We concluded our last discussion on the existence of the self with the recognition that accepting our own existence somehow or other implied the existence of God, quoting Srila Prabhupada’s words “One can understand the nature of the Supreme by thorough study of oneself” (Bg 2.16, purport) (http://www.dandavats.com/?p=12367#more-12367).But by what process can this understanding be achieved?
Descartes concludes from his first two meditations that the self exists. He begins to ponder the nature of himself, and comes to recognise that he is a being in possession of thoughts, which he divides into ideas and forms. Now ideas are all true in the sense that they exist, at least within the mind. When we speak of the falsity of an idea, what we really speak of is the lack of correspondence between an idea and reality. But how can we know that there is a reality beyond our thoughts?
Both the natural impulse to believe that ideas correspond to an external reality, and the spontaneous ways by which ideas occur to the self are rejected as definitive proofs of the existence of an external reality. For Descartes, this can be understood only by understanding the nature of the ideas themselves, all of which have differing degrees or flavours of objective reality about them. From here, Descartes reasons that the objective reality which ideas have of their own nature must proceed from a cause with as much, or rather a greater degree of objective reality, so that whatever ideas he has fall short of the actual reality. From the fact of his perceptions and ideas, he tentatively concludes that besides himself, there are other things which exist.
Thus far Descartes reasoning bears some similarity with the line of reasoning drawn by Srila Prabhupada in his purport to the 35th verse of the second chapter of the second canto of Srimad Bhagavatam. The verse itself states “The Personality of Godhead Lord Sri Krsna is in every living being along with the individual soul. And this fact is perceived and hypothesized in our acts of seeing and taking help from the intelligence” (SB 2.2.35).
In his purport, Srila Prabhupada, like Descartes, begins by establishing the necessity of realising one’s own existences as something distinct from the body: “One can perceive one’s self-identification and feel positively that he exists” Srila Prabhupada writes. Following this, by the use of intelligence, a person distinguishes between the subject and the object of experience: “So the natural conclusion is that the living being, either man or beast, is the seer, and he sees besides himself all other things” (SB 2.2.35, purport). But how do we arrive at the existence of God from this point?
Descartes seems to adopt two approaches in his third meditation. In the first approach, he acknowledges that he already has an idea of God who is eternal, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, and the Creator of all things. Now this idea either represents an objective reality which exceeds the limits of the idea itself or it is concocted by his own imagination. But it cannot be concocted from his imagination because eternality, immutability, omniscience, omnipotence and so on are clear concepts which can emerge only from a cause which actually possesses these characteristics in greater degrees than can be encompassed in the idea itself. Descartes writes: “…although…we can imagine that [God] does not exist, we cannot nevertheless imagine that His idea represents nothing real” (MFP, III).
Such reasoning comes at the conclusion of Srila Prabhupada’s argument in his purport. One must acknowledge the existence of a very clear idea of God: “God is great,” Srila Prabhupada explains, “and He cannot be simply an order supplier of the individual selves; therefore the Superself cannot be a full representation of the Supreme Self, Purusottama, the Absolute Personality of Godhead” (SB 2.2.35, purport). The realisation of God’s existence therefore depends upon us already having some idea about who or what God is.
But there is a second proof which is integral to a proper understanding of the first: that is the recognition that the self is limited, and possesses the characteristics of God in only a minute degree. Descartes realises that the idea of God must precede the idea of a self, because the deficiencies which we recognise in ourselves can only be recognised because we already have an idea of a perfect being, who is free from all deficiencies. Because the idea of God is of actual perfection, it can neither refer to, nor be produced of, beings with only the potential of perfection, such as ourselves. It must proceed from a being who is actually perfect and infinite.
Srila Prabhupada expounded on this point in his conversation with Hayagriva on the philosophy of Descartes. He explained: “I, as soul or as Brahman, am finite Brahman, and therefore there must be one infinite Brahman. That infinite Brahman is God, and finite Brahman is jiva, living entity” (Philosophy Discussions with Hayagriva, Descartes).
The recognition of our finitude can be pressed further. Descartes realises that our existence is continuous, it persists in time. In order for us to continue our existence, it is necessary that our existence be continually renewed. But we are conscious of no such power within ourselves to renew our own existence, therefore it follows that we are dependent on some source other than ourselves for our existence. This source is God.
The recognition of our dependence on a higher source for our very existence is also central to Srila Prabhupada’s argument. This higher source is referred to as intelligence: “Intelligence gives one direction like some higher authority, and the living being cannot see or move or eat or do anything without the use of intelligence” (SB2.2.35, purport). But this intelligence is beyond our control, and refers, in this context, to a super self, a portion of God that maintains our existence.
Descartes concludes this section of his discourse by giving himself time to stop from his writing and simply to meditate upon the greatness of God, which he realises constitutes the highest pleasure in life.
Damodar Prasad das (BCaiS)
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami SrilaPrabhupada, SrimadBhagavatam, Canto 2, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Bombay, 1992.
Descartes, R, Meditations of First Philosophy, Meditation III, Blackmask Online, 2002.