A Defective Reading of Descartes’ Third Meditation

The subtitle of Descartes’ Third Meditation is “Concerning God, that He exists,” but the meditation doesn’t really originate in the question of God’s existence. It actually begins with an epistemological question, not a theological one. Descartes admits that he “previously admitted many things as wholly certain and evident” that [he] later discovered to be doubtful.” He must therefore interrogate whether/when the “natural light” that is the marker of evident truth is really true. Only then does he turn to asking about the nature and existence of God, as an originator of this “natural light” that makes truths “clear and distinct” so that his understanding can be trusted. Notice that a feeling of certainty, taken by itself, is defective as evidence for Descartes. These interior markers (natural light, clarity and distinctness) need to be perfected to be fully accepted.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about the difference between a meditation and an argument. Although Descartes will make logical arguments for his position, their logical validity will not make them true unless the premises are also recognized as true. Don’t therefore rely on Descartes’ testimony if you are interested in determining the real meaning of his argument. You, the reader must look within yourself and independently verify that the matter is as Descartes reports. So take a look at what Descartes is asking you to verify:

You judge truth/falsity by some natural light, some internal norm resident in feeling. You cannot ultimately ground your assent on an external standard, since in doing so you must have previously judged the external standard to be true. The standard of truth, if there is one, must be one present to your consciousness. Take the most trivial truth you can think of, perhaps the simplest addition problem, 1+1=2, and let me ask you if you doubt it at all. Do you? (Be honest — don’t play sophistical games.) Of course you don’t. Does your certainty have a feeling of its own, or is it just an absence of the the feeling of doubt? Stop and meditate on the question before moving on.

Now, what is different about *you* when you doubt something? Isn’t there a different quality of feeling? Contrast the repose of certainty with the obscurity and confusion of doubt. Certainty is phenomenologically “clear and distinct” and we all accept such a state as a marker of truth: what you cannot doubt must be true. Of course we can raise all kinds of philosophical objections (as Descartes does here courageously), but at least confess to yourself that your grasp of truth relies on some such interior quality. Descartes calls this quality of truth “clear and distinct.” Let that phrase be a token for whatever feeling within yourself constitutes your sense of certainty. Remove your faith in some version of qualitative truth-recognition, and all thinking becomes futile. I will give you a few moments to think this through…

Are you back? Good. Now Descartes wants to know how any of us can trust this inner marker of truth. (Why do *you* trust it?) How can we be confident that it is not false? That it what is at issue in the Third Meditation. If we don’t frame the argument for God’s existence within this epistemological frame, I don’t think we will appreciate what Descartes is up to. His problem must become our problem.

Ok, on to the actual argument for the existence of God. Let me summarize it in syllogistic form and then we will meditate upon it together:

Major Premise: If there is an idea in me that is greater than any I could have produced from my own resources of will and imagination, then that idea comes from outside myself, i.e it is not a product of my own fancy or volition.

Minor Premise: I find an idea of perfection (i.e. God) in me that is beyond what I (being imperfect) could have produced myself.

Conclusion: Perfection (i.e. God) exists.

Note that Descartes’ exposition is not this succinct (or clear, quite frankly) but I think it does justice to the gist of his thought. The conclusion is somehow less important for Descartes epistemological question as the way he arrive at it. It serves two vital functions for Descartes:

1. There is (finally) something that he can verify to be objectively exterior to himself. The threat of solipsism has been removed. The promise of an exterior world has now been given a bridge.

2. God is revealed as perfect and therefore no deceiver. The nature of his inner light has been revealed as an inner light of perfection. By this light, he can become certain that any imperfect conclusion will be revealed as such by the standard of perfection supplied by God. As long as he concerns himself with the standard of perfection available to him in consciousness, imperfections will be brought to light.

Let us now reflect on this argument and its consequences:

a. First, let’s consider more closely the Major Premise. Here, Descartes touches on the problem of bias. Perhaps what I take as true has been created by myself. Perhaps my serene self-confidence is just a product of my own wishes and complicit  self-delusion. In order for me to recognize the true as true, I will need some standard independent of myself — independent and yet present to my consciousness somehow. Do you see the importance of this premise for Descartes? The only measure that I can ultimately trust is one not contaminated by self-manufactured bias.

b. In the Major Premise, also Descartes gives us a criterion to recognize an external standard: it must be of such a type that you/I could not have produced it on our own. It must exceed our own productive capacities. The standard cannot be something that we devise in thought, but something toward which our thought must submit. Nothing else can provide the “rule” to our thinking.

