Ontological Arguments of Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza on the Existence of God

Descartes, Spinoza, And God Humanity carries a curiosity in its nature that demands justifiable logical answers to seemingly unanswerable questions. Our minds race with inquiry, and even with a near infinite source of information at our very finger tips, we are unsatisfied. ‘Explain thought!’, ‘Explain the soul!’, ‘Explain God!’ we cry out to the best minds humanity has to offer, and the best minds respond back in the form of logical arguments. Rene

Descartes and Baruch Spinoza both tackle the ontological existence of God in radically different ways. Both offer valid ontological arguments to demonstrate how ideas can be traced back to prove to existence of God. Yet, something about their proofs resonates with a type of uncertainty. While both Descartes’ and Spinoza’s ontological arguments stand in a place of logical validity, neither satisfy the criteria for a concrete solution to the question of God’s existence. The end of the Second Meditation rings out as the high crescendo of Descartes’ over all disdain for perception and the senses as valid sources of truth.

It follows that after this manner of work, he came to the famous conclusion that he knows for certain, only that he is a thinking thing. Immediately after dramatically convincing the reader that one must abandon all philosophical reasoning to skepticism, Descartes proceeds to devote the meditation following his famous proclamation to stating that he does actually know one other thing. Given his apparent aptness towards accepting skeptical doubt, it is understandable why he feels it mandatory to devote his entire Third Meditation and part of the Fifth towards proving the existence of God. The specific God that Descartes is referring to throughout the course of his meditations is important to note. Descartes was a devout Roman Catholic, and as such, coincides his definition with that of the First Vatican Council. That council states, There is one true, living God, the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth. He is almighty, eternal, beyond measure, incomprehensible, and infinite in intellect, will and in every perfection.

Since He is one unique spiritual substance, entirely simple and unchangeable, He must be declared really and essentially distinct from the world…”. Descartes binds himself to this pursuit because he absolutely needs to prove the existence of the catholic God in order to meaningfully implement his ‘clearness and distinctness’ criteria of knowledge. That is to say, until he has successfully proven the existence of an omni-benevolent and non-deceiving God, anything that he certainly perceives and anything he wishes to claim as knowledge will be successfully defeated by the evil genius hypothesis that is proposed in Meditation One. Thus Descartes offers three arguments for the existence of God so the crushing weight of complete skepticism can be, at least partially avoided.

In order to identify how Descartes can come to a conclusion so bold as the existence of God, I would first like discuss the cartesian definition of the word “idea”, and how Descartes uses it. Indeed, Descartes uses the term “idea” to refer to images and perceptions of our minds, introspectively. Like the majority of his successors in the modern period of philosophy, Descartes stands by the representationalist theory of ideas. According to the representationalist theories, the images that are born from our ideas created in our minds depict function as the content of our thoughts. This concept accounts for abstract ideas such as the idea of the ‘triangle’, or the idea of an omnipotent God. Descartes pairs this definition of ‘idea’ with the work one of his greatest influences, Plato.

Plato states in his works that certain ideas are innate (meaning that they originate from the mind and are not created by perception), particularly geometric ideas such as the idea of numbers. Even those geometric ideas which relate to corporeal objects in the physical world, such as the idea of the body, are innate. These things include ideas such as substance, extension, shape motion and position. The ideas posed here are what allow those of a more modern philosophical mind set to prove individual characteristics about objects of sensory experience, such as a particular triangle, and not just the idealistic image of a triangle. However, both Plato and Descartes would argue that these observations only transmit misleading information to our intellect. This familiar Platonic thought process of denouncing the crude inaccuracy of our sensory perceptions, and denouncing the minds reliance upon them, is prevalent throughout Descartes’ Meditations. This is demonstrated in the Second Meditation with the very clear example of the wax. The Wax Argument is as follows:

