PHIL 101 SUNY at Stony Brook State of Nature Paper

Read Chapter 18 (pp. 404-427).

John Locke, like Thomas Hobbes, speaks of the “state of nature”. Locke’s description, however, differs in many respect from that of Hobbes.  Imagine these two philosophers had lunch together, and that each was trying to persuade the other that his own view was the correct one.  Write a story about this imaginary discussion.

Be sure to include the account each gives for why people in a state of nature benefit from leaving it behind.

Meditations on First Philosophy
Both inferences seem to be correct. What reason is there
to prefer Bridget’s formulation?
Now we can understand why Descartes introduces the wax example. If even here knowledge
cannot be found in sensation, but only in a “purely
mental inspection,” then we should recognize that
knowledge of what we are must also be approached
in this way. Our tendency to think of ourselves as
what we can sense of ourselves—these hands, this
head, these eyes—is considerably undermined.
Indeed, I must know myself “much more truly and
certainly” even than the wax.
There follows a remarkable conclusion: “I
can’t grasp anything more easily or plainly than my
mind.” (What would Freud have said to that?)
Q13. What qualities, then, belong to the wax
essentially? (Look again at the basic principles of
Descartes’ physics on pp. 361–362.)
Q14. Why is our imagination incapable of grasping
these qualities of the wax? By what faculty do
we grasp it?
Q15. How does the wax example help to cure our
habitual inclination to trust the senses?
Q16. How does our language tend to mislead us?
Meditation III: On God’s Existence
I will now close my eyes, plug my ears, and withdraw all my senses. I will rid my thoughts of the
images of physical objects—or, since that’s beyond
me, I’ll write those images off as empty illusions.
Talking with myself and looking more deeply into
myself, I’ll try gradually to come to know myself
better. I am a thinking thing—a thing that doubts,
affirms, denies, understands a few things, is ignorant of many things, wills, and refuses. I also sense
and have mental images. For, as I’ve noted, even
though the things of which I have sensations or
mental images may not exist outside me, I’m certain that the modifications of thought called sensations and mental images exist in me insofar as they
are just modifications of thought.
That’s a summary of all that I really know—
or, at any rate, of all that I’ve so far noticed that I
know. I now will examine more carefully whether
there are other things in me that I have not yet
discovered. I’m certain that I am a thinking thing.
Then don’t I know what’s needed for me to be certain of other things? In this first knowledge, there
is nothing but a clear and distinct grasp of what I
affirm, and this grasp surely would not suffice to
make me certain if it could ever happen that something I grasped so clearly and distinctly was false.
Accordingly, I seem to be able to establish the general rule that whatever I clearly and distinctly grasp
is true.
But, in the past, I’ve accepted as completely
obvious and certain many thoughts that I later
found to be dubious. What were these thoughts
about? The earth, the sky, the stars, and other objects of sense. But what did I clearly grasp about
these objects? Only that ideas or thoughts of them
appeared in my mind. Even now, I don’t deny that
these ideas occur in me. But there was something
else that I used to affirm—something that I used to
believe myself to grasp clearly but did not really
grasp at all: I affirmed that there were things besides me, that the ideas in me came from these
things, and that the ideas perfectly resembled these
things. Either I erred here, or I reached a true judgment that wasn’t justified by the strength of my
But what follows? When I considered very
simple and easy points of arithmetic or ­geometry—
such as that two and three together make five—
didn’t I see them clearly enough to affirm their
truth? My only reason for judging that I ought to
CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty
doubt these things was the thought that my Godgiven nature might deceive me even about what
seems most obvious. Whenever I conceive of an allpowerful God, I’m compelled to admit that, if He
wants, He can make it the case that I err even about
what I take my mind’s eye to see most clearly. But,
when I turn to the things that I believe myself to
grasp very clearly, I’m so convinced by them that
I spontaneously burst forth saying, “Whoever may
deceive me, he will never bring it about that I am
nothing while I think that I am something, or that
I have never been when it is now true that I am,
or that two plus three is either more or less than
five, or that something else in which I recognize an
obvious inconsistency is true.” And, since I have no
reason for thinking that God is a deceiver—indeed
since I don’t yet know whether God exists—the
grounds for doubt that rest on the supposition that
God deceives are very weak and “metaphysical.”
Still, to rid myself of these grounds, I ought to ask
as soon as possible whether there is a God and, if
so, whether He can be a deceiver. For it seems
that, until I know these two things, I can never be
completely certain of anything else.
The structure of my project seems to require,
however, that I first categorize my thoughts and
ask in which of them truth and falsity really reside.
Some of my thoughts are like images of things, and
only these can properly be called ideas. I have an
idea, for example, when I think of a man, of a chimera, of heaven, of an angel, or of God. But other
thoughts have other properties: while I always apprehend something as the object of my thought
when I will, fear, affirm, or deny, these thoughts
also include a component in addition to the likeness
of that thing. Some of these components are called
volitions or emotions; others, judgments.
Now, viewed in themselves and without regard
to other things, ideas cannot really be false. If
I imagine a chimera and a goat, it is just as true that
I imagine the chimera as that I imagine the goat.
And I needn’t worry about falsehoods in volitions
or emotions. If I have a perverse desire for something, or if I want something that doesn’t exist, it’s
still true that I want that thing. All that remains,
then, are my judgments; it’s here that I must be
careful not to err. And the first and foremost of the
errors that I find in my judgments is that of assuming
that the ideas in me have a similarity or conformity
to things outside me. For, if I were to regard ideas
merely as modifications of thought, they could not
really provide me with any opportunity for error.
Of my ideas, some seem to me to be innate,
others acquired, and others produced by me. The
ideas by which I understand reality, truth, and
thought seem to have come from my own nature.
Those ideas by which I hear a noise, see the sun, or
feel the fire I formerly judged to come from things
outside me. And the ideas of sirens, hippogriffs,
and so on I have formed in myself. Or maybe I can
take all of my ideas to be acquired, all innate, or all
created by me: I do not yet clearly see where my
ideas come from.
For the moment, the central question is about
the ideas that I view as derived from objects existing outside me. What reason is there for thinking
that these ideas resemble the objects? I seem to
have been taught this by nature. Besides, I find
that these ideas are independent of my will and
hence of me—for they often appear when I do
not want them to do so. For example, I now feel
heat whether I want to or not, and I therefore
take the idea or sensation of heat to come from
something distinct from me: the heat of the fire
by which I am now sitting. And the obvious thing
to think is that a thing sends me its own likeness,
not something else.
I will now see whether these reasons are good
enough. When I say that nature teaches me something, I mean just that I have a spontaneous impulse
to believe it, not that the light of nature reveals the
thing’s truth to me. There is an important difference. When the light of nature reveals something
to me (such as that my thinking implies my existing) that thing is completely beyond doubt, since
there is no faculty as reliable as the light of nature
by means of which I could learn that the thing is not
true. But, as for my natural impulses, I have often
judged them to have led me astray in choices about
what’s good, and I don’t see why I should regard
them as any more reliable on matters concerning
truth and falsehood.
Next, while my sensory ideas may not depend
on my will, it doesn’t follow that they come from
Meditations on First Philosophy
outside me. While the natural impulses of which I
just spoke are in me, they seem to conflict with my
will. Similarly, I may have in me an as yet undiscovered ability to produce the ideas that seem to
come from outside me—in the way that I used to
think that ideas came to me in dreams.
Finally, even if some of my ideas do come from
things distinct from me, it doesn’t follow that
they are likenesses of these things. Indeed, it often
seems to me that an idea differs greatly from its
cause. For example, I find in myself two different
ideas of the sun. One, which I “take in” through the
senses and which I ought therefore to view as a typical acquired idea, makes the sun look very small
to me. The other, which I derive from astronomical reasoning (that is, which I make, perhaps by
composing it from innate ideas), pictures the sun as
many times larger than the earth. It clearly cannot
be that both of these are accurate likenesses of a
sun that exists outside me, and reason convinces
me that the one least like the sun is the one that
seems to arise most directly from it.
All that I’ve said shows that, until now, my
belief that there are things outside me that send
their ideas or images to me (perhaps through my
senses) has rested on blind impulse rather than certain judgment.
Still, it seems to me that there may be a way
of telling whether my ideas come from things that
exist outside me. Insofar as the ideas of things are
just modifications of thought, I find no inequality among them; all seem to arise from me in the
same way. But, insofar as different ideas present
different things to me, there obviously are great
differences among them. The ideas of substances
are unquestionably greater—or have more “subjective reality”—than those of modifications or accidents. Similarly, the idea by which I understand
the supreme God—eternal, infinite, omniscient,
omnipotent, and creator of all things other than
Himself—has more subjective reality in it than the
ideas of finite substances.
Now, the light of nature reveals that there is
at least as much in a complete efficient cause as in
its effect. For where could an effect get its reality if not from its cause? And how could a cause
give something unless it had it? It follows both that
something cannot come from nothing and that
what is more perfect—that is, has more reality
in it—cannot come from what is less perfect or
has less reality. This obviously holds, not just for
those effects whose reality is actual or formal, but
also for ideas, whose reality we regard as merely
subjective. For example, it’s impossible for a nonexistent stone to come into existence unless it’s
produced by something containing, either formally
or eminently, everything in the stone. Similarly,
heat can only be induced in something that’s not
already hot by something having at least the same
degree of perfection as heat. Also, it’s impossible
for the idea of heat or of stone to be in me unless it’s
been put there by a cause having at least as much
reality as I conceive of in the heat or the stone.
For, although the cause doesn’t transmit any of its
actual or formal reality to the idea, we shouldn’t
infer that it can be less real than the idea; all that
we can infer is that by its nature the idea doesn’t
require any formal reality except what it derives
from my thought, of which it is a modification.
