Invoking God doesn’t Save Descartes from Skepticism

Descartes argues that God could not be a deciever and so his clear and distinct ideas, which presented themselves to him as self-evidently true, really were necessary truths. If it was the case that Descartes had this strong belief that there are physical objects when there weren’t any really then God would be the Evil Demon; but that isn’t possible. God wouldn’t allow Descartes to be decieved in this way. I often joke that Descartes must not have read the Book of Job because God does allow Job to be decieved (though, it is true that God is not the one doing the decieving) into thinking that it is God who is the one responsible for Job’s misfortunes. But actually, after having thought about it for a bit I now think there is a serious problem for Cartesian epistemology here.   

How are we supposed to rule out that we are not in some Job-like situation in which God allows the Evil Demon to decieve us into thinking that there is a physical world (in order to test us or whatever). So even if you grant all of Descartes’ premises you still don’t really have any justification to believe in the existence of the physical world because you can’t rule out this final Evil Demon scenerio (i.e. the one where God allows him to decieve you).

18 thoughts on “Invoking God doesn’t Save Descartes from Skepticism

  1. Isn’t there a difference (I’d say an important difference) between God deceiving Job (something I’m not sure God did in the story) and God allowing Job to be deceived? You make it sound as though there isn’t…

    I don’t remember any actual demons in Job. Just other people. I’ve always thought that part of the point of the book is that we’re often responsible to some extent for being deceived.

    Job would be a different story if God didn’t show Himself at the end and resolve the issue with a different form of epistimology – revelation.

  2. I think Descartes addresses this worry in Meditation IV; which is more or less an argument that in the strict sense it is impossible for us to be anything but self-deceived — that is, that while other things can provide material for error, we can’t actually err unless we misuse our will. God does allow us to be deceived; but we are always wholly to blame for actually being deceived.

  3. I suppose Descartes could use Leibnizian-type arguments to show this. I.e. since God is understood as the most perfect being possible, and since it would be more perfect for God to create a world such that we are not being constantly deceived, assuming such a world is possible that would be the world we live in.

    On this account Descartes would still have to assume that it is better for us to not be deceived than to be deceived, but he would probably regard that as a fairly innocuous assumption. Of course, just as with evil, this would allow for the existence of some deception (as would doubtless be admitted by Descartes) in order for Job-type testing, but it would have to be the smallest amount necessary for such testing to be efficacious. It would be odd to claim that complete deception of our senses is this smallest amount possible.

  4. Brandon, I don’t think this is the same worry addressed in Med. IV. You are right that Descartes says what you say he says…but it is crucial to his argument that IF we follow his Method for Directing the Mind and we restrict ourselves to Clear and Distinct Ideas THEN we won’t be in error. That is, according to Descartes God woul’d allow him to be deceived in thinking that Clear and Distinct Ideas were actually true if they weren’t really true. But my Job-like scenerio is a scenerio where God allows our Clear and Distinct Ideas to be wrong. This is very different.

    Hi Greg Cruey, thanks for the comment!

    I do think there is a difference between those two cases, I think I even said so in the post. I certainly didn’t mean to indicate that I don’t think there is a difference…but Descartes says God would not allow him to be deceived by the evil demon, not that God might be deceiving him…so I was just following that usuage.

    You don’t remember any evil demon is Job? The whole stroy starts with Satan going to God and saying that the only reason that Job was so loyal and loving was because God had always shown Job favor and that if he (Job) were to fall out of favor he would curse God’s name. God disagrees and so Satan goes to torment Job to see if he will in fact curse God. In the story Job is puzzeled about why this is happening to him and he makes it clear that he thinks God is responsible (as far as I know people were suppoesed not to know about the deil at the time of Job) by asking what he has done wrong and wondering why God is punishing him. He concludes that though he can’t think of any specific thing he has done to deserve this he must have done something and he appologizes for whatever it is. Now this clearly is a case where God is allowing Job to be deceived as to the origin and reasons for the punishment. My point is that we can imagine a Job-like scenerio that defeats Descartes’ strategy for showing that Clear and Distinct Ideas are necessarily true.

