Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy 8


On Truth and Falsehood or rather, on Correctness and Error in Judgement—The Fourth Meditation

On Truth and Falsehood or rather, on Correctness and Error in Judgement1—The Fourth Meditation

The Fourth Meditation marks a transition in Descartes’ Meditations as a whole—a transition from an apparently exclusive concern with the epistemological issue of how he can have certain empirical and mathematical knowledge (Meditations One, Two and Three) to the introduction and discussion of explicitly ‘metaphysical’ issues (Meditations Five and Six, in which Descartes introduces what is, notwithstanding his retention of the first-person, meditational literary from, his own official metaphysical framework). In this transitional spirit, it begins by stating Descartes’ own official position on what is truly knowable, what true knowing is and what the role of the senses (perceptual experience) in true knowing is.

Thus, Descartes begins by re-iterating his conviction that the true vehicle and site of knowing is the mind, which is therefore best able to know when it does not naively trust the senses but rather keeps them firmly under control. As the wax example illustrates, what is truly knowable about empirical reality is its character as conforming to general, mathematically expressible causal law, and this character is something fundamentally grasped by the mind. The senses are naturally essential if one is to make the empirical observations required for discovering such law but this role needs to be understood and undertaken properly: it is essential for the mind to work from a very rich theoretical conception of empirical reality which permits the mind to make a clear distinction between genuinely relevant (clear and distinct) empirical evidence and the white noise which perceptual experience invariably brings with it.

What Descartes is getting at here has come to be known as the hypo-deductive conception of empirical inquiry: one starts with a strong and powerful hypothesis which, because it implicitly involves certain very general assumptions about the nature of empirical reality, instructs one how to set up and interpret the results of experiments. Thus, all scientific experimentation is guided by the very deep and general assumption that individual causal processes take place in relative isolation from wider contexts: no structural engineer would ever wonder whether the outcome of experimental efforts to ascertain the load-bearing capacity of a certain design might be affected by his having eaten McDonalds for lunch. And it is guided by the very deep and general assumption that certain features of the specific experimental situation are similarly irrelevant, hence can be abstracted from, e.g., the fact that the metal structure under test has been coated with a rust-preventative paint. Similarly, experiment is guided by the very general assumption that similar things have similar effects: if two things could only have the same effects if they were themselves exactly the same, then one could only get useful results from the repetition of experiments if one did today exactly the kind of thing one had done yesterday. But this would make experiment practically impossible. Finally, experiment is guided by the very deep assumption not only that certain features may be ignored as playing no causal role in the outcome of experiment, but that the causal role actually played by certain features may be discounted or abstracted from. Thus, in his experiments to determine the mathematical relations governing free fall and straight line motion, Galileo idealised away from, hence discounted, the role of air resistance and surface friction.2

Now as Descartes sees things, this emphasis on the leading, steering role played by one’s mind when one is attempting to know empirical reality entails the general conclusion of the Second Meditation, namely, that the contents of the mind are better known than the empirical things lying beyond it. By this, Descartes does not mean that we know the mind and its contents first and only then come to know empirical things, for of course the temporal order here is precisely the opposite. Rather he means that, when we turn our attention towards the contents of the mind, the fact that we have such and such contents is known to us with a degree of certainty and indubitability not possessed by facts concerning outer, empirical things. Now by the end of the Third Meditation, Descartes feels that he may add to this a further conclusion, one which is absolutely decisive for his capacity genuinely to know, with sufficient or complete justification, empirical things: precisely because he knows his own mind so well, he also knows much about God. For indeed, knowledge of one’s own mind essentially and directly insinuates knowledge of God: Descartes claims that he has “a much more distinct idea of the human mind, insofar as it is thinking thing, is not extended in length, breadth and depth, and includes in itself nothing that is physical—than of any physical thing.” (p.44) And his knowledge of himself as a thinking thing proceeds, as a result of his methodological resolve not to make use of anything ‘dubitable’, from his certain knowledge of himself as doubting. But, he says,