Yet, as the idea contains one particular subjective
reality rather than another, it must get this reality
from a cause having at least as much formal reality
as the idea has subjective reality. For, if we suppose that an idea has something in it that wasn’t
in its cause, we must suppose that it got this thing
from nothing. However imperfect the existence
of something that exists subjectively in the understanding through an idea, it obviously is something,
and it therefore cannot come from nothing.
And, although the reality that I’m considering
in my ideas is just subjective, I ought not to suspect
that it can fail to be in an idea’s cause formally—that
it’s enough for it to be there subjectively. For, just
as the subjective existence of my ideas belongs to
the ideas in virtue of their nature, the formal existence of the ideas’ causes belongs to those causes—
or, at least, to the first and foremost of them—in
virtue of the causes’ nature. Although one idea may
arise from another, this can’t go back to infinity;
we must eventually arrive at a primary idea whose
cause is an “archetype” containing formally all the
reality that the idea contains subjectively. Hence,
the light of nature makes it clear to me that the
ideas in me are like images that may well fall short
CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty
of the things from which they derive, but cannot
contain anything greater or more perfect.
The more time and care I take in studying this,
the more clearly and distinctly I know it to be true.
But what follows from it? If I can be sure that the
subjective reality of one of my ideas is so great
that it isn’t in me either formally or eminently and
hence that I cannot be the cause of that idea, I can
infer that I am not alone in the world—that there
exists something else that is the cause of the idea.
But, if I can find no such idea in me, I will have no
argument at all for the existence of anything other
than me—for, having diligently searched for such
an argument, I have yet to find one.
Of my ideas—besides my idea of myself, about
which there can be no problem here—one presents God, others inanimate physical objects, others
angels, others animals, and still others men like me.
As to my idea of other men, of animals, and of
angels, it’s easy to see that—even if the world contained no men but me, no animals, and no angels—
I could have composed these ideas from those that
I have of myself, of physical objects, and of God.
And, as to my ideas of physical objects, it seems
that nothing in them is so great that it couldn’t have
come from me. For, if I analyze my ideas of physical objects carefully, taking them one by one as I
did yesterday when examining my idea of the piece
of wax, I notice that there is very little in them
that I grasp clearly and distinctly. What I do grasp
clearly and distinctly in these ideas is size (which
is extension in length, breadth, and depth), shape
(which arises from extension’s limits), position
(which the differently shaped things have relative
to one another), and motion (which is just change
of position). To these I can add substance, duration, and number. But my thoughts of other things
in physical objects (such as light and color, sound,
odor, taste, heat and cold, and tactile qualities) are
so confused and obscure that I can’t say whether
they are true or false—whether my ideas of these
things are of something or of nothing. Although,
as I noted earlier, that which is properly called
falsehood—namely, formal falsehood—can only be
found in judgments, we can still find falsehood of
another sort—namely, material falsehood—in an
idea when it presents what is not a thing as though
it were a thing. For example, the ideas that I have
of coldness and heat are so unclear and indistinct
that I can’t tell from them whether coldness is just
the absence of heat, or heat just the absence of
coldness, or both are real qualities, or neither is.
And, since every idea is “of something,” the idea
that presents coldness to me as something real and
positive could justifiably be called false if coldness
were just the absence of heat. And the same holds
true for other ideas of this sort.
For such ideas, I need not posit a creator distinct from me. I know by the light of nature that,
if one of these ideas is false—that is, if it doesn’t
present a real thing—it comes from nothing—that
is, the only cause of its being in me is a deficiency
of my nature, which clearly is imperfect. If one of
these ideas is true, however, I still see no reason
why I couldn’t have produced it myself—for these
ideas present so little reality to me that I can’t even
distinguish it from nothing.
Of the things that are clear and distinct in my
ideas of physical objects, it seems that I may have
borrowed some—such as substance, duration, and
number—from my idea of myself. I think of the
stone as a substance—that is, as something that
can exist on its own—just as I think of myself as
a substance. Although I conceive of myself as a
thinking and unextended thing and of the stone as
an extended and unthinking thing so that the two
conceptions are quite different, they are the same
in that they both seem to be of substances. And,
when I grasp that I exist now while remembering
that I existed in the past, or when I count my various thoughts, I get the idea of duration or number,
which I can then apply to other things. The other
components of my ideas of physical objects—­
extension, shape, place, and motion—can’t be in
me formally, since I’m just a thinking thing. But,
as these things are just modes of substance, and as
I am a substance, it seems that they may be in me
All that’s left is my idea of God. Is there something in this idea of God that couldn’t have come
from me? By “God” I mean a substance that’s
infinite, independent, supremely intelligent, and
supremely powerful—the thing from which I and
everything else that may exist derive our existence.
Meditations on First Philosophy
The more I consider these attributes, the less it
seems that they could have come from me alone.
So I must conclude that God necessarily exists.
While I may have the idea of substance in me by
virtue of my being a substance, I who am finite would
not have the idea of infinite substance in me unless it
came from a substance that really was infinite.
And I shouldn’t think that, rather than having
a true idea of infinity, I grasp it merely as the absence of limits—in the way that I grasp rest as the
absence of motion and darkness as the absence of
light. On the contrary, it’s clear to me that there
is more reality in an infinite than in a finite substance and hence that my grasp of the infinite must
somehow be prior to my grasp of the finite—my
understanding of God prior to my understanding
of myself. For how could I understand that I doubt
and desire, that I am deficient and imperfect, if I
didn’t have the idea of something more perfect to
use as a standard of comparison?
And, unlike the ideas of hot and cold which I just
discussed, the idea of God cannot be said to be materially false and hence to come from nothing. On
the contrary, since the idea of God is completely
clear and distinct and contains more subjective reality than any other idea, no idea is truer per se and
none less open to the suspicion of falsity. The idea
of a supremely perfect and infinite entity is, I maintain, completely true. For, while I may be able to
suppose that there is no such entity, I can’t even
suppose (as I did about the idea of coldness) that my
idea of God fails to show me something real. This
idea is maximally clear and distinct, for it contains
everything that I grasp clearly and distinctly, everything real and true, everything with any perfection.
It doesn’t matter that I can’t fully comprehend the
infinite—that there are innumerable things in God
which I can’t comprehend fully or even reach with
thought. Because of the nature of the infinite, I who
am finite cannot comprehend it. It’s enough that I
think about the infinite and judge that, if I grasp
something clearly and distinctly and know it to
have some perfection, it’s present either formally
or eminently—perhaps along with innumerable
other things of which I am ignorant—in God. If I
do this, then of all my ideas the idea of God will be
most true and most clear and distinct.
But maybe I am greater than I have assumed;
maybe all the perfections that I attributed to God
are in me potentially, still unreal and unactualized. I
have already seen my knowledge gradually increase,
and I don’t see anything to prevent its becoming
greater and greater to infinity. Nor do I see why,
by means of such increased knowledge, I couldn’t
get all the rest of God’s perfections. Finally, if the
potential for these perfections is in me, I don’t see
why that potential couldn’t account for the production of the ideas of these perfections in me.
None of this is possible. First, while it’s true
that my knowledge gradually increases and that I
have many as yet unactualized potentialities, none
of this fits with my idea of God, in whom absolutely
nothing is potential; indeed, the gradual increase in
my knowledge shows that I am imperfect. Besides,
I see that, even if my knowledge were continually to become greater and greater, it would never
become actually infinite, since it would never
become so great as to be unable to increase. But
I judge God to be actually infinite so that nothing
can be added to his perfection. Finally, I see that an
idea’s subjective being must be produced, not by
mere potentiality (which, strictly speaking, is nothing), but by what is actual or formal.
When I pay attention to these things, the light
of nature makes all of them obvious. But, when
I attend less carefully and the images of sensible
things blind my mind’s eye, it’s not easy for me to
remember why the idea of an entity more perfect
than I am must come from an entity that really is
more perfect. That’s why I’ll go on to ask whether
I, who have the idea of a perfect entity, could exist
if no such entity existed.
From what might I derive my existence if not
from God? Either from myself, or from my parents, or from something else less perfect than
God—for nothing more perfect than God, or even
as perfect as Him, can be thought of or imagined.
But, if I derived my existence from myself, I
wouldn’t doubt, or want, or lack anything. I would
have given myself every perfection of which I have
an idea, and thus I myself would be God. And I
shouldn’t think that it might be harder to give
myself what I lack than what I already have. On
the contrary, it would obviously be much harder
CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty
for me, a thinking thing or substance, to emerge
from nothing than for me to give myself knowledge of the many things of which I am ignorant,
which is just an attribute of substance. But surely,
if I had given myself that which is harder to get, I
wouldn’t have denied myself complete knowledge,
which would have been easier to get. Indeed, I
wouldn’t have denied myself any of the perfections
that I grasp in the idea of God. None of these perfections seems harder to get than existence. But,
if I had given myself everything that I now have,
these perfections would have seemed harder to get
than existence if they were harder to get—for in
creating myself I would have discovered the limits
of my power.
I can’t avoid the force of this argument by supposing that, since I’ve always existed as I do now,
there’s no point in looking for my creator. Since
my lifetime can be divided into innumerable parts
each of which is independent of the others, the fact
that I existed a little while ago does not entail that
I exist now, unless a cause “recreates” me—or, in
other words, preserves me—at this moment. For,
when we attend to the nature of time, it’s obvious that exactly the same power and action are required to preserve a thing at each moment through
which it endures as would be required to create
it anew if it had never existed. Hence, one of the
things revealed by the light of nature is that preservation and creation differ only in the way we think
of them.
I ought to ask myself, then, whether I have the
power to ensure that I, who now am, will exist
in a little while. Since I am nothing but a thinking thing—or, at any rate, since I am now focusing
on the part of me that thinks—I would surely be
aware of this power if it were in me. But I find no
such power. And from this I clearly see that there
is an entity distinct from me on whom I depend.
But maybe this entity isn’t God. Maybe I am the
product of my parents or of some other cause less
perfect than God. No. As I’ve said, there must be
at least as much in a cause as in its effect. Hence,
since I am a thinking thing with the idea of God
in me, my cause, whatever it may be, must be a
thinking thing having in it the idea of every perfection that I attribute to God. And we can go on to
ask whether this thing gets its existence from itself
or from something else. If it gets its existence from
itself, it’s obvious from what I’ve said that it must
be God—for it would have the power to exist on
its own and hence the power actually to give itself
every perfection of which it has an idea, including
every perfection that I conceive of in God. But, if
my cause gets its existence from some other thing,
we can go on to ask whether this other thing gets its
existence from itself or from something else. Eventually, we will come to the ultimate cause, which
will be God.
It’s clear enough that there can’t be an infinite
regress here—especially since I am concerned, not
so much with the cause that originally produced
me, as with the one that preserves me at the present moment.
And I can’t suppose that several partial causes
combined to make me or that I get the ideas of the
various perfections that I attribute to God from different causes so that, while each of these perfections can
be found somewhere in the universe, there is no God
in whom they all come together. On the contrary,
one of the chief perfections that I understand God to
have is unity, simplicity, inseparability from everything in Him. Surely the idea of the unity of all God’s
perfections can only have been put in me by a cause
that gives me the ideas of all the other ­perfections—
for nothing could make me aware of the unbreakable
connection of God’s perfections unless it made me
aware of what those perfections are.
Finally, even if everything that I used to believe
about my parents is true, it’s clear that they don’t
preserve me. Insofar as I am a thinking thing, they
did not even take part in creating me. They simply
formed the matter in which I used to think that
I (that is, my mind, which is all I am now taking
myself to be) resided. There can therefore be no
problem about my parents. And I am driven to this
conclusion: The fact that I exist and have an idea in
me of a perfect entity—that is, God—conclusively
entails that God does in fact exist.
All that’s left is to explain how I have gotten my
idea of God from Him. I have not taken it in through
my senses; it has never come to me unexpectedly
as the ideas of sensible things do when those things
affect (or seem to affect) my external organs of
Meditations on First Philosophy
sense. Nor have I made the idea myself; I can’t subtract from it or add to it. The only other possibility is
that the idea is innate in me, like my idea of myself.
It’s not at all surprising that in creating me God
put this idea into me, impressing it on His work
like a craftsman’s mark (which needn’t be distinct
from the work itself). The very fact that it was God
who created me confirms that I have somehow
been made in His image or likeness and that I grasp
this likeness, which contains the idea of God, in the
same way that I grasp myself. Thus, when I turn my
mind’s eye on myself, I understand, not just that I
am an incomplete and dependent thing which constantly strives for bigger and better things, but also
that He on whom I depend has all these things in
Himself as infinite reality rather than just as vague
potentiality and hence that He must be God. The
whole argument comes down to this: I know that
I could not exist with my present nature—that
is, that I could not exist with the idea of God in
me—unless there really were a God. This must be
the very God whose idea is in me, the thing having
all of the perfections that I can’t fully comprehend
but can somehow reach with thought, who clearly
cannot have any defects. From this, it’s obvious
that He can’t deceive—for, as the natural light reveals, fraud and deception arise from defect.
But before examining this more carefully and
investigating its consequences, I want to dwell
for a moment in the contemplation of God, to
ponder His attributes, to see and admire and adore
the beauty of His boundless light, insofar as my
clouded insight allows. As I have faith that the supreme happiness of the next life consists wholly of
the contemplation of divine greatness, I now find
that contemplation of the same sort, though less
perfect, affords the greatest joy available in this life.
Commentary and Questions
In the first paragraphs, Descartes resolves to
explore more carefully his own mind. But then
what alternative does he have, now that he has
resolved to consider everything else “as empty
A momentous step is taken: He solves (or at
least he thinks he solves) the problem of the criterion! Here are the steps.
1. He is certain that he exists as a thinking
2. He asks himself, What is it about this proposition that accounts for my certainty that it is true?
3. He answers, The fact that I grasp it so clearly
and distinctly that I perceive it could not possibly be false.
4. He concludes, Let this then be a general principle (a criterion): Whatever I grasp with like clarity and distinctness must also be true.
He then reviews (yet again) the things he had
at one time thought were true and reminds himself
that no matter how sure he feels about them, he
can’t be absolutely certain.
Q17. Why does he feel a need to inquire about the
existence and nature of God?
Descartes now tries to make clear a crucial
distinction between ideas on the one hand and
volitions, emotions, and judgments on the other
(pp. 376–377). This distinction is embedded in an
inventory of the varied contents of the mind (which
is all that we can so far be certain of). You will find
a schematic representation of that i­nventory in the
following diagram.
Contents of the mind
Ideas in action
CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty
Q18. What is the key difference between ideas and
Q19. What is the key difference between judgments
on the one hand and volitions and emotions on
the other?
Q20. What question arises with respect to the ideas
that seem to be acquired from outside myself?
Q21. What (provisional) examples does Descartes
give of each class of ideas?
We need to comment on the notion of innate
ideas. In calling them “innate,” Descartes does not
mean to imply that they are to be found in babies
and mentally defective adults, as some of his critics suppose. He merely means that there are some
ideas we would have even if nothing existed but
ourselves. These ideas do not require external
causes for their existence in us; every developed
rational mind will possess them from its own resources. Thus, the idea of a thing can originate with
the cogito, which gives me the certainty that I exist
as a thing that thinks—even if nothing else exists.
Perhaps my idea of an antelope is caused in me only
by seeing antelopes in a zoo (though this remains to
be proved). But we would have the ideas of thing,
thought, and truth in any case.
Q22. Why do you think Descartes believes that the
ideas of truth and thought are innate?
Q23. Why is he inclined to believe that some ideas do
originate from objects outside himself? He gives
two reasons (p. 377).
Q24. Are these two reasons conclusive?
Q25. What is the difference between being taught “by
nature” and being taught “by the light of nature”?
(See p. 376.) What is the light of nature?
We come now to a point of terminology. Descartes distinguishes subjective reality on the one
hand from formal and eminent reality on the
other. If we are going to understand Descartes’ argument, we must be clear about how he uses these
terms and keep his use firmly in mind.
It is easier to begin with formal reality. Something has formal reality if it is, in our terms, actual
or existing. If there really are giraffes and angels,
then giraffes and angels have formal reality. You
also, because you exist, have formal reality. And
when you form an image of a giraffe in your mind,
that image also has formal reality—that is, it actually exists as an image in your mind. So any idea actually present in a mind is formally real. This means
that (if there are giraffes) both the idea of a giraffe
(when being thought) and the giraffe you are thinking of are formally real. They are distinct realities,
but related: The one represents the other.
What you are thinking about when you entertain an idea has subjective reality, reality “for you.”
Thus, when you think about giraffes and angels,
they have both formal and subjective reality. The
objects of some ideas, though, have only subjective
reality: the tooth fairy, for instance, or unicorns.
These, of course, are examples of ideas “produced
by us.” But if we look carefully, we can see that they
have not been invented out of nothing. The idea of
a unicorn comes from the ideas of a horse and a
single horn. And (though Descartes has not proved
it yet) it may be that horses and horns are formally
real. Already he remarks (p. 377) that although
one idea may be derived from others, this cannot
go on to infinity: There must eventually be a cause
for these ideas; and the reality of that cause must
be more than “merely subjective.” If this were not
so, we would have gotten something “from nothing.” And the light of nature assures us that this is
impossible. There is an old Latin saying: ex nihilo
nihil fit, or “from nothing, nothing comes.”
Descartes does not, of course, make these distinctions for their own sake. There is a problem he
is trying to solve: Given that I can be certain that
I exist (together with all my ideas), can I be certain
of the formal existence of anything else? Although
thoroughgoing skepticism may have been refuted
(we do know something in the cogito), we have not
got beyond solipsism. Solipsism is a view that each
of you (if there is anyone out there!) must state for
yourself in this way: “I am the only thing that actually (formally) exists; everything else is only subjectively real.”
Another step in solving that problem is to note
that there are degrees of reality: some things have
more reality than others. This is the cardinal principle of the Great Chain of Being.* Descartes gives
*See pp. 271–272.
Meditations on First Philosophy
two examples, framed in terms of subjective reality
(p. 377), though the same is true for formal reality
as well.
7. So there must be a formal reality that is an
infinitely perfect substance.
8. So God exists.
Q26. Why does the idea of substance contain more
subjective reality than that of modification or
accident? (Think of a fender and the dent in it.)*
Q27. Why does the idea of infinite substance have
more subjective reality than that of finite
Q29. Is this argument valid?
Q30. Are there premises in the argument that are less
than certainly true?
On the basis of these distinctions, Descartes
formulates a causal principle: There must be at least
as much reality in the cause as there is in the effect.
A cause is said to be formally real when it has the
same degree of reality as the effect it produces; it
is said to be eminently real when it has even more
reality than its effect.
Q28. What examples does Descartes offer to illustrate
this causal principle?
Once more Descartes canvases the various
kinds of ideas he finds in himself as a thinking thing.
He is looking for some idea of which he himself
could not possibly be the cause. Such an idea must
have a cause (since nothing comes from nothing). If
(1) he is not the cause and (2) there is a cause, then
(3) he knows that he is not alone in the universe.
Something else exists!
Descartes thinks his meditations to this point
give him the materials with which to prove that God
exists. Let us see what the argument looks like:
I have an idea of an infinitely perfect substance.
Such an idea must have a cause.
Ex nihilo nihil fit.
So the cause of an idea must have at least as
much formal reality as there is subjective reality
in the idea.
5. Though I am a substance, I am not infinitely
6. So I could not be the cause of this idea.
*We owe this nice example to Ronald Rubin, the translator of these Meditations.
Meditation III contains two separate arguments
for God’s existence. The first one, which we have
now examined, begins with the fact that each of
us has an idea of God. The second one begins (on
p. 379) with the fact that I exist. The argument
then addresses whether I could exist if God does
not. It is an argument by exclusion; it considers
the other plausible candidates for the cause of my
existence and shows in each case that it won’t do.
Note that both arguments are causal arguments.
The first inquires about the cause of my idea of
God and the second about the cause of my existence.
Both make use of the causal principle Descartes has
Let us sketch the principal steps in this argument.
1. I exist.
2. There must be a cause for my existence.
3. The cause must be one of the following:
(a) myself, (b) my always having existed, (c)
my parents, (d) something else less perfect than
God, or (e) God.
4. Not (a), or I would have given myself perfections I now lack—because creating the properties of a substance is not as hard as creating the
substance itself.
5. Not (b), because my existing now does not
follow from my having existed in the past.
6. Not (c), for this leads to an infinite regress.
7. Not (d), for this couldn’t account for the unity
of the idea of God that I have.
8. So (e), and God exists.
Q31. Is there a weak point in this argument? Is there
more than one?
Q32. Why does Descartes think his idea of God must
be innate?
Q33. Explain why Descartes says we cannot
“comprehend” God but can “reach” him in
CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty
thought. (Compare touching an elephant and
wrapping your arms around it.)*
At the end of the third meditation, Descartes
feels he has achieved his aim. He now knows that
he is not alone. In addition to himself, there is
at least one other being—a substance infinite in
intelligence and power and perfect in every way.
This latter fact will prove to be of very great
significance, for Descartes will use it to defeat
the hypothesis of the evil demon; a perfect being
could not be a deceiver. Thus he thinks he can
overcome the deepest ground for skepticism
about knowledge of the external world. But that
is a line of argument pursued in the remaining
Meditation IV: On Truth and Falsity
In the last few days, I’ve gotten used to drawing
my mind away from my senses. I’ve carefully noted
that I really grasp very little about physical objects,
that I know much more about the human mind,
and that I know even more about God. Thus, I
no longer find it hard to turn my thoughts away
from things of which I can have mental images and
toward things completely separate from matter,
which I can only understand. Indeed, I have a much
more distinct idea of the human mind, insofar as it
is just a thinking thing that isn’t extended in length,
breadth, or depth and doesn’t share anything else
with physical objects, than I have of physical objects. And, when I note that I doubt or that I am
incomplete and dependent, I have a clear and distinct idea of a complete and independent entity:
God. From the fact that this idea is in me and that I
who have the idea exist, I can clearly infer both that
God exists and that I am completely dependent on
Him for my existence from moment to moment.
This is so obvious that I’m sure that people can’t
know anything more evidently or certainly. And it
now seems to me that, from the contemplation of
the true God in whom are hidden all treasures of
knowledge and wisdom, there is a way to derive
knowledge of other things.
* Compare the similar thought by Aquinas, p. 324.
In the first place, I know that it’s impossible
for Him ever to deceive me. Wherever there is
fraud and deception, there is imperfection, and,
while the ability to deceive may seem a sign of
cunning or power, the desire to deceive reveals
malice or weakness and hence is inconsistent with
God’s nature.
Next, I find in myself an ability to judge which,
like everything else in me, I’ve gotten from God.
Since He doesn’t want to deceive me, He certainly
hasn’t given me an ability which will lead me wrong
when properly used.
There can be no doubt about this—except that
it may seem to imply that I don’t err at all. For,
if I’ve gotten everything in me from God and He
hasn’t given me the ability to err, it doesn’t seem
possible for me ever to err. Thus, as long as I think
only of God and devote all my attention to Him,
I can’t find any cause for error and falsity. When
I turn my attention back to myself, however, I find
that I can make innumerable errors. In looking for
the cause of these errors, I find before me, not just
the real and positive idea of God, but also the negative idea of “nothingness”—the idea of that which
is completely devoid of perfection. I find that I am
“intermediate” between God and nothingness, between the supreme entity and nonentity. Insofar
as I am the creation of the supreme entity, there’s
nothing in me to account for my being deceived or
led into error, but, insofar as I somehow participate in nothingness or the nonentity—that is, insofar as I am distinct from the supreme entity itself
and lack many things—it’s not surprising that I go
wrong. I thus understand that, in itself, error is a
lack, rather than a real thing dependent on God.
Hence, I understand that I can err without God’s
having given me a special ability to do so. Rather,
I fall into error because my God-given ability to
judge the truth is not infinite.
But there’s still something to be explained.
Error is not just an absence, but a deprivation—
the lack of knowledge that somehow ought to be in
me. But, when I attend to God’s nature, it seems
impossible that He’s given me an ability that is an
imperfect thing of its kind—an ability lacking a
perfection that it ought to have. The greater the
craftsman’s skill, the more perfect his product.
Meditations on First Philosophy
Then how can the supreme creator of all things
have made something that isn’t absolutely perfect?
There’s no doubt that God could have made me so
that I never err and that He always wants what’s
best. Then is it better for me to err than not to err?
When I pay more careful attention, I realize
that I shouldn’t be surprised at God’s doing things
that I can’t explain. I shouldn’t doubt His existence
just because I find that I sometimes can’t understand why or how He has made something. I know
that my nature is weak and limited and that God’s
is limitless, incomprehensible, and infinite, and,
from this, I can infer that He can do innumerable
things whose reasons are unknown to me. On this
ground alone, I regard the common practice of explaining things in terms of their purposes to be useless in physics: it would be foolhardy of me to think
that I can discover God’s purposes.
It also seems to me that, when asking whether
God’s works are perfect, I ought to look at all of
them together, not at one in isolation. For something that seems imperfect when viewed alone
might seem completely perfect when regarded as
having a place in the world. Of course, since calling everything into doubt, I haven’t established that
anything exists besides me and God. But, when I
consider God’s immense power, I can’t deny that
He has made—or, in any case, that He could have
made—many other things, and I must therefore
view myself as having a place in a universe.
Next, turning to myself and investigating the
nature of my errors (which are all that show me to be
imperfect), I notice that these errors depend on two
concurrent causes: my ability to know and my ability to choose freely—that is, my understanding and
my will. But, with my understanding, I just grasp
the ideas about which I form judgments, and error
therefore cannot properly be said to arise from the
understanding itself. While there may be innumerable things of which I have no idea, I can’t say that
I am deprived of these ideas, but only that I happen
to lack them—for I don’t have any reason to think
that God ought to have given me a greater ability to
know than He has. And, while I understand God
to be a supremely skilled craftsman, I don’t go on
to think that He ought to endow each of his works
with all the perfections that He can put in the others.
Nor can I complain about the scope or perfection of my God-given freedom of will—for I find
that my will doesn’t seem to me to be restricted in
any way. Indeed, it seems well worth noting that
nothing in me other than my will is so great and
perfect that it couldn’t conceivably be bigger or
better. If I think about my ability to understand, for
example, I realize that it is very small and restricted
and I immediately form the idea of something much
greater—indeed, of something supremely perfect
and infinite. And, from the fact that I can form the
idea of this thing, I infer that it is present in God’s
nature. Similarly, if I consider my other abilities,
like the abilities to remember and to imagine,
I clearly see that they all are weak and limited in
me, but boundless in God. My will or freedom of
choice is the only thing I find to be so great in me
that I can’t conceive of anything greater. In fact,
it’s largely for this reason that I regard myself as
an image or likeness of God. God’s will is incomparably greater than mine, of course, in virtue of
the associated knowledge and power that make it
stronger and more effective, and also in virtue of all
its greater range of objects. Yet, viewed in itself as
a will, God’s will seems no greater than mine. For
having a will just amounts to being able either to
do or not to do (affirm or deny, seek or avoid)—
or, better, to being inclined to affirm or deny, seek
or shun what the understanding offers, without any
sense of being driven by external forces. To be free,
I don’t need to be inclined towards both alternatives. On the contrary, the more I lean towards one
alternative—either because I understand the truth
or goodness in it, or because God has so arranged
my deepest thoughts—the more freely I choose
it. Neither divine grace nor knowledge of nature
ever diminishes my freedom; they increase and
strengthen it. But the indifference that I experience
when no consideration impels me towards one alternative over another is freedom of the lowest sort,
whose presence reveals a defect or an absence of
knowledge rather than a perfection. For, if I always
knew what was good or true, I wouldn’t ever deliberate about what to do or choose, and thus, though
completely free, I would never be indifferent.
From this I see that my God-given ability to
will is not itself the cause of my errors—for my
CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty
will is great, a perfect thing of its kind. Neither is
my power of understanding the cause of my errors;
whenever I understand something, I understand it
correctly and without the possibility of error, since
my understanding comes from God. What then is
the source of my errors? It is just that, while my
will has a broader scope than my understanding, I
don’t keep it within the same bounds, but extend
it to that which I don’t understand. Being indifferent to these things, my will is easily led away from
truth and goodness, and thus I am led into error
and sin.
For example, I’ve asked for the last few days
whether anything exists in the world, and I’ve
noted that, from the fact that I ask this, it follows
that I exist. I couldn’t fail to judge that which I so
clearly understood to be true. This wasn’t because
a force outside me compelled me to believe, but
because an intense light in my understanding produced a strong inclination of my will. And, to the
extent that I wasn’t indifferent, I believed spontaneously and freely. However, while I now know
that I exist insofar as I am a thinking thing, I notice
in myself an idea of what it is to be a physical object
and I come to wonder whether the thinking nature
that’s in me—or, rather, that is me—differs from
this bodily nature or is identical to it. Nothing
occurs to my reason (I am supposing) to convince
me of one alternative rather than the other. Accordingly, I am completely indifferent to affirming
either view, to denying either view, and even to
suspending judgment.
And indifference of this sort is not limited to
things of which the understanding is completely ignorant. It extends to everything about which the
will deliberates in the absence of a sufficiently clear
understanding. For, however strong the force with
which plausible conjectures draw me towards one
alternative, the knowledge that they are conjectures rather than assertions backed by certain and
indubitable arguments is enough to push my assent
the other way. The past few days have provided
me with ample experience of this—for I am now
supposing each of my former beliefs to be false just
because I’ve found a way to call them into doubt.
If I suspend judgment when I don’t clearly
and distinctly grasp what’s true, I obviously do
right and am not deceived. But, if I either affirm
or deny in a case of this sort, I misuse my freedom of choice. If I affirm what is false, I clearly
err, and, if I stumble onto the truth, I’m still
blameworthy since the light of nature reveals that
a perception of the understanding should always
precede a decision of the will. In these misuses
of freedom of choice lies the deprivation that accounts for error. And this deprivation, I maintain, lies in the working of the will insofar as it
comes from me—not in my God-given ability to
will, or even in the will’s operation insofar as it
derives from Him.
I have no reason to complain that God hasn’t
given me a more perfect understanding or a greater
natural light than He has. It’s in the nature of a
finite understanding that there are many things it
can’t understand, and it’s in the nature of created
understanding that it’s finite. Indeed, I ought to
be grateful to Him who owes me absolutely nothing for what He has bestowed, rather than taking
myself to be deprived or robbed of what God
hasn’t given me.
And I have no reason to complain about God’s
having given me a will whose scope is greater than
my understanding’s. The will is like a unity made
of inseparable parts; its nature apparently will not
allow anything to be taken away from it. And,
really, the wider the scope of my will, the more
grateful I ought to be to Him who gave it to me.
Finally, I ought not to complain that God concurs in bringing about the acts of will and judgment in which I err. Insofar as these acts derive
from God, they are completely true and good,
and I am more perfect with the ability to perform
these acts than I would be without it. And, the
deprivation that is the real ground of falsity and
error doesn’t need God’s concurrence, since it’s
not a thing. When we regard God as its cause, we
should say that it is an absence rather than a deprivation. For it clearly is no imperfection in God
that He has given me the freedom to assent or not
to assent to things of which He hasn’t given me a
clear and distinct grasp. Rather, it is undoubtedly
an imperfection in me that I misuse this freedom
by passing judgment on things that I don’t properly understand. I see, of course, that God could
Meditations on First Philosophy
easily have brought it about that, while I remain
free and limited in knowledge, I never err: He
could have implanted in me a clear and distinct understanding of everything about which I was ever
going to make a choice, or He could have indelibly impressed on my memory that I must never
pass judgment on something that I don’t clearly
and distinctly understand. And I also understand
that, regarded in isolation from everything else,
I would have been more perfect if God had made
me so that I never err. But I can’t deny that, because some things are immune to error while
others are not, the universe is more perfect than
it would have been if all its parts were alike. And I
have no right to complain about God’s wanting me
to hold a place in the world other than the greatest
and most perfect.
Besides, if I can’t avoid error by having a clear
grasp of every matter on which I make a choice, I
can avoid it in the other way, which only requires
remembering that I must not pass judgment on
matters whose truth isn’t apparent. For, although
I find myself too weak to fix my attention permanently on this single thought, I can—by careful and
frequent meditation—ensure that I call it to mind
whenever it’s needed and thus that I acquire the
habit of avoiding error.
Since the first and foremost perfection of man
lies in avoiding error, I’ve profited from today’s
meditation, in which I’ve investigated the cause
of error and falsity. Clearly, the only possible
cause of error is the one I have described. When
I limit my will’s range of judgment to the things
presented clearly and distinctly to my understanding, I obviously cannot err—for everything that
I clearly and distinctly grasp is something and
hence must come, not from nothing, but from
God—God, I say, who is supremely perfect and
who cannot possibly deceive. Therefore, what I
clearly and distinctly grasp is unquestionably true.
Today, then, I have learned what to avoid in order
not to err and also what to do to reach the truth.
I surely will reach the truth if I just attend to the
things that I understand perfectly and distinguish
them from those that I grasp more obscurely and
confusedly. And that’s what I’ll take care to do
from now on.
Commentary and Questions
Note the transitional character of the first paragraph. Descartes sums up the argument so far, expresses his confidence that God’s existence is more
certain than anything else (except the cogito), and
looks forward to further progress.
Q34. Is Descartes’ assertion (p. 384) that deception
is an evidence of weakness rather than power
plausible? Explain your answer.
Before God’s existence was proved, it was unclear whether any of our beliefs were true. Now
there is a new puzzle: How can any of them be
false? (Do you see why this puzzle arises?) So Descartes has to provide an explanation of the obvious
fact that we can and do make mistakes.
For the basic framework he depends again on
the idea of the Great Chain of Being. He finds that
he is an “intermediate” between God and nothingness, having less reality than God, whose perfection
excludes error, but more reality than sheer nonbeing. Error, in any case, is not a positive reality; it
is only a defect, as weakness is only the absence of
strength and cold the absence of heat. So it should
not be too surprising that Descartes, and we, too,
should be susceptible to error.
Two points he makes in passing are worth
1. Why did God create me so that I could make
mistakes? I don’t know, he says, but if I could
see the world as God sees it, it is quite possible
that I would judge it to be for the best.*
Q35. How does recognizing that you are only a part of
a larger whole help answer this question?
* Here is one expression of that attitude expressed in
Leibniz and other later writers to the effect that “this is the
best of all possible worlds.” It is this optimism that Voltaire caricatures so savagely in Candide. These reflections
of Descartes form part of a project known as theodicy—the
justification of the ways of God to man. For another attempt
at theodicy, see Hegel (pp. 516–519). You might also review
the Stoic notion that evil does not exist in the world, only in
our perception of it (p. 243).
CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty
2. Among the many things we do not know are
God’s purposes. It follows that Aristotelian final
causes—the what for—are not appropriate in
the explanations given by physics.Thus Descartes
buttresses the mechanistic character of his (and
the modern world’s) scientific work. We can
come to know how things happen, but not why.
A more detailed analysis of error can be given.
It depends on the distinction between entertaining a
belief, or having it in mind (which is the function of
the understanding), and assenting to that belief,
or accepting it (which is the function of the will).
Q36. How does this distinction between
understanding and will explain the possibility of
Q37. In what way is the will more perfect than the
Q38. Can God be blamed for our errors?
Q39. How can we avoid error?
Meditation V: On the Essence
of Material Objects and More
on God’s Existence
Many questions remain about God’s attributes and
the nature of my self or mind. I may return to these
questions later. But now, having found what to do
and what to avoid in order to attain truth, I regard
nothing as more pressing than to work my way out
of the doubts that I raised the other day and to see
whether I can find anything certain about material
But, before asking whether any such objects
exist outside me, I ought to consider the ideas of
these objects as they exist in my thoughts and see
which are clear and which confused.
I have a distinct mental image of the quantity
that philosophers commonly call continuous. That
is, I have a distinct mental image of the extension of
this quantity—or rather of the quantified thing—in
length, breadth, and depth. I can distinguish various parts of this thing. I can ascribe various sizes,
shapes, places, and motions to these parts and various durations to the motions.
In addition to having a thorough knowledge of
extension in general, I grasp innumerable particulars about things like shape, number, and motion,
when I pay careful attention. The truth of these
particulars is so obvious and so consonant with
my nature that, when I first think of one of these
things, I seem not so much to be learning something novel as to be remembering something that I
already knew—or noticing for the first time something that had long been in me without my having
turned my mind’s eye toward it.
What’s important here, I think, is that I find
in myself innumerable ideas of things which,
though they may not exist outside me, can’t be
said to be nothing. While I have some control
over my thoughts of these things, I do not make
the things up: they have their own real and immutable natures. Suppose, for example, that I have a
mental image of a triangle. While it may be that
no figure of this sort does exist or ever has existed
outside my thought, the figure has a fixed nature
(essence or form), immutable and eternal, which
hasn’t been produced by me and isn’t dependent
on my mind. The proof is that I can demonstrate
various propositions about the triangle, such as that
its angles equal two right angles and that its greatest side subtends its greatest angle. Even though
I didn’t think of these propositions at all when I
first imagined the triangle, I now clearly see their
truth whether I want to or not, and it follows that I
didn’t make them up.
It isn’t relevant that, having seen triangular
physical objects, I may have gotten the idea of the
triangle from external objects through my organs
of sense. For I can think of innumerable other
figures whose ideas I could not conceivably have
gotten through my senses, and I can demonstrate
facts about these other figures just as I can about
the triangle. Since I know these facts clearly, they
must be true, and they therefore must be something rather than nothing. For it’s obvious that everything true is something, and, as I have shown,
everything that I know clearly and distinctly is true.
But, even if I hadn’t shown this, the nature of my
mind would have made it impossible for me to
withhold my assent from these things, at least when
I clearly and distinctly grasped them. As I recall,
Meditations on First Philosophy
even when I clung most tightly to objects of sense,
I regarded truths about shape and number—truths
of arithmetic, geometry, and pure mathematics—
as more certain than any others.
But, if anything whose idea I can draw from my
thought must in fact have everything that I clearly
and distinctly grasp it to have, can’t I derive from
this a proof of God’s existence? Surely, I find the
idea of God, a supremely perfect being, in me no
less clearly than I find the ideas of figures and numbers. And I understand as clearly and distinctly that
eternal existence belongs to His nature as that the
things which I demonstrate of a figure or number
belong to the nature of the figure or number. Accordingly, even if what I have thought up in the
past few days hasn’t been entirely true, I ought to
be at least as certain of God’s existence as I used to
be of the truths of pure mathematics.
At first, this reasoning may seem unclear and
fallacious. Since I’m accustomed to distinguishing
existence from essence in other cases, I find it easy
to convince myself that I can separate God’s existence from His essence and hence that I can think
of God as nonexistent. But, when I pay more careful attention, it’s clear that I can no more separate
God’s existence from His essence than a triangle’s
angles equaling two right angles from the essence
of the triangle, or the idea of a valley from the idea
of a mountain. It’s no less impossible to think that
God (the supremely perfect being) lacks existence
(a perfection) than to think that a mountain lacks
a valley.
Well, suppose that I can’t think of God without existence, just as I can’t think of a mountain
without a valley. From the fact that I can think of
a mountain with a valley, it doesn’t follow that a
mountain exists in the world. Similarly, from the
fact that I can think of God as existing, it doesn’t
seem to follow that He exists. For my thought
doesn’t impose any necessity on things. It may be
that, just as I can imagine a winged horse when no
such horse exists, I can ascribe existence to God
when no God exists.
No, there is a fallacy here. From the fact that
I can’t think of a mountain without a valley it follows, not that the mountain and valley exist, but
only that whether they exist or not they can’t be
separated from one another. But, from the fact that
I can’t think of God without existence, it follows
that existence is inseparable from Him and hence
that He really exists. It’s not that my thoughts
make it so or impose a necessity on things. On
the contrary, it’s the fact that God does exist that
necessitates my thinking of Him as I do. For I am
not free to think of God without existence—of
the supremely perfect being without supreme
­perfection—as I am free to think of a horse with or
without wings.
Now someone might say this: “If I take God to
have all perfections, and if I take existence to be a
perfection, I must take God to exist, but I needn’t
accept the premise that God has all perfections.
Similarly, if I accept the premise that every quadrilateral can be inscribed in a circle, I’m forced to the
patently false view that every rhombus can be inscribed in a circle, but I need not accept the premise.” But this should not be said. For, while it’s not
necessary that the idea of God occurs to me, it is
necessary that, whenever I think of the primary and
supreme entity and bring the idea of Him out of
my mind’s “treasury,” I attribute all perfections to
Him, even if I don’t enumerate them or consider
them individually. And this necessity ensures that,
when I do notice that existence is a perfection, I
can rightly conclude that the primary and supreme
being exists. Similarly, while it’s not necessary
that I ever imagine a triangle, it is necessary that,
when I do choose to consider a rectilinear figure
having exactly three angles, I attribute to it properties from which I can rightly infer that its angles
are no more than two right angles, perhaps without noticing that I am doing so. But, when I consider which shapes can be inscribed in the circle,
there’s absolutely no necessity for my thinking that
all quadrilaterals are among them. Indeed, I can’t
even think that all quadrilaterals are among them,
since I’ve resolved to accept only what I clearly and
distinctly understand. Thus my false suppositions
differ greatly from the true ideas implanted in me,
the first and foremost of which is my idea of God.
In many ways, I see that this idea is not a figment of
my thought, but the image of a real and immutable
nature. For one thing, God is the only thing that I
can think of whose existence belongs to its essence.
CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty
For another thing, I can’t conceive of there being
two or more such Gods, and, having supposed that
one God now exists, I see that He has necessarily
existed from all eternity and will continue to exist
into eternity. And I also perceive many other things
in God that I can’t diminish or alter.
But, whatever proof I offer, it always comes
back to the fact that I am only convinced of what
I grasp clearly and distinctly. Of the things that I
grasp in this way, some are obvious to everyone.
Some are discovered only by those who examine
things more closely and search more carefully,
but, once these things have been discovered, they
are regarded as no less certain than the others.
That the square on the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the squares on the other
sides is not as readily apparent as that the hypotenuse subtends the greatest angle, but, once it
has been seen, it is believed just as firmly. And,
when I’m not overwhelmed by prejudices and
my thoughts aren’t besieged by images of sensible
things, there surely is nothing that I know earlier
or more easily than facts about God. For what is
more self-evident than there is a supreme entity—
that God, the only thing whose existence belongs
to His essence, exists?
While I need to pay careful attention in order
to grasp this, I’m now as certain of it as of anything
that seems most certain. In addition, I now see that
the certainty of everything else so depends on it
that, if I weren’t certain of it, I couldn’t know anything perfectly.
Of course, my nature is such that, when I grasp
something clearly and distinctly, I can’t fail to
believe it. But my nature is also such that I can’t
permanently fix my attention on a single thing so
as always to grasp it clearly, and memories of previous judgments often come to me when I am no
longer attending to the grounds on which I originally made them. Accordingly, if I were ignorant
of God, arguments could be produced that would
easily overthrow my opinions, and I therefore
would have unstable and changing opinions rather
than true and certain knowledge. For example,
when I consider the nature of the triangle, it seems
plain to me—steeped as I am in the principles of
geometry—that its three angles equal two right
angles: I can’t fail to believe this as long as I pay
attention to its demonstration. But, if I were ignorant of God, I might come to doubt its truth as
soon as my mind’s eye turned away from its demonstration, even if I recalled having once grasped
it clearly. For I could convince myself that I’ve
been so constructed by nature that I sometimes err
about what I believe myself to grasp most plainly—­
especially if I remember that, having taken many
things to be true and certain, I had later found
grounds on which to judge them false.
But now I grasp that God exists, and I understand both that everything else depends on Him
and that He’s not a deceiver. From this, I infer
that everything I clearly and distinctly grasp must
be true. Even if I no longer pay attention to the
grounds on which I judged God to exist, my recollection that I once clearly and distinctly knew Him
to exist ensures that no contrary ground can be
produced to push me towards doubt. About God’s
existence, I have true and certain knowledge. And I
have such knowledge, not just about this one thing,
but about everything else that I remember having
proven, like the theorems of geometry. For what
can now be said against my believing these things?
That I am so constructed that I always err? But I
now know that I can’t err about what I clearly understand. That much of what I took to be true and
certain I later found to be false? But I didn’t grasp
any of these things clearly and distinctly; ignorant
of the true standard of truth, I based my belief on
grounds that I later found to be unsound. Then
what can be said? What about the objection (which
I recently used against myself) that I may be dreaming and that the things I’m now experiencing may
be as unreal as those that occur to me in sleep? No,
even this is irrelevant. For, even if I am dreaming,
everything that is evident to my understanding
must be true.
Thus I plainly see that the certainty and truth
of all my knowledge derives from one thing: my
thought of the true God. Before I knew Him, I
couldn’t know anything else perfectly. But now I
can plainly and certainly know innumerable things,
not only about God and other mental beings, but
also about the nature of physical objects, insofar as
it is the subject-matter of pure mathematics.
Meditations on First Philosophy
Commentary and Questions
This brief meditation is a transition to the more important sixth meditation. Though Descartes says at
the beginning that he wants to investigate whether
we can know anything about material things (so far,
only God and the soul are known), he doesn’t solve
that problem here. But he does take a significant
step toward its solution. Along the way, he discovers a third proof that God exists.
Again we find the typical Cartesian strategy
at work. He wants to know whether material
things exist independent of himself. How can
he proceed? He can’t just look to see because he
has put the testimony of the senses in doubt. So
he must consider more carefully the idea of material things, which is all that is available to him. And
again he finds that some of these ideas are confused
and obscure, while others are clear and distinct.
The latter are those of extension, duration, and
movement—the qualities that can be treated geometrically or mathematically. Material things, if
there are any, are essentially extended volumes.*
Once we are clear about their essence, it makes
sense to inquire about their existence; and that is the
subject of Meditation VI.
Note that these mathematical ideas are not
just imaginary inventions. You cannot put them
together any way you like, as you can construct
fantastic creatures by combining heads, bodies,
and hides at will. You may not yet know whether
there are any triangular things outside yurself, but
the idea of a triangle “can’t be said to be nothing”
(p. 388). It has a nature that is “immutable and eternal.” This nature does not depend on me.
The point can be put in this way. Suppose you
imagine a creature with wings covered with scales,
a long furry tail, six legs, and an elephantlike nose
covered with spikes. Then someone asks you, does
this creature have claws? You will have to invent the
answer. You cannot discover it. But if you imagine a triangle and someone asks you whether the
interior angles equal two right angles, you do not
have to invent an answer. You could investigate
*Review the discussion of the bit of wax in Meditation II
and on p. 375.
and discover that the answer is yes. With respect
to these geometrical properties, there are truths.*
And these, remember, are the very properties that
determine the essence of material things.
Since the idea of a material thing is the idea of
something extended, and since extended things can
be treated geometrically, it follows that the idea of
a material thing is clear and distinct. Material substances have an essence or nature that would make
a science of them a possibility—if only we could be
assured that they exist. And we know that such a
science is a possibility merely from an examination
of their ideas. So, provided we can discover a proof
that some formal reality corresponds to the subjective reality of our ideas of material things, we can
have a science of material things. In this way, then,
he hopes to give a metaphysical foundation to his
mechanistic physics.
The discovery that certain ideas have a nature or
essence of their own, quite independent of our inventions, also supplies Descartes with material for a third
proof of God’s existence.† If we simply pay close attention to what is necessarily involved in our idea of
what God is (his essence or nature), we can discover,
Descartes argues, that God is (that he exists). God’s
existence is included in his essence. Notice that,
unlike the first two arguments, this is not a causal
proof. In its bare essentials, it looks like this:
1. God, by definition, is a being of infinite
2. Existence is a perfection (that is, no being could
be perfect that lacked it).
