In Descartes Meditations, he develops a few tests for truth. The first test comes about from radical doubt as he tries to find something to be sure of. Descartes begins by treating anything that has the slightest doubt as if it were outright false. In doing so he is left to conclude that at least he exists and he is a thinking thing. In his attempt to rebuild the world he must try to rid himself of other doubt; this is where he makes his greatest mistake. Descartes introduces a test for truth that is all determined by what is said to be clear and distinct or vivid and clear. Descartes believes that he can treat anything that is vivid and clear as if it were true. In this paper I will demonstrate that Descartes’ test for truth is insufficient, subjective, and renders the rest of all his Meditations false (since everything hinges on this being a test for truth).
In this copy of the Meditations, Jonathan Bennett gives us deeper insight into exactly what Descartes meant when he said “vivid and clear.” We see that if something is vivid for Descartes this means that one can understand it immediately. For example, when a person is in pain, no one questions whether he or she is in pain when experiencing the sensation. However, when something is clear we must understand all the parts just as vividly; thus, when you are in pain, you may not fully understand why or exactly what it is that hurts but you have no doubt that you are in pain. When Descartes explains his concept of vivid and clear, he relates it to being sure of his existence. It seems that one could be vivid and clear of something if they are as sure of that thing as their own existence. In this passage we see the first use of vivid and clear and its origin:
“I am certain that I am a thinking thing. Doesn’t that tell me what it takes for me to be certain about anything? In this first item of knowledge there is simply a vivid and clear perception of what I am asserting; this wouldn’t be enough to make me certain of its truth if it could ever turn out that something that I perceived so vividly and clearly was false.”
We also gain insight when we look at the first thing he establishes as true because it is vivid and clear in this passage: “This idea of a supremely perfect and infinite being is, I say, true in the highest degree;… The idea is, moreover, utterly vivid and clear.” So this is the first thing he establishes to be true by his use of vivid and clear. What I want to understand is how God can honestly fit this bill for vividness and clearness before anything else. So far the argument looks like this:
1.) If am certain of something in the same way I am certain of my own existence, then that thing is vivid and clear.
2.) If something is vivid and clear then it is true.
3.) I am certain of the idea of God just as my own existence.
4.) Therefore the idea of God is vivid and clear. 1,3
5.) Therefore the idea of God is true. 2,4
From here Descartes ascents to trusting in God’s existence and then he is able to rebuild the world.
My First Objection
First, it seems like nothing would be vivid and clear if you needed to be as sure of it as your own existence. How can one be as sure of triangles as ones’ own existence? I think that is too heavy of a standard. The cogito is so convincing only because it creates in itself an inherent contradiction that one cannot resolve and thus must come to a conclusion. It is obvious that one cannot doubt their own existence for who would even exist to doubt your existence if you did not exist? This level of self evidence is not apparent in the idea of God. In fact does the idea of anything hold up to that standard? I can doubt the idea of God and even triangles and I never commit myself to a contradiction like I do when I doubt my own existence. Thus premise three is false.
Cartesian Response to First Argument
Perhaps it is the case that this isn’t the only criteria for understanding vividness and clearness. After all, we were provided supplemented text which suggests that is something else. In Bennett’s introduction we gain more insight from this passage: “I call a perception claram when it is present and accessible to the attentive mind—just as we say that we see something clare when it is present to the eye’s gaze and stimulates it with a sufficient degree of strength and accessibility.” For distinctness Descartes says that all parts of it must be claram. Thus the Cartesian response may be as simple as saying that the idea of God is clear or vivid to the mind just as when something is to the eye and not just in general but even every part of it, thus the idea is vivid and clear. Therefore, the new argument would go something like this:
I. If something is present and clear to the mind just as something is clear to eye’s gaze then it is clear.
II. If something is clear in all parts of it then it is vivid.
III. The idea of God is present and clear to the mind just as something as something is clear to the eye’s gaze.
IV. Therefore the idea of God is clear. I,III
V. The idea of God is clear in all its parts.
VI. Therefore the idea of God is vivid. II,V
- Therefore the idea of God is vivid and clear. IV, VI
My Second Objection (Rebuttal)
Second, I think it is otherwise too subjective. What if one was to be vivid and clear on something Descartes is not? And how would Descartes reconcile this? The problem lies in the defining something by analogy. To say that something is clear, if it is clear in the same way something is clear to the eye’s gaze, is not mathematically rigorous enough to stand up against the wind of logic. Thus premise one is in question in this argument. If one can understand premise one then vividness does have a more distinct definition. But how could someone understand this analogy? Perhaps one can simply run the reverse argument above and say that the idea of God is not as clear as something is clear to the eye’s gaze and thus the idea of God is not clear (modus tollens). If one were to make this move then God will surely never make it to vivid state. Also, how could Descartes even rebut that?
Overall, there is a strong sense of doubt in my mind about vividness and clearness being a test for truth. It seems insufficient. To make things worse it does not seem to gain any legitimacy when one really dives into the text. In short, the idea of what is vivid and clear isn’t very vivid and clear.