When I consider that I doubt or that I am an incomplete and dependent thing, a clear and distinct idea occurs to me of a complete and independent being, that is, of God. And from the fact alone that I have this idea or that I exist while having this idea, I conclude so clearly that God also exists and that each moment of my whole existence depends on him that I do not think that anything can be known by human intelligence more evidently or more clearly. I now seem to see a way by which knowledge of other things can be reached from this contemplation of the true God in whom are hidden all the treasures of the sciences and of wisdom. (p.44)

Here we see most clearly Descartes’ conviction that to grasp himself as a thinking thing just is, when understood properly, to grasp himself as something engaged in a limited, finite version of what is done by God. So the existence of God must be no more or less certain to him than his own existence as thinking is. Here, too, we see that for Descartes to understand oneself is to understand oneself as something finite existing in essential relation to something infinite upon which one depends for one’s very possibility (as a knowing being).

This permits Descartes to conclude that he has overcome the problem of the possibility of an evil mind who is radically deceiving him. Included in the knowledge of God he has now acquired is, he claims, the realisation that

it is impossible that God would ever deceive me. All deception or fraud involves some imperfection, and although being able to deceive seems to be some kind of evidence in favour of cleverness or power, it is undoubtedly true that the wish to deceive is evidence of malice or foolishness and therefore it cannot belong to God. (p.44)

How can Descartes say this? In discussing the Third Meditation I granted Descartes, for the sake of the argument, his claim that his idea of God had to have, because of its maximal intentional reality, an infinite cause. I pointed out, however, that it does not follow from this that the infinite cause must be God. Why could it not be a supremely powerful evil mind? This objection is telling against Descartes’ proof if indeed, as is surely the case, the proof licenses Descartes at most to the claim that the cause of his idea of God is an infinite one (which, precisely because it is infinite, i.e., has infinite formal reality, cannot be he, Descartes himself). But Descartes does not regard the conclusion of his proof as merely this and here, in the opening lines of the Fourth Meditation he intimates why: the proof in the Third Meditation is understood by Descartes to involve his reflecting on his character as thinking and coming to understand that his thinking is essentially, is to be understood as, a limited version of something the cause of his idea of God does. And since thinking is an activity subject to evaluative criteria of right and worry, correct and incorrect, valid and invalid, the infinitude of these properties consists in their being done perfectly. The infinite cause of his idea of God is thus something which thinks perfectly. The same applies for all other activities of which Descartes is capable in virtue of his status as a thinking thing. And so it seems to Descartes that the infinite cause of his idea of God is a perfect being—precisely the object of this idea, namely, God Himself.3 And if this is so , then Descartes cannot be subject to the trickery of an evil mind.

But just this creates a serious problem for Descartes, a problem which it is one crucial goal of the Fourth Meditation to address. Descartes notes that the faculty of judgement which he knows himself with certainty to possess must be regarded as something which, “just like everything else that is in me, I received from God.” (p.44) But God would not, indeed could not wish that he, Descartes, make any erroneous knowledge-claim. So Descartes knows with certainty that at the very least God “did not give me a faculty such that, when I use it correctly, I could ever be mistaken.” (p.44) But if this much is so, then why would not God have gone further and ensured that I had a faculty of claiming knowledge which could never go wrong (and not merely only when Descartes uses it incorrectly)? “(I)t seems to follow,” Descartes says,

that I can never be mistaken, for if everything I possess comes from God and if he did not give me a faculty for making mistakes, it seems as if I could never be wrong about anything. And thus, as long as I think only about God and focus completely on him, I find no cause of error or falsehood in myself. (pp.44-45)

It seems as if Descartes’ proof and knowledge of the existence of God is too good to be true since it seems to entail a clear falsehood, namely, that he should never be able to make errors of judgement at all.