3. So God exists.
*Socrates thinks that we can never be taught anything
other than what we in some sense already know; what we
call “learning” is in fact just remembering. (See p. 169.)
Descartes alludes to this doctrine here; in discovering the
properties of a triangle you are “noticing for the first time
something that had long been in [you] without [your] having
turned [your] mind’s eye towards it.” Descartes is not, however, committed to the Socratic doctrine of the preexistence
of the soul as an explanation of this phenomenon, since he
thinks God’s creation of a soul possessing certain innate ideas
will suffice.
†This proof is a version of the ontological argument first
worked out by Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century. See Chapter 15.
CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty
Q40. Is the argument valid?
Q41. Can the premises be questioned?
This last proof of God’s existence allows Descartes to lay to rest a final worry that has been tormenting him. You really cannot help believing,
he suggests, that your clear and distinct thoughts
are true—while you are thinking them. But later
you may not be so sure! You may then think you
were dreaming what earlier seemed so certain. But
now this worry can be dealt with. And Meditation V
closes on a note of reassurance.
Q42. How are the dream and demon worries finally
disposed of?
Q43. Can an atheist do science? (See the last
Meditation VI: On the Existence
of Material Objects and the Real
Distinction of Mind from Body
It remains for me to examine whether material
objects exist. Insofar as they are the subject of
pure mathematics, I now know at least that they
can exist, because I grasp them clearly and distinctly. For God can undoubtedly make whatever
I can grasp in this way, and I never judge that
something is impossible for Him to make unless
there would be a contradiction in my grasping the
thing distinctly. Also, the fact that I find myself
having mental images when I turn my attention to
physical objects seems to imply that these objects
really do exist. For, when I pay careful attention
to what it is to have a mental image, it seems to
me that it’s just the application of my power of
thought to a certain body which is immediately
present to it and which must therefore exist.
To clarify this, I’ll examine the difference between having a mental image and having a pure
understanding. When I have a mental image of a
triangle, for example, I don’t just understand that
it is a figure bounded by three lines; I also “look at”
the lines as though they were present to my mind’s
eye. And this is what I call having a mental image.
When I want to think of a chiliagon, I understand
that it is a figure with a thousand sides as well as
I understand that a triangle is a figure with three,
but I can’t imagine its sides or “look” at them as
though they were present. Being accustomed to
using images when I think about physical objects, I
may confusedly picture some figure to myself, but
this figure obviously is not a chiliagon—for it in
no way differs from what I present to myself when
thinking about a myriagon or any other many sided
figure, and it doesn’t help me to discern the properties that distinguish chiliagons from other polygons. If it’s a pentagon that is in question, I can
understand its shape, as I can that of the chiliagon,
without the aid of mental images. But I can also
get a mental image of the pentagon by directing
my mind’s eye to its five lines and to the area that
they bound. And it’s obvious to me that getting
this mental image requires a special mental effort
different from that needed for understanding—a
special effort which clearly reveals the difference
between having a mental image and having a pure
It also seems to me that my power of having
mental images, being distinct from my power of
understanding, is not essential to my self or, in
other words, to my mind—for, if I were to lose
this ability, I would surely remain the same thing
that I now am. And it seems to follow that this
ability depends on something distinct from me.
If we suppose that there is a body so associated
with my mind that the mind can “look into” it at
will, it’s easy to understand how my mind might
get mental images of physical objects by means
of my body. If there were such a body, the mode
of thinking that we call imagination would differ
from pure understanding in only one way: when
the mind understood something, it would turn
“inward” and view an idea that it found in itself,
but, when it had mental images, it would turn to
the body and look at something there which resembled an idea that it had understood by itself
or had grasped by sense. As I’ve said, then, it’s
easy to see how I get mental images, if we supposed that my body exists. And, since I don’t have
in mind any other equally plausible explanation
of my ability to have mental images, I conjecture
Meditations on First Philosophy
that physical objects probably do exist. But this
conjecture is only probable. Despite my careful and thorough investigation, the distinct idea
of bodily nature that I get from mental images
does not seem to have anything in it from which
the conclusion that physical objects exist validly
Besides having a mental image of the bodily
nature that is the subject-matter of pure mathematics, I have mental images of things which are
not so distinct—things like colors, sounds, flavors,
and pains. But I seem to grasp these things better
by sense, from which they seem to come (with the
aid of memory) to the understanding. Thus, to
deal with these things more fully, I must examine
the senses and see whether there is anything in the
mode of awareness that I call sensation from which
I can draw a conclusive argument for the existence
of physical objects.
First, I’ll remind myself of the things that I
believed really to be as I perceived them and of
the grounds for my belief. Next, I’ll set out the
grounds on which I later called this belief into
doubt. And, finally, I’ll consider what I ought to
think now.
To begin with, I sensed that I had a head, hands,
feet, and the other members that make up a human
body. I viewed this body as part, or maybe even as
all, of me. I sensed that it was influenced by other
physical objects whose effects could be either
beneficial or harmful. I judged these effects to be
beneficial to the extent that I felt pleasant sensations and harmful to the extent that I felt pain.
And, in addition to sensations of pain and pleasure,
I sensed hunger, thirst, and other such desires—
and also bodily inclinations towards cheerfulness, sadness, and other emotions. Outside me,
I sensed, not just extension, shape, and motion,
but also hardness, hotness, and other qualities detected by touch. I also sensed light, color, odor,
taste, and sound—qualities by whose variation
I distinguished such things as the sky, earth, and
sea from one another.
In view of these ideas of qualities (which presented themselves to my thought and were all that
I really sensed directly), I had some reason for
believing that I sensed objects distinct from my
thought—physical objects from which the ideas
came. For I found that these ideas came to me independently of my desires so that, however much
I tried, I couldn’t sense an object when it wasn’t
present to an organ of sense or fail to sense one
when it was present. And, since the ideas that
I grasped by sense were much livelier, more explicit, and (in their own way) more distinct than
those I deliberately created or found impressed in
my memory, it seemed that these ideas could not
have come from me and thus that they came from
something else. Having no conception of these
things other than that suggested by my sensory
ideas, I could only think that the things resembled
the ideas. Indeed, since I remembered using my
senses before my reason, since I found the ideas
that I created in myself to be less explicit than those
grasped by sense, and since I found the ideas that I
created to be composed largely of those that I had
grasped by sense, I easily convinced myself that I
didn’t understand anything at all unless I had first
sensed it.
I also had some reason for supposing that
a certain physical object, which I viewed as belonging to me in a special way, was related to
me more closely than any other. I couldn’t be
separated from it as I could from other physical objects; I felt all of my emotions and desires
in it and because of it; and I was aware of pains
and pleasant feelings in it but in nothing else. I
didn’t know why sadness goes with the sensation
of pain or why joy goes with sensory stimulation. I didn’t know why the stomach twitchings
that I call hunger warn me that I need to eat or
why dryness in my throat warns me that I need
to drink. Seeing no connection between stomach
twitchings and the desire to eat or between the
sensation of a pain-producing thing and the consequent awareness of sadness, I could only say that
I had been taught the connection by nature. And
nature seems also to have taught me everything
else that I knew about the objects of sensation—
for I convinced myself that the sensations came to
me in a certain way before having found grounds
on which to prove that they did.
But, since then, many experiences have shaken
my faith in the senses. Towers that seemed round
CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty
from a distance sometimes looked square from
close up, and huge statues on pediments sometimes
didn’t look big when seen from the ground. In innumerable such cases, I found the judgments of the
external senses to be wrong. And the same holds
for the internal senses. What is felt more inwardly
than pain? Yet I had heard that people with amputated arms and legs sometimes seem to feel pain
in the missing limb, and it therefore didn’t seem
perfectly certain to me that the limb in which I feel
a pain is always the one that hurts. And, to these
grounds for doubt, I’ve recently added two that
are very general: First, since I didn’t believe myself
to sense anything while awake that I couldn’t also
take myself to sense in a dream, and since I didn’t
believe that what I sense in sleep comes from objects outside me, I didn’t see why I should believe
what I sense while awake comes from such objects.
Second, since I didn’t yet know my creator (or,
rather, since I supposed that I didn’t know Him),
I saw nothing to rule out my having been so designed by nature that I’m deceived even in what
seems most obviously true to me.
And I could easily refute the reasoning by which
I convinced myself of the reality of sensible things.
Since my nature seemed to impel me toward many
things that my reason rejected, I didn’t believe
that I ought to have much faith in nature’s teachings. And, while my will didn’t control my sense
perceptions, I didn’t believe it to follow that these
perceptions came from outside me, since I thought
that the ability to produce these ideas might be in
me without my being aware of it.
Now that I’ve begun to know myself and my
creator better, I still believe that I oughtn’t blindly
to accept everything that I seem to get from the
senses. Yet I no longer believe that I ought to call
it all into doubt.
In the first place, I know that everything that I
clearly and distinctly understand can be made by
God to be exactly as I understand it. The fact that
I can clearly and distinctly understand one thing
apart from another is therefore enough to make
me certain that it is distinct from the other, since
the things could be separated by God if not by
something else. (I judge the things to be distinct
regardless of the power needed to make them exist
separately.) Accordingly, from the fact that I have
gained knowledge of my existence without noticing anything about my nature or essence except
that I am a thinking thing, I can rightly conclude
that my essence consists solely in the fact that I
am a thinking thing. It’s possible (or, as I will say
later, it’s certain) that I have a body which is very
tightly bound to me. But, on the one hand, I have a
clear and distinct idea of myself insofar as I am just
a thinking and unextended thing, and, on the other
hand, I have a distinct idea of my body insofar as it
is just an extended and unthinking thing. It’s certain, then, that I am really distinct from my body
and can exist without it.
