Descartes’ understanding of existence as a perfection which God cannot lack

I will be putting up some posts on particular aspects of the Ontological argument that are mentioned in the OCR specification but haven’t turned up in exam questions recently. The first is Descartes’ understanding of existence.

It is necessary to know a little background on Descartes to understand his version of the argument fully. In his book Meditations (1641) he sought to find out what could be known with certainty. To do this he considered all knowledge in a sceptical or doubtful light, doing what is often called now a thought experiment, imagining that he was being deceived by an evil demon. A great condensed version of this is here .

Another excellent resource to understand Descartes is this set of youtube videos . The link opens to the first of five sections. I recommend you start at about 8 minutes into the first one and then watch the whole of part 2 and 3 to really understand how Descartes arrives at the idea of God as a kind of ‘maker’s mark’ in the mind. This was a BBC series called The Great Philosophers presented by Bryan Magee.

William James – voices

Here is an excerpt from William James’ book Lecture XI of The Varieties of Religious Experience which quotes from Edwin Starbuck, who did much research into the psychology of religion. The context of this passage is the effect of religious experience on behaviour, particularly its ability to effect sudden and permanent cures of addictive behaviour. He cites two examples of people hearing the ‘voice of God’ and subsequently turning from destructive behaviour. He links such cures with the effect hypnosis can have on addiction, and concludes that if the grace of God is working it probably works through this subliminal (unconscious) pathway.

A good way to approach an essay on voices would then be not to try and deal with them only in isolation, but consider them, as James did, in the light of their effect on conversion. This gives you much wider scope to talk about psychological influences, and bring in far more of The Varieties.

“Here is an analogous case from Starbuck’s manuscript collection:

“I went into the old Adelphi Theatre, where there was a Holiness meeting,… and I began saying, ‘Lord, Lord, I must have this blessing.’ Then what was to me an audible voice said: ‘Are you willing to give up everything to the Lord?’ and question after question kept coming up, to all of which I said: ‘Yes, Lord; yes, Lord!’ until this came: ‘Why do you not accept it now?’ and I said: ‘I do, Lord.’- I felt no particular joy, only a trust. Just then the meeting closed, and, as I went out on the street, I met a gentleman smoking a fine cigar, and a cloud of smoke came into my face, and I took a long, deep breath of it, and praise the Lord, all my appetite for it was gone. Then as I walked along the street, passing saloons where the fumes of liquor came out, I found that all my taste and longing for that accursed stuff was gone. Glory to God!… [But] for ten or eleven long years [after that] I was in the wilderness with its ups and downs. My appetite for liquor never came back.”

The classic case of Colonel Gardiner is that of a man cured of sexual temptation in a single hour. To Mr. Spears the colonel said, “I was effectually cured of all inclination to that sin I was so strongly addicted to that I thought nothing but shooting me through the head could have cured me of it; and all desire and inclination to it was removed, as entirely as if I had been a sucking child; nor did the temptation return to this day.” Mr. Webster’s words on the same subject are these: “One thing I have heard the colonel frequently say, that he was much addicted to impurity before his acquaintance with religion; but that, so soon as he was enlightened from above, he felt the power of the Holy Ghost changing his nature so wonderfully that his sanctification in this respect seemed more remarkable than in any other.” *

* Doddridge’s Life of Colonel James Gardiner, London Religious Tract Society, pp. 23-32.

Such rapid abolition of ancient impulses and propensities reminds us so strongly of what has been observed as the result of hypnotic suggestion that it is difficult not to believe that subliminal influences play the decisive part in these abrupt changes of heart, just as they do in hypnotism. * Suggestive therapeutics abound in records of cure, after a few sittings, of inveterate bad habits with which the patient, left to ordinary moral and physical influences, had struggled in vain. Both drunkenness and sexual vice have been cured in this way, action through the subliminal seeming thus in many individuals to have the prerogative of inducing relatively stable change. If the grace of God miraculously operates, it probably operates through the subliminal door, then. But just how anything operates in this region is still unexplained, and we shall do well now to say good-by to the process of transformation altogether,- leaving it, if you like, a good deal of a psychological or theological mystery,- and to turn our attention to the fruits of the religious condition, no matter in what way they may have been produced. *(2)

* Here, for example, is a case, from Starbuck’s book, in which a ‘sensory automatism’ brought about quickly what prayers and resolves had been unable to effect. The subject is a woman. She writes:

“When I was about forty I tried to quit smoking, but the desire was on me, and had me in its power. I cried and prayed and promised God to quit, but could not. I had smoked for fifteen years. When I was fifty. three, as I sat by the fire one day smoking, a voice came to me. I did not hear it with my ears, but more as a dream or sort of double think. It said, ‘Louisa, lay down smoking.’ At once I replied, ‘Will you take the desire away?’ But it only kept saying: ‘Louisa, lay down smoking.’ Then I got up, laid my pipe on the mantel-shelf, and never smoked again or had any desire to. The desire was gone as though I had never known it or touched tobacco. The sight of others smoking and the smell of smoke never gave me the least wish to touch it again.” The Psychology of Religion, p. 142.

*(2) Professor Starbuck expresses the radical destruction of old influences physiologically, as a cutting off of the connection between higher and lower cerebral centres. “This condition,” he says, “in which the association-centres connected with the spiritual life are cut off from the lower, is often reflected in the way correspondents describe their experiences…. For example: ‘Temptations from without still assail me, but there is nothing within to respond to them.’ The ego [here] is wholly identified with the higher centres, whose quality of feeling is that of withinness. Another of the respondents says: ‘Since then, although Satan tempts me, there is as it were a wall of brass around me, so that his darts cannot touch me.'”- Unquestionably, functional exclusions of this sort must occur in the cerebral organ. But on the side accessible to introspection, their causal condition is nothing but the degree of spiritual excitement, getting at last so high and strong as to be sovereign; and it must be frankly confessed that we do not know just why or how such sovereignty comes about in one person and not in another. We can only give our imagination a certain delusive help by mechanical analogies.