The problem Descartes confronts here might be described as a cognitive or epistemic version of the ancient theological problem of evil: if God is the all-powerful author of our being, how could it be so much as possible for us to do evil since God surely would have wanted us not to do evil? On the face of it, it seems possible to respond to Descartes’ new theological problem of (cognitive) error as follows:

(A)s soon as I turn back to myself, … I find that I am subject to innumerable errors. When I look for a cause of these errors, I find that I have not only a real and positive idea of God or of a supremely perfect being but I also have, if I may so describe it, a certain negative idea of nothingness or of what is removed as far as possible from every perfection; and I am like some kind of intermediate being between God and nothingness, or I am so constituted between the supreme being and non-being that, insofar as I was created by the supreme being, there is nothing in me by which I can be mistaken or led into error, but insofar as I also participate in some way in nothingness or in non-being—that is, insofar as I myself am not the supreme being and I lack so many things—it is not surprising, then, if I make mistakes. Thus I certainly recognize that error as such is not something real that depends on God but is merely a defect; therefore, in order to be mistaken, I do not need some faculty that God gave me for that purpose but I happen to make mistakes by the mere fact that the faculty of judging truly, which I got from God, is not infinite. (p.45)

Clearly, this is an unsatisfactory response. What, after all, does it mean to say that I am an intermediate being between God and nothingness, if not simply that I am a being which, unlike God, is not perfectly able to avoid mistakes? And so the original question repeats itself: Why could not God have made me perfectly and completely able to avoid mistakes? The issue here is not addressed by pointing out that, strictly speaking, the tendency to make mistakes is not a faculty in its own right but a deficiency or defect in a faculty, namely, the faculty of correct, non-erroneous judgement.

Descartes appreciates this, of course. Thus, he says that this response does not satisfy him completely. “(E)rror is not,” he says, “a pure negation … .” (p.45) That is, it is not to be defined in solely negative terms as that which distinguishes his cognitive performance from the perfect cognitive performance of God. We need to know what error positively is. In quite general terms, it is, of course, to be characterised as precisely a defect in a certain capacity about which one can ask why God should have given me this capacity with this defect in it. Error, says Descartes,

is a privation or lack of some knowledge that somehow I should have. And when I consider the nature of God it does not seem possible that he gave me some faculty that is not perfect in its own right or that lacks some perfection that it should have. If it is true that artisans who are more skilled produce more perfect artifacts, what could have been made by the supreme creator of everything that would not be complete in every way? There is also no doubt that God could have created me so that I am not mistaken, nor is there any doubt either that he always wills what is best. Therefore, is it better for me to be mistaken rather than not mistaken? (p.45)

At this point, right at the bottom of p.45 across to the top of p.46, Descartes seems to dodge the issue by appealing to his weakness and finitude in comparison to God, which renders it unsurprising that there are many things about his own created self and God’s intentions in creating which he cannot understand. But in fact, Descartes has a hidden agenda here: once again, he is taking the opportunity to attack pre-modern, Aristotelian natural philosophy. Note what he says here: because there are innumerable things he does not know the causes4 of, “(f)or this reason alone, I think there is no role in physics for that whole class of causes which are usually sought in purposes, because I think that I cannot investigate God’s purposes without temerity.15” (p.46) As Clarke points out in his note to this sentence (note 15, p.205), Descartes is here attacking Aristotelian notions of final cause, i.e., purpose, as something one can usefully appeal to in the explanation of empirical phenomena.5 According to Aristotle and pre-modern natural philosophy there are purposes in nature which genuinely explain why certain things happen. In particular, animals and plants are understood by Aristotle to be centres of self-organising activity which are oriented towards a certain endpoint, e.g., full adult maturity and the various activities associated with this, e.g., reproduction. The fact that animals and plants are thus teleologically oriented towards a goal is, thinks Aristotle, a perfectly good way of explaining the physiological development of organic beings. Telos is the Greek work for ‘goal’ or ‘end’ and according to Aristotle one can explain much of what occurs in the animal and plant kingdom by claiming that various events happen in an animal’s or plants life because these facilitate the overriding purpose which defines the organism’s existence and its nature.

Descartes and his scientifically minded contemporaries spent much time attacking such key elements of pre-modern, Scholastic natural philosophy. Thereby they created the modern usage and understanding of the term ‘cause’: for most of us today the term ‘cause’ is restricted entirely to what Aristotle would regard as merely a specific type or kind of cause, namely, what he would call an efficient cause. A is the efficient cause of B when A is a separate entity or event which makes another separate entity or event B occur. Descartes and many of his contemporaries thought that explanations in terms of final causes were spurious. It is, they thought, quite empty and circular to attempt to explain why, say, plants grow towards the light by postulating a purpose to derive nutrition by photosynthesis. Their attitude is like that of the more or less contemporary French playwright Molière, who sarcastically has one of his characters, Monsieur Jordan, explain why opium makes one sleepy by saying that opium has a dormative power.

