Thursday, 25 November 2010

Descartes' Meditations: Fourth Meditation

We are now past the half way mark. Are you feeling enlightened yet?

Fourth Meditation Of the true and the false

Over the past few days, I've gotten pretty good at detaching my mind from my senses, and I've observed that there are very few things that I can be sure of. But I've become sure of this: that I exist as a doubting, incomplete, imperfect being, who has a clear idea of a complete and perfect being who must be God and who must exist. Now if God is good, that makes it possible to know other things in the universe: a good God wouldn't trick me, because fraud involves imperfection and the desire to deceive involves malice or feebleness. And my ability to make judgements must also be basically good: why would God create me with faulty thinking equipment? But I know for a fact that I do make errors of judgement: how can that be? Because, basically, I'm not God, and insofar as I'm not God I'm not perfect and so capable of making mistakes. My ability to distinguish truth and falsehood isn't infinite: I can't know everything. But I also feel like there are some things that I should know that I don't; and why couldn't have God made me so that I couldn't screw up?

There are two answers to this: first, given how complicated the world is and how small I am, it's not surprising that some things are too complicated for me to get my head round. Second, we shouldn't ask whether individual things in creation are perfect but whether creation as a whole is perfect: some things that look rubbish are obviously perfect when we think about them in the context of creation as a whole.

There are two reasons why I make mistakes: the capacity of my mind, and my ability to choose. It's not an error to find some things too difficult to understand: I'm finite, and I can deal with that. But my free will is the most perfect quality I possess: I can't imagine a will more perfectly free, and so my free will must resemble God's will pretty closely. God can apply his will to more things because he's more powerful than me, but there's nothing that fundamentally limits my ability to choose. Now, freedom doesn't mean that I don't care what choices I make: the more I prefer one thing over another, the more freely I choose it. So if I could always tell what the best choice was I'd still be perfectly free to choose. So where do my errors come from?

When I screw up it's because my ability to choose is bigger than my ability to understand. When I try to make choices about things I don't understand, I'm not able to work out what the best choice is, so sometimes I choose evil thinking that it's good: maybe I decide to go to war in Iraq because I think that they have weapons of mass destruction but because I'm wrong about that the Iraq war turns out to be a BAD IDEA. When I don't understand things, I should just not make decisions about them, but sometimes I make a decision anyway and as a result I screw up. Now we're making progress: I've worked out why I make mistakes or believe things that aren't true, and I know how to avoid mistakes: stop messing with things I don't understand.

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1 comment:

Pita Hanson said...

Am I inherently evil if I know that the choices I make are in fact a BAD IDEA?