Burying Descartes’ Proof of God (and Other Observations)

I don’t have the patience to read through Descartes’ original writings just to disentangle the sophistry, but I’ll respond to his argument as I’ve seen it briefly formulated in two separate instances.

I will be using the terms “in the imagination” and “as a conception” or “in the understanding” interchangeably. Don’t be confused, I could have just as easily substituted “in the imagination” for the terms used in the argument’s formulations.

Instance 1.


Consider this argument: One can conceive of a maximally perfect being. If one can conceive of such a being, then such a being does not merely exist as a conception. This is true because if it existed only as a conception (if it only existed in one’s mind) then one could think of an even greater being that had all the attributes of the first but also existed in real life (since it is clearly greater to exist in real life than to exist merely as a conception). But in thinking of this second being we come to a contradiction since there can’t be a being greater than the greatest possible being. Therefore, the maximally perfect being that exists in real life is the being we were originally thinking of. Therefore, a maximally perfect being exists.

My argument:

When you think of the first supposedly perfect being, it is already in question whether that being exists or not, as it is not included in its specification that it does not exist. So thinking of the being and then having it also exist doesn’t make it any more perfect, unless perfection is not only in the idea of something but also in its state of existence outside of the idea, in which case, whether we really are thinking of a more perfect being is predicated on his external existence, which we don’t necessarily know given the premise, which is a only conception.

Descartes wants to have his cake and eat it too: he wants to include that God exists as a part of its conception (we are asked to imagine that he “also exists in real life”) while using the idea that this existence is something greater than, or outside of, the mere conception of him. The existence of something isn’t something you can just conjure up in your imagination, it’s something you discover. Yes, you can imagine that something exists or doesn’t exist, and even knowing that something is extant is ideational, but he’s trying to use multiple levels of the same concept to conflate existence of something in the sense in which it’s unknown until discovery with existence of something in the sense in which we can imagine or ‘internally postulate’ it for the sake of his argument.

Consider that “adding levels” like this can go on forever: we could imagine the perfect God, and then imagine all that plus the fact that He exists, and then imagine all that plus the fact that He exists plus the fact that this God we imagine as existing actually does exist, etc. In fact, imagining the third level there is actually implicitly asked of us in the argument: we’re asked to hypothesize that the God we’re conceiving actually exists, in order to conclude based on his reasoning that we’re right. This “being right” about the God we already imagined as existing composes the third level. It also illuminates the fact that our imagining he’s everything we define him as, only He also actually exists, is not really doing that (i.e. it’s not really imagining he’s everything we define him as only He actually exists), the whole thing still being a hypothesis at that point for the sake of argument to be proven later and therefore being a ledger-demain on Descartes’ part. It also illuminates the fact that the difference between the second God imagined and the first God imagined is not what it seems: when we imagine the first God, as I’ve said we’re not particularly imagining that He doesn’t exist; that fact is considered to be in question, and that’s also true for the second God imagined, as I’ve just revealed.

In short, either you’re thinking of a perfect being, or you’re not. If maximally perfect means existing, as defined in the argument, then we cannot conceive of a maximally perfect being unless he exists, and since we don’t know whether he exists without discovering it, we don’t know whether it’s possible to conceive of the maximally perfect being as he describes in his argument; we don’t know whether we’ve actually done so.

As an aside: Kant argued against the ontological proof of God with the simple retort that “existence is not a predicate.” I think this is over-simplified. Existence is a predicate. Existence refers to a concept, or we could not speak of it (by the use of a word “existence”). This concept we either attach to another concept (a concept of an object, such as a chair, or unicorns) or not. E.g. you have the idea of a chair, and you either attach the predicate “existence” to it (i.e., you say either “it exists” or “it doesn’t exist”), or in other words you “earmark” it as being extant or not, based on what you reason and perceive about it. You may have never even seen the chair, and you might say that it exists based upon something you’ve read. You could even have been misled by what you’ve read, yet you still say it exists. And you can’t even claim that something exists or not independently of whether you believe it exists, because you will always necessarily claim that it exists if you believe it exists and that it doesn’t if you believe that it doesn’t, so there is no room in your episteme/ideology to claim an existence-status that could vary from your belief about it, when you believe with 100% certainty.

