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'I cannot but admit that it would be easy for [God], if he so desired, to bring it about that I go wrong even in those matters which I think I see clearly with my mind's eye'. Is Descartes' attempt to allay this doubt circular?
The first task we should set ourselves to in answering this question is that of making clear exactly what is meant by the opening quote. One might paraphrase the quote along these lines: 'I must admit that it is possible that God could make false my judgements about things that I thought I understood clearly and distinctly'. There are a number of implications that can be drawn out of this paraphrasing, however, that must be clarified before we can begin to answer the question that follows it. Once these implications have been identified and explicated, we can move on, with an established understanding of what this quote implies, to answering the question regarding the charge of circularity levelled at Descartes' attempts to solve the problem of 'clear and distinct perception' and its relation to objective truth. This question should lead us to consider Descartes' argument for the validity of 'clear and distinct' perceptions, as well as the groundwork that Descartes lays in his exploration of the concepts of thought and ideas, and also of God's existence. While it will be difficult to conclude that Descartes manages to defeat the accusation of circularity completely, it will be shown that grounds exist for Descartes to defend himself from at least some aspects of the accusation. The first concept that we must clarify from the original quote is that of understanding 'clearly and distinctly'. While the phrase does not appear exactly in this quote it is a phrase that is used often by Descartes, and describes the kind of perceptions that, when held in the mind, are so self-evident as to be logically indubitable, and 'irresistible'1 to one's faculty of belief. These include propositions such as 'two plus three equals five', 'what is done cannot be undone', and more famously the cogito. Descartes occasionally uses this term in a mostly interchangeable manner with the concept of 'the natural light', in that both phrases relate to a proposition that is immune to doubt. The above paraphrasing makes clear the implications of the inclusion of this concept for the proposition laid out in quote as a whole. The second important feature of the quote to assess is Descartes' notion of 'judgements', as it is applied here. For Descartes, judgements are those elements of thought that affirm or deny. In the act of judgement, we take a stand on whether an idea represents something that is true. For example, a judgement might assert that there is a pen in my hand, and if this is actually the case, the judgement is true. If not, it is false. These two implications clarified, we can understand that the 'doubt' that the question asks us to examine relates to the extant possibility that our clear and distinct perceptions can be mistaken - a possibility that will remain until Descartes can supply further proofs for the indubitable validity of clear and distinct perception. Descartes attempts to allay this doubt, then, by attempting to do just that - supply further proof for the truth of clear and distinct perceptions. If we were to lift the words directly from Meditations into a formal structure, Descartes' argument would run thus:
1. 'God exists',
2. 'everything else depends on Him',
3. 'He is no deceiver',
1 B Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, Suffolk (1978)
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