A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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Indeed, the two proofs of the existence of God that he gives in turn in the third then in the fifth meditation are based on the three debatable axiological positions that we have identified. So he deduces, as we shall see, the existence of God from his value.

We could sum up the first proof as follows: in the Self, whose existence has just been demonstrated, I find the idea of God. It is a fact that this idea is in my mind. But how can we move from the existence of an idea to the existence of its object (viz. from the formal reality to the material reality of the idea)? In other words, how to prove that God really exists, and not only as an idea in my spirit?

It is here that Descartes uses the first dubious axiological position above mentioned. The idea of God is that of a perfect being (according to its mere nominal definition), and consequently of an infinite being, since to be infinite is to be completely, without limitation, and since being and perfection are one and the same.

Then Descartes deduces the real existence of God from the infinity of his idea, on the basis of the second dubious axiological position, viz. the one which holds that the cause has always more value than the effect.
Indeed, where does this idea in me of an infinite and perfect God come from? What is its cause? Only another infinite being, viz. perfect, may be the cause in question, for what has an inferior value cannot be the cause of what has a superior one. Accordingly God exists, as the necessary cause of an idea which I find in me: The more carefully I concentrate on these attributes, the less possible it seems that any of them could have originated from me alone […] It is true that my being a substance explains my having the idea of substance; but it does not explain my having the idea of an infinite substance. That must come from some substance that is itself infinite 1.

We see that the dubious axiology of Descartes is solicited in his logical reasoning. Further: his logic is based on his axiology, and his judgments are mainly here some judgments of value.

The second proof of the existence of God, exposed in the fifth meditation, may be summed up as follows: “the idea of God is that of a perfect being, but that which exists is more perfect than which does not (viz. perfection, value and existence are one and the same), therefore God exists”.
This famous argument has been improperly called the “ontological argument”. In fact, it is an ontologico-axiological argument, that is to say, a logical monster: the attempt to deduce an ontological reality from an axiological position.

The Kantian criticism of the ontological argument has probably missed the mark: when Kant shows, by the example of the one hundred thalers, that existence is not a predicate, he presents ontological considerations, to which other ontological considerations can be opposed, as Hegel did. There is reason to think that we should analyze this argument from a different perspective, viz. as an axiologist, and not as a logician.
Indeed, we see that this reasoning is based on the two first dubious axiological positions identified above, holding that perfection has a value, then that perfection and being are one and the same.

We might reply that, on the contrary, what has a value is non-being, so that God, as the supreme value, does not exist. Or that perfection is not the supreme value, so that we cannot deduce the existence of God from his perfection. In brief, we can in response to Descartes, support a vast number of opposite axiological judgments. We can also deny that we are allowed to deduce an ontological result from an axiological premise, for these two spheres are distinct. Finally, we can hold that it is impossible to deduce an indubitable ontological judgment from a dubious axiological position.

It appears that a secret axiology underlies the conclusions of Descartes. We do not find in the theory of Descartes any purely logical proof – viz. value-free proofs- of the existence of God. On the contrary, we see that a dubious axiology is solicited by Descartes in order to discover other truths, after the cogito.
What does explain this transition from a purely logical perspective in the second Meditation to an axiological one in the third? The fact that Descartes does not attribute any value to the Self, whereas he surreptitiously includes value in the very definition of God, as we have seen. As long as Descartes remains in the Cogito, viz. the demonstration of the existence of the Self, he does not deal with value. As soon as he speaks of God, the notion of value comes into play, even if it is under the term of “perfection”.

The epoché included in the radical doubt appears now to be limited to questions of fact, viz. of existence: does X exist? Descartes answers: it is not sure, I have to doubt, so that he calls into question, throughout the first meditation, the existence of everything revealed by our senses or our reason (like the mathematical “realities”), and even of God.
The question for Descartes is: “Does God exist?” and not “Has God a value?”, whose answer is obvious, according to Descartes.
It appears as soon as the first Meditation, when he questions the truth of the mathematics, considering that God is so powerful that it may be that he eludes us. But he reassures himself at once: God is good so that he will not do this; but an evil demon could. The concept of evil demon is therefore a symptom of the fact that Descartes cannot imagine a God without value; it is necessary then to invent another concept combining both notions of divinity and imperfection.

Thus the point for Descartes is to prove that God exists: and just as I can imagine a winged horse even though no horse has wings, so I can attach existence to God in my thought even if no God exists 2… and the objections against his doctrine (of Hobbes, for instance) share this perspective: does this idea of God exist in us? Do we really have this idea of God? Descartes answers: Also, someone who denies having any idea of God, in my sense of ‘idea’, is making the most impious confession he could make 3.

The existence of things is problematic for Descartes, not their value, so that I would like to make a hypothesis: Descartes is never touched on by the problem of values. At all events, it is now clear that the famous hyperbolic doubt of Descartes is not radical, despite his ambition, but leaves intact the sphere of values. What leads to failure the Cartesian line of thought is precisely the usage of dogmatic and dubious judgments of value in order to discover indubitable truths, after Cogito. So Descartes remains prisoner of the Self. He is not able to go beyond it, to demonstrate the reality of God, then of the world, as he wanted.

In conclusion, I have tried to have a better idea of the axiological epoché above proposed, by examining a famous model, the so-called Cartesian radical doubt, exposed throughout his Meditations. We have seen that it is a quite distinct epoché that Descartes proposes, an ontological epoché, which affects the judgments of reality or existence, and cannot be a real inspiration for us. We have also found that the Cartesian doubt leads to failure because, his doctrine being actually based on an axiology, an axiological epoché is also necessary, though absent in Descartes’ works.

However, we might have found something interesting: our enquiry into the value of things does not concern their existence, viz. we do not ask ourselves whether this or that thing exists, but whether this or that thing has a value.

1. Metaphysical Meditations, III
2. ibid, V
3. Replies to fifth objections of Gassendi