Principles of Philosophy Part I: 13–27: God's Existence Summary & Analysis | SparkNotes (2023)


Now that Descartes has found a piece of certain knowledge—that he exists as a thinking thing—he starts to look around for more of these self- evident truths. He discovers that he has quite a few of them, prominent among these being the truths of mathematics and logic, and he is optimistic about his chances for developing a system of certain knowledge. Then he realizes a kink in his plan. These clear and distinct perceptions are only indubitable so long as he is attending to them. As soon as they fall out of awareness, the doubt can creep back in. Once again, he can begin to wonder whether it was an evil demon who caused him to believe in the certainty of these truths. Suddenly, things do not look too rosy for his system of certain knowledge; if he needs to keep every truth perpetually before his mind, then he cannot expect too make much headway in unraveling the facts of nature.

Descartes' solution is to bring God into the picture. By proving that God is the cause of our clear and distinct perception, and that, further, God is perfect in every way and thus no deceiver, he will be able to secure lasting certainty for clear and distinct perceptions. He, therefore, sets out to prove that God exists.

Descartes gives at least two arguments for God's existence. The first one, found in I.14, is a version of the ontological argument for God's existence. Descartes' ontological argument goes as follows: (1) Our idea of God is of a perfect being, (2) it is more perfect to exist than not to exist, (3) therefore, God must exist.

The second argument that Descartes gives for this conclusion is far more complex. This argument rests on the distinction between two sorts of reality. Formal reality is the reality that anything has in virtue of existing. It is just regular, garden-variety reality. Formal reality comes in three grades: infinite, finite, and mode. God is the only existing thing with infinite formal reality. Substances all have finite formal reality. Finally, modes have modal formal reality. An idea, insofar as it is considered as an occurent piece of thought, has modal formal reality (since any particular thought, as we will see later, is just a mode of mind).

Ideas, however, also have another kind of reality, unique to them. When considered in their relation to the objects they represent, ideas can be said to have objective reality. There are three grades of objective reality, precisely mirroring the three grades of formal reality. The amount of objective reality contained in an idea is determined solely on the basis of the amount of formal reality contained in the object represented by the idea.

Descartes begins the argument by making the controversial claim that we all have an idea of God as an infinite being. (He believes that we cannot fail to have this idea because he thinks it is innate.) Because our idea of God is of an infinite being, it must have infinite objective reality. Next, Descartes appeals to an innate logical principle: something cannot come from nothing. Reasoning from this principle he arrives at two other causal principles: (1) There must be as much reality in a cause as in an effect, and so, (2) there must be as much formal reality in a cause of an idea as there is objective reality in an idea. Since we have an idea with infinite objective reality (namely, the idea of God), Descartes is able to conclude that there is a being with infinite formal reality who caused this idea. In other words, God exists.


One of the most famous objections to Descartes' philosophy attacks his use of the proof of God in order to validate clear and distinct perceptions. The objection, often referred to as the "Cartesian Circle," is that Descartes uses God to prove the truth of clear and distinct perceptions and also uses clear and distinct perceptions to prove the existence of God. How can he use clear and distinct perceptions to prove God's existence, these critics ask, if he needs God in order to prove that clear and distinct perceptions to tell us the truth? This does, indeed, sound like circular reasoning.

Descartes, however, has not made this foolish mistake. God's existence does not prove that clear and distinct perceptions are true. We do not need any proof that clear and distinct perceptions are true. In fact, what it means for something to be a clear and distinct perception is that, so long as we are attending to it, we cannot possibly doubt its truth. God is only needed to ensure that doubt does not creep in after we stop attending to these perceptions. Descartes, then, can legitimately use clear and distinct perceptions to prove God's existence. In the proof of God's existence we are using clear and distinct perceptions that we are attending to, and so we cannot doubt their truth. After we prove God's existence, the only thing that changes is that now we do not have to keep attending to these perceptions to be certain that they are true.

There are, however, other problems with Descartes' arguments for the existence of God. The ontological argument is particularly faulty. Ontological arguments are common in the history of philosophy. The medieval philosopher St. Anselm gave a famous version of the ontological argument, and even Plato puts an ontological argument in Socrates' mouth in the Phaedo. Nicolas Malebranche, Baruch Spinoza, and G.W. Leibniz all have their own versions of the ontological argument.

