Apart from the circular argument in meditations III where he states that he has a clear distinct idea of god therefore he must exist and that since god exists and he is not a deceiver he can make clear and distinct ideas what other flaws exist in his use of God in the other Meditations?

  • Closely related to the circle is Descartes's version of the ontological argument in the Fifth meditation:"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...". This was the target of Kant's famous charge that "belongs to his nature that he always exists" is fallacious because existence is not a predicate. plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-ontological
    – Conifold
    Oct 21, 2015 at 22:42

2 Answers 2


Your question presupposes that Descartes made a circular argumentation in Descartes: Meditations on First Philosopyhy. I do not see a Cartesian circle as I tried to explain in How does Descartes use god in his Meditations? in the discussion following the answer of @virmaior.

In order to answer your question concerning weak points of Descartes' argumentation I reconstruct his argumentation as follows:

  1. The sceptical method shows the existence of me as a thinking being (res cogitans)
  2. The concept of God in my mind proves the existence of God. Note. Descartes does not presuppose that the concept of god corresponds to reality.
  3. The existence of God ensures the truth of my clear and distinctive conceptions.
  4. My clear and distinctive conception of myself as a person with mind (res cogitans) and body (res extensa) is true.

I have severe objections against his argumentation, e.g., in point 2. Descartes recalls the Scholastic definition of God and argues as follows (Med III.22):

Hence there remains only the idea of God, concerning which we must consider whether it is something which cannot have proceeded from me myself. By the name God I understand a substance that is infinite, independent, all-knowing, all-powerful, and by which I myself and everything else, if anything else does exist, have been created. Now all these characteristics are such that the more diligently I attend to them, the less do they appear capable of proceeding from me alone; hence, from what has been already said, we must conclude that God necessarily exists.

Along these lines Descartes expands his proof in the subsequent passages of Meditation III. Descartes considers it impossible that such an idea - which captures the concept of infinity in such a prominent way - originates solely from a human mind.

My objection: Today, the concept of infinity is well established in mathematics. At least since Georg Cantor in the 19th century we know about several types of infinity and set theory provides a mean to calculate with infinities in a non-trivial way. This example should cautious us to underestimate the creative power of the human mind.

  • Please wait for voting before I have finished my answer, thanks.
    – Jo Wehler
    Oct 21, 2015 at 17:36
  • You seem to interpret Descartes's reasoning in the third meditation in the spirit of the ontological argument. Descartes himself however resists such interpretation in the fifth meditation, where he does give his version of the ontological argument, but sees it as distinct:"is not this a possible basis for another argument to prove the existence of God?" plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-ontological/#1
    – Conifold
    Oct 21, 2015 at 22:49
  • I don't take Descartes arguments to be an ontological one, but I do actually agree with a variation on your contemporary objection. So +1.
    – virmaior
    Oct 22, 2015 at 0:35
  • @virmaior You are right, in the literature the argument is named a causal argument. Nevertheless, in my opinion it fulfills your - and also mine - definition of an ontological argument: The content of the idea and the supposed restriction of the human mind imply the correspondence to reality. That Descartes' idea of God corresponds to reality, is the conclusion not the supposition of the argument.
    – Jo Wehler
    Oct 22, 2015 at 6:27
  • I don't think it is considering solely the concept of God. I think it is considering Descartes' concept of God qua held-concept. Thus, I would say I don't think it is ontological. That it is ontological is, if memory serves, a minority position in the literature.
    – virmaior
    Oct 22, 2015 at 6:30

I'm going to suggest an alternate answer to Jo Wehler's answer.

  1. Descartes tries to test the limits of doubt in Meditation 1. (a) First, the material world is suspect because we know our perceptions have been wrong before. (b) But our concepts are more certain (simplified version of the wax argument). (c) The apex of doubt is that nothing can be known -- not even our thoughts, because even the thoughts I have are being scrambled actively by the evil demon.
  2. To break out of position 1(c), Descartes asserts there's a good God. And then proceeds from 1(b) to conclude that de minimis he exists as a thinking thing (not to be confused with a fully robust rational animal human).
  3. (a) From 2, Descartes looks at his ideas and notes the idea of God (as quoted by Jo Wehler in his answer). (b) Descartes posits that ideas can come in three forms: (i) innate - built into him, (ii) adventitous - coming from the outside, and (iii) composite - put together from other ideas from (i) and/or (ii). (c) Thus, whatever the idea of God is it must be (i), (ii), or (iii). (d) Moreover, Descartes posits that an idea can only be generated from a sufficient source. (e) given the attributes of God in 3(a), the idea of God must either have been planted by a sufficient source or arrived adventitiously from such a source. (f) spelling this out, the only possible source regardless of mode for an idea as infinite and perfect as God is God.
  4. (same as Jo's 3): God's existence guarantees the truth of my clear and distinct ideas.
  5. This then applies to the mind first and the body later.

I take the argument to be more cosmological than ontological. I define an ontological argument as an argument based solely on considering the idea of God. I take Anselm to be the template: the idea of God is perfect in every respect. An idea that includes existing is better than one that does not. Ergo, the idea of God includes that God exists. Ergo, God exists. As I read Anselm, it's not important that someone think this for it to happen or that someone possess this idea. (note that we don't need to go all the way to Kant to find a rejection -- Aquinas thinks this doesn't work).

In contrast, I take a cosmological argument to proceed on the basis that some feature of the created order implies there's a God. Thus, the argument from cause raised by Aristotle and Aquinas is that (a) causality happens. (b) cause = A -> B. (c) There must be an A that has no recursive A. (d) that A is definitionally God. This argument hinges on the factual occurrence of (a).

I take Descartes' argument to actually be more in line with the cosmological form. Yes, it is about an idea, but it is not that the mere content of the idea produces an existing entity. Instead, it is about the origin of that idea and has precisely the A -> B linkage between an idea of God and some external cause sufficient to that idea.

When I used to teach this text, I raised two or three objections. One was similar to the one Jo raises. Another was that we now have machines that seem to be able to produce things greater than themselves (i.e.. several super computers joined together).

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .