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Mind Association

Descartes' Proof of the Existence of Matter

Author(s): Richard W. Field
Source: Mind, New Series, Vol. 94, No. 374 (Apr., 1985), pp. 244-249
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the Mind Association
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Accessed: 27-03-2017 03:58 UTC

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Descartes' Proof of the Existence of Matter


The primary purpose of this paper will be to offer an interpretation of

Descartes' proof of the existence of matter as found in Meditation VI-an
interpretation that is, I believe, the only one consistent with the relevant
texts. The one guiding principle I use in offering this interpretation is the
principle of charity, that is, when one interprets any philosopher's argu-
ment, an unsound argument should not be accepted as his unless there is no
alternative interpretive argument that is both sound and consistent with the
relevant texts of that philosopher. '
A secondary goal of this paper is to raise and discuss briefly some
questions that I believe must be raised if the interpretation of Descartes'
proof offered in this paper is correct. These questions have to do with the
status of proof and of clear and distinct ideas in Descartes' metaphysics. The
answers to these questions are beyond the scope of the present paper, yet
they are raised here in order to suggest some of the more important
ramifications that the present interpretation of Descartes' proof has for
Cartesian philosophy.
The central question of the proof of the existence of matter is, 'What
causes the ideas of sense which I experience?' After Descartes rejects the
possibility that the self is the unknown cause, and after he poses the three
possibilities of a body, God, or an angel as the cause, Descartes continues his
proof as follows:

But, since God is no deceiver, it is very manifest that He does not communicate to
me these ideas immediately and by Himself, nor yet by the intervention of some
creature in which their reality is not formally, but only eminently, contained. For
since He has given me no faculty to recognise that this is the case, but, on the other
hand, a very great inclination to believe [that they are sent to me or] that they are
conveyed to me by corporeal objects, I do not see how He could be defended from
the accusation of deceit if these ideas were produced by causes other than corporeal
objects. Hence we must allow that corporeal things exist.2

In this passage we find three conditions which must be satisfied if God is

to be accused of deception. God deceives some person P if and only if there
is some idea i such that (i) i is false, (2) P cannot know that i is false (i.e., P

1 This is the principle of charity as applied to deductive argument, which will be the only type of
argument considered in this paper.
2 Meditations VI, from Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross, eds., The Philosophical Works of
Descartes, Vol. i (London, Cambridge University Press, 1931), I9I; the material in brackets is in the
original. This edition of the works of Descartes will hereafter be cited as HR.

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Descartes' Proof of the Existence of Matter 245

cannot in principle falsify i), and (3) P cannot help but believe i. The first
condition is obvious: one cannot be deceived by a true belief. The second
condition suggests that God is exonerated from the charge of being a
deceiver if we can know that the deceptive idea is false. This second condi-
tion might well seem anti-intuitive, being contrary to our ordinary notions
concerning deception. I think we would feel deceived by someone who has
knowingly misled us by telling us that, for example, Avery Fisher Hall is at
Rockefeller Center even though we can discover for ourselves that it is
located at Lincoln Center, and further we would normally feel deceived
even if the person in question merely allowed us to persist in this mistaken
belief while having the opportunity to correct us. However, if such a notion
of deception were applied to God it can easily be seen that God could never
be exonerated from the charge of being a deceiver so long as there is some-
one who holds to a mistaken belief which could be corrected. Thus the second
condition makes sense from a theological standpoint, and is further con-
sistent with Descartes' general opinion that the cause of error is not to be
attributed to God, but to the person who believes something which is in fact
erroneous. And indeed since Descartes establishes independently of such
considerations that God is not a deceiver,3 Descartes clearly finds a non-
deceptive God to be consistent with the error of finite creatures, since it is
manifest that we do fall into error. It may be the case that, for Descartes,
the second condition cited above is reducible to the third, if, that is, it is
Descartes' belief that in all cases in which one cannot help but believe i one
cannot know i to be false.4But this is not a problem I wish to consider in this
The third condition for God being a deceiver, i.e., that P cannot help but
believe i, is a consequence of Descartes' discussion of error in Meditation IV,
wherein he states that that from which one withholds judgement cannot
deceive, and moreover that if one makes a judgement concerning that
which is false and not clear and distinct, the blame for the deception rests
on oneself.

If I abstain from giving my judgment on any thing when I do not perceive it

with sufficient clearness and distinctness, it is plain that I act rightly and am not
deceived. But if I determine to deny or affirm, I no longer make use as I should of
my free will, and if I affirm what is not true, it is evident that I deceive myself. ..

