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Descartes and the Problem of Error

Among common public, Rene Descartes is most widely known for the system of rectangular coordinates in geometry that he proposed. However, he is also known for being the father of modern Western philosophy. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes explores and investigates a number of questions. One of them is the problem of error.

It consists in that if God is not a deceiver, how can people, his creation, make so much mistakes and from so much false beliefs? In his Fourth Meditation, Descartes provides his resolution to this problem. In this essay, I will explain Descartes’s argument and assess its effectiveness in responding to the problem of error.

The problem of error arises as soon as we recall simultaneously two facts: the first is that God is all-perfect, infinite, and benevolent, and the second is that humans, his creation, err so often. There is tension between these notions because if all in humans comes from God, then the flaws such as capacity for error could not come from flawlessness. Thus, Descartes points out, if errors are not due to some capacity given by God that we operate correctly, there has to be other reasons for them. And as he soon finds out, this reason is how humans make decisions.

Descartes suggests that we have two main capacities involved in making right or wrong decisions. They are intellect and will (Descartes 19). He further examines both of them. The only thing intellect does is that it provides us with ideas upon which we are to impose judgment. As Descartes suggests, intellect is essentially without error, because there is actually no room for error in it. The only problem associated with it is that it does not give us ideas on every possible matter. In other words, we do not possess all the ideas. However, as Descartes asserts, this is not a flaw. This would only be a flaw if we, by our nature, would be ought to have all the ideas. However, it is not the case. Given that our capacities are limited, while God’s are infinite, we naturally would have some limited number of ideas. Which number of ideas God would give to each of us is in some way decided by him. We cannot give no reasons for whether God should have given more or less ideas to us than we have, because we, given our limited nature, cannot grasp God’s ways, whose nature is infinite.

The second capacity, will, is the ability to do or not to do anything. Descartes suggest, that we are given free will by God, which means that we may make any decisions without feeling pressure from external forces. He asserts that our natural inclinations that come from our knowledge or divine revelations are not impediments to free will, because they only assist us in making decisions. In case of possessing a clear and distinct knowledge about the matter under consideration, we can spare efforts and time and make a decision very quickly and easily. In doing so, we, however, do not feel like being forced, instead we feel like being perfectly free and doing the right thing. Ultimately, the capacity of will is limitless. In fact, if will is considered apart from its context, but by itself, God’s will is not greater than the will humans possess. So, the power of human will is also not flawed. The errors, Descartes concludes, arise from the fact that our will is limitless, while our intellect is limited. Thus by exercising our will in matters in which do not possess enough knowledge, we make mistakes. Thus, it is not the flawed nature of our capacities that gives us the possibility of error, but the difference in their scopes.

The answer of Descartes to the problem of error is indeed a clever one. However, his model of how error arises does not cover all the possible cases. As a matter of fact, Descartes suggests that by shedding the light of our intellect on the problem and gaining clear and distinct understanding of the issue under consideration, we can use our will to make the right decision or form a true belief. Although it is true for many cases, it does not account for the situations in which we are guided by false knowledge which is also clear and distinct. This is because the criterion Descartes sets for avoiding error is purely psychological. In this regard, if a person possesses a large amount of coherent but false knowledge, she will be making mistakes, while believing that she is not. Consider an example. Suppose a person living in Ancient times who thinks that Earth is static and that Sun orbits around it. Suppose this person is a scholar. She talks to other intelligent people and makes observations with different tools. She has read many books and made a lot of observations. And all of that supports the fact that Sun orbits around the Earth. She sees these ideas extremely clearly and distinctly – Sun rises in the East and sets in the West at daytime. Its visible trajectory is very much like a semicircle. Also, the Sun is not visible approximately the same time as it is visible. Thus, the person concludes, Sun orbits around the Earth in a circular trajectory. For all this person knows, she is right. She certainly possesses a reasonable amount of knowledge, which is coherent. However, as we now know, the belief she forms is false, because the knowledge she relies on is not true. Therefore, error may be cause not only by the lack of knowledge, but also by the available knowledge being coherent but false.

Rene Descartes in his Meditations, pondered on many philosophical problems. One of them was the problem of error. Descartes found an answer to the apparent incompatibility of a perfect God and human errors. He found that errors are not due to flaws in human nature but due to the fact that our will is much greater in scope than our intellect. His model is witty, but it does not account for all the cases or errors. As I pointed out, error happens not only because the agent lacks knowledge, but also because the knowledge he possesses is coherent but false.