In Meditation 3 of Rene Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes demonstrates the existence of God in several ways. One is a variant on the ontological argument for God’s existence:
- "But perhaps the being upon whom I am dependent is not God, and I have been produced…by some causes less perfect than Deity. This cannot be: …it is perfectly evident that there must at least be as much reality in the cause as in its effect; and accordingly, since I am a thinking thing and possess in myself an idea of God, whatever in the end be the cause of my existence, it must of necessity be admitted that it is likewise a thinking being, and that it possesses in itself the idea and all the perfections I attribute to Deity. Then it may again be inquired whether this cause owes its origin and existence to itself, or to some other cause. For if it be self-existent, it follows, from what I have before laid down, that this cause is God; for, since it possesses the perfection of self-existence, it must likewise, without doubt, have the power of actually possessing every perfection of which it has the idea–in other words, all the perfections I conceive to belong to God. But if it owe its existence to another cause than itself, we demand again, for a similar reason, whether this second cause exists of itself or through some other, until, from stage to stage, we at length arrive at an ultimate cause, which will be God.
- And it is quite manifest that in this matter there can be no infinite regress of causes…"1
We might try to reformulate this as:
- a being can only produce beings less perfect than itself.
- Nothingness has no quality or ‘perfection’ at all, otherwise it would be something.
- By 1 & 2, ex nihilo nihil fit—nothing comes from nothing. If something came from Nothing, a being (Nothing) would have produced something more perfect than itself since anything is more perfect than Nothing.
- Any being was created by a more perfect being, since it could not have been created by a less perfect being.
- If a being was created by a more perfect being (but not all-perfect), then that creator must have itself been created by a still more perfect being.
- Thus, given a being, we know it is either all-perfect, or there is a more perfect being.
- So there is either an infinite regress of more perfect beings, or it terminates in whatever has all perfections—God.
The disjunction depends on there being any being at all. So any being at all implies a God; although it does not prove there is an actual hierarchy between that being and God, since God could have created the lesser being directly rather than through a chain of creators.
Descartes’s cogito ergo sum has already proven that there exists at least one being (oneself, whatever one might actually be). So we can infer God.
Of course, we do need to make a few assumptions:
- perfection includes existence
- a more perfect being has the superset of its creation’s perfections (it must have all the perfections of its creation and then some).
We need the former assumption to prove that the ‘chain of being’, the induction upwards to God, doesn’t just arbitrarily stop somewhere with a being that just exists for no reason or arose out of Nothing.
And we need the latter assumption because otherwise we can point to real-world examples where creations are more perfect than their creators—lowlife parents who raise a pillar of the community, a programmer who develops a chess grandmaster, and so on. If we say that one or two properties is enough, then the chess program is more perfect than the programmer! This seems wrong.
Having granted both of these assumptions, our proof of God goes through. And I think something else goes through as well—a proof that either we are (a part of) God or that we do not exist.
Remember we said that existence is a perfection, and also that a superior being has the superset of its creations’ perfections.
What is a perfection? Well, either you have a certain property, or you don’t. It’s more perfect to be in possession of much money than none; more perfect to have good health than to lack it. So an imperfection is a lack of something. (Somewhat like the Augustinian conception of evil: a lack of goodness.)
Now, if existence is a perfection, then the existence of you or me poses no problem. We are imperfect because we lack all properties of existence in the universe except in the little spots we call our bodies. We lack the many perfections of being present in such-and-such a location. Our imperfections largely overlap except in the 2 location-perfections we have —I am imperfect & not present in Australia while you are imperfect & not present in the USA.
But what of our creator? It is supposed to have all of our perfections; the union of your perfections and my perfections include being present in Australia & being present in the United States (since as we have said, existence is a perfection and surely location is part of it).
And being a more perfect being, it likely exists in other places as well. It will exist in my A-location and your U-location, but China as well. But if it doesn’t? Well, either it is all-perfect (in which case it must be in C-location) or it has a more perfect creator; the creator’s creator is either in C-location, all-perfect (and thus in C-location), or has a more perfect creator… Obviously by induction, there must be a being with the perfection of being in A, B, and C-location.
And this same argument applies no matter what actual location we substitute in for ‘C-location’. Let’s imagine we do that for all locations in the universe, winding up with an entity which may be the all-perfect ‘God’; we’ll call it ‘Dog’.