Another case of Descartes taking a swing at pre-modern notions is his rejection of the idea that ideas in the head are essentially such as to resemble their causes. Thereby he rejects the older, pre-modern tendency to construe truth in terms of picturing, i.e., the tendency exhibited by much mediaeval thinking to think of beliefs in the head and linguistic statements as images (imagines) whose truth or falsity consists in their succeeding or failing to succeed in picturing certain objects accurately. Descartes repeatedly attacks this view because it entails that the senses get at how things really are, whereas he recommends what he regards as the more modern, Galilean view that in nature the level at which the real causes of what things are what they are is to be found at the corpuscular level—what we today would call the molecular, atomic and indeed sub-atomic level. This is where the real causal action takes play, that is, the causal action which determines all material events across time. And of course reality at this level looks nothing look what it looks like at the level of ordinary sense perception. So the idea of a true belief or statement as picturing empirical reality represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic ontological nature of empirical reality.6 For of course a sentence does not necessarily resemble in any way the state of affairs it represents as obtaining.

But after this side-swipe (which further indicates the character of the Meditations as an attempt to justify a Galilean approach in natural philosophy), Descartes next makes an observation about how one might regard the perfection of a thing, not as something it possesses in isolation but rather as part of a system of being: “(A)lthough something may perhaps rightly seem to be very imperfect when it is considered in isolation, it is very perfect when considered as part or the world.” (p.46) So perhaps God gave him, Descartes, the fallible human being, a capacity for correct judgement which occasionally goes astray for larger systemic reasons: while imperfect in itself, this capacity for occasional error serves a larger purpose, hence is actually a perfection when viewed in the larger scheme of things. Unfortunately, Descartes does not tell us what this larger scheme of things is and perhaps he may not since he has just debarred himself from speaking about purposes when attempting to explain why things are as they are in empirical reality, i.e., the world. So Descartes cannot solve his problem of accounting for why he occasionally makes mistakes in this way.

He is thus forced to look more closely at what it is to make errors in cognition. To this end, he sets out to examine more closely what kind of mistakes he makes. He notes that error arises from the cooperation of two faculties or capacities: errors depend, he says,

on two causes acting simultaneously, namely on the faculty of knowing, which I have, and on the faculty of choosing or on freedom of the will—in other words, on the intellect and will together. By using the intellect I merely perceive the ideas about which I can make a judgement, and this can contain no error in the strict sense when it is considered precisely from this point of view. There may exist innumerable things of which I have no idea, but I should be described simply as lacking them in a negative sense rather than as being deprived of them in any strict sense, because I cannot think of any reason to show that God ought to have given me a superior faculty of knowing than the one he gave me. And no matter how skilled I think an artisan may be, I do not think for that reason that they have to put all the perfections into each individual item of work that they are capable of putting into others. (p.46)

By the will, Descartes means a capacity to make reasoned decisions either to act or indeed to believe. This is why he makes the at first sight odd claim that, strictly speaking, the intellect cannot contain error: Descartes means that the intellect, insofar as it is understood simply as that capacity he has simply for serving up to his will knowledge-claims for decision, cannot involve error. He is not saying that the intellect, thus considered, does not deliver up false beliefs or unveridical perceptual experiences. But one must distinguish mere falsity of belief from erroneous belief in the strict sense. An erroneous belief is typically7 a false belief but, given the strict and indeed precise meaning Descartes is giving the notion of error, a false belief is not eo ipso an erroneous belief. To make an error or mistake is either actually to decide, or at least to be inclined to decide, that a certain belief or statement is true, a certain perceptual experience veridical, when this belief or statement is in fact false, the perceptual experience in fact non-veridical. As such, making an error involves the will, hence involves more than the operation of the intellect. It now follows trivially that the intellect, considered simply by or in itself, cannot contain error (although it can contain falsity and non-veridicality).