    As for your last point, the same may be true for us. Perhaps when we die we find out that the physical world as we now know it was simply an illusion and that God had allowed the evil demon to deceive us about logic, math, and the existence of the physical things out there….but that doesn’t really address the point that I am making does it?

  5. Hey Josh, you posted that as I was replying to Brandon and Greg!

    yeah, that’s an interesting strategy but the problem with it, I think, is that what counts as ‘more perfect’ will depend on God’s purposes…so a world where we are constantly deceived would be a more perfect world if God wanted to test us in some Job-like scenerio. We can’t rule that out a priori, can we? And a posteriori we have testimonial evidence that suggests that God likes to test people…

  6. I’m still inclined to think it’s exactly the same worry, given what Descartes has established, or thinks he has established about clear and distinct perception earlier in the Meditations: i.e., nobody can be deceived with regard to the cogito, and from this he tries to draw the clear and distinct rule; given that, the only way we could be deceived with regard to clear and distinct ideas is on the slight and metaphysical doubt that our intellectual and volitional faculties are themselves fundamentally twisted; but if our intellectual and volitional faculties are themselves fundamentally twisted (rather than merely imperfect), God would be a deceiver because God cannot create us in such a state that error is simply unavoidable (and in Descartes’s view, recall, God is always creating us at every moment).

  7. But as a perfect being God could only will a perfect universe. While it is plausible that a perfect God would desire to test us, it seems implausible that this complete deception of our senses is necessary in order to carry out this test. And the alternative (the testing w/o the complete deception) would have to be preferred by a perfect God as it would be a maximizing of the good. Thus, it is not a question of God’s desires, but of the requirements of Job-style testing (which, by the way, was not a Cartesian deception anyway).

    It is probably true that this kind of reasoning wouldn’t pass Descartes doubting test. Even Leibniz admitted that while we could be certain of the perfection of the world, as finite beings we would be unable to derive contingent truths (such as the veridity of perception) from this necessary truth. But then, it is hard to know how seriously to take this test at later stages of Descartes’s epistemology anyway…

    Also, it is often claimed that the God portrayed in the Old Testament is not the perfect god of the philosphers, but something much more anthropomorphic. More specifically, I think many modern theologians don’t view the story of Job as of a real historical event, but rather more like a parable on suffering and faith. Thus, it would not be necessary to view the portrayal of God in Job as an accurate portrayal of God.

  8. I’m pretty sure that the epistemological role of God in the Med. is to rescue the reliability of clear and distinct perception. This is supposed to happen not by eliminating all deception, as I understand it, but by (i) precluding the possibility of insurmountable deception and by (ii) guaranteeing that anything we see clearly and distinctly is true. What God provides is the assurance that WE can avoid being decieved provided we restrain our will (our affirmations and denials) within the limits of our undertsanding.

  9. Brandon,

    “because God cannot create us in such a state that error is simply unavoidable “

    Maybe; but He may want to test us by seeing how we would react to a physical world of sensual plasure (when in reality we are purely intellectual rational souls). It might then be the case that God isn’t actually creating us all the time. Maybe he is allowing the Evil Demon to create us in order to test us. That is exactly parrallel to the Job case. He allows Satan to mess with Job. Why couldn’t he allow the Evil Demon to mess with us to? I don’t see how Descartes can rule this out given his assumptions. He would need to show that it was actually God, the non-deceiver, who was creating him moment to moment as opposed to the Evil Demon creating him moment to moment.

    Hi Mike, thanks for the comment. Yeah I agree that that is what God is supposed to provide. I am arguing that it actually doesn’t do that because it doesn’t rule out the Job-like scenerio I cooked up.


    Those are all good points. I agree that it is hard to see an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful being doing what is reported in Job so I do have some sympathy with that line of argument. But then we would need an existence proof showing that it is the rational beneficient God which exists. Descartes doesn’t give that. It is certainly conceivable that it is the other kind of God which exists (Old Testament irrational wilful God) so the ontological argument won’t work.