If we should conceive, for example, that the human mind, with its different possibilities of equilibrium, might be like a many-sided solid with different surfaces on which it could lie flat, we might liken mental revolutions to the spatial revolutions of such a body. As it is pried up, say by a lever, from a position in which it lies on surface A, for instance, it will linger for a time unstably halfway up, and if the lever cease to urge it, it will tumble back or ‘relapse’ under the continued poll of gravity. But if at last it rotate far enough for its centre of gravity to pass beyond surface A altogether, the body will fall over, on surface B, say, and abide there permanently. The pulls of gravity towards A have vanished, and may now be disregarded. The polyhedron has become immune against farther attraction from their direction.

In this figure of speech the lever may correspond to the emotional influence making for a new life, and the initial pull of gravity to the ancient drawbacks and inhibitions. So long as the emotional influence fails to reach a certain pitch of efficacy, the changes it produces are unstable, and the man relapses into his original attitude. But when a certain intensity is attained by the new emotion, a critical point is passed, and there then ensues an irreversible revolution, equivalent to the production of a new nature.

The collective name for the ripe fruits of religion in a character is Saintliness. * The saintly character is the character for which spiritual emotions are the habitual centre of the personal energy; and there is a certain composite photograph of universal saintliness, the same in all religions, of which the features can easily be traced. “

Religious Experience – Voices

In a question on religious experience and voices you would want to examine possible physiological, psychological or sociological explanations (just like you would in most essays on religious experience), as a way of evaluating what is called the veridicality of the experience (ie. does it refer to a genuine reality or is it an illusion?).

This clip on Youtube examines the current medical model of auditory hallucinations and shows (in a slightly comical and definitely sceptical way) the links between head trauma, other mental health issues and hearing voices. You would want to take into account such a physiological or psychological account to give a non-religious explanation of voices.

However, you would also want to look at some more sympathetic material, which doesn’t start off with quite such a materialist bias. This website has an excellent overview of different accounts of hearing voices, as well as St. John of the Cross, they have material about Teresa of Avila, Joan of Arc and William Blake. Here is an excerpt:

“St Teresa of Avila, a colleague of St John’s, noted that people who heard phrases heard such as “It is I (God), fear not” found them exceedingly powerful, calming and influential, and the memory of these voices could last for a lifetime. Such powerful and positive voices are still reported today. For example, Heathcote-James (2001) cites a contemporary account of a healthy woman, in a distressing situation, hearing a voice saying “But you have trust in God”. As a result of this, the woman described how she “felt great consolation and joy. I just cannot describe the sense that I felt, it was so beautiful it was indescribable”. These voices often seem to occur when people are in danger, under stress, or under physical or existential threat. For example, the mountaineer Joe Simpson, after a horrific climbing accident, was forced to crawl for four days back to his friends’ base-camp. During the latter stages of his agonising journey he began to hear a voice which was “clean and sharp and commanding” and which told him to “Go on, keep going”. In a biological/medical model that ignores the meaningfulness or usefulness of voices, such experiences get swept under the carpet.”

“Ian Ramsey’s Religious Language, though admittedly more in the empiricist camp than displaying evident influence of Wittgenstein, was a pioneering book in the consideration of ‘ordinary’ religious language. Religious claims, according to Ramsey, should properly be considered as qualified models, or stories, which under the right circumstances can bring about religious discernment (“the penny drops”). Ramsey was at pains to insist that this language , though “logically odd”, was in some sense genuinely descriptive (“about God”) and not in some merely Braithwaitean sense about moral commitment to pursue a way of life.

While the invocation of models goes a good way towards showing how one might find religious language “meaningful”, it was not evident from Ramsey’s “Christian empiricism” how these disclosure situations might claim to be more than emotive response. Neo-Feuerbachians and anti-realists, such as Don Cupitt, are content to find religious language “meaningful” without committing themselves to belief in some absolute being who transcends the world.”

From Religious Language by Janet Soskice in Quinn and Taliaferro, A Companion to Philosophy of Religion

In an essay on Religious Language, and especially analogy, OCR A Level students might be expected to evaluate to what extent religious language can be said to be about God in any meaningful sense. The classical view that analogy was able to affirm in a limited way certain things about God on the basis of the connection between creator and created has been given a new slant by Ramsey. This passage asks the question (which students would do well to ask in an essay on this); to what extent are the insights into God supposedly provoked by religious language insights into an actual reality, rather than just heightened awareness of a particular state of mind (and therefore non-cognitive presumably)?

Practice Questions A2

On a certain other Philosophy and Ethics website they have put their advice about what areas they think will come up this summer in the OCR Religious Studies exam (June 7th). However, you have to buy a copy of one of their books to find it. I don’t have the time to write a book on this, but I will have a go at telling you what I think it might be wise to revise, simply based on areas of the spec that haven’t come up for a long time. So here we go, four questions:

Critically assess Rudolf Otto’s concept of numinous experience.

‘Hume’s definition of miracles makes them impossible to believe in.’ Discuss.

‘Plato’s arguments for the soul are ineffective.’ Discuss.

Critically assess the view of scripture as revelation.

You could do a lot worse than have a go at writing an answer to these questions as part of your revision.