Now Descartes points out, rightly, I think, that when one understands the intellect in this way, there is no reason why God should have given him either an intellect better able to deliver truths and veridicalities than the one he in fact has; or an intellect which is less able to deliver truths and veridicalities. God presumably had His reasons for creating beings such as Descartes, with a certain capacity for delivering to their wills beliefs and perceptual experiences for decision as to truth or falsity, veridicality or non-veridicality. But as Descartes points out, just because God could have created Descartes with a stronger or weaker intellect does not mean He had to—any more than the fact that General Motors Holden could in principle produce a more fuel efficient car than the ones they actually produce itself entails that they should produce one. Of course, external or further reasons, e.g., climate change, peak oil and the like, combine with the fact that GMH could produce a more fuel efficient car to entail that it should produce one. But the point is that the mere ability of GMH to produce a more fuel efficient car does not itself entail that it should. Descartes is, of course, making precisely this point when he mentions, in the last sentence of the paragraph just quoted, the skilled artisan.

By contrast, whereas his intellectual capacities, strictly considered, are not as extensive as God’s, Descartes’ will is of precisely the same character as God’s because will as Descartes understands it is simply the power to decide, on the basis of reasons, for this action rather than that, for this knowledge claim rather than that. As such, the will is not something which comes in greater or lesser degrees of strength:

At the same time, I cannot complain that I did not receive from God a sufficiently extensive and perfect will or freedom of choice, for clearly experience that it is not confined by any limits. What I think is very noteworthy is that there is nothing else in me [apart from the will] that is so perfect and so great that I cannot think of it as being even greater still or more perfect. (pp.46-47)

Evidently, Descartes does not mean by will what we might ordinarily mean by it, e.g., strength or weakness of character. He means simply the capacity to choose to take as being actually the case something with which his intellect has presented as apparently the case. In effect, Descartes is identifying the will with the capacity to respond to something as a good reason for action or belief. This is clearly not something which comes in degrees: naturally, Descartes may take something as a good reason for action or belief when in fact it is not but this will be a fault of the total circumstances in which he decided to take this something as a good reason, not of the act of deciding itself.

Not implausibly, Descartes points out that when the will is understood simply as the capacity to take some offering of the intellect as the good reason it is presented by the intellect as being, it shows itself to be the sole feature or capacity in him which he experiences

as being so extensive in my own case that I conceive the idea of none greater, so that it is principally because of this faculty that I understand myself as being in some sense the image and likeness of God. For although the will is incomparably greater in God than in me—both because of the knowledge and power that accompany it and make it stronger and more efficacious, and because of its object, insofar as it extends to many more things than my will—when it is considered formally and in a strict sense, however, it does not seem to be greater. For the will consists in this alone, that we can either do or not do something (that is, affirm or deny something, seek or avoid it); or rather, it consists in this alone that we bring ourselves to affirm or deny, to seek or avoid. Whatever is proposed to us by our intellect in such a way that we feel that we are not determined by any external force. (p.47)

Note that when Descartes speaks here of how he recognizes the will to be incomparably greater in God than in himself, he is not contradicting himself. Quite the contrary, for as Descartes immediately makes clear, the reason why the will is greater in God than in himself has to do not with the will itself but with other factors which are greater in God’s case than in his own: God has more knowledge and power than he, and for this reason His will is greater than Descartes, i.e., more able to do things (more efficacious, as Descartes says). He then goes on to state explicitly that as he understands it, the will is indeed simply the capacity to respond to something as the good reason it is offered up by the intellect as being. So will is indeed, as Descartes frequently says here, freedom of choice. That is, it is the free embracing of something as a good reason for action or belief.