So existence is clearly a concept. Specifically, it is a statement qualifying what we would expect to perceive or not perceive under various hypothetical conditions, conditions imaginable within the model of reality we hold. For example, “that chair exists” means that if I, hypothetically, will myself to do what I believe is activating my motor neurons in order to do what I believe is “walking over to where the chair,” or if I otherwise find myself in that “location” (“location” also being an idea pertaining to world-model that’s ultimately based upon sense impressions), then I should visually perceive “that chair,” meaning I should perceive some image/visual qualia that I abstractly determine meet whatever criteria are attached to the meaning of “a chair,” as well as other criteria attached to the specific chair in question. For the purposes of Descartes’ argument, though, whether existence is or is not a predicate is only relevant for one reason: Descartes wants to have his cake and eat it too by implying existence to be a predicate and to not be a predicate at the same time. That’s what Kant vaguely, if keenly, picked up on.

In the above argument I don’t necessarily mean to imply that there is no reality outside of our conception of it. What I meant to do is show that, in some sense, “existence” is in fact a predicate—if only in the sense that everything we know about and can speak of regarding reality is necessarily ideational.

But, to veer off into a different, but important, subject: if I wanted to make an argument that “the chair” doesn’t actually “exist” in any sense beyond our knowledge of it, I would say that material reality is a specific pattern of molecules that we arbitrarily segregate into conceptually discrete forms. For example, consider the group of molecules comprising “floor and chair.” At some fuzzy place in that set of molecules, where ‘floor’ molecules and the “chair” molecules intermingle, we say “the floor” ends and “the chair” begins. In reality it’s all just a large group of molecules, and it simply suits our purposes to consider it as two separate, discrete objects, and there isn’t even an absolutely exact boundary at which “the floor” ends and “the chair” begins. Is a splinter on the chair part of the chair? Is the paint on it part of the chair? What about the flake of paint that’s about to fall off? What about the flake that just did fall off? Is the rust on it part of it? The dirt left from sitting on it? Etc. It’s all arbitrary.

Now, instead of considering only the particles/energy-patterns composing ‘the chair’ and ‘the floor’, extend that concept to the universe a whole. Now all objects are merely concepts afforded by arbitrary delineations, except for two things: The universe, and individual molecules. And even molecules are, of course, made of even smaller particles (atoms), which are in turn made of even further smaller particles (subatomic particles), some of which are made of a) smaller particles (such as quarks), and b) nobody even knows. Even subatomic particles are not solids with clearly defined borders, as any physicist will tell you; it all boils down to fields. The presence of an electron, for example, actually tapers off gradually with distance. And particles are thought to be local excitations in fields that extend everywhere in space. Quantum entanglement even puts into question the actual separateness of things that are differentiated from each other by their locations. When you get down to string theory would, it almost seems as though the universe is supposed to be made out of pure math. So even imagining that the universe composes a set of objectively-discrete entities called ‘atoms’ (or whatever scale of entities you want to use as a base) doesn’t really work.

Then there is the second part to the argument that ‘the chair’ doesn’t exist beyond our knowledge of it: anything we can know of, insofar as we can know of it and therefore can speak of it, can only be ideational/mental, as knowledge is ideational. (We can also say ‘mental’, ‘conceptual’, ‘cognitive’ or whatever other word that does not seem too limiting.) Our entire understanding and definition of “the chair,” including all its attributes, is ideational. Whereas ‘external reality’ cannot be not ideational–or at least it’s presumed not to be, unless you subscribe to a theory that the entire universe is mental in nature. We’ll assume it isn’t for the sake of the argument, because that’s what most people believe. Since any two things we can compare must be ideas (inasmuch as we can even compare them), the difference between the ideational and the non-ideational (that is, “external reality”) is necessarily of a higher order than any difference we can comprehend. Given that fact, to presume that such ‘reality’ has anything like what we think of as ‘a chair’ in it seems to be a shot in the dark, at best.

