Why, according to Descartes, the idea of God is innate?

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Last updated: February 17, 2019

Descartes conceptualizes the idea of god as infinite, perfect and pure (Descartes, 2007).

This constitutes the underlying idea in his statement that the idea of god is innate. With god as infinite gives rise to the idea of god as unbounded, unlimited or unrestricted. The idea of god as perfect means lack of flaws or even omnipotence and omniscience. Purity as the idea of god means that it is untainted. (Nolan, 2006) By considering the idea of god as infinite, perfect and pure, Descartes then proceeds to explain why he claims as innate the idea of god.In propounding that the idea of god is innate, Descartes explained that while ideas vary for every individual these ideas are also susceptible to objective consideration.

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From an objective standpoint, ideas are mental representations of reality (Nolan, 2006). The link between ideas and reality is important in determining truth. Ideas are truths when these align with reality (Menn, 1998). The degree of reliability of the connection between ideas and reality requires the consideration of the presence of deception from an omnipotent being or god. Thus, the reliability of an idea depends on its source.

If the source is reliable, then the idea is also sound. A reliable source is something incorruptible or pure. Based on this explanation of ideas and its connection with reality, Descartes identified the three sources of ideas and the respective reliability of these sources for the idea of god.

There are three sources of ideas. These sources give rise to different ideas and reflect different levels of reliability when it comes to the idea of god. There are ideas that can only emerge exclusively from one source or can develop from two or all of these sources. The idea of god, according to Descartes (2007) is an innate part of the individual. This finds support from the analogy of eliminating the possible sources of the idea of god.

If the idea of god cannot emanate from an external source or emerge from the imagination of the human mind then it must be an innate part of the person inscribed by god. The innate source provides the highest level of reliability as an inscription by god.The first source is adventitious or external ideas that come from outside of the self (Descartes, 2007).

A person develops these ideas from experiencing them in the external world through the senses (Hatfield, 2003). The idea of fire emerged from observations of how lighting hitting a tree caused fire or how an accidental clicking of two flint stones can create fire. Children also develop speech by listening and emulating sounds.

Children also learn from listening in class and observing adults. These ideas depend on external experiences so that these emerge from awareness of facets of the external world. The degree of awareness of a person of his external environment determines the ideas likely to develop. Ideas could vary from one person to another depending on differing levels of awareness.The idea of god goes beyond sensory experiences. The idea of god is not susceptible to human sight, hearing, smell, taste or feel. While there could be external manifestations of the idea of god, these are only an offshoot of already existing ideas and not as the source of the idea of god itself.

A person cannot also claim of having developed the idea of god by seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or feeling god. Based on this impossibility, Descartes (2007) explained that the idea of god could not come from an external source.In addition, Descartes (2007) also propounded that individual will may have no influence on external sources. An example is the idea of heat from the sun. On a sunny day, a person standing outside in the middle of the day would feel hot and experience the idea of solar heat without influencing this idea. The same is true with the idea of god since individuals cannot exert influence on the idea of god.

No person can validly attribute the idea of god to his/her influence. However, since the idea of god cannot be separate from the being and existence of man, the idea of god is difficult to attribute in absolute terms to an external source (Hatfield, 2003).Moreover, there are flaws with external sources. In the case of the sun, sensory experience leads to the idea that the sun is small but studies show that the sun is actually a big stellar body situated a long distance away from earth to make the sun look small by virtue of view from a distance.

There are imperfections in external sources of ideas relative to reality (Hatfield, 2003). However, since the idea of god is perfect, the source of the idea of god cannot be external.The second source is factitious, imagination or creation of the mind. The human mind is capable of creating ideas such as dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and chimeras. These are ideas without any bearing on reality but emerge as ideas nonetheless. While the human mind imagined these ideas, these are not perfect ideas (Menn, 1998). Dragons perish to become the object of legends. Unicorns are also rare creatures that perish.

Mermaids also experience the same problems as human beings experience and are susceptible to destruction. A chimera as a combination of different organisms is strong but subject to defeat despite combined capabilities and strengths. While these emerged from the human imagination, these are susceptible to reflect man’s imperfections.The idea of god is akin to imagination in the sense that these emerge from the human mind. However, the idea of god as perfect and pure is entirely different from the imperfections and impurities of ideas from the human imagination (Menn, 1998). As such, the idea of god cannot have come from the mind’s creation.

In addition, the idea of god has close links to human existence and therefore god’s existence. Man cannot imagine his/her existence or the idea of his/her existence (Hatfield, 2003). This finds support from the fact that there are things that are impossible for the human mind to encompass. Since there are ideas that cannot come from adventitious or factitious sources, then by virtue of elimination, there is no other source for the idea of god but innate.The third source is innate to the human mind as inscribed by god. By establishing that the idea of god cannot come from outside of the human mind through experience of external situations or emerge from the human imagination, then the idea of god necessarily emerges as innate to individuals. To discount the other sources of ideas, the idea of god cannot be an external source since a person cannot directly experience or discover god outside of the self.

This cannot also be of human imagination because the idea of god is enduring. While Descartes draws his basic statement of the idea of god as innate from the analogy of elimination, he also justifies his statement by arguing for the innateness of the idea of god as proof of the existence of god (Hatfield, 2003; Descartes, 2007). God has inscribed the idea of a superior being into the human mind.To support the innateness of the idea of god, this requires proof of the existence of god.  Descartes argues that the evidence of the source of ideas is its sense of reality, which in turn makes the essence of the idea real (Nolan, 2006). The idea of god is infinite, which means that the nature of the idea is limitless.

Since human experience and imagination have limits, only god existing in reality is the object and source of the idea of god. Since god is the source of this idea of infiniteness and perfection, then god exists as the inscriber of the idea. With god as the source of the idea, then this idea is innate.In addition, to support god as the source and inscriber of the idea of god into the human mind is the argument of human creation. Human imperfection and the perfection of the idea of god means that the perfect and supreme being created man in the likeness that man exist (Hatfield, 2003: Descartes, 2007) and not the other way around. By creating man, god is also capable of inscribing ideas innate to the human mind.

Moreover, Descartes also differentiated the body and mind to support the innate inscription of the idea of god in man. The body is corruptible and continuously changing while the mind is incorruptible and of pure substance (Descartes, 2007). This means that while the body may deteriorate, the human mind has an eternal nature (Hatfield, 2003). The nature of the human mind holds an eternal characteristic that is consistent with the idea of god.

This is the reason why the mind is capable of inscription of the idea of god.Deception emerges as a confounding issue because of the susceptibility of human imperfection to deception. The idea of god as innate could just be a result of deception by external forces, human imagination, or another entity apart from god (Hatfield, 2003). However, the idea of god is supreme goodness, which means god would not desire to deceive man (Descartes, 2007). This supports the validity of god inscribing the idea of god as an innate part of the human mind without deception.According to Descartes, the idea of god is innate. By debunking or discrediting the adventitious and factitious sources of ideas, then the source of the idea of god becomes necessarily innate. The idea of god is also innate because god’s existence is undeniable amidst man’s imperfection and yet the human mind is capable of having an idea, albeit subject to the limits of the human mind, of an infinite and perfect god.


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