Consequently, God cannot be a deceiver in respect to any idea unless that

idea is such that I cannot help but believe it.
Now, in Meditation V we learn that only clear and distinct ideas are such
that one cannot help but assent to them, for here Descartes states that 'the
3 Med. IV; HR i, 172.
4 This would be the case if it could be shown that Descartes takes knowledge to imply belief, and
holding of inconsistent beliefs to be impossible. If this be the case then believing i precludes one f
knowing that not-i.
I Med. IV; HR i, 176.

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246 Richard W. Field

nature of my mind is such that I could not prevent myself from holding them
[clear and distinct ideas] to be true so long as I conceive them clearly ... .,6
and further, 'it is only those things which we conceive clearly and distinctly
that have the power of persuading me entirely'.7 It follows from this, and
from the third condition for God being a deceiver, that the proof of the
existence of matter can only work if the existence of matter, or more
precisely the idea that our sensations are caused by corporeal bodies, was
clear and distinct prior to the proof. For if it were not clear and distinct it
would not be an idea which we cannot help but believe, and consequently
God could not be charged with deception, for the assent to and consequent
deception by such a belief could only be blamed on the one who assents and
believes. Thus the 'very great inclination to believe' that ideas of sense are
caused by corporeal bodies which Descartes refers to in the passage quoted
above is indeed an inclination which cannot be resisted, and which can only
be caused by the perception of a clear and distinct idea.8
In this I agree with A. K. Stout that the inclination to believe which
Descartes speaks of in his proof is to be identified as a 'teaching of nature', a
notion which Descartes also speaks of in Meditation VI.9 By a 'teaching of
nature' Descartes means 'a certain spontaneous inclination which impels
[one] to believe . . .' that something is the case.10 However, unlike Stout,
I believe that the idea that matter exists cannot merely be a 'teaching of
nature', but it must further be clear and distinct. Consequently, that we
have a spontaneous belief in the existence of matter is not crucial to
Descartes' argument. What is crucial is the fact that we have a clear and
distinct idea that matter exists, and that consequently we cannot help but
believe that it does exist. For some things which we spontaneously believe
in, such as that a pain is in one of the limbs of the body, are neither clear and
distinct nor indubitable, and therefore such spontaneous beliefs do not
necessarily fulfil the third condition for the existence of a deceptive God-a
condition that is necessary for Descartes' proof to work.
Because of these considerations I believe that all that Descartes points
out, and wished to point out, in his proof of the existence of matter is that
matter's existence can only be denied either by denying that all clear and
distinct ideas are true, or on the supposition that God is a deceiver. Since
both of these possibilities are ruled out in the fourth meditation," the
existence of matter must be assented to. If one wished to deny the existence
6 Med. V; HR i, i8o; the material in brackets is mine. Also see Princ. 1, 43; HR I, 236.
7 Med. V; HR i, I83.
8 It might be noted in further support of this thesis that Descartes in Meditation IV also refers to the
effect on the volition of a clear and distinct idea as a 'great inclination' (Med. IV; HR i, 176).
9 A. K. Stout, 'Descartes' Proof of the Existence of Matter', Mind 41 (1932), 192.
10 Med. III; HR i, I6o; the material within brackets is mine.
11 Although Descartes does state the rule in Meditation III (HR i, I58), he states in his synopsis of
the Meditations that the rule could not be established until Meditation IV (HR I, 140), and this is clearly
the case since clear and distinct ideas could not be relied upon until the possibility of a deceptive God is
eliminated (HR i, 172).

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Descartes' Proof of the Existence of Matter 247

of matter and yet retain a belief in God's non-deceptive nature, then one
could only do so by denying that all clear and distinct ideas are true, and thus
hope to exonerate God of the charge of deception by opening up the possi-
bility that we could know some clear and distinct ideas, including the belief
that our ideas of sense are caused by corporeal bodies, to be false. This
strategy would deny that the second condition for a deceptive God offered
above obtains. If one, however, wished to deny the existence of matter and
yet retain the rule that all clear and distinct ideas are true, then one could
only do so by taking God to be a deceiver. Thus both the non-deceptive
nature of God and the rule that all clear and distinct ideas are true are
essential components of the proof of the existence of matter.
The role of clarity and distinctness in the proof of the existence of matter
is much more plainly expressed in the Principles, where Descartes writes:

Inasmuch as we perceive, or rather are stimulated by sense to apprehend clearly and

distinctly a matter which is extended in length, breadth, and depth, the various
parts of which have various figures and motions, and give rise to the sensations we
have of colours, smells, pains, etc., if God immediately and of Himself presented to
our mind the idea of this extended matter, or merely permitted it to be caused in us
by some other object which possessed no extension, figure, or motion, there would
be nothing to prevent Him from being regarded as a deceiver. 12

