Meditation 4: Concerning the True and the False
Ultimately, Descartes wants to be able to distinguish between what he can know with absolute certainty—what is definitely true—and what is false. Because his old ideas were based on a precarious foundation, he was not able to do this; sometimes the things he thought were true turned out to be false and vice versa. He has identified a small number of beliefs that he thinks he can know with absolute certainty—e.g. the belief that ‘I exist,’ and ‘I am a thinking thing.’ But what about all his other beliefs? Many of his other beliefs seem to be caused by external objects and seem to provide evidence that external objects exist, but he can’t be sure about that. And he noted that as long as it is possible that an all-powerful God exists who is constantly deceiving him, he can’t be sure of anything. So in meditation 3, Descartes proved (or attempted to prove) that God exists, and now he is ready to move forward by getting clear on the possible sources of false belief, so that he can avoid those.
Here’s how Descartes starts: (53-54)
And now I seem to see a way by which I might progress from this contemplation of the true God, in
whom, namely, are hidden all the treasures of the sciences and wisdom,
to the knowledge of other things.
To begin with, I acknowledge that it is impossible for God ever to deceive me, for trickery or deception is always indicative of some imper-fection. And although the ability to deceive seems to be an indication of cleverness or power, the will to deceive undoubtedly attests to malicious-ness or weakness. Accordingly, deception is incompatible with God.
Next I experience that there is in me a certain faculty of judgment,
54 which, like everything else that is in me, I undoubtedly received from
God. And since he does not wish to deceive me, he assuredly has not
given me the sort of faculty with which I could ever make a mistake, when
I use it properly.
A few things to note:
First, we get Descartes’ very short argument for the conclusion that God is not a deceiver. If you go back to meditation 3, Descartes said that he needed to show (A) that God exists and (B) that God is not a deceiver. It might be surprising that Descartes spends to little time on (B), but I think this is because he thinks that once the main challenge (A) is overcome, other conclusions follow much more easily.
When it comes to the question of whether God is deceptive, Descartes acknowledges that, being all-powerful, God would certainly be capable of being deceptive. The main issue, then, has to do with whether or not God would choose to deceive us. Descartes thinks not. He points out that the desire to deceive comes from (and is associated with) our being finite and limited. For instance, the reason a person lies to get what they want is because they aren’t able to get what they want in any other way. If they could get what they want in some other way,...