  1. When I melt a peace of wax, it loses all of its original sensory qualities (particularly taste, smell, feel and shape); yet I believe it is the same wax. So what I think of as the wax is not its sensory qualities.
  2. So when I think of the wax, I am thinking of an extended thing, i.e. something that takes up space and is changeable, meaning its sensory and special properties are subject to change.
  3. I also think that the possible changes it can go through outstrip what I can imagine; I can’t imagine all the changes I know the wax can undergo. So it’s not through my imagination that I have a conception of the wax. Rather I ‘perceive’ (comprehend) the wax through my understanding.
  4. The wax I think of this way, and the wax that is perceived through my senses are the same piece of wax

Although we say we see the wax (through vision), in fact we judge (through understanding) that it is present from what we see. This argument is not about the real nature and absolute existence of any physical object in particular, rather it is an argument for our perception of physical objects. Descartes does not propose the question ‘what is the wax?’, but instead states ‘what is our idea of the wax?’. In premise one of the wax argument, Descartes notices that his conceptions and ideas with regard to the piece of wax are independent from its apparent sensory qualities. Descartes’ introspective reflection is thus an attempt to deduce truths about the world from ideas which he can consider both clear and distinct.

Although Descartes exposes this statement about obtaining clear and distinct ideas in his second meditation, he really can’t gain ground on it until he successfully proves the existence of God. Descartes is not content with merely having established the proximate cause of his intellectual achievements. Due to the fact that he has introduced skeptical doubt into his methods of reasoning, he now must also uncover what the ultimate source of his clear and distinct ideas are, since he has made it apparent that perception does not contribute to our clear and distinct ideas. This discovery of the ultimate source of truth is mandatory if Descartes wishes to make any real conclusions without falling into a pit of skepticism.

This idea of an ultimate cause allows Descartes to be sure that his ideas are true and trustworthy, and that clearness and distinctness are both appropriate criteria for truth. In Descartes’ Third Meditation he considers some of his ideas and recognizes that he has certain ideas that come from an “objective reality”, and as such, could not have come from within himself, or at least from within himself alone. It is this train of thought that provokes Descartes to attempt to prove the existence of God in an ontological proof.

Descartes addresses this in the form of three ontological proofs. Descartes’ first ontological proof of the existence of God is as follows:

  • In order for a given idea to contain something from an objective reality, it must surely derive it from some cause which contains at least as much formal reality as there is objective reality in the idea.
  • There must be a cause which contains formally all the reality which is present objectively in the idea.
  • If the objective reality of an idea cannot come from myself, it follows that it must come from something else.
  • The attributes of God are such that they could not have come from me.
  • They must have come from God; Therefore God exists.

This argument has received criticism for having a degree of circularity to it. It seems that when Descartes states his proof in this manner, he is stating that God exists because God must have given us the idea of God. Although the circularity of this statement seems to weaken its conclusion, this argument does address some interesting problems with the human mind. It addresses the problem of conceiving things that we have no way of experiencing, like God. This argument gives a way in which our mind can come up with images and names of objects, without having the ability to physically perceive it. That being said, this argument does seem to fall short of a satisfying answer to the question of God’s existence.

The second ontological proof, given by Descartes in Meditation III, is slightly more satisfying in it’s completeness than the pervious one. It goes as follows:

  • Do I have enough power to maintain my own existence?
  • No- For I am simply a thinking thing; and if I had that power, I would know it. It must be a power outside of my mind.
  • Since I am a thinking thing, what created me must also be a thinking thing and possess all the ideas and perfections of God.
  • There is no other physical object or person that can be responsible for creating and preserving me
  • It must be God who created me and gave me the ideas of a perfect God.

This argument fulfills the demands of the proposal and seems to contain less circularity with in it. By making the claim that we are not responsible for our own creation, we are stating that nothing has the same capacity for creation as God. We could not have created humanity on an individual level. The only option we have left is that we were created by God. However this argument does illicit some doubt. In premise 5 of his argument, he states that it must be God who gave us the idea of a perfect God. It can be argued that there are other objects lurking in the depths of our mind that have no form of existence in the corporeal world. That being the case, these objects would all have to exist in some omnipotent, god-like form in order to grant us the idea of their existence. This seems unlikely and even unfathomable.