A careful reader will have noticed no doubt that in the proof of the
existence of matter the use of the word 'proof' is strictly speaking a
misnomer. What requires proof in this case was clear and distinct to begin
with and was, for that reason, proved along with all clear and distinct ideas
when the rule was established by the beginning of Meditation IV. Thus
nothing is really proved in the 'proof, and the question can be raised as to
why Descartes went to such great lengths to establish the existence of matter
when simply pointing out that this is directly established by the rule that
covers all clear and distinct ideas would have sufficed. I do not wish to dwell
on this question overlong, but I would like to suggest an answer.
Descartes shows, in his 'proof , that the alternative to believing in the
existence of matter is scepticism, at least a scepticism that calls into question
all that had been deduced directly from the rule that all clear and distinct
ideas are true. For, as we have seen, Descartes makes clear that the alter-
native to accepting the existence of matter is either a denial of the rule
that all clear and distinct ideas are true or the acceptance of a deceptive
God. The former alternative brings all clear and distinct ideas into
question directly; the latter brings them into question indirectly, for
surely a deceptive God could make one conceive something clearly and
distinctly, excepting possibly the Cogito, which is in fact not the case.13
12 Princ. II, i; HR I, 254-
13 An assessment Descartes appears to agree with, for in Meditation III he says that before God can
be known to exist and to not be a deceiver'. . . I do not see that I can ever be certain of anything' (Med.
III; HR I, 159).

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248 Richard W. Field

Thus Descartes in Meditation VI poses scepticism as the sole alternative

to the conclusions he wishes to establish, and so the drastic consequences of
a denial of these conclusions are very forcibly brought to light in Descartes'
However, the interpretation of Descartes' 'proof' offered in this paper
raises a more general question concerning the role of clarity and distinctness
in the proofs of the Meditations. For at least in this one case what is
presented to the reader as a proof, in which the premisses are only jointly,
and not individually, sufficient to support the conclusion, turns out to be, on
closer inspection, an immediate inference from the clarity and distinctness
of the idea that matter exists to its truth. But this raises the question: Do the
premisses of a proof in Descartes' metaphysics make the conclusion of the
proof clear and distinct, or do such proofs indeed presuppose the clarity and
distinctness of what is to be proved?
The answer to this question is, I believe, of some moment to the inter-
pretation of the Meditations as a whole. There are two opposing interpreta-
tions of the Meditations, and I believe all other possible interpretations are a
compromise of these two. The first considers the Meditations as a model
deductive system, in which there are a minimal number of axioms, these
being known to be true, and a deduction from these to all other truths in
the system. This interpretation takes the Cogito as being the one axiom
necessary and sufficient for the deduction of Descartes' entire metaphysics,
and thus achieving the ideal of axiomatic economy. In such an interpretation
only the Cogito, of all the truths of Descartes' metaphysics, can stand alone
as clear and distinct, and therefore as knowledge, independently of any other
knowledge except, perhaps, for some meaning postulates whose truth is
completely tautologous.14 Consequently, all the assertions of the Medita-
tions other than the Cogito can only be clear and distinct by reason of their
deduction from premisses that are known to be true. This is the model for
the geometrically fashioned treatise which was so enthusiastically taken up
by the later Cartesians. The second and opposing interpretation of the
Meditations would see the work not as a deductive system, but as a process of
discovering what ideas are clear and distinct, or capable of being perceived
clearly and distinctly, and thus what can be known not by a process of
deductive proof, but rather by a kind of 'phenomenological illumination'
which more nearly resembles a process of ostension than one of deduction.
That is, the process is one of pointing out and recognizing clear and distinct
ideas, and distinguishing them from what is obscure and confused. On this
interpretation not only the Cogito, but all of the major assertions of the
Meditations would be clear and distinct not in a derivative sense, as a
conclusion deduced from premisses, but in a primary sense as is the Cogito

14 See Princ. I, IO; HR i, 222.

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Descartes' Proof of the Existence of Matter 249

Now, if the proofs in the Meditations do, in at least some cases, pre-
suppose the clarity and distinctness of their conclusions, as the interpreta-
tion of Descartes' proof of the existence of matter offered above suggests,
then the former interpretation of Descartes' Meditations, that they are
indeed a model deductive system, cannot be accepted. For this position
entails that the clarity and distinctness of a conclusion in a proof is always a
product of its premisses, and never its presupposition. It would seem, then,
that the Meditations must record, at least in part, a process of discovery as
described above. Just to what degree they do this can only be ascertained by
a careful study of the other so-called 'proofs' found in the Meditations to
discover whether they presuppose the clarity and distinctness of their con-
clusions or not."5

Department ofPhilosophy RI CHARD W. F I EL D

Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, Illinois 6290I

15 I would like to thank Matthew J. Kelly for his many discussions and comments concerning th
subject of this paper.

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