c. In setting up the Minor Premise, I have cheated a bit in my rendering. The idea that Descartes finds within himself is the “Infinite.” But notice how he determines that he couldn’t have been its source:

I clearly understand that there is more reality in an infinite substance than there is in a finite one. Thus the perception of the infinite is somehow prior in me to the perception of the finite, that is, my perception of God is prior to my perception of my self. For how would I understand that I doubt and that I desire, that is, that I lack something and that I am not wholly perfect, unless there were some idea in me of a more perfect being, by comparison with which I might recognize my defects? (This and future citations are from Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy. Third Edition, translated by Donald A. Cress, Hackett Publishing, 1993. Paragraphs 45-6.)

d. Notice that for Descartes, infinite = perfect = God. There is something exceedingly strange in this equation since “perfection” and the “infinite” are contraries: I can only perfect what I can complete and yet the infinite by its nature cannot be completed. But perhaps the perfection in question is essentially transcendent to all striving and effort, i.e. Infinite. (If you would like to draw comparisons to Plato’s characterization of the Good being “beyond being,” feel free.) It is infinite in performance but perfect in aspiration. If it were a perfection that I could accomplish, then it would be within my power and could not therefore serve as an adequate criterion for external truth. Therefore, it must be a perfection that always exceeds my grasp but nevertheless guides my thought. And an infinite, perfect, active power is the very definition of God for Descartes.

So far, I have tried to follow the argument of Descartes and its intended implications. But let me tease out a few things that I think Descartes missed which will bear on my project of Defective Reading:

a. For Descartes, the idea of God/Perfection stands at the end of an indubitable conclusion. It becomes itself one of his clear and distinct ideas and the one that grounds all the others. But this intuition of perfection is not really present *to* him, even if it is present *in* him. It comes as a derived conclusion, not a foundation. And its derivation is founded on his own sense of imperfection, on his own defects. Here are a few statements to that effect, the first concerning his recalcitrant ignorance and the other on his own existential finitude:

For while it is true that my knowledge is gradually being increased and that there are many things in me potentially that are not yet actual, nevertheless, none of these pertains to the idea of God, in which there is nothing whatever that is potential. Indeed this gradual increase is itself a most certain proof of imperfection. (Para. 47)
From what source, then, do I derive my existence?…[If] I got my being from myself, I would not doubt, nor would I desire, nor would I lack anything. For I would have given myself all the perfections of which I have some idea. (Para. 48)

Finally, let’s return to what was already quoted to drive the point home:

For how would I understand that I doubt and that I desire, that is, that I lack something and that I am not wholly perfect, unless there were some idea in me of a more perfect being, by comparison with which I might recognize my defects? (Para. 45-6)

b. The standard of perfection that Descartes uncovered must be present somehow to being able to judge something imperfect. It is not focally present, but presupposed and anterior to consciousness. It is present more like a light shining behind and not at all like an object illuminated. Let me quote what I wrote about Defective Reading in a previous post:

My working hypothesis is that defects can only be experienced as defects if there is at work an anterior/immanent norm of completion or wholeness. The defect is “seen” by the “light” provided by the sense of wholeness/completion animating the beholder. The light is not seen, but seen by. Once one become aware of a defect, in an argument for instance, an inner norm becomes energetic and operative. Defects excite such norms, whereas self-satisfied opinions depress them. Moments of such defective awareness thus present the best chance to catch a glimpse of these norms in action, norms which cannot be fully expressed but can be fully inhabited.

Substitute “perfection” for “completion or wholeness” and my mode of thinking is similar to that of Descartes, which we will remember was aimed at solving an epistemological problem rather than a theological one. But Descartes errs when he objectifies perfection into an idea. Descartes’ method from the beginning has been to purge the defective from his theoretical system. But the imperfect is the very occasion of encountering perfection that is something other than a mere abstraction. Thought about the concrete always thinks through the imperfect, the defective. Descartes’ genuine discovery of the inherently defective nature of dynamic thought was undermined by his preference for certainties, which can only be abstractions. Thinking about concrete reality cannot be made certain. The first rule of his method as revealed in the First Meditation is that everything dubious should be treated as false. But his deepest thinking happens when he thinks through the imperfections of his own certainties, as he begins to in the Third Mediation. Descartes had the experience, but missed the meaning.

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

                   — Leonard Cohen

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