    Also, I guess I just don’t agree about the necessity of all the the complete deception. Can’t we give a Leibinizian proof of it? Our experience is as of physical objects in space, so if we are being deceived in order to be tested then that deception must involve experience as of physical objects in space.

    But, finally, I really only meant to be presenting a descartes-specific problem, so if Leibinez can make it work, good for him 🙂

  10. Why not? He may want to test us by seeing how we would react to a physical world of sensual plasure (when in reality we are purely intellectual rational souls).

    In other words, he may want to test us by deceiving us. That’s the very sort of thing Descartes sees himself as ruling out with his argument that God cannot be a deceiver.

    That we are created by anything other than God is actually ruled out in Meditation III. The God-is-not-a-deceiver argument isn’t just thrown into the argument at the last minute, or the accidental result of a random peregrination; everything has been building up to it, very carefully and deliberately; so obvious ‘why not’ scenarios have usually been ruled out by something prior even to the arguments appearance. It is, of course, quite possible that the arguments for ruling them out aren’t all they should be; but I don’t think Descartes can usually be accused of simply not ruling them out.

  11. How are we supposed to rule out that we are not in some Job-like situation in which God allows the Evil Demon to decieve us into thinking that there is a physical world (in order to test us or whatever).

    Yes, I thought I addessed this problem. I didn’t? The idea is that YOU CANNOT be decieved unless you allow it. Suppose, for instance, that I withold judgment entirely. Is there a world? I don’t know. Are there demons? I don’t know. And so on. I simply cannot be decieved if I withold judgment entirely. Of course, people can try to deceive me, but if I don’t comply by putting some credence in what they say or what I am presented with perceptually, etc.,, then I will not be decieved.

    This is what Descartes is effectively saying. There could be no such demon decieving you UNLESS you comply with him. You should, says Descartes, withold your judgment within the bounds of your understanding. In the case you describe there is perhaps nothing that we see clearly and distinctly. In that case, we should withold judgment entirely. The short story is that not even a demon can decieve us without our compliance–we have to add some credence in order to be deceived. But we can simply without all credence.

  12. What then is the argument for ruling this scenerio out?

    Since your scenario has lots of moving parts, I’m not sure which part you mean. Clarity and distinctness of things immediately and directly perceived is argued quite independently of God in Meditation II. This leaves only what D. calls the ‘slight and metaphysical’ doubt that we might have about the general reliability of such perception (he’s clear we can’t doubt any particular case we’re actually having), which requires a more elaborate argument involving God. That God alone is capable of being our creator is argued for at the end of Meditation III on the basis of the idea of God. That God cannot act so as to deceive us is argued for at the end of Meditation III and also at the beginning of Meditation IV on the basis of deception being an imperfection. That all deception is surmountable is argued for in Meditation IV by examination of the intellect and the will (pretty much along the lines Mike indicates). Each one of these seems to me to rule out some part or variant on the scenario you are suggesting.

  13. so I don’t know if I agree that we can with-hold all credence (according to descartes anyways)

    That’s hard to believe. The beginning of Med. II just rehearses everything that he doubts. And of course, what he doubts is just about everything (except, as it happens, his own existence). So he no doubt thinks we can fail to put credence in these things. The beginning of Med. VI is essentially about doxastic voluntarism. Descartes’ position is generally held out as an example of one form of doxastic voluntarism. Affirmation and denial are acts of will, not intellect, and so our believing p requires and exercise of free will. This is why for Descartes, there is such a thing as the ethics of belief–you can be rightly blamed for what you choose to believe and rightly praised. The process of belief-formation is not passive. Since there is for Descartes an ethics of belief, it better not be true that we cannot help but form this or that belief.

  14. Hi Mike,

    No, I, of course, know that Descartes is a prototypical example of someone who thinks that we have voluntary control over our beliefs and that he gives a version of the free will defense to explain error. What I meant was that Descartes thinks that we have an ‘overwhelming tedency’ to accept that our experience is caused by objects that exist independently of us. We could, according to Descartes, and as you point out, withhold credence in the existence of physical objects but even so it is difficult…look at what Descartes says in the end of the first Med. and we can’t keep it up for very long…by the end of the second meditation he has it back. So though you are right about his volunterrinsm I don’t think that he really thinks that we could withhold all credence.