Descartes’ final proof for the existence of God is contained in his Fifth Meditation. This proof is more compressed and simplistic in its approach. It seems to get to the ‘bare bones’ of the matter of existence with out over simplifying. The third proof states:

  • The essence of God is to be a perfect being.
  • Existence is a perfection.
  • Therefore, God exists.

By stating that existence in itself falls under the umbrella of the omnipotent, omni-benevolent perfection of God, immediately clears up any issue as to whether a perfect God has the ability exist. He does. In fact, because the claim has already been made that he is perfect, he not only has the ability to exist, he must exist. I find Descartes’ final proof to most clearly identify and solve the issue of the existence of God, however there is cause for disputation within this simple proof.

Existence is a tricky term. Immanuel Kant stated that there is no difference between the concept of one hundred real coins that actually exists, and the concept of one hundred possible coins; both sets of coins exist. That being said, stating that God does truly exist, and the concept of God possibly existing would be equivalent statements. This problem of semantics greatly weakens the impact of Descartes’ third ontological proof by making the existence of God nothing more than a possibility.

Thankfully, the pursuit of an ontological proof to define the existence of God did not stop with the work of Descartes. Baruch Spinoza also outlined an argument that logically proves the existence of a perfect God. Spinoza shared the same perfectly omnibenevolent and omnipotent God with Descartes. His ontological proofs endeavor to prove the existence of this same God. Similar to Descartes, Spinoza opens his argument by making the statement that humanity does not have the capacity to prove the existence of individual bodies outside of our minds.

However, unlike Descartes’ famous conclusion that we are only thinking things, Spinoza states that we exist as merely an extension of a single substance. To state simply, the material that creates you and I and the piano in my living room are all made from the same materials. Further, you, I and the piano are not independent beings at all, we are all, in essence, part of one whole substance that contains with in itself, everything that has ever come into physical existence. He makes the claim that this single substance that our consciousnesses’, and everything else in existence are all extensions of, is God. Spinoza rests his claim that God is the only possible substance on the proposition that one substance cannot be produced by another substance. This proposal, and all proposals laid out by Spinoza rely upon his definition of substance. Spinoza defines substance as “that which is in itself and is conceived by itself alone, that is to say, that of which the concept can be formed without involving any other concept.”

As oppose to Descartes’ multiple short proofs that address many separate premises that all lead to the main conclusion of the existence of God, Spinoza offers the reader a single argument that addresses all the points he wishes to make in one thirty- six- long premised fell swoop. The following are the premises from Spinoza’s Ethics that best support his conclusion.

Proposition 4: “Two [substances]… are distinguished from one another either by… attributes… or by… [modes]”

Proposition 5: “there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute”

Proposition 7: “Existence belongs to the nature of substance”

Proposition 8: “Every substance is necessarily infinite.”

Proposition 9: “The more reality or being a thing has, the more attributes it has.”

Proposition 11: “God, or substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists.”

Proposition 13: “The concept of God is the concept of the most real substance with the most power and greatest reason for existing

Proposition 14: “There can be, or be conceived, no other substance but God.”

The position that is being taken in the propositions of Spinoza’s Ethics is one of Substance Monism (i.e. there is only one substance in existence). According to the words of Spinoza, the single substance that exists is an infinite substance also known as God. This position is simply the position that it is only God that exists. There is only one substance, but in order for it to have the ability to do all the substance-like things that must be done, it must be infinite in all things. The God Substance creates the infinite number and type of things that exist in our infinite universe. In fact, It is the God Substance that creates the universe itself. Our existence is completely reliant on this one substance of God. By defining and proving the existence of God, Spinoza defined and provided a reason for his own existence as well.

