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An Irony of History: Descartes’, the Fideist, and Subsequent Rationalism

In modern America God has been officially banished. I say, “officially,” as eighty-two percent of the American population believe in or practice Christianity at some level of commitment, while another seven percent are Mormon, Jewish, Pantheist or Muslim (Barna). Only eleven percent are “Skeptics.” Yet, Christianity is virtually banished from the primary and secondary campuses of America. Christians have had to fight vigorously in the court system just to have voluntary clubs on school premises. Prayer before state and national legislatures still exists in various forms, but they are quite generic. “Under God” still exists on our coins and in our pledge of allegiance, but in reality these retentions remain tokenism, and strong forces are trying to banish even that remnant.

In a nation whose population was overwhelming Christian in its origin, culturally and politically, how did God become “officially” banned? How did America produce Humanist Manifestoes I, II, and III that do not allow for any “supernatural” power? I submit that this change took place because of the progressive influence of a radical rationalism that grew out of the Enlightenment which eventually produced evolutionism, scientism, logical positivism, and secular humanism. And, herein is one great irony of history. René Descartes (1596-1650), who is called the “Father of Modern Philosophy,” and even the “Father of Rationalism,” made God, not man, his first philosophy: the foundation of his being able to reason with certainty.

His Meditations on First Philosophy contains a rather considerable description of the character of God. In his First Meditation, he begins to introduce this God, as “(He) who is able to do anything and by whom … I have been created” (21). He has “obtained steady possession of my mind.” He suggests that God may have brought about all those “extended things” and other images with which his mind is constantly engaged. “Perhaps God has not willed that I be deceived in this way for he is said to be supremely good. Let us not oppose his activity in my thinking at this stage in my reasoning.” As Descartes contemplates a powerful demon who might deceive him, he knows that the God “who is sovereignly good and the fountain of truth” will not.

In Mediation II, Descartes continues about this God “who instills these very thoughts in me.” But that is his only mention of God in this meditation, as He proceeds to discuss his possibly malevolent demon and his “Cogito,” as the basis for sound reasoning through this stage of his mediations.

In Mediation III, the reader is not surprised about Descartes’ attention to God, as its title is, “Concerning God, That He Exists.” He admits of a “preconceived opinion about the supreme power of God and that he has yet no reason to think him a deceiver or even that he exists” (36). He moves on to discuss the origin of his ideas, “… some appear to me to be innate, some adventitious, and some produced by me” (38). Then, he speaks of the “light of nature” and “natural impulses,” which concepts at this stage of his reasoning are unclear (38). He progresses to “ideas (being) formed in me without any help” (39). He moves to “ideas that display substances to me … (of a) more objective reality,” but “the idea that enables me to understand a supreme deity, eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, and creator of all things other than himself, clearly has more objective reality” (40). For sure, this God has been described in some detail! We are getting to know a great deal about his character and attributes.

“It follows that something cannot come into being out of nothing, and also what is more perfect cannot come into being from what is less perfect” (41). He argues that point for several paragraphs. Finally, “there remains only the idea of God…. I understand by the name ‘God’ a certain substance that is infinite, independent, supremely intelligent and supremely powerful that created me along with everything else that exists…. I must conclude that God necessarily exists” (45). “My perception of God is prior to my perception of myself” (45). Descartes does not name “all the remaining perfections of God,” but clearly he has an idea that God is more than he has already described (47). Later, he says, “I have taken the ideas of the various perfections I attribute to God from a variety of causes…. the unity, the simplicity … the inseparability of all those features that are in God is one of the chief perfections….” (50). “I have somehow been made in his image and his likeness, and that I perceive this likeness, in which the idea of God is contained, by means of the same faculty by which I perceive myself” (51).

He concludes his argument, thus far, by grounding all his certainty in God:

The whole force of the argument rests on the fact that I recognize that it would be impossible for me to exist, being of such a nature as I am (namely having in me the idea of God), unless God in fact did exist…. a being having all those perfections that I cannot comprehend… a being subject to no defects whatever (51).

He ends this Third Meditation wanting to take a break from it “to spend some time contemplating this God, to ponder his attributes … to gaze upon the beauty of this immense light…. the greatest felicity of the next life (consisting) solely in this contemplation of the divine majesty….” (52). This statement shows his personal worship of the wonders of this God.

In Mediation Four Descartes calls him “the true God” (54). He has no “trickery” or “deception” and thus no “maliciousness” or “weakness.” Descartes has within himself “a certain faculty of judgment, which … I undoubtedly received from God.” Descartes again finds God to be a “supremely perfect being.” The remainder of this meditation discusses how this faculty, while not perfect, as God’s is, nevertheless allows Descartes to reason clearly.

Meditation V is entitled, “Concerning the Essence of Material Things, and Again Concerning God That He Exists,” so the reader anticipates more discussion about God.  He then distinguishes God from man. “Existence can no more be separated from God’s essence than … having three angles equal to two right angles can be separated from the essence of a triangle” (66). Later, he limits God to being one. “I cannot understand how there could be two or more Gods of this kind” (68). So, Descartes has moved from his Cogito to grounding his clarity of thought in God to this ontological argument for God’s existence!

In Meditation Six Descartes grounds the possibility of understanding sensory objects in the fact that God could not be a “deceiver” about “corporeal things” (80), that I have “a faculty given me by God for the purpose of … understanding nothing other than the combinations of all the things bestowed upon me by God” (80), and that because of all this (his whole argument in these mediations), “I am in no way mistaken in these matters” (90).

A Summary of Descartes’ God, an Observation, and a Suggestion

Descartes’ God is all-powerful (omnipotent); the creator of Descartes’ and all things out of nothing; not a deceiver (he is not the powerful demon that Descartes feared in the beginning of his meditations); extremely good; one who implants ideas into minds (that is, intuited or innate); eternal, infinite, and omniscient; independent and supremely intelligent; unity and simplicity; the ground of all existence; perfection with no defects whatever; immense light; creator of man in his own image with faculties of mind that provide the ability to know with certainty; and finally, the only being whose essence cannot be separated from his existence. His only omission from the Christian idea of God would be the idea of the Trinity, which was not necessary to his project.

Descartes was educated by Jesuits and lived in France where Catholicism was virtually unopposed by Protestantism after the Bartholomew’s massacre of the Huguenots in 1572. It is fascinating that in making his best attempt to know only that which was certain, that he twice grounded his reason in God’s character. That character was consistent with that of the Catholic Church both then and now. Also, it is amazingly consistent with the idea of God in Protestantism, for example, Chapter Two, “Of God, and the Holy Trinity,” of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1643-1648), a concise, conservative Protestant statement about God.

The Father of Modern Philosophy and of Reason not only did not find reason inconsistent with the biblical idea of God, confirmed by both Catholics and Protestants, but found it necessary to ground his reason in the perfect attributes of God. Modern rationalists, who find no place for the supernatural in their reason, will at least find irony in their claim to rationalism when contrasted with that of Descartes. They may even begin to see that rationalism is not inconsistent with belief in God, but that He is necessary for the grounding of reason itself.

* Numbers refer to the pagination in Oeuvres de Descartes, publiés par Charles Adam et Paul Tannery, 13 volumes, Paris: Cerf, 1897-1913, from which our textbook was translated: René Descartes, trans. Donald A. Cress, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, 4th Ed., (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998).


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