    But, at any rate, the point I wanted to make was that just proving that God exists isn’t enough to justify his assenting to belief in physical objects because he hasn’t ruled out a job-like scenerio and so the argument of the Meditations fails.

  15. It is true that he gets C & D ideas out of Med II, but ultimately this means nothing until he establishes that God exists as he cannot really be sure that the things which appear C & d really track the truth.

    Obviously this gets into tricky issues of interpretation, Cartesian Circle, and all that, but I don’t think this is quite right. To say that he needs God’s existence to be sure that things that appear C&D track the truth is ambiguous; one could mean that he needs God’s existence to be sure that this thing that appears C&D tracks the truth, or one could mean that he needs God’s existence to be sure that the appearance of being C&D tracks the truth generally. They are not the same, and, I would argue, the first is false. There are things in the text that suggest this. There is, for instance, the famous response to Arnauld in Second Replies: “when I said that we can know nothing for certain until we are aware that God exists, I expressly declared that I was speaking only of knowledge of those conclusions which can be recalled when we are no longer attending to the arguments by means of which we deduced them” (AT VII 140); and the passage about the slight and metaphysical doubt at the beginning of Meditation III. We cannot doubt any clear and distinct perception we have; what we can doubt, if we don’t have God to rule out sources of slight and metaphysical doubt, is simply the general rule that all clear and distinct perception is reliable, even that which we are not currently having. If we suppose for a moment that Descartes has established everything he thinks he has established by the end of the Third Meditation, he has ruled out all of the major elements of your scenario. Of course, it’s possible that some misstep in all this still leaves him open to it, but if so that’s due not to failure to take steps to rule out such scenarios, but to the ordinary failure of competent philosophers: failure to make one of those steps really do what he intended it to do.

  16. “what we can doubt, if we don’t have God to rule out sources of slight and metaphysical doubt, is simply the general rule that all clear and distinct perception is reliable”

    I am happy if my scenerio gets us this kind of doubt. For, if it does, then the argument fails in Med. II, even earlier than I thought 🙂

    But seriously, I agree with what you are saying here, and with the distinction that you made. But doesn’t my scenerio cast doubt on his rule? And if it does, doesn’t it undermine the rest of teh argument? That’s all I was really after…

  17. To your two questions,

    (1) Doesn’t the scenario cast doubt on the rule?
    (2) If it does, doesn’t it undermine the rest of the argument?

    I would answer (starting with #2, which I think the easier, first):

    (2) No, and it can’t. Nothing important in the argument actually depends on the rule, precisely because of the distinction between C&D perception and the C&D rule. The argument depends entirely on the former; the rule is merely one of the results we come across in the course of the argument that, if they can be established, make it easier to apply the results of our meditation. But every step in the meditation itself is supposed to be underwritten not by the rule but by the actual perception. So in that sense it’s false (at least if we assume he has done what he thinks he has done) to say that “even if you grant all of Descartes’ premises you still don’t really have any justification to believe in the existence of the physical world because you can’t rule out this final Evil Demon scenerio”, because the evil demon scenario is ruled out, without appeal to the C&D rule. It may boggle the mind a bit, but virtually every conclusive result achieved from Med. II on, is supposed to be clearly and distinctly perceived in the cogito, which in turn is supposed to be invulnerable even to Evil Demons.

    (1) I’m not sure what in the scenario you think would undermine the C&D rule given the course of Descartes’s argument; your scenario definitely falls into the class of ‘slight and metaphysical’ doubts that one might have about it, and Med. III-Med. IV is Descartes’s undermining of such doubts; and in the course of this argument we are shown that we could only be created by God (as a corollary of the arguments for God’s existence), that God is not a deceiver, that all deception is such that it depends entirely on our will, and that therefore all deception must be surmountable with sufficient effort. I don’t quite see where in all this you think there is still room for your scenario, unless we are simply rejecting some point in Descartes’s argument.

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