In fact, in order to be a proper Cartesian rationalist (i.e. someone who believes that the entire world can be explained in terms of a chain of logical connections and that we have access to this explanation) you have to believe in the possibility of an ontological argument. Without an ontological argument, explanation must either end in some brute, unexplained fact, or turn into an infinite regress, where the there is no end to explanation. In order to ensure that explanation comes to a final halt (and a halt with no loose, unexplained end), it is necessary that there be some level of reality that causes itself, something that is its own explanation. The only plausible candidate for an entity that is its own explanation is God. And the only way for God to be his own explanation is for some version of the ontological argument to work.

To understand why a self-causing thing is necessary to bring explanation to a satisfying end, consider what would happen if there were no such self-causing thing (which, unfortunately, there probably is not): in order to explain any fact, you would have to appeal to another fact, and then, to explain that fact, to another, and, for that one, to another, and infinitely on. Unless, of course, you ended up at a fact that simply could not be explained, in which you would not have managed to give an explanation for everything in the world. Now imagine that there is something that is its own explanation: in order to explain a fact, you have to appeal to another fact, and to explain that fact, to another, and on and on, until, ultimately, you hit upon a final fact that explains itself. Everything has been explained. There are no loose ends. The rationalist's job is done.

Unfortunately, as appealing as this picture of explanation is, ontological arguments involve a severe logical fallacy. They simply do not work. Immanuel Kant was the first to point this problem out, although he himself had given his own version of the ontological argument years earlier. The reason that the ontological argument cannot work is because it treats the existential verb (i.e. to be) as a property like other properties, a property that something can either have or not have. Clearly, though, existence is not a property like other properties. It is not even logically coherent to say "God does not have existence." If God does not exist, he cannot have properties, and he also cannot not have properties. He simply is not. The rationalists and those before them, failed to notice this big difference separating existence from other properties.

The causal argument also has its fair share of problems. The strange notions of reality that Descartes introduces are easy prey to attack. Why claim, for instance, that there is any special kind of reality called "objective reality?" Why assume, for that matter, that reality comes in grades that are so metaphysically loaded? Even more fatal than these legitimate worries, however, is the fact that Descartes' central claim is demonstrably false. We do not all have a clear and distinct innate idea of God as a being of infinite perfection. The only people who have this idea are those who were raised in cultures where the notion of a single and perfect supreme being was prevalent.


What is the existence of God summary? ›

existence of God, in religion, the proposition that there is a supreme supernatural or preternatural being that is the creator or sustainer or ruler of the universe and all things in it, including human beings.

What is the philosophy of God's existence? ›

Theism is the view that there is a God which is the creator and sustainer of the universe and is unlimited with regard to knowledge (omniscience), power (omnipotence), extension (omnipresence), and moral perfection. Though regarded as sexless, God has traditionally been referred to by the masculine pronoun.

What are the 5 arguments for the existence of God? ›

Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways to Prove the Existence of God
  • The First Way: Motion.
  • The Second Way: Efficient Cause.
  • The Third Way: Possibility and Necessity.
  • The Fourth Way: Gradation.
  • The Fifth Way: Design.

What are the 4 philosophical arguments for the existence of God? ›

Evidence for the existence of God is seen in several ways in what have traditionally been called the Classical Arguments for God's existence. The four Classical arguments are simply called: The Ontological argument, The Cosmological argument, The Teleological argument, and The Moral argument.

What are the three main arguments for the existence of God? ›

Much of the discussion has focused on Kant's “big three” arguments: ontological arguments, cosmological arguments, and teleological arguments.

What are the three proofs of God's existence? ›

Three Proofs for the Existence of God: Scientific Proof, Historic Proof, Prophetic Proof.

What are the three characteristics of God philosophy? ›

In Western (Christian) thought, God is traditionally described as a being that possesses at least three necessary properties: omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), and omnibenevolence (supremely good). In other words, God knows everything, has the power to do anything, and is perfectly good.

Who wrote the 5 proofs for the existence of God? ›

The Summa Theologica is a famous work written by Saint Thomas Aquinas between AD 1265 and 1274. It is divided into three main parts and covers all of the core theological teachings of Aquinas's time.

What does God's self existence mean? ›

It refers to the Christian belief that God does not depend on any cause other than himself for his existence, realization, or end, and has within himself his own reason of existence. This represents God as absolutely independent and self-existent by nature.

What is the biggest argument against existence of God? ›

The “Argument from Divine Hiddenness” or the “Hiddenness Argument” refers to a family of arguments for atheism. Broadly speaking, these arguments try to demonstrate that, if God existed, He would (or would likely) make the truth of His existence more obvious to everyone than it is.

