Fourth Meditation

The Structure of Meditation 4

  1. Immaterial things known without images (7:52-3)
  2. God is no deceiver (7:53)
  3. God & the mental powers of created beings (7:53-6)
  4. Analysis of judgment: the intellect & will (7:56-7)
  5. Error & God’s goodness (7:56-62)
  6. Freedom of will (7:57-9)
  7. Clear & distinct perceptions are true (7:62)

God & Error

In the First Meditation Descartes raises the issue of the compatibility of a non-deceitful god with the existence of error.

since I sometimes believe that others go astray in cases where they think they have the most perfect knowledge, may I not similarly go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square, or in some even simpler matter, if that is imaginable? But perhaps God would not have allowed me to be deceived in this way, since he is said to be supremely good. But if it were inconsistent with his goodness to have created me such that I am deceived all the time, it would seem equally foreign to his goodness to allow me to be deceived even occasionally; yet this last assertion cannot be made. (7:21)

Descartes goes on to grant the possibility that there is no God. By the end of Meditation 3 that is no longer an option for the Meditator. So how should we understand the existence or even possibility of error given the (presumed proven) existence of a perfect God? Descartes says,

I realize that I am, as it were, something intermediate between God and nothingness, or between supreme being and non-being: my nature is such that in so far as I was created by the supreme being, there is nothing in me to enable me to go wrong or lead me astray; but in so far as I participate in nothingness or non-being, that is, in so far as I am not myself the supreme being and am lacking in countless respects, it is no wonder that I make mistakes. I understand, then, that error as such is not something real which depends on God, but merely a defect. Hence my going wrong does not require me to have a faculty specially bestowed on me by God; it simply happens as a result of the fact that the faculty of true judgement which I have from God is in my case not infinite. (7:54)

Descartes’s Theodicy

There are three initial points that Descartes makes in favor of the compatibility of evil—in this case, the “evil” is error—and the existence of an all-powerful creator. First, Descartes notes that “it is no cause for surprise if I do not understand the reasons for some of God’s actions” (7:55). So there may be facts about reality we simply do not or cannot understand because of our finitude. Second, imperfection should be judged at the level of all of creation, rather than locally (7:55-6). Third, and perhaps most centrally for Descartes, error is, in our case, a function of the relationship between two distinct faculties, rather than (say) the product of some single faculty or mental activity. Error depends on both the intellect and the will.

all that the intellect does is to enable me to perceive the ideas which are subjects for possible judgements; and when regarded strictly in this light it turns out to contain no error in the proper sense of that term. (7:56)

So the intellect only presents the mind as a whole with ideas which it considers, and according to which it judges. Judgment, however depends on the will.1 The will is totally free and “not restricted in any way” (7:56) and in this sense is as perfect as any faculty could be; in this sense one is “in some way” like God (7:57). But Descartes understands this freedom of the will in a very specific way.

the will simply consists in our ability to do or not do something (that is, to affirm or deny, to pursue or avoid); or rather, it consists simply in the fact that when the intellect puts something forward for affirmation or denial or for pursuit or avoidance, our inclinations are such that we do not feel we are determined by any external force. (7:57)

Descartes thinks of freedom as the power to do or refrain from doing something, but then glosses this as acting in a manner that is not determined by any external force or power. One thing to note about this conception of freedom is that it seems to conflate two distinct conceptions of free activity. According to the “leeway” conception, freedom consists in the power to do or refrain from some action. According to the “source” conception, freedom consists in the power to act in a manner that is not determined by any external or alien source. These two can come apart, at least in the sense that the source condition can be satisfied even if one nevertheless lacks a power to refrain from a particular course of action. Descartes, however, sees the source and leeway conceptions as conjoined. We’ll see, particularly when we discuss Spinoza, that others do not connect them in the same manner.

The possibility of error for Descartes thus depends on the relationship between the will, understood as a faculty which drives the acceptance or denial of ideas, and the intellect, which presents ideas for the will’s consideration.

I perceive that the power of willing which I received from God is not, when considered in itself, the cause of my mistakes for it is both extremely ample and also perfect of its kind. Nor is my power of understanding to blame for since my understanding comes from God, everything that I understand I undoubtedly understand correctly, and any error here is impossible. So what then is the source of my mistakes? It must be simply this: the scope of the will is wider than that of the intellect; but instead of restricting it within the same limits, I extend its use to matters which I do not understand. Since the will is indifferent in such cases, it easily turns aside from what is true and good, and this is the source of my error and sin. (7:58)

So, because the will is unbounded—i.e. is completely free to judgde—the possibility is opened that one might accept or judge—i.e. will—as true things which are not true and vice versa. But when the faculties are used correctly there will be no error. What we should do then, according to Descartes, is train ourselves so that we judge or affirm only in cases where the relevant ideas constituting the judgment are known clearly and distinctly to be true.

