Descartes on Human Error


An important component for Descartes’ account of free will is explaining where it is that human error comes from.  After the first three meditations, Descartes has arrived at the conclusion that “it is impossible that God should ever deceive [him]” (Fourth Meditation, 37).  When discussing the faculty of judgment, Descartes notes that, “like everything else which is in [him], [he] certainly received from God [this faculty]” (Ibid).  If you accept that the faculty of judgment comes from God, and that God is a perfect non-deceiver, then it seems that you would arrive at the conclusion that it would be impossible for the faculty of judgment to ever go wrong.  After all, how could a faculty received from God be anything less than perfect?  It is at this point that Descartes becomes concerned with explaining the origins of human error, because though the faculty of judgment comes from God, human beings frequently make mistakes.

At this point Descartes notes that though he was made by God, he is not God-like, but rather “something intermediate between God and nothingness, or between supreme being and non-being” (Fourth Meditation, 38).  As intermediates between God and nothingness, human error does not have to come from God: it is merely a defect that comes from being an imperfect being.  Descartes looks closely at himself to determine the nature of human error and notices that it depends on two concurrent causes: the faculty of knowledge, which is within him, and the faculty of choice or freedom of the will (Fourth Meditation, 39).  In other words, human error depends simultaneously on the intellect and the will.  Descartes immediately rules out the intellect as the source of human error because all the intellect does is enable him to perceive ideas which are subjects to possible judgment.  Human error surely cannot arise from the power to perceive.

Accordingly, it would seem that the source of human error must be the will, but Descartes does think that this is so.  Since the will or freedom of choice was given to him by God, Descartes believes it to be sufficiently extensive and perfect.  Further, Descartes argues that his will is infinite since it is not restricted in any way.  The will is a judging faculty that “simply consists in our ability to do or not do something (that is, to affirm or deny, to pursue or avoid)” and thus anything presented before the will can be judged either positively or negatively without limit (Fourth Meditation, 40).

So then what is the source of human error?  Descartes believes that human error arises because the scope of the will is wider than that of the intellect: the will is infinite, but the intellect is finite.  The intellect can only understand so much, but the will, being infinite, can judge anything, including matters it fails to understand.  For every volition, there is a perception from the intellect.  These perceptions are passed on to the intellect to be judged.  The problem arises because the intellect, being finite, cannot distinctly perceive everything.  As such, some perceptions are confused.  The will may then affirm these confused perceptions not realizing that their perceptions are confused.  This is the cause of human error.  Had the intellect been able to distinctly perceive the volition, the will would have chosen not to affirm it, but since the intellect was confused in its perception, the will affirmed something it otherwise would not.  When these confused perceptions are passed along to the will, the will may affirm needs to be some perception.  In other words, human error surfaces when people attempt to judge things that are beyond the scope of human understanding.

Descartes then proceeds to offer a solution to those who are seeking to avoid error.  When the intellect presents the will with a perception, the agent should refraim from forming any sort of judgement unless the perception is clear and distinct.  If the perception is doubtable or hazy in any way, there is the risk of error, and judgment should be avoided.  If the agent was to affirm a hazy perception, and coincidently affirmed correctly, then the agent has successfully avoided error.  However, affirming hazy perceptions is dangerous, and if he was to affirm incorrectly, then he has committed an error and has moved further away from the truth.  The risk of affirming a confused perception incorrectly is too great, and it is better to remain cautious for fear of choosing counter to the truth.  People cannot err if they do not choose.  Thus, the more sure a person is of his direction “either because [he] understand[s] the reasons of truth and goodness point that way, or because of a divinely produced disposition of [his] inmost thoughts – the freer is [his] choice” because the more sure he is of choosing truth and goodness, the more likely he is to avoid error (Fourth Meditation, 40).

