Meditations on First Philosophy (with Objections and Replies) | Study Guide

René Descartes

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Meditations on First Philosophy (with Objections and Replies) | Fourth Meditation: Of Truth and Falsity | Summary



The Meditator is certain of several things: God exists; God is not a deceiver; God created him and his faculties; and he himself (the Meditator) exists as a thinker. He now has two possible ways to account for the errors he makes. Since God cannot be a deceiver—it isn't in his nature as an infinitely perfect being—this leaves the Meditator himself as the source of errors.

But why does God allow the Meditator to make errors? As the source and sustainer of his continued existence, God could surely have avoided giving the Meditator a faculty for making mistakes; namely, the faculty of judgment. The answer lies, perhaps, in the Meditator's finite nature. He reflects that he is somewhere in the middle of the degrees of reality, with God at the top and nothingness at the bottom. This status involves a lack or deficiency, which accounts for error. Moreover, it is not the case that God has given him a faculty for making mistakes but rather that the faculty of judgment "is not infinite in [the Meditator]."

It is still troubling, however, that the faculty of judgment, given to the Meditator by his creator, should not be perfect. The perfect craftsman can surely create that which is "perfect in all its components." God could also have created the Meditator so as never to be deceived. Why, then, the Meditator wonders, is his faculty of judgment imperfect, such that he can be deceived? Another way to put things is to ask why God has created him as a finite, rather than an infinite, substance.

Two answers occur to him at this point. One is that, as a finite being, he is ignorant of God's reasons for doing things. It is impossible to know God's purpose—God's nature "is immense, incomprehensible, and infinite" while his own is "very weak and limited." Second, looking at one of God's creations in isolation skews the perspective. Instead, when considering the perfection of God's works, the Meditator should look "at the whole universe of things." How everything fits together explains the individual creations. Despite the fact the Meditator can be certain only of his own and God's existence, it is plausible God has created other things of which the Meditator is a part.

Last, upon examination the nature of the Meditator's errors reveals "two simultaneously operative causes" of error. Judgment relies on the faculties of intellect and will. These have already been established (Second Meditation), but now their connection to error becomes clear. The intellect makes possible the perception of ideas, some of which are obscure, others of which are clear and distinct. The faculty of judgment then determines their status as true or false. The intellect itself does not judge.

Judgment itself is an act of the will. When the will affirms an idea that is not clear and distinct, the judgment is erroneous. Moreover, the intellect has a limited power, certainly from the standpoint of the ideas it presents for review. So the Meditator's other faculties are restricted, such as understanding and imagination.

The will, on the other hand, is experienced "as unbounded." No other faculty gives the Meditator the experience of himself "as so great that [he] can form the idea of none greater." In this way the Meditator "bears a certain image and likeness of God." Indeed, although God's will "is ... greater in God than in [the Meditator] ... when it is considered ... essentially in itself, it does not seem to be greater in him than in [the Meditator]." This is because the will is an ability to do, or not do, something.

The intellect presents ideas "to be affirmed or denied, pursued or avoided," and the Meditator experiences the choice as undetermined "by any external force." The will feels entirely free, since "in order to be free, [the Meditator does] not have to be able to be moved in either direction." The more the Meditator chooses according to the understanding "that the good and the true are on that side, or because God so disposes [his] innermost thoughts, the more freely [he chooses] it." Not being so impelled, on the contrary, reflects "the lowest degree of freedom" insofar as it is "a shortfall in [his] knowledge." The act of deliberation reveals the Meditator lacks a clear idea of the "true and good" and as such is restricted. The "illumination of the intellect," however, is "followed by a great inclination of the will," as happened when the Meditator's reflections on existence necessarily led to the certainty that he exists.

Errors occur, according to the Meditator, because the will's scope is larger than the intellect's. As the Meditator argues, "Since the range of the will is greater than ... the intellect, I do not confine it ... but extend it even to matters I do not understand." The will can avoid a false judgment if it refrains from affirming an idea that is not clear and distinct. Error is like sin: it arises from abuse of the will's freedom. Consequently, the Meditator's errors are compatible with a God who is not a deceiver.

The Meditator concludes not only that he cannot complain that God hasn't given him a greater intellect—since to be created just is to be finite (i.e., dependent)—but also that he cannot complain about having been given a will "that is more wide-ranging than [his] understanding." This is because the will, having the single property of choosing, cannot be further limited.


On the assumption truth exists as a feature of reality, and given that one cannot grasp reality in its entirety all at once, it follows that one's judgments are open to error. One judges, after all, a portion of the whole. This is why it is particularly important for the Meditator to choose to affirm or deny prudently. That is to say, the Meditator should not affirm an idea that is not clear and distinct.

Descartes presents two ways of thinking about the freedom of the will: 1) freedom is a person's "ability to do or not to do a given thing," and 2) freedom means people "are moved in relation to that which the intellect presents to [them] as to be affirmed or denied, pursued or avoided," and in such a way that they do not feel externally determined.

The first suggests a capacity for choosing, while the second suggests this same capacity is not externally determined. An example may suffice to get started in the direction Descartes wants his reader to think, even if it enlists features of which the Meditator cannot yet be certain. Suppose a person arrives at a fork in a road. They stand in the middle, straddling the left and right paths. At this point the person can be thought to have the ability to go left or right. This loosely comports with Descartes's first sense of freedom. Now suppose the person thinks of reasons to go left, and these reasons are compelling. No one has pushed the person from behind; no animal is chasing them; no obstruction blocks one of the paths. This means there is no external force compelling the choice to go left.

In Descartes's view, then, freedom of the will (which he also calls "freedom of choice") in the second sense is connected with knowledge. It is a form of intellectual determinism (one state is completely determined by prior states), which seems paradoxical. The more one knows, the freer one is. A clear and distinct idea compels or determines the will to assent. Why should this be considered freedom? It is free because the choice is voluntary and self-determined. The reader should recall the Meditator asserted that the feeling of inclination in one direction, based on what the intellect presents, is not externally compelled. The clear and distinct idea demands attention, but the will's focus on it is not determined by the intellect's presentation.

To be in a deliberative state, on the other hand, means the intellect is not sufficiently clear to motivate assent. This suspension is a sort of freedom, in that one has the ability to choose but has not yet done so. In this case the will is in a condition Descartes calls indifference. At the same time this indifference is also associated with "the lowest degree of freedom" because a lack of clarity in one's ideas represents a lack of direction—a lack of reasons to assent, or not, to a given idea. Even if the idea is true (and good), not "seeing" it means the will has effectively "turned away" from it.

The Meditator concludes that errors occur because the freedom of the will outstrips the capacity of the intellect. Two significant ideas can be mined from this conclusion. One is that willing, in Descartes's view, seems to be a sort of action. Just as a person acts when they make a left-hand turn when walking out of a room, that person also acts when they affirm an idea. This is rather strange, however. Affirming or denying an idea does not feel like a choice in the sense that it could be otherwise. Instead the feeling is that the affirmation or denial is forced by the way things actually are. Indeed this is somewhat the way the Meditator himself describes the compulsion to assent to a clear and distinct idea. Descartes does provide a defense of this view in his Fifth Reply, and there is textual evidence for it in the Second Meditation, where the Meditator references a "wandering mind" prone to believe in ideas that are not clear and distinct.

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