If, however, I simply refrain from making a judgement in cases where I do not perceive the truth with sufficient clarity and distinctness. then it is clear that I am behaving correctly and avoiding error. But if in such cases I either affirm or deny, then I am not using my free will correctly. (7:59-60)

So error isn’t, for Descartes, simply affirming something that is false, rather it consists in making judgments in circumstances in which we exercise our will on the basis of insufficient evidence. Error is thus due to the misuse of the will.

A further indication of God’s goodness, according to Descartes, is that the will is irresistibly inclined to accept clear and distinct ideas.

during these past few days I have been asking whether anything in the world exists, and I have realized that from the very fact of my raising this question it follows quite evidently that I exist. I could not but judge that something which I understood so clearly was true; but this was not because I was compelled so to judge by any external force, but because a great light in the intellect was followed by a great inclination in the will (7:58-9)

If God had made the faculties this way and it were not the case that clear and distinct ideas were true, then God would be responsible for error. But since we know that clear and distinct ideas are always true (remember the truth rule) and we know that God is perfect, and thus no deceiver, then we can conclude that he could not be a cause of error.

Descartes’s ultimate view concerning freedom of the will construes its free activity as asymmetric in a particular way.2 In correct judgment based on clear and distinct ideas the will is, by its own nature, irresistibly inclined to judge. In contrast, in cases where a judgment is made on imperfect evidence, it is not the case that the will is irresistibly inclined by its own nature to judge in that way. Instead, the will could have judged different (or refrained from judging at all). Going back to the leeway and source conceptions of freedom discussed above, we see that Descartes considers the freedom of will in judging correctly to be entirely based on the determination to judge coming from the nature of the will itself, but freedom to judge incorrectly consisting in the power of the will to be able to have judged otherwise than it (incorrectly) did. Let me say a bit more about this in the next section.

Freedom and Judgment

A question will likely have occurred to one in the course of examining Descartes’s doctrine of error. How do we have freedom to judge, as we must in Descartes’s explanation of error, if we are irresistibly inclined to accept clear and distinct ideas?

There are perhaps two kinds of freedom here (see, e.g., (Hatfield 2003), 192-3).

First, there is the ‘freedom of indifference’ that allows one to accept or deny some idea. This is a kind of “leeway” freedom of action, as discussed in the previous section. This leeway conception free will is incompatible with a sort of determinism according to which one must always act in some particular way. But we also saw an alternative conception of freedom – a “source” conception. For Descartes, the source of free action must be one according to which one acts in accordance with their own nature, as opposed to some external constraint. This ‘freedom of spontaneity’ (7:59) characterizes the will’s attraction to the true. As Descartes puts it in the Second Replies,

the will of a thinking thing is drawn voluntarily and freely (for that is the essence of will), but nevertheless inevitably, towards a clearly known good (7:166).

So in the case of judging correctly based on clear and distinct ideas the will is drawn freely, “but nevertheless inevitably” to make that judgment. That the will has to judge in the way it does needn’t undermine the freedom to so judge, but is rather the expression of such freedom, since it is action stemming from the nature of the will itself. As I discussed in the previous section, the leeway and source conceptions of freedom need not be deemed incompatible with one another, especially if we don’t consider Descartes as defining freedom of the will in accordance with either account. However, he perhaps comes closest to doing so when he says,

In order to be free, there is no need for me to be inclined both ways; on the contrary, the more I incline in one direction – either because I clearly understand that reasons of truth and goodness point that way, or because of a divinely produced disposition of my inmost thoughts – the freer is my choice…the indifference I feel when there is no reason pushing me in one direction rather than another is the lowest grade of freedom; it is evidence not of any perfection of freedom, but rather of a defect in knowledge or a kind of negation. For if I always saw clearly what was true and good, I should never have to deliberate about the right judgement or choice; in that case, although I should be wholly free, it would be impossible for me ever to be in a state of indifference. (7:57-8)

So, perhaps we are left with account in which there are distinct ‘levels’ or grades of freedom, with the freedom of indifference at the lowest level and the freedom to act in accordance with one’s nature (to pursue the true) at the highest. Or perhaps we should not take the appeal to different “grades” as indicating that there are distinct and separate forms of freedom. Instead there is free action in acting according to one’s nature, and then there are “deficient” forms of free action, as when one judges in error, and thus in a manner that is not determined or necessitated by anything.


Hatfield, Gary. 2003. Routledge Philosophy GuideBook to Descartes and the Meditations. London: Routledge.

Wolf, Susan. 1980. “Asymmetrical Freedom.” The Journal of Philosophy 77 (3):151–66.

  1. Note that the idea of a “judgment” here is one that involves both the (i) thinking of a complete thought that could be true or false; (ii) affirming or denying the truth or falsity of that thought. Thus, for Descartes, in making a judgment one is always taking a stand as to the truth or falsity of some thought. ↩︎

  2. See (Wolf 1980) for discussion of the asymmetric view. ↩︎

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