In addition, I find in myself abilities for special modes of awareness, like the abilities to have
mental images and to sense. I can clearly and distinctly conceive of my whole self as something
that lacks these abilities, but I can’t conceive of
the abilities’ existing without me, or without an
understanding substance in which to reside. Since
the conception of these abilities includes the conception of something that understands, I see that
these abilities are distinct from me in the way that a
thing’s properties are distinct from the thing itself.
I recognize other abilities in me, like the ability
to move around and to assume various postures.
These abilities can’t be understood to exist apart
from a substance in which they reside any more
than the abilities to imagine and sense, and they
therefore cannot exist without such a substance.
But it’s obvious that, if these abilities do exist, the
substance in which they reside must be a body or
extended substance rather than an understanding
one—for the clear and distinct conceptions of these
abilities contain extension but not understanding.
There is also in me, however, a passive ability
to sense—to receive and recognize ideas of sensible
things. But, I wouldn’t be able to put this ability to
use if there weren’t, either in me or in something
else, an active power to produce or make sensory
ideas. Since this active power doesn’t presuppose
understanding, and since it often produces ideas in
me without my cooperation and even against my
will, it cannot exist in me. Therefore, this power
must exist in a substance distinct from me. And,
for reasons that I’ve noted, this substance must
Meditations on First Philosophy
contain, either formally or eminently, all the reality that is contained subjectively in the ideas that
the power produces. Either this substance is a physical object (a thing of bodily nature that contains
formally the reality that the idea contains subjectively), or it is God or one of His creations that is
higher than a physical object (something that contains this reality eminently). But, since God isn’t a
deceiver, it’s completely obvious that He doesn’t
send these ideas to me directly or by means of a
creation that contains their reality eminently rather
than formally. For, since He has not given me any
ability to recognize that these ideas are sent by Him
or by creations other than physical objects, and
since He has given me a strong inclination to believe that the ideas come from physical objects, I
see no way to avoid the conclusion that He deceives
me if the ideas are sent to me by anything other
than physical objects. It follows that physical objects exist. These objects may not exist exactly as I
comprehend them by sense; in many ways, sensory
comprehension is obscure and confused. But these
objects must at least have in them everything that
I clearly and distinctly understand them to have—
every general property within the scope of pure
But what about particular properties, such
as the size and shape of the sun? And what about
things that I understand less clearly than mathematical properties, like light, sound, and pain?
These are open to doubt. But, since God isn’t a
deceiver, and since I therefore have the God-given
ability to correct any falsity that may be in my beliefs, I have high hopes of finding the truth about
even these things. There is undoubtedly some
truth in everything I have been taught by nature—
for, when I use the term “nature” in its general
sense, I refer to God Himself or to the order that
He has established in the created world, and, when
I apply the term specifically to my nature, I refer to
the collection of everything that God has given me.
Nature teaches me nothing more explicitly,
however, than that I have a body which is hurt
when I feel pain, which needs food or drink when
I experience hunger or thirst, and so on. Accordingly, I ought not to doubt that there is some truth
to this.
Through sensations like pain, hunger, and
thirst, nature also teaches me that I am not present
in my body in the way that a sailor is present in his
ship. Rather, I am very tightly bound to my body
and so “mixed up” with it that we form a single
thing. If this weren’t so, I—who am just a thinking thing—wouldn’t feel pain when my body was
injured; I would perceive the injury by pure understanding in the way that a sailor sees the leaks in
his ship with his eyes. And, when my body needed
food or drink, I would explicitly understand that
the need existed without having the confused
sensations of hunger and thirst. For the sensations of thirst, hunger, and pain are just confused
modifications of thought arising from the union and
“mixture” of mind and body.
Also, nature teaches me that there are other
physical objects around my body—some that
I ought to seek and others that I ought to avoid.
From the fact that I sense things like colors, sound,
odors, flavors, temperatures, and hardnesses, I correctly infer that sense perceptions come from physical objects that vary as widely (though perhaps not
in the same way) as the perceptions do. And, from
the fact that some of these perceptions are pleasant
while others are unpleasant, I infer with certainty
that my body—or, rather, my whole self which
consists of a body and a mind—can be benefited
and harmed by the physical objects around it.
There are many other things that I seem to
have been taught by nature but that I have really
accepted out of a habit of thoughtless judgment.
These things may well be false. Among them are
the judgments that a space is empty if nothing in
it happens to affect my senses; that a hot physical
object has something in it resembling my idea of
heat; that a white or green thing has in it the same
whiteness or greenness that I sense; that a bitter or
sweet thing has in it the same flavor that I taste; that
stars, towers, and other physical objects have the
same size and shape that they present to my senses;
and so on.
If I am to avoid accepting what is indistinct
in these cases, I must more carefully explain my
use of the phrase “taught by nature.” In particular, I should say that I am now using the term
“nature” in a narrower sense than when I took it
CHAPTER 17   René Descartes: Doubting Our Way to Certainty
to refer to the whole complex of what God has
given me. This complex includes much having to
do with my mind alone (such as my grasp of the
fact that what is done cannot be undone and of
the rest of what I know by the light of nature)
which does not bear on what I am now saying.
And the complex also includes much having to
do with my body alone (such as its tendency to
go downward) with which I am not dealing now.
I’m now using the term “nature” to refer only to
what God has given me insofar as I am a composite of mind and body. It is this nature that teaches
me to avoid that which occasions painful sensations, to seek that which occasions pleasant sensations, and so on. But this nature seems not to
teach me to draw conclusions about external objects from sense perceptions without first having
examined the matter with my understanding—
for true knowledge of external things seems to
belong to the mind alone, not to the composite
of mind and body.
Thus, while a star has no more effect on my
eye than a flame, this does not really produce a
positive inclination to believe that the star is as
small as the flame; for my youthful judgment about
the size of the flame, I had no real grounds. And,
while I feel heat when I approach a fire and pain
when I draw nearer, I have absolutely no reason
for believing that something in the fire resembles
the heat, just as I have no reason for believing that
something in the fire resembles the pain; I only
have reason for believing that there is something
or other in the fire that produces the feelings of
heat and pain. And, although there may be nothing
in a given region of space that affects my senses, it
doesn’t follow that there aren’t any physical objects in that space. Rather I now see that, on these
matters and others, I used to pervert the natural
order of things. For, while nature has given sense
perceptions to my mind for the sole purpose of
indicating what is beneficial and what harmful to
the composite of which my mind is a part, and
while the perceptions are sufficiently clear and
distinct for that purpose, I used these perceptions
as standards for identifying the essence of physical
objects—an essence which they only reveal obscurely and confusedly.
I’ve already explained how it can be that, despite God’s goodness, my judgments can be false.
But a new difficulty arises here—one having to
do with the things that nature presents to me as
desirable or undesirable and also with the errors
that I seem to have found in my internal sensations. One of these errors seems to be committed, for example, when a man is fooled by some
food’s pleasant taste into eating poison hidden in
that food. But surely, in this case, what the man’s
nature impels him to eat is the good tasting food,
not the poison of which he knows nothing. We
can draw no conclusion except that his nature isn’t
omniscient, and this conclusion isn’t surprising.
Since a man is a limited thing, he can only have
limited perfections.
Still, we often err in cases in which nature
does impel us. This happens, for example, when
sick people want food or drink that would quickly
harm them. To say that these people err as a result
of the corruption of their nature does not solve the
problem—for a sick man is no less a creation of
God than a well one, and it seems as absurd to suppose that God has given him a deceptive nature.
A clock made of wheels and weights follows the
natural laws just as precisely when it is poorly
made and inaccurate as when it does everything
that its maker wants. Thus, if I regard a human
body as a machine made up of bones, nerves, muscles, veins, blood, and skin such that even without
a mind it would do just what it does now (except
for things that require a mind because they are
controlled by the will), it’s easy to see that what
happens to a sick man is no less “natural” than what
happens to a well one. For instance, if a body suffers from dropsy, it has a dry throat of the sort
that regularly brings the sensation of thirst to the
mind, the dryness disposes the nerves and other
organs to drink, and the drinking makes the illness
worse. But this is just as natural as when a similar
dryness of throat moves a person who is perfectly
healthy to take a drink that is beneficial. Bearing in
mind my conception of a clock’s use, I might say
that an inaccurate clock departs from its nature,
and, similarly, viewing the machine of the human
body as designed for its usual motions, I can say
that it drifts away from its nature if it has a dry
Meditations on First Philosophy
throat when drinking will not help to maintain it.
I should note, however, that the sense in which I
am now using the term “nature” differs from that
in which I used it before. For, as I have just used
the term “nature,” the nature of a man (or clock)
is something that depends on my thinking of the
difference between a sick and a well man (or of
the difference between a poorly made and a wellmade clock)—something regarded as extrinsic to
the things. But, when I used “nature” before, I referred to something which is in things and which
therefore has some reality.
It may be that we just offer an extrinsic description of a body suffering from dropsy when, noting
that it has a dry throat but doesn’t need to drink,
we say that its nature is corrupted. Still, the description is not purely extrinsic when we say that
a composite or union of mind and body has a corrupted nature. There is a real fault in the composite’s nature, for it is thirsty when drinking would
be harmful. It therefore remains to be asked why
God’s goodness doesn’t prevent this nature’s being
To begin the answer, I’ll note that mind differs importantly from body in that body is by its
nature divisible while mind is indivisible. When I
think about my mind—or, in other words, about
myself insofar as I am just a thinking thing—I can’t
distinguish any parts in me; I understand myself
to be a single, unified thing. Although my whole
mind seems united to my whole body, I know that
cutting off a foot, arm, or other limb would not
take anything away from my mind. The abilities to
will, sense, understand, and so on can’t be called
parts, since it’s one and the same mind that wills,
senses, and understands. On the other hand,
whenever I think of a physical…

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