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Descartes’s Interpretation of the Problem of Error

The Problem of Error is an essential philosophical and theological question that has been a matter of debate for many centuries, especially during the Middle Ages and the early modern period. The discussion examines the reasons for human imperfection, including the error of senses, despite the existence of a perfect and benevolent God, whose creation is a human. René Descartes provided his interpretation of the Problem of Error, which was expressed in his Meditation of First Philosophy, published in 1641. He proposed the model of the relationship between God’s benevolence and the human ability to make mistakes. In this essay, Descartes’s reasoning will be examined, concluded by the analysis of his success in solving the Problem of Error, as well as the degree of universality of his model.

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Explanation of the Main Thesis

To determine the matter of the following discourse, in his “Meditation IV,” Descartes discusses the fact of the ability of a human to make mistakes. He points out the necessity of keeping the mind away from the senses, being aware that the intellect’s abilities are limited. Along with the realization of his dependency and incompleteness, Descartes affirms the existence of a “being who is independent and complete,” which is God (Descartes 18). In his opinion, it is impossible that God might ever deceive humans, as “only someone who has something wrong with him will engage in trickery or deception” (Descartes 18). Thus, God, for Descartes, is undoubtedly benevolent, perfect, and omnipotent.

As an outcome of this argument, the conclusion is that the reason for an ability to err is a result of not full belongingness to God. As a next step, Descartes introduces the idea of “nothingness,” an opposite to God. A human, he proceeds, is somewhere in between God and nothingness; therefore, his knowledge cannot be perfect as it is partly affected by nothingness. Later he continues his argumentation by investigating the kinds of such affectation, or different sources of errors caused by human limitations.

Three Sources of Errors

First, as Descartes states, a human may be mistaken as his mind is not capable of understanding God’s actions and reasoning. The explanation of God’s purposes is beyond human ability, he argues. Second, the errors might be even necessary as a part of God’s design of the universe. For the evaluation, the universe should be considered as a whole, “not at created things one by one” (Descartes 19). In this way, the imperfection of elements is interpreted as a necessary condition for the perfection of the complete system.

Third, and the most detailed explanation of human limitations is the presence of free will in humans as an obstacle to true knowledge. Although paradoxically, it is also granted by God, a human may misuse it, applying beyond the limits. The intellect, according to Descartes, cannot affirm or deny anything, as it is within the competence of will, the freedom of choice. He gives an example of the appropriate use of will not exceeding the limits, referring to the moment when he clearly understood the main axiom of his theory. This axiom is represented in the statement that the only thing free of doubt in existence is his intellect (the proposition “I think, therefore I am”). As he describes, at the moment of receiving this knowledge, “a great light” appeared in the intellect, which was followed by “a great inclination in the will” (Descartes 20). Thus, he treats it as a kind of God’s revelation, while “indifference” of the will that enables the capacity to judge is the misuse of freedom granted to humans.

Evaluation and Critique of Descartes’s Theory

The Problem of Error is a particular case of theodicy, a long-term discussion that produces different explanations of the evil’s existence in the world, created by the benevolent and omnipotent God. In the context discussed above, the errors of the intellect and, generally, ignorance, are considered evil. The position of Descartes stands on the axioms that (a) God, i.e., some form of “certainty” exists, and (b) God is benevolent and omnipotent, i.e., he cannot be the cause of evil, including errors. However, these arguments may be challenged by other theories and explanations, and thus, Descartes’s model may be considered not universal and successful only to some degree.

For example, Patterson calls Descartes’s God deus ex machina (“god from the machine”), a phrase indicating the weakness and artificiality of the explanation (74). Indeed, if Descartes brings everything into doubt, then the question arises why he does not do the same with the idea of God. In the same way, Park claims that “if God is responsible for making human beings such that we have these biases, this means that God is not a perfect being” (501). These are the few counter-arguments to Descartes’s “certainty,” the presence of the absolute truth and faith in the universe.

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At last, alternative reasoning could be built on contemplation about the human ability to know in general. At this point, it seems that Descartes is contradictory to his own argumentation. If, as he claims, the knowledge has limitations, caused by partial belongingness of human to nothingness, then the declaration of God’s existence might be interpreted as such error of the intellect. Millenia ago, Socrates stated, “I know that I know nothing,” and since that time, his words have been constantly referred to, not without reason. It the end, while examining its errors, the human mind often comes to realize that the very concept of error, as well as truth, may arise as a result of its own error. Therefore, Descartes, in his explanation, does not cover all the possibility of error, and, as in the case of most theories, there are always horizons for the alternate way of thinking and opening the mind.

Works Cited

Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy in which are Demonstrated the Existence of God and the Distinction between the Human Soul and Body, 2007. Early Modern Texts E-book. Web.

Park, John Jung. “The Problem of Error: The Moral Psychology. Argument for Atheism.” Erkenn, vol. 83, 2016, pp. 501–516. Web.

Patterson, Sarah. “Descartes on the Errors of the Senses.” Philosophy, vol. 78, 2016, pp. 73- 108. Web.

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