Descartes concludes by noting that God is not to be blamed for human error, for it is not the fault of God that human beings seek to judge things that are beyond the reach of their understanding.  It is the duty of human beings to get into the habit of avoiding error by being cautious with their judgments by only judging cases that are certain.  If human beings are able to restrain their wills to cases where the intellect clearly and distinctly perceives (ie: logical truths, math, the proof of God’s existence, the Cogito, etc.), then it is impossible that human beings should ever err.


5 thoughts on “Descartes on Human Error

  1. The majority of mankind believes only in what their senses perceive. Such persons accept as unquestionable anything that their senses convey to them. They fail to understand that their senses, at best, are imperfect instruments and that the mind is
    constantly employed in correcting the mistaken reports of the senses. Modern scientific thinking has reached a stage where physicists have been forced to abandon the ordinary world of our experience, theso-called world of sense perceptions. They have crossed the border that divides physics from metaphysics.
    The theory of Eastern philosophy involving the relationship between observer and reality is now utilized by modern physicists. In Vedanta philosophy the world is described as unreal from the absolute point of view.
    It has no independent reality without the senses and mind of the observer, and, hence, is true only in relative terms. And the knowledge that we gain through these various senses varies according to the nature of the instrument used to observe the object. Our senses delude us by bringing knowledge that changes often. We do not have a universal sense that will be a common machine to weigh the reality of the observer. “Common sense” often creates false pictures. A stick plunged into the water appears broken, though in reality it is not so. Sweet and bitter, hot and cold, sun and earth, the whole objective universe of matter and energy does not exist independent of the mind and senses. Even time and space are nothing but the power of the mind. There is nothing to limit man in time and space if there is no mind. All limitations and barriers disappear with the
    disappearance of the mind.

    At our present stage of realization, all our knowledge of the universe is a residue of impressions clouded by imperfect senses. Reality is far away from our present state of consciousness. There are electromagnetic waves such as gamma rays, radio waves, cosmic rays, X-rays that are not visible to the human eye. Yet, through new instruments, we are now aware of such lesser frequency and greater
    frequency wave lengths. These limitations of man’s senses are now studied by modern scientists and lead them nearer to metaphysics.
    Now the question arises, if ordinary senses are not reliable, what of extrasensory perception? Is it a fact? Can we believe in extrasensory perception?
    From the absolute point of view, the answer is that both extrasensory perception and ordinary sense experience have their limitations and are, therefore, imperfect, because all objective knowledge can behad only through the mind, which is imperfect.
    The highest truth is perceived only when we transcend the three-dimensional plane created by the senses and mind, and go beyond time and space.

    The ordinary experiences we get through the contact of the body and mind are from the three dimensional plane, and the so-called unexplained phenomena of the world (so-called extrasensory knowledge) are from the four-dimensional plane.
    The ordinary phenomena that happen in our lives are a miracle to those creatures who live in two dimensional planes. Let us suppose there are creatures who live in the two-dimensional plane. For them there is no awareness of space. Hence, they cannot perceive what happens in space.
    All the extrasensory perceptions and the so-called unexplained mysteries are the functions of the astral body in a higher dimensional plane. All our experiences in the waking state or in the dream state are the products of the mind and senses, as are also all the various products of the extrasensory perceptions. In
    fact, nothing can be seen or perceived without the mind, and the mind is everything for us at the present moment. Though the physical body and the astral body are different, both are controlled

    by the mind.

