Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy are dedicated to establishing absolute certainty and “anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last” (Meditations I.18). Descartes demolishes all his old beliefs and attempts rebuilds his foundations from the beginning. He employs a series of hyperbolic doubts and dismisses all his preconceived notions formerly taken for granted and works back to establish certainty in all his clear and distinct perceptions. Prima facie, Descartes’s philosophical arguments seem very logical and plausible. However, a closer look shows reveals Descartes seems to have committed the fallacy of epistemic circularity. The first such criticisms were raised by Arnauld in the Fourth Objections that Descartes “avoids reasoning in a circle when he says that it’s only because we know that God exists that we are sure that whatever we vividly and clearly perceive is true. But we can be sure that God exists only because we vividly and clearly perceive this” (CSM 2:150). Could Descartes have actually overlooked such an obvious circularity that could make all his ‘sciences’ fallible?
In my paper, I will introduce another interpretation of the Meditations to break free from the vicious nature of Descartes’s circle. I claim that the problem of circularity arises from an ambiguity in different ways of reaching the epistemic status of certainty. Rather than the his perceptions that serve as premises to the existence of a non-deceiving God being certain from the fact that they are absolutely free from doubt, these clear and distinct perceptions are certain through a different way, through what Descartes calls a “natural light.” While indubitability is a condition for certainty, proving a proposition’s indubitability is not the means by which the certainty of the proposition can be guaranteed.
Circularity and the 3M Premises
Let us take a closer look at Descartes’s arguments. His two broader arguments seem to unfold in a manner that is suggestive of a circle. More precisely, his arguments are as follows:
Arc 1: The conclusion that a non-deceiving God exists (Existence of God) is derived from premises that are clearly and distinctly perceived (i.e. 3M premises).
Arc 2: The general principle that propositions that are clearly and distinctly perceived are true (i.e. The Rule of Truth) is derived from the existence of a non-deceiving God (Existence of God).
Were the 3M premises not accepted because we knew the Rule of Truth? If Descartes was not certain about the Rule of Truth, how did he prove the existence of God from the 3M premises? The two arcs seem to form a vicious circle that can undermine each other mainly because Descartes uses the 3M premises that may not necessarily be epistemologically certain at the point of argument. In Arc 1, he seems to be using the Rule of Truth, which he proved in the Arc 2, in order to conclude that a non-deceiving God exists. On the other hand,...