What Descartes Proved

The Latin subtitle of Descartes’ Meditations advertises that they not merely assert but demonstrate the existence of God and an immortal soul. However, as noted in the Cambridge Descartes Lexicon, neither the word “immortality” nor “immortal” even appears in the body of the text. Descartes does convincingly argue that even in the very act of doubting everything, it is apparent that something is going on — that there is awareness or “thinking”, even on the extreme assumption that everything it thinks is mistaken.

“What then did I formerly believe myself to be? Undoubtedly I thought myself to be a man. But what is a man? Shall I say a rational animal? No, for then I should have to inquire what is ‘animal’, what ‘rational’; and thus from one question I should be drawn on into several others yet more difficult. I have not, at present, the leisure for any such subtle inquiries. Instead I prefer to meditate on the thoughts which of themselves spring up in my mind” (Descartes’ Philosophical Writings, trans. Norman Kemp Smith, pp. 203-204).

Descartes argues that bodily phenomena are not clearly “me”, but that I cannot separate myself from my awareness. “Thinking? Here I find what does belong to me: it alone cannot be separated from me. I am, I exist. This is certain. How often? As often as I think” (p. 205).

He makes a subtle transition from arguments about the indubitable existence of some awareness to arguments about something that has the awareness.

“What is a thinking thing? It is a thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, abstains from willing, that also can be aware of images and sensations” (p. 206). Elsewhere he also includes love and hate. Using contemporary vocabulary, Gueroult calls this a thinking subject (Gueroult, Descartes, p. 40), a word Descartes himself does not use in this context. Descartes identifies it with his own view of the soul. Though Descartes thinks it is separable from the body and the world, he treats it as a concrete “me”.

This concrete me-thing is supposed to have some very strong properties. Descartes claims it is a substance — apparently in the sense of something underlying — and that we can know something is a substance without knowing it as a substance. Secondly, “Interior to the Cogito, consciousness [French conscience, which predated Cudworth and Locke’s English word] and consciousness of consciousness are identical” (Gueroult, p. 99, my translation, brackets and emphasis added). Thirdly, the Cartesian soul is supposed to have “infinite” free will.

On my reading, the earlier transition from the indubitability of the existence of some concrete awareness — which I take to be genuinely irrefutable — to the assumption of a “thing” that has the awareness, is only valid if the “thing” is strictly identified with the awareness itself. But if the “thing” is identical with the awareness we started with, then the transition to calling it a substance is not justified. Conversely, if “thing” does have strong enough meaning to justify calling it a substance, the transition from thinking to a thinking thing was unjustified.

The identity of consciousness and consciousness of consciousness seems to be a completely unproven and unprovable assumption — one that I think Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Ricoeur each convincingly suggest we should oppose. Gueroult quotes Descartes in a letter making the weaker claim that (contrary to what Locke would assert a bit later) the soul is capable of thinking of many things at once. If we accept this, that would make a simultaneity of consciousness and consciousness of consciousness possible in particular cases, but it still falls far short of establishing their identity.

Like many voluntarists, Descartes makes a leap from the much weaker claim that we make real choices, to the ultra-strong claim that our power of choice is completely unconditioned, and that divine omnipotence exempts it from the natural order altogether.

He argues at length that an omnipotent God is the necessary foundation of the razor-thin subjective certainty he discovered by introspection. The arguments about God are introduced as follows: “Those [ideas] which represent substances are without doubt something more, and contain in themselves, so to speak, more objective reality (that is to say participate by representation in a higher degree of being or perfection) than those which represent only modes or accidents; and again, the idea by which I apprehend a supreme God, eternal, infinite, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, and the creator of all things which are on addition to Himself, has certainly in it more objective reality than those ideas by which finite substances are represented.”

“Now it is manifest by the natural light that there must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause. For whence can the effect draw its reality if not from its cause? How could this cause communicate to it this reality if it did not itself have it? And hence it follows… that what is more perfect, i.e. contains more reality, cannot proceed from what is less perfect” (pp. 219-220).

“By the name God I mean a substance that is infinite, immutable, independent, all-knowing, all-powerful, and by which I myself and everything else, if any such things there be, have been created. All those attributes are so great and so eminent, that the more attentively I consider them the less does it seem possible that they can have proceeded from myself alone; and thus, in the light of all that has been said, we have no option save to conclude that God exists” (p. 224).

Out of nowhere, we suddenly have an unexplained appeal to a fully formed late-scholastic distinction between substance, mode, and accident, and other scholastic reasoning about the superiority of causes to their effects. The implicit claim seems to be that these very particular historical formulations are universally given in intellectual intuition.

Descartes’ subsequent argument is literally that God is the efficient and total cause of everything, therefore He exists. Need I point out that only an existing being could be an efficient and total cause in the first place (assuming there is such a thing as a total cause)? And that the argument is therefore patently circular? Though still debatable, Anselm’s ontological proof and the various arguments of Aquinas were much more persuasive than this.

Plotinus, Augustine, and Avicenna all anticipated Descartes’ strong sense of interiority. What was relatively new in the metaphysics of Descartes was his narrow point about the otherwise empty certainty that “awareness exists”, but even that was partially anticipated by Avicenna’s “flying man” argument.

Augustinian Interiority

Among the hallmarks of historiographical seriousness is a concern to avoid over-generalization. In that spirit, since I have made quasi-polemical references to Augustine and Augustinianism in broad-brush sketches of the history of notions of subjectivity, it seems right to pause for a few caveats.

Augustine is the main early source in the Western tradition for a specific notion of mental interiority. However, at the very beginning there is a surprising twist. At least, it is surprising for us moderns conditioned by Descartes and Locke. For it turns out that for Augustine, when one looks within to the inner man, what one finds is the opposite of something private.

For Augustine, the inner man participates in a community of the spirit, and interiority opens out into universality. The inner man is a source of a kind of integrity more than individuality. It is rather our view of the external world that is the locus of what we might call subjective particularity. The idea that what is inner is universal puts Augustine much closer to Plotinus than to Descartes in this way. The inner man is not a modern ego. Augustine fused notions of mind and personality, but again, his variant of the notion of personality had more to do with trinitarian theology than with individuality. Even the meaning of his early strong voluntarism is modified by this.

Among the early Christian fathers, Augustine was among the most philosophical. According to his own testimony in the Confessions, his reading of Plotinus was a spiritual event second only to his conversion to Christianity, and remained important after his conversion. As much as he emphasized faith, he also emphasized seeking understanding. He clearly acknowledged a degree of bilateral accommodation of faith and reason, for instance in his writings on the interpretation of scripture.

It should also be noted that many of the later theologians I broadly characterize as Augustinian developed sophisticated hybrid positions on various philosophical issues, however much I might criticize, e.g., their voluntarism or their anti-Aristotelianism couched in Aristotelian vocabulary. (See also Ricoeur on Augustine on Time; Nature and Justice in Augustine; Mind Without Mentalism; Subject; Freedom and Free Will; God and the Soul.)