I actually believe consciousness is primary and that matter is in some way a derivation of consciousness, I just wanted to take the common conception to its logical conclusion. However, it’s possible that whatever super-mind(s) or super-consciousness(es) the universe belongs to doesn’t particularly think in terms of chairs and floors..

Existence may be a predicate, but it’s one of the links between experience and conception. By trying to prove God exists based on pure logic, you’re taking experience out of the loop. Also, the idea of what constitutes “an even greater being” is way too vague or subjective to apply to pure logic.

I argued that existence is a predicate or property here too: https://myriachromat.wordpress.com/2019/12/09/is-the-universe-infinite/. Much of the argument is similar, but I also make a few important points in that argument that I don’t make here.

Instance 2.https://philosophy.inhahe.com/2019/12/09/is-the-universe-infinite/


“God, by definition, is that than which none is greater. God exists in the understanding. If God exists in the understanding, we could imagine Him to be greater by existing in reality. Therefore, God must exist.”

My argument:

To imagine or understand God is not a priori to imagine that He exists in understanding, so imagining that He exists in reality, rather than just in understanding, is not opposed to His existing only in understanding, it is opposed to imagining that He only exists in the understanding, which is something different and a “straw man.”

If you imagine He exists in reality because He is greater that way, you still don’t know if your imagination that He exists in reality matches the reality outside of your imagination, which means that you don’t know if God is greater than existing in the imagination, hence you don’t know if God exists if God is defined as existing outside of the imagination (saying that the definition of God implies He is greater than existing only in understanding therefore implies that he exists outside of imagination by definition), and if God isn’t defined as existing outside of the imagination, then there’s no reason to be compelled to imagine that He exists just by virtue of imagining Him.

I did contradict myself when I implied that God can even exist in the imagination, but so did the “proof” when it stated that God exists in the imagination, and then implied that God is defined as not existing in the imagination because otherwise he wouldn’t meet the criteria of being greater. Again it’s equivocation on the concept of “exists.” If “God exists” in the understanding, then “God exists” by definition, which is trivial but makes the rest of the argument superfluous. What he coyly didn’t say is that “the understanding of God exists in the understanding” and “if the understanding of God exists in the understanding..”, which would have made his argument sound a lot weaker (i.e. as weak as it really is).

Imagining He exists doesn’t make Him exist, and the reason we imagine it doesn’t matter. If we imagine it because we want a greater God, we either don’t necessarily know that the greater God exists, or we can’t imagine God in the first place unless He does exist.

One way of looking at the trick of this “proof” is that it says that God is that which there is none greater than, and then it posits a God that is less than that as real in order to logically redefine it as the God that is greater than it. This is self-contradictory because if it’s posited as something lesser then it’s not a real God by the author’s own admission. In other words, if God is restricted to being an extant God then He is not the God you at first imagined. Yes, the author presents “existing also” as being an expansion of some sort, but analytically it can be seen as a restriction also—existence-status unspecified versus a requirement that He exists, which is analogous to a color unspecified versus the specification that it is red..

To further untangle the epistemic confusion in the ontological argument.. as far as we’re able to compare greatness, we’re still imagining, and as far as we’re still imagining, we still can’t tell if what we’re imagining exists. So just by adding another, recursive layer in the hypothesis we don’t escape the tentativeness of the existence-status of imaginal beings.

It’s not that I don’t believe in God; I do.. It’s just that I’m really, really annoyed by sophistry. To be fair to Descartes, though, I once read that he basically had to make an argument for God’s existence to appease the church. As sophistry goes, I guess it was good enough to fool them.

Leave a Reply