Do philosophers believe in God? ›

“To be honest, most of philosophy isn't concerned in any direct sense with God or God's existence,” Jensen said. “It is one part of philosophy that we study, but we're not obsessed with it. In no way is it the purpose of philosophy to attack religion.”

How has God revealed himself to us? ›

God has revealed himself to us in the glory of creation, in the perfection of the written word, and in the personal experience of all who seek him.

What are the 5 arguments in philosophy? ›

The arguments are often named as follows: (1) argument from motion, (2) argument from efficient cause, (3) argument from necessary being, (4) argument from gradations of goodness, and (5) argument from design.

What are the 4 philosophical principles? ›

The four prima facie principles are respect for autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice. "Prima facie," a term introduced by the English philosopher W D Ross, means that the principle is binding unless it conflicts with another moral principle - if it does we have to choose between them.

What are the four concepts of God? ›

Most theists agree that God is (in Ramanuja's words) the “supreme self” or person—omniscient, omnipotent, and all good. But classical Christian theists have also ascribed four “metaphysical attributes” to God—simplicity, timelessness, immutability, and impassibility.

What is the first cause argument for the existence of God? ›


In very basic terms, this 'proof' for the existence of God claims that because the universe exists, someone or something must have 'caused' it to exist. That someone or something must be God.

What are the characteristics of God in philosophy? ›

The Divine Attributes explores the traditional theistic concept of God as the most perfect being possible, discussing the main divine attributes which flow from this understanding - personhood, transcendence, immanence, omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, perfect goodness, unity, simplicity and necessity.

What are the 4 divine attributes of God? ›

Personal attributes of God are life (fullness, beatitude, perfection), thought, will and freedom, love and friendship.

What are the characteristics God wants us to have? ›

5 Characteristics God Desires in the Life of the Believer
  • All Humility. James said in James 4:10 to “humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will life you up.” When we are obeying the Bible, we are walking the worthy walk and it all starts in our hearts. ...
  • Gentleness. ...
  • Patience.
Aug 5, 2021

Who summarized the five logical arguments for the existence of God in 13th century? ›

Thomas Aquinas was a 13th century thinker who authored the Summa Theologica. The Summa Theologica contained five proofs for God's existence, also known as Aquinas' Five Ways. The first proof is the proof of motion, in which Aquinas argues that God is required to explain how beings could be set into motion.

What is the contingency argument for the existence of God? ›

The “Argument from Contingency” examines how every being must be either necessary or contingent. Since not every being can be contingent, it follow that there must be a necessary being upon which all things depend. This being is God.

What is Augustine's proof of God's existence? ›

For if there is something more excellent than truth, this is God. If there is not, then truth itself is God. Whether or not truth is God, you cannot deny that God exists, and this was the question with which we agreed to deal.

What is the purpose of our existence according to the Bible? ›

Examples of biblical purpose statements

“I live to bring glory to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ through consistent worship, by my praise and in my life; to cultivate a life of intimacy with God; and to equip women and men for ministry through the power of the Holy Spirit.”

What is the existence and simplicity of God? ›

In monotheistic theology, the doctrine of Divine Simplicity says that God is simple (without parts). This is the idea that God does not exist in parts but is one unified entity, with no distinct attributes; that is, God's existence is identical to God's essence.

What is it called when you have your own God? ›

The God of monotheism, as exemplified by the great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—is a personal god.

What are the odds that God exists? ›

A scientist has calculated that there is a 67% chance that God exists. Dr Stephen Unwin has used a 200-year-old formula to calculate the probability of the existence of an omnipotent being.

Why do atheist deny the existence of God? ›

Atheists argue that because everything in the universe can be explained in a satisfactory way without using God as part of the explanation, then there is no point in saying that God exists.

Which philosopher said to believe in God? ›

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) offers a pragmatic reason for believing in God: even under the assumption that God's existence is unlikely, the potential benefits of believing are so vast as to make betting on theism rational.

Which philosopher proved God? ›

In 1641 Descartes published the Meditations on First Philosophy, in Which Is Proved the Existence of God and the Immortality of the Soul.

What does Socrates think about God? ›

Socrates also believes in deity, but his conception is completely different from the typical Athenians. While to the Athenians gods are human-like and confused, Socrates believes god to be perfectly good and perfectly wise. His god is rationally moral.

What is it called when God reveals himself to us? ›

➢ Because Human reason is limited, God also reveals himself through divine revelation. ➢ Divine revelation begins with Abraham and ends with Jesus. ➢ Jesus, God made man, is the ultimate expression of Divine Revelation.

