Descartes's fifth Meditation argument for God's existence relies on an untenable notion that existence is a perfection and that it can be predicated of God. I shall first explain what Descartes's argument for God's existence is, and then present his argument in propositional form. I will then attempt to support the argument that existence is neither a perfection nor a predicate of God.
In our thoughts we apprehend ideas of things. These ideas may reside entirely within our thoughts or they may exist independent of our considerations of them (Descartes 143). Descartes argues that the idea of God is that He is infinite substance "[eternal, immutable], independent, all-knowing, all-powerful" to which nothing more perfect can be imagined (Descartes 149; 151). Descartes defines the more perfect as "that which contains in itself more reality" (Descartes 146), so that there are gradations of perfection beginning with the subjective phantasms, such as a chimera, and culminating with the most perfect being in God Himself. Thus, because our idea of God is one of absolute perfection, and existence contains more reality than nonexistent thoughts alone, God exists. Descartes's argument can be represented logically as:
(1) In our thoughts we experience an idea of the most perfect being.
(2) Existence in reality is more perfect than existence in our thoughts alone.
Therefore, (3) the most perfect being exists in reality.
Descartes wishes to argue that existence is a perfection and hence it belongs to those characteristics of the divine nature. However, a thing cannot possess a characteristic unless it first exists. In his reply to Descartes's argument, Gassendi complains that "...
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...trying to demonstrate, namely that a most-perfect being must exist in order to be a most-perfect being. Last, predicating the existence of God as a divine attribute seems to be unhelpful in addressing His actual existence. Descartes needs to arrive at God's existence through empirical means that do not rely on a restatement of the problem in the form "if x then x" as a solution to God's actual existence.
Barnes, Jonathan. The Ontological Argument. London: Macmillan, 1972.
Descartes, Rene. "Meditations on First Philosophy." Trans. John Veitch. The Philosophy of the 16th and 17th Centuries. Ed. and Comp. Richard H. Popkin. New York: The Free Press, 1966. 122-180.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965.
Plantinga, Alvin, ed. The Ontological Argument. London: Macmillan, 1968.
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