Although this proof does seem to remove the element of circularity that haunted arguments previously stated through Descartes’ meditations, trouble lurks in the shadows of Spinoza’s work as well. Spinoza defines God as “a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.” Spinoza claims in proposition 9, “The more reality or being each thing has, the more attributes belong to it.” This definition of God and the supporting principle in proposition 9 was a point of controversy even in Spinoza’s day. According to Descartes, a substance cannot have more than one principal attribute. To say that the concept of God is the concept of a substance with multiple attributes is, in fact, to appeal to an internally inconsistent concept. So, the objection runs that not only has Spinoza failed to justify the final result of proposition 14 but proposition 13 is false.

The division between the ontological proofs of Descartes and Spinoza are obvious. Descartes had the world divided into two kinds of substances, a thinking substance (being the mind or soul), and an extended substance (meaning the body and corporeal things.) Descartes further divided the thinking substances into two separate classifications of substance. Then, like the branches of a tree, he divided these substances into infinite thinking substances, and finite thinking substances. The infinite thinking substance represents God in his perfected omnipotent and omni-benevolent state. Descartes creates no such division for the extended substances. He does however, clarify that each finite thinking substance (meaning each particular mind or soul) and each finite extended substance (meaning each particular physical body) is a created substance.

Although Descartes believed that there was only one infinite substance (God), he stated that there were an infinite amount of finite thinking substances, and an infinite amount of extended substances. With regards to the interpretation of God being addressed at this time, he creates other finite substances, whether they be finite thinking substances, or finite extended substances. As a result of this statement, it follows that God does, in that sense, enter into transitive or external relations with other finite substances as independent, existing beings. Spinoza completely rejects both of Descartes’ divisions of substances and completely rejects Descartes pluralist views of finite substances. He first rejects Descartes’ distinction between infinite and finite thinking substance.

From Spinoza’s perspective, there is only one infinite substance. There is no finite substance because that would form a contradiction with in the restrictions of the definitions he has put in place. Secondly, he rejects Descartes’s distinction between thinking substance and extended substances. Once again, Spinoza’s heavy reliance upon substance monism accounts for this statement. In Spinoza’s metaphysics there is only one substance. But, this substance is not a thinking substance nor is it an extended substance, meaning that it is not exclusively a mind, and it is not exclusively a body. The Substance he describes here is in possession of an essence. Any type of essence can normally be conceived of in a certain way. However, Substance has a infinite essence. So it follows that it can be conceived in an infinite number of radically distinct ways. One of the infinite ways of conceiving of the essence, is called an attribute.

For Descartes, attributes are exclusive. There can be no overlap between two or more radically distinct ways of conceiving of the essence of a substance. One attribute of substance is thinking, another attribute is extension. But unlike Descartes’ view of thinking and extension, these attributes are all part of one substance. Substance then, can be conceived of as extended. It is not the case that it is to be identified with thinking, or identified with extension. Otherwise, it would have to be the case that it is thinking or extended only. Rather it is perceived in one way as thinking, and in another way as extended. There are, as previously mentioned, an infinite amount of ways in which a substance may be perceived, but that is saved for God. As finite humans we are made aware of only two conceptions of substance. Those that are thinking and those that are extended.

The task of analyzing the true nature of God is daunting at best. It seems that when an infinitely omniscient and omnibenevolent being is perceived through the eyes of the flawed human logic, a truly satisfactory answer is difficult to achieve. Logic and proofs that attempt to tackle the existence of God tend to fall flat in the eyes of the learner. We become disappointed in our search as we learn that to ontologically prove that God exists, only results in conclusions that are weak at best. Our finite minds do not have the capability to even understand and comprehend “one true, living God, the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth… almighty, eternal, beyond measure, incomprehensible, and infinite in intellect, will and in every perfection”. How are we to fully prove the existence of a God that is defined as “incomprehensible”? Perhaps there exists a standard for God that can be comprehended.