Who is God according to Bible? ›

God in Christianity is believed to be the eternal, supreme being who created and preserves all things. Christians believe in a monotheistic conception of God, which is both transcendent (wholly independent of, and removed from, the material universe) and immanent (involved in the material universe).

Where in the Bible does it say God reveals himself to us? ›

Isaiah, the great prophet of God, was given a beautiful, encouraging word from the Lord to Israel and all his people who love and serve him with a sincere heart. This scripture calms our hearts and assures us of His love and promises.

What is a philosophical argument for God? ›

An ontological argument is a philosophical argument, made from an ontological basis, that is advanced in support of the existence of God. Such arguments tend to refer to the state of being or existing.

What is the ultimate aim of philosophy? ›

The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.

What is a simple argument in philosophy? ›

As explained at the beginning of the chapter, an argument in philosophy is simply a set of reasons offered in support of some conclusion. So an “arguer” is a person who offers reasons for a specific conclusion.

What is the highest principle of philosophy? ›

Through the ages, metaphysics has often been regarded as the most fundamental domain of philosophy, which inquires after the ultimate or foundational principles of reality.

What is the first principle of philosophy? ›

A first principle is a basic assumption that cannot be deduced any further. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle defined a first principle as “the first basis from which a thing is known.” First principles thinking is a fancy way of saying “think like a scientist.” Scientists don't assume anything.

What is the difference between philosophy and principles? ›

The philosophy is the 'What' and 'Why. ' It clarifies what you believe in or what you want to do. It also describes why you believe in the approach. The principles are the 'How'.

What are the key concepts of God? ›

God is conceived of as eternal, omnipotent, omniscient and as the creator of the universe. God is further held to have the properties of holiness, justice, omnibenevolence and omnipresence.

What are the 7 parts of God? ›

The sevenfold ministry of the Spirit

Including the Spirit of the Lord, and the Spirits of wisdom, of understanding, of counsel, of might, of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, here are represented the seven Spirits, which are before the throne of God.

What are the 5 dimensions of God's power? ›

Jesus did not only come to save us from sin and give us eternal life, He came to restore every area of our earthly lives: Spiritual, Emotional, Mental, Physical, and Financial.

What is the main idea of existence? ›

Notion of existence.

Existence thus signifies the fact that something is present in nature or in mind, and this in a precise spatiotemporal way. It therefore preeminently asserts reality in act and points to being as the exercise or actualization of reality of any kind.

What is the existence of God in Christianity? ›

God in Christianity is believed to be the eternal, supreme being who created and preserves all things. Christians believe in a monotheistic conception of God, which is both transcendent (wholly independent of, and removed from, the material universe) and immanent (involved in the material universe).

What did St Anselm say about the existence of God summary? ›

Anselm claims to derive the existence of God from the concept of a being than which no greater can be conceived. St. Anselm reasoned that, if such a being fails to exist, then a greater being—namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived, and which exists—can be conceived.

How do you define existence in philosophy? ›

Existence is the ability of an entity to interact with reality. In philosophy, it refers to the ontological property of being.

What is the theory of existence in philosophy? ›

The concept of existence comes into wider theoretical use as early as in medieval scholastic philosophy and begins to be interpreted as the actualization of essence, therefore as the actualized essence which, in Aristotelian terms, carries itself out from its potentiality (potency) in being's actuality (act).

What is the core of our existence? ›

The Bible tells us that from the very beginning of creation God dearly loved all the human beings that He created in His image & called them His Beloved children. Beloved children of God is who we are. Being Beloved children of God is our identity, the core of our existence.

What is the existence of one God called? ›

monotheism, belief in the existence of one god, or in the oneness of God.

What is God's divine purpose? ›

Divine purpose is the mind of God towards someone or something; it is God's intention about someone. God is a God of purpose and intention. The scriptures are replete with theme of purpose and God's intentionality.

When God called us according to his purpose? ›

2 Timothy 1:10

He has saved us and called us to a holy life — not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.

What does God exist out of according to Anselm? ›

According to Anselm of Canterbury, we can know that God exists by performing an act of right thinking at the limit of human capabilities. The ontological argument formulated by Anselm of Canterbury is a gem of medieval theology. It is the only explanation of God's existence a priori.

What is the ontological argument and how does it explain God's existence? ›

As an “a priori” argument, the Ontological Argument tries to “prove” the existence of God by establishing the necessity of God's existence through an explanation of the concept of existence or necessary being . Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury first set forth the Ontological Argument in the eleventh century.

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