“I think, therefore… God exists?” — Thoughts of a Liberal Arts student trying to make sense of Descartes

As long as I can remember, I have struggled to understand how some people can be convinced of something as complex as the existence of God without any actual proof. Although one might argue that the fact that we exist and the occurrence of supposed miracles, etc., suffice as proof, people who need to have scientific and logical explanations for something in order to believe it can hardly be convinced of the existence of God. I cannot be convinced of the existence of God. Neither did I expect someone with such a doubtful philosophy as René Descartes to be.

When we started reading Descartes’ Discourse on Method for the Core class Early Modern Science last Spring semester, I was confused by his combination of divine beliefs with his doubtful philosophy. Descartes’ famous expression “I think, therefore I am” is at the heart of this philosophy: Read in context, it suggests that everything that we cannot be completely sure about should be doubted. The fact that he doubts serves as the only evidence of his own existence because the fact that he is doubting is the only thing that cannot be doubted.

So I wondered: How can Descartes, while advocating for such a doubtful philosophy, be convinced of the existence of God? How can he be completely sure about this and suggest that it should not be doubted? I was sure that the divine beliefs he expresses in the work were a way to save himself from the potential consequences of advocating for atheistic beliefs during the time of the Inquisition, and I found it very disturbing that the philosophy presented to his readers might not fully represent what he actually believed. Being genuinely curious to explore the topic further, I decided to write my final Early Modern Science essay on this.  

The problem was that there is no actual evidence of Descartes being dishonest about his divine beliefs that I could properly refer to in an essay. I realized that the kind of essay I had in mind would consist of nothing but my own speculations and that I could not demonstrate for sure whether Descartes was serious about his claims for the existence of God or not. After spending more than half a day at the café I usually visit to study (and way too many Euros on their not so awesome coffee) without being able to write more than a few lines, I realized that all I could do in my essay would be to examine the relationship between Descartes’ philosophy and the divine beliefs he expresses in Discourse on Method. Based on that, I could then decide whether I thought he was sincere in his belief or not. Just like I need proof and logical explanations for something in order to believe it, my teacher needs proper textual evidence in order to be persuaded by the arguments of my essay. Just like a claim about the occurrence of a divine miracle does not suffice to convince me of the existence of God, my own speculations would not suffice to convince my teacher of my arguments.

Instead of developing an essay thesis based on my suspicion of Descartes’ religious claims, I decided to go for a more objective approach and established the following thesis question: How does Descartes’ philosophy presented in Discourse on Method relate to his divine beliefs expressed in the same work? “Boring”, I thought at first, imagining an essay consisting of nothing but quotes from Descartes and completely lacking the personal touch I like to give to my essays. But I went ahead with the question anyway. I decided to do a close reading of Parts III and IV of Discourse on Method as these are the parts of the work that address the existence of God in relation to Descartes’ philosophy. While taking notes on and carefully considering every point where Descartes touches upon this matter (rather than just skimming through the text in order to come to class prepared), I developed a completely different and much deeper understanding of the connection between his philosophy and his divine beliefs. I noticed the emphasis Descartes places on the distinction between “intelligent nature” and “corporeal nature”. Our intelligent nature represents our ability to think and imagine, whereas our corporeal nature represents physical senses such as touching, hearing, etc. Accordingly, we are connected to our intelligent nature through our souls and to our corporeal nature through our bodies. It becomes clear that Descartes privileges our intelligent nature over our corporeal nature, suggesting that our intelligent nature is what is able to lead us to the truth. And it is when he connects this intelligent nature to his divine beliefs that the whole theory starts making sense.

According to Descartes, the fact that he is doubting tells him that he is not perfect because knowing would be more perfect than doubting. He concludes that his ability to doubt must be derived from the perfectness of knowing and that this perfectness is God. Doubting is part of our intelligent nature since it is a form of thinking rather than a sense felt with our body. Our intelligent nature is represented by our soul, which represents what God has given each one of us — namely, the ability to reason. Descartes consistently connects his claims about the existence of God to our soul and our intelligent nature, which made me realize how hard it actually would have been to write an essay arguing for his dishonesty about divine beliefs.

Something that had seemed impossible to me started to make sense: Descartes is giving a proof for the existence of God through his philosophical musings, which at first seemed to completely contradict each other. Understanding the distinction he makes between intelligent nature and corporeal nature is crucial for understanding the interrelatedness of his divine and philosophical claims. I wondered how Descartes, while advocating for such an extremely doubtful philosophy, could be convinced of something like the existence of God. How could he be more convinced of that than the existence of his own body — something that he could concretely see and touch? The answer in all these questions lay in the distinction between corporeal nature and intelligent nature: We cannot use our corporeal nature to prove something relating to intelligent nature, just as we cannot experience a smell by doubting, for instance.

Whether I am convinced by his theory or not is a different question, but what I have understood after writing this essay is that the reason I cannot be convinced of the existence of God and such things of “intelligent nature”, as Descartes would call it, is because I rely on my corporeal nature to determine truth more than I should for this philosophy to fit me. If I see something, I tend to believe that it exists. Just thinking of something does not prove its existence. I am aware that many things I see are caused by my eyes playing tricks on me: even though someone standing far away looks small to me, I do not believe that that person is really this size just because they appear so to me at the moment. But just like my eyes can play tricks on me, I am also aware about the way my brain can play tricks on me to make me imagine something that does not exist. For that reason, I cannot agree with Descartes’ philosophy and be convinced that the fact of me doubting is something that in the end proves the existence of God.

But maybe you’d have a different perspective. If you find yourself with spare time one of these beautiful summer days, I would strongly recommend you take some time to read Descartes’ Discourse on Method to understand things from a different point of view, to dig deeper into the famous expression “I think, therefore I am”, or maybe even to let yourself be persuaded by Descartes’ definition of truth. It is a great philosophical work worth a chance — and this is coming from someone who is not as enthusiastic about philosophy as many of my fellow Liberal Arts students, just for your information. However, if you do not find the will or time to look into the whole work, I share my essay here for you to get an insight.

I wish you all a great summer and, of course, happy doubting.