ideas this same way, without having a previous impression.
This is essential because in his Treatise, Hume utilizes his previously established relationship of impressions and ideas to reject the self and how we perceive the world (skepticism). Yet, now if we do not need an impression of a shade of blue in order to have an idea of it through the mind, then perhaps we do not need impressions in our assessment of the self or God. Until Hume’s principle of this relationship is amended or utilized in a different way to disprove the ‘missing shade of blue’ example (p.6), then the basis of his entire argument has fallen apart.
Therefore, Hume absolutely must rethink the rule especially due to his ‘missing shade of blue’ example.