    • Well done, you are correct. I can see what is actually me, I am separate(of course currently not because I am doing an ‘anything’ right now). I can not die for you can not kill the universe(me), everything to even starting that phrase is illogical to me. It was actually just nothing to me but that is harder to explain. I loved reading this because you are 100% accurate, and I am all alone here trying to word these exact thoughts in my head. I can tell you everything it means to be separate but none of it was ever my goal or on my mind, I can see how when anyone does anything, they don’t understand how they were just infinitely wrong. There is a lot of it, but it is very weird. It is like arbitrary to even start saying anything because it’s like, no its right there, now there, no now its right there ..this current actual emotion, its like an infinite understanding, unification of the moment you were just in, like you have to utilize the next moment to see the last one i don’t know. It is like I have experienced everything therefore don’t need to think. The thinking is the part that separates us, only you aren’t aware of a lot of the thoughts you have, this is because those unobserved thoughts represent what is actually happening in reality, and for me, I will sometimes do things and right after I see the moment me me was unaware of, creating the reality and environmental instance around me. I am here in the moment, 100% of the time, and so are you, because we aren’t aware of the moments we aren’t ‘there’ for, but I am here way more often, this means more than those words, it means I don’t question anything anymore. When you see what it actually is, ah it’s crazy. And also very important on how I write this.. I literally talk to my mind, I am not creating you or anything else, so i ramble and probably sometimes seem like I’m making a point but then switch so if so sorry. You are constantly creating the next step up reality until you see it all, like you can’t see it or have it, until you go all the way. I still have desire to create whatever I want and live a filler life, but I have to not be aware of that in order to overcome it, but it is because they are thoughts based on experience, once you realize them, this is where they become you, it is weird. Like I will then understand them as a part of me, they won’t matter, essentially nothing matters, there is no reason for anything, all your thoughts and as they come up, there is no reason for them. This is realized by anyone temporarily when they discover and become aware of what they were or had been doing. Any example. The more wrong you are the better. Being wrong is the access to limitlessness, I am not sure of anything basically, while knowing it all. Like all-knowing is this heightened feeling of awareness, not being able to predict events, know numbers, nothing, as you probably know, that’s the 3rd dimension. That doesn’t matter, everything has already happened, we are just here conceiving this current emotion we just simply don’t quite understand how it represents all emotions, or how everything is literally the same.

      • Hi, I enjoyed reading the authors comments below ?emotion we just simply don’t quite understand how it represents all emotions, or how everything is literally the same.”

        is the following true emotions represents the feelings, so in truth emotions and feelings is a causal link. there for a feeling is produced from an emotional thought. There fore a feeling is emoted in the mind. Then the hypothesis or assumption is that feelings are on the animal level with emotions. Since animals have feelings they are a self. Not bad for rationalizations schemes. But obviously not true, sense human beings can get above there feelings and look down upon them objectively, thus transcended animals feelings. However, animals can not so it must be they have no soul or have any awareness of there feelings, they only have a rudimentary pain feeling that is a flight or be attacked response. Thus animal is not a human being. Is this logical? in its construction?

  2. It’s absolutely true. And when Y’shuwah gets you to this kind of thinking, you should see what else He already knows and will happily show you. Yes. You.

  3. We never have the facts all at once for our intellect to judge wrong and right. Ever heard of gut feeling? That’s just an emotion yet some believe it to never be wrong and that’s making judgment from an emotion. The right thing is not always logical. Logic is the way of the world. Free will starts where logic ends, it’s exercised by only a supernatural being not mere mortals. Most times we deal with humans and we only perceive what they allow us to. That’s not enough to judge our dealings with them as right or wrong. Someone can do the right thing for the wrong reason or the wrong thing for the right reason. At the end of the day, you can’t control what other people do which in turn affects how you respond. Your emotions stem from your perception. What you may perceive as good may in reality be bad, if the motive behind it is bad. “Action and reaction are equal and opposite”
    How can you tell how much fact intellect requires to make judgement of right or wrong?
    How long does intellect take to decide if something is right or wrong?
    Perception is a reaction to a predefined action which serves as a stimulus. It’s a reflex turned on automatically, just like fight or flight. There’s no time for intellect to judge the situation as right or wrong because in that instance, you want to go with the option with less probability of error based on your assessment of what you can take on. You don’t get to choose by free will what your reaction will be, you are not afforded the luxury of free will. I believe free will does not exist for humans as we never have all the facts… not all at once.

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