As christianity evolved, the definition of God evolved as well. Christianity began relying more upon revelation, and less upon authority. I would like to step away from the Catholic definition of God, and ponder the definition of God as stated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as it is written, in the Bible Dictionary of of the King James Bible. It states, “(God is) The supreme Governor of the universe and the Father of mankind. From latter-day revelation we learn that the Father and the Son have tangible bodies of flesh and bone. When one speaks of God, it is generally the Father who is referred to; that is, Elohim. All mankind are His children.

God created the universe, being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent (through His Spirit), mankind has a special relationship to Him that differentiates man from all other created things: man is literally God’s offspring, made in His image, whereas all other things are but the work of His hands.” Here we see that, while God has an essence of omnipresence through his spirit, he is a tangible, physical, and comprehendible father to all of humanity. Through this definition we can infer that our individual bodies do indeed exist. If it is true that God has a physical body, and we are God’s children, created in the image of God, than it would follow that we also posses tangible physical bodies. This definition of God allows for our existence to be proven in a way much less abstract than Spinoza’s single substance theory.

That being said God is still defined as omnipotent and omnipresent. Physical bodies or not, Humanity still faces limitations that prevents us from reaching the same omnipotence and omnipresence as God in our present states. I do not, at this time, have an ontological proof that cleverly uses logic and wit to come to the air tight conclusion that God exists. I cannot provide a neatly organized argument that defies refutation. I can not prove the existence God without relying upon perception. While proving God’s existence is difficult in our present state, proving God’s in-existence is completely impossible. To prove that God does not exist, would require our physical and limited states to be removed and replaced with omnipotent and omnipresent abilities. A physical being with omnipotent and omnipresent characteristic under the definition provided by the Latter Day Saint faith, is God. This creates an interesting paradox. In order for the complete in-existence of God to be proven by any human, without any shadow of a doubt, that human would have to be God.

Gerald Lund states, in a 1992 issue of the ensign, about an antagonistic and agnostic character in the Book of Mormon: ” ‘Korihor will consider only evidence that can be gathered through the senses. In such a system, it is much easier to prove there is a God than to prove there is not a God. To prove there is a God, all it takes is for one person to see, hear, or otherwise have an experience with God, and thereafter the existence of God cannot be disproved. But here is what it would take to prove there is no God: Since God is not confined to this earth, we would have to search throughout the universe for him. We assume God is able to move about, so it would not be enough to start at point A in the universe and search through to point Z. What if after we leave point A, God moves there and stays there fore the rest of the search?

In other words, for Korihor to say that there is no God, based on the very criteria he himself has established, he would have to perceive every cubic meter of the universe simultaneously. This creates a paradox: In order for Korihor to prove there is no God, he would have to be a god himself! Therefore, in declaring there is no God, he is acting on “faith,” the very thing for which he so sharply derides the religious leaders!’- Gerald Lund’s Countering Korihor’s Philosophies.”

In order for man to prove that God does not exist, he would have to be God. It is possible for a man who has perceived God, to prove his existence however, to prove he does not exist is impossible. God’s existence is not determined by whether his infinite capacities can fit into our finite systems of logic. We can put humanities brightest minds on the case but it will only result in weak attempts and a feeling of incomplete truth. Neither Spinoza nor Descartes (as members of the human species) can fulfill our demand for understanding, when we, as finite beings, are completely incapable of comprehending the infinite.

The God that Descartes and Spinoza attempt to prove, ontologically, is just too ambiguous to work with. His incomprehensibility creates problems that can not be fully addressed with logical reasoning, because we can not logically comprehend something that is incomprehensible. If the definition of God is changed to allow manifestations of his being through his physical body and presence, we can very quickly prove the existence of God through our own perceptions. God’s existence will continue to be a puzzle, demanding to be solved. If we abandon the combination of ontological reasoning and unfathomable Gods, and instead fill the gaps with faith, perception, and a physical Heavenly Father, new answers and conclusions will present themselves.

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