Of course, the term ‘freedom of choice’ is potentially misleading. As Descartes now points out, being free to choose must not be understood as a state of indifference in which the alternatives are evenly balanced, as if the act of deciding were simply arbitrary, akin simply to tossing a coin. It is not true, says Descartes,

that, in order to be free, I must be capable of moving in either direction; on the contrary, the more I am inclined in one direction the more freely I choose it, either because I clearly recognize it as being true and good or because God so disposes my innermost thoughts. Surely neither divine grace nor natural knowledge ever diminishes freedom; instead, they increase and strengthen it. But the indifference I experience when I am not moved one way or another by any consideration is a lower degree of freedom, and it does not indicate perfection in our freedom but merely some kind of defect or something lacking in our knowledge. (p.47)

Freedom of choice is thus not the absence of any inclination to decide in one way rather than another; it is the absence of any external inclination, i.e., of any non-rational compulsion or constraint. Given that I believe that p and that I believe that if p, then q, the fact that I am rational means that I am inclined to believe, indeed cannot help believing that q. I am not indifferent to the alternatives of believing that q or not believing that q such that the only way I could decided would be, say, to toss a coin. Yet my deliberately and consciously forming the belief that q is a perfect free act because I am rationally compelled to form it.

Having mapped out the conceptual landscape in the manner indicated, Descartes can now extract the results he needs in order to explain how he can regard God as guarantor for the possibility of his knowing anything at all without thereby rendering it inexplicable why God should not have gone that little bit further and made him completely incapable of error.

I see from these considerations that the cause of my errors is not power of willing, which I receive from God, when considered on its own, because this power is as extensive as possible and is perfect in its kind. Nor is it the power of understanding because, whatever I understand, it is certain that I understand it correctly, for the ability to understand comes from God and it cannot contain the ability to mistaken. Where do my errors originate, then? They result from this alone: since the will extends further than the understanding, I do not restrain it within the limits of the understanding but apply it even to things that I do not understand. Given that it is indifferent to those things, it is easily deflected from what is true or good and in that I make mistaken judgements or bad choices. (p.48)

Error, properly understood, is thus a natural possibility of the constitution which God, for whatever reason, has chosen for him. It arises because Descartes does not choose to apply his will, his power of assenting to something which is offered to him by the intellect as a good reason, only to those things which are clearly and distinctly offered to him as a good reason. The intellect is a faculty which continually throws up to him knowledge-claims which he has to decide. Sometimes it throws up things with less than optimal evidential force, i.e., unclearly and indistinctly as a good reason for belief or action. A possibly real life example illustrates what Descartes is getting at here: imagine that Descartes sees Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia smiling warmly at him. So his intellect throws up for his consideration the clear and distinct idea that Elizabeth is glad to see him and he freely assents to this judgement. In so doing, he does so without error because (a) to see someone smiling at one is a good reason for believing that the person smiling is glad to see one unless one has reasons to the contrary; (b) Descartes has no reasons to the contrary; and (c) Elizabeth is genuinely glad to see him.

But Descartes apparently had something of a crush on Elizabeth, who was unfortunately considerably younger than he and of higher social status. So we could well imagine that his unrequited feelings might intrude upon his deliberation and lead him to form the belief that Elizabeth is just as smitten with him as he is with her. Should this occur, Descartes would be extending his will, his freedom to choose, beyond his understanding. He is choosing to believe rather than not believe that Elizabeth is similarly smitten on the basis of an offering from the intellect—his perceptual judgement that Elizabeth is smiling warmly at him—which is not a good reason for concluding that Elizabeth is in fact smitten. He does not see clearly and distinctly that Elizabeth is smitten, it does not seem optimally to him that she is. And so he errs, he makes a mistake—even if it should in fact turn out that Elizabeth is smitten. For as Descartes points out, if he affirms or denies under less than optimal circumstances,

Then I do not use my freedom of choice correctly. If I opt for the side that is false, I am evidently mistaken; if, however, I choose the opposite, I land on the truth by chance but I do not thereby avoid fault because it is evident by the natural light of reason that the perception of the understanding should always precede the determination of the will. It is this incorrect use of freedom of choice that constitutes the privation which is the essence of error; this privation, I say, is in the use of the will itself insofar as it originates in me, but not in the faculty that I received from God nor even in the use of that faculty insofar as it depends on God. (p.49)

In short, error is an unavoidable possibility built into the constitution which God chose to give Descartes. As such, God could not have avoided building this possibility into Descartes, given how he intended to create Descartes. As such, error is not something for which God is responsible. As Descartes puts it further down the page, it is a privation which “does not need God’s co-operation because it is a non-entity.” (p.49) Descartes himself is solely responsible for his errors since, properly understood, they consist in his allowing himself to be seduced into applying his will to things he does not clearly and distinctly understand. “It is,” says Descartes

clearly not an imperfection in God that he gave me the freedom assent or not assent to certain things of which he did not put a clear and distinct perception in my understanding. But it is undoubtedly imperfection in me that I do not use this freedom well and that I make judgements about things that I do not understand correctly. (pp.49-50)

