Existence of God: Arguments of Descartes and Aristotle
The knowledge of God and his existence has been presented in many philosophical works through time, starting with Plato and his dialogues, to Leibniz and more. Though many philosophers have acknowledged the existence and knowledge of God, their definition of God differs and as a consequence of their explanation and interpretation of the nature of God. The nature of God can be derived from how the philosophers define their knowledge of God’s existence. Looking at Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Leibniz, we can understand: (1) their definition of the nature of God, (2) what knowledge is, the origin of knowledge, and knowledge in pertinence to the topic of the nature of God.
From there, I will analyze the arguments of Descartes and Aristotle, then concluding with my own precise answer for the question: How does the existence of God relate to how the nature of God is understood? Plato, otherwise known as Socrates in the dialogues, defines God as the true good. This can be seen through the dialogues of the Allegory of the Cave. The Allegory of the Cave begins with Socrates describing a scene. It is a dark cave and there are prisoners shackled in place facing a wall in front of them.
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Behind the prisoners, there is a fire that is used to reflect shadows on the wall that the prisoners are facing. Since these shadows were the only things that these prisoners had experiences, they were the most real things to them. This opening scene represents the lowest stage of the human mind; ignorance. Following this initial scene, one of the prisoners is released. The prisoner then looks at the fire behind him but finds it physically painful since it is his first direct encounter with light. The prisoner is now conscious that there is more than just what is known as the shadow puppets from before. This second scene represents belief. The next scene follows the prisoner outside the cave.
Once the prisoner is taken outside, the prisoner is unable to look since the light is too bright for him to handle. In trying to acclimate to the new scene, the prisoner can only look at shadows, then he transitions the reflections of real objects, to then the objects themselves. This experience of transition represents the growth of his knowledge and understanding. The knowledge of the prisoner is expanding through the exposure to the objects and he starts accepting reality for what it truly is.
Finally, the prisoner is able to look at the sun. The sun itself represents the highest form of knowledge and the highest form of good, otherwise known as God. The prisoner is looking at the sun and accepting it, represents that he has been able to comprehend the ability to understand. Through the Allegory of the Cave, Plato represents God as the highest good, the sun. In addition to that, the highest good can also be linked to the highest form of knowledge because the entirety of the Allegory of the Cave represents the incentive to expand knowledge and education. A quote from Socrates states, “[…] my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.” Through this quote and analyzing the contents of the Allegory of the Cave, there is a point to the direct correlation Plato uses between God and knowledge. This expresses that the nature of God is knowledge and that God and knowledge go hand-in-hand.
Aristotle, in his metaphysics, brings up the topic of God and his nature by first proving his existence. He beginnings with the topics of physical and unmovable substances. In book XII, he speaks of three substances, two that are physical and one that is unmovable. When looking at the unmovable substance, referred to as “movement”, Aristotle argues that the definition of an unmovable substance necessitates the very notion of itself. This is where Aristotle develops the idea of the eternal unmoved mover which can create the circular movement found in an unmovable substance. The unmoved mover, known as God, is the creator of all things. At the same time, the unmoved mover does not need to act on things to cause or create them.
Aristotle explains by saying, “But if there is something which is capable of moving things or acting on them, but is not actually doing so, there will not necessarily be movement; for that which has a potency need not exercise it.” This quote explains the fact that the potency held by the unmoved mover alone has enough potentiality to create without effort on behalf of the unmoved mover. Though Aristotle uses the argument of the unmoved mover to support his proof of God, the nature of the God he describes differs from the typical Christian interpretations supported by other philosophers. The Aristotelian God is defined as the final cause to be contemplated, the most perfect and actual that knows eternally, and is in constant self-contemplation. As previously mentioned, the unmoved mover is not actively seeking to cause, it is simply the potentiality of it which does cause.
Therefore, Aristotle states that the nature of God is pure knowledge. God is abstract knowledge of self-contemplation which is unaware of the universe, world, and man. The well-known philosophy of Descartes revolves around his arguments of: (1) the main source of error, (2) methodic doubt, (3) Cogito Ergo Sum, and (4) the proof of God. The main source of error is when we form judgments derived from perceptions that are not clear and distinct. This is the main reason why Descartes developed Methodic doubt. Methodic doubt is the systematic way of doubting things in order to reach a basis for what Descartes can claim things to be absolutely certain. He is most famously known for and begins by doubting his very senses. He claims that senses result in perception, which does not definitively align with the definition of pure knowledge as the perception of things can be misleading. He is then known for defining the concept of Cogito Ergo Sum, “I think, therefore I am.” This is the argument he uses to prove his own existence. If he has the capability of thinking, doubting, and knowing, then he must be actual. Finally, he presents his argument for the proof of God.
Descartes explains that he has the ability to understand creatures and substances lesser than him because he has the intellectual potential and superiority to them. With regards to the idea of God, Descartes claims, that because God is a higher being of complete knowledge – something Descartes cannot fully comprehend or imagine – that the idea must have been placed in Descartes by God himself. Though Descartes has the ability to acknowledge God’s existence, he does not have the capability to create the idea of such an infinite being. Through the way Descartes proves the existence of God, it can be inferred that the nature of God can be tied to knowledge.
Since God must have placed the idea of an infinite being within humans, God must have also known that man had the capability to contemplate things lesser than him and acknowledge the existence of God, as Descartes did. This reinforces the idea of knowledge and God being interrelated. The ideas that Leibniz presents in his teachings mainly revolve around the existence, actions, and very nature of God. This directly addresses the prompted question of: How does the existence of God relate to how the nature of God is understood? Leibniz begins by saying “God is an absolutely perfect being.” Leibniz begins with this so that he can set God to having a perfect standard, which ultimately affects and differentiates his actions and those of his created things.
The actions of God are acts for the best as he is both spiritual and moral perfection. Following this, Leibniz addresses those who are non-believers of this perfect God, claiming that God could have done better. Leibniz states “Just as a lesser evil contains an element of good, so a lesser good contains an element of evil. To act with fewer perfections than one could have done is to act imperfectly” This goes against the very concept of God and everything he is, the idea prompted by the those claiming he could have done better, are immediate contradictions as they disprove it themselves.