In general, we ought to think that more perfect beings will exclusively ‘be’ in locations. Consider this exhaustive disjunction: either a more perfect being can
- coexist with a lesser being in a location; or
- be evicted or excluded from that lesser being’s location; or
exclude the lesser being.
Now, #2 is obviously wrong for both the proponent and opponent of the ontological argument. It is an absurd inversion of the power one expects a more perfect being to wield by its very definition, and it leads to a reductio of its own: that the perfect being cannot exist (because in every possible location there is some lesser being or Nothingness, which by #2 would exclude/
Possibility #3 lets this reductio go through, as it leads to the conclusion that God (the most perfect being) excludes all other beings. So one does not wish to accept it.
But #1 may not help either. It leads to problems with the idea of perfection and properties.
How can Dog exist where I exist? Surely it’s either something exists at a location or nothing does, not some mashed-up mixture of me and Dog. How could a more perfect being and a less perfect being coexist? If I and Dog are really the same thing at this location, isn’t Dog being lowered and contaminated by my imperfections, my lackings? And if he doesn’t exist where I do, then how is he the more perfect being, the one possessing all my properties/
In all these suggestions, it seems that this ‘simultaneous possession’ of a location involves some sort of bizarre treatment of being & location, or not the same location at all. We might say, if the most perfect being has all properties, then why doesn’t it have mine and why aren’t all properties manifested in all locations? One flaw in a diamond means it is no longer ‘flawless’, though the crack—the void—be ever so small. One vacuum in the universe would seem to be a lack of any being, every possible property unique to that location (of being exactly 100.1 miles away from the Sears Tower and also the Chrysler building, say) going unexpressed, being nonexistent. Disjunct #1 is a real bullet to bite, as compared to #3, which makes perfect intuitive sense.
But let’s say Dog exists on some other plane of being which is still connected in some way.
We can imagine a perfection or property of a being existing at both where I am and Dog’s location (eg. imagine I am at A-location but not spiritually at A’-location, and vice versa for Dog).
Now, either Dog has this property or not. If he does, then we’re back at the problem of co-existence. If he does not, then he is not all-perfect and so must have a creator as well, and by the same reasoning we showed that Dog is everywhere, we know there must be some being with all the properties Dog and I have, and also the property of being in both places; we’ll call him ‘Odg’.
How can Odg exist materially where I am but still be different from me? If he shares the same matter with me, then isn’t that imperfect? It is less powerful to share control than to have exclusive control. A corporate president who owns 100% of the company is more powerful and more perfectly in control than a president who owns 1% or 50%. How would Odg be satisfied with sharing space with me? Needing to seems rather imperfect.
So either Dog or Odg will exist at this location instead of me: they will exclusively inhabit the location. If they do not, then don’t they lack the property of exclusively inhabiting the location? If they let me hang around, aren’t they allowing imperfect little pockets of Nothing to riddle their space?
By the same logic, every location must be inhabited by a more perfect being; if it wasn’t somewhere, then that would be a defect, an absence, a nothingness.
So either we are part of that being, or we don’t exist. We clearly do exist, and we also clearly are not omnipresent gods (and we can’t argue that we might not know, for lacking knowledge would be an imperfection…).
So Descartes’s proof doesn’t work. We reject both parts of the concluding disjunction, but since our reductio seems perfectly logical, we must then reject one of the premises. The premise that existence is a perfection is the most dubious one.
If we negate the key premise of the ontological argument, and say that existence is not a perfection or property, then we can account for our existence. If existence is not a property, then we cannot say Nothing is all imperfections. It is just as plausibly all perfections, or perhaps neither.
So we lose our reason for thinking that only nothingness can come from nothing. If something can come from nothing, then we instantly allow for the sequence of lesser beings progressively evolving and attaining more perfections, culminating in ourselves. It is in our power to create a more perfect being; there’s no need for awkward denials that our creations must be inferior to ourselves or that they were really created by some higher power & not us.
One might ask why a particular something came from Nothing. Why that thing and not the other possibilities? Why not everything? Perhaps everything was created. It is compatible with our observations, by the Anthropic principle: if Nothing produces every possible thing, then there will be humans observing all human-compatible universes, and ours is such a universe. (Asking why we observe this human-compatible universe rather than a similar one would then be like asking why 2 comes after 1, and not after 3.)
So this account avoids the issues of ever more perfect beings, dissolves the ontological argument in one of the oldest acceptable ways (devised by Kant), and also adheres to all our observations; unfortunately for Descartes, his proof of God must be rejected.
Translated by John Veitch (1901).↩︎