Descartes points out that none of what he has thus far argued entails that God could not have chosen to make him such that he could never make a mistake. God

could have given my understanding a clear and distinct perception of everything that I deliberated about, or else he could simply impress on my memory—so firmly that I could neyer forget it—that I should never make a judgement about anything that I had not understood clearly and distinctly. I readily recognize that if I were some kind of totality [and if there were nothing else in the world apart from me],^16^ I would be more perfect than I am at present, had God made me in that way. But I cannot for that reason deny that, in the whole universe of things, it is in some sense a greater perfection that some of its parts are immune from error while others are not, than if all its parts were exactly similar. I have no right to complain that God chose to giye me a role in the world that is not the principal and most perfect of all. (p.50; grammar corrected)

And so Descartes concludes the Fourth Meditation as follows: given that he has eliminated the possibility of the evil mind and other forms of radical deception through his realisation that God is implicated in his existence as thinking just as much as he himself is, it follows that his errors arise solely in the way he has indicated. And this is a source and cause of error for which he alone is responsible. God has given him a certain capacity for sure and certain knowledge, and God acts as a guarantee that as long as he does not permit his will to stray beyond what his God-given capacity for understanding offers him, he will not go wrong. He knows, now that he has proved the existence of God and clarified the nature of error, that

as long as I restrict the will in such a way that, in making judgements, it extends only to those things that the understanding shows it clearly and distinctly, it is evidently impossible for me to be mistaken because every clear and distinct perception is certainly something and, consequently, cannot come from nothing but necessarily has God for its author—God, I say, the supremely perfect being for whom it is repugnant to be a deceiver—and hence the perception is undoubtedly true. Today I have learned not only what I must avoid in order never to be mistaken, but I have also learned what must be done to reach the truth. I will certainly reach it if I consider only the things that I understand perfectly enough and if I separate them from all other things which I apprehend in a confused and obscure way. I shall do this diligently in the future. (pp.50-51)

© Carleton B. Christensen, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014

  1. The Fourth Meditation is entitled “Of Truth and Falsehood” but in fact it is not about truth or falsehood at all (which are properties primarily of the contents of belief and judgements) but about the correctness and erroneousness of beliefs and judgements themselves (and thus of the subject whose belief or judgement is at issue). This relates to the point made in defence of my interpretation of the doctrine of clear and distinct ideas in the Third Meditation—see the notes for Lecture 6, pp.6-8.

  2. In a famous passage from introduction to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) summed this hypo-deductive character of mathematico-experimental natural science by saying that, whereas previous students of nature had treated nature as telling them a story about itself, modern natural scientists had put nature in the witness box, getting her simply to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to questions of their own devising.

  3. Obviously, this interpretation is highly reconstructive since Descartes’ actual line of reasoning is massively obscure. And even as thus reconstructed, Descartes’ argument is still very bad. What is interesting, even if it is false, is the idea that we cannot understand ourselves except as limitations of the infinite. This has a nicely Christian, indeed Augustinian and almost Kierkegaardian flavour!

  4. I.e., causae; the Latin word causa means both ‘reason’ and ‘cause’.

  5. See footnote 3 on Aristotle’s doctrine of the four causes in the notes from Lecture 7.

  6. For this reason, from the mid-1630’s on, Descartes starts to think increasingly of beliefs and other cognitive mental items on analogy to linguistic acts of assertion and statement rather than on analogy to pictures and images. This point shows that the principal thesis of Richard Rorty’s book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979) is fundamentally wrong. For an excellent critique of Rorty, which shows just how fundamentally he misunderstands Descartes, see Dominik Perler’s Repräsentation bei Descartes, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1996.

  7. But not necessarily. As Descartes himself points out towards the end of the Fourth Meditation, one can err in judging, i.e., judge non-optimally, and yet, just by luck, make a true judgement.