Descartes: The First and Second Meditations
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Rene Descartes begins Meditations on First Philosophy by explaining his basic purpose and how he plans on going about accomplishing this project. Descartes hopes to discover truth and justify human knowledge and belief. In order to find the fundamental truths of life, Descartes believes he must start from scratch so that he may discern truth from false beliefs. All of Descartes’ beliefs, everything he has learned and grown to believe is now cast under the shadow of doubt, as he explains to us, “I will attack straightaway those principles which supported everything I once believed” (14). Descartes further explains the task which he faced as he says, “I had to raze everything to the ground and begin again from the original foundations, if I wanted to establish anything firm and lasting in the sciences” (13).
Descartes divides the basic beliefs in life into four different categories or kinds of belief. According to Descartes’ theory, there are beliefs about different things in life. The first type of belief that he discusses is that of the physical body. He writes of how the human body normally functions and understands life through the use of the senses. However, he warns us “senses are sometimes deceptive; and it is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once” (14). Descartes speaks of our own bodies and specific parts of it, such as our hands, as an example of the physical body. He says, “On what grounds could one deny that these hands and this entire body are mine?” (14). Additional examples that could be included in this type of belief would be other parts of the body, such as our legs and feet.
The second kind of belief discussed is that of other bodies. This category would include physical things besides just our own bodies. Specifically, Descartes is speaking of those things which are composite and made up of components. He tells us, “This class of things appears to include corporeal nature in general, together with its extension; the shape of extended things; their quantity, that is, their size and number; as well as the place where they exist; the time through which the endure, and the like” (15). Descartes is simply telling us these other bodies include things with physical characteristics that tell about the nature of these things. Examples of these other bodies could include other humans or animals.
Mathematical knowledge makes up the third category of beliefs of which Descartes writes. As an example of this type of belief, Descartes states, “For whether I am awake or asleep, two plus three make five, and a square does not have more than four sides” (15). Hundreds of examples of mathematical knowledge exist in the world, such as a right angle is 90 degrees, a triangle has three sides, and five times six equals thirty.
The final type of belief discussed is the belief in God. Descartes very clearly states his views about God as he writes, “There is fixed in my mind a certain opinion of long standing, namely that there exists a God who is able to do anything and by whom I, such as I am, have been created” (15). This type of belief incorporates humanity’s belief in a being greater than ourselves who created this universe and the people who make up the world.
In the First Meditations of Rene DescartesMeditations on First Philosophy, he sets out to doubt four beliefs. These beliefs being: existence of one’s own physical body, the existence of other physical bodies/things, mathematical knowledge, and God. Each of these beliefs is approached with the idea of radical doubt. Through the process of radical, Descartes then establishes whether or not each belief exists or not.
Descartes first belief is trying to establish whether the physical body exists or not. He says that some of the truths we hold currently hold to be achieved through our senses. However, our senses can sometimes mislead us wrong conclusions about certain things and situations. In trying to prove that the senses are misleading, Descartes leads the reader to the “Dream Argument.” He describes a perception one could have while dreaming. He says: “How often does my evening slumber persuade me of such ordinary things as these: that I am here, clothed in my dressing gown, seated next to the fireplace- when in fact I am lying undressed in bed” (14). From this argument, he concludes that since one cannot find definite signs to distinguish dream experiences from waking experiences, it is a good possibility that one is dreaming now, or that all our perceptions are false. However, even though Descartes is able to draw those conclusions, he has certain objections to the overall conclusion. He argues that the images we form in dreams (as abstract and newly developed as can be) are drawn from experiences in real life combined into different ways. So, even if there is reason to doubt our perception, we can’t doubt the properties and the basic components of our experiences.
The second belief Descartes discusses is the existence of other physical bodies and physical things. He describes these as: “This class of things appears to include corporal nature in general, together with extension; the shape of extended things; their quantity, that is, their size and number; as well as the place where they exists; the time through which they endure, and the like” (15). In this, he doubts the reality of physical objects, these being such as: colors, shapes, quantity.
With the doubts into the existence of other bodies/ things, we are introduced to the idea of “extension.” This means that physical objects take up a certain volume. Whether they exist in dreams or reality, they take up space. This leads to using the idea of “extension” and it’s relationship to mathematics. Mathematics such as geometry is simple and universal, so have a measure of certainty. Geometry can be used to describe physical objects and the volume they take up.
The last major belief is the belief in God. Descartes doubts the existence of God because it falls under his theory of radical doubt. Descartes acknowledges that there are certain who do not believe in God. Therefore, he must doubt God also. In reference to the thoughts on God, Descartes believes that there is a God who has created us and that God is supremely powerful and good. He feels that since God is all good, he would not deceive us, but in reality, deception happens. From this, Descartes says that we have to assume that there is an “evil genius” that is doing the deceiving. He is the one that leads us into deception. “Accordingly, I will suppose not a supremely good God, the source of truth, but rather an evil genius, supremely powerful and clever, who has directed his entire effort at deceiving me” (16).
Throughout Meditation 1, Descartes establishes four beliefs and through the idea of radical doubt, doubts all four. Most importantly, in establishing true knowledge, one cannot do it through the senses. Descartes shows that believing in something because of the senses leads to false perceptions. It must through reasoning and through the mind that true beliefs can be achieved.
At this point in the meditation, Descartes will not stop until he knows something certain. This is where he proves that he exists. He starts out by saying that he shall suppose we have no senses. He asks the question, “What then will be true? Perhaps the single fact that nothing is certain” (17). Descartes then questions his last statement and ponders the fact that there could be something else that is certain. The first way that he proves he exists is to say that since he is the author of his thoughts, he must be something. “Is there not some God, or by whatever name I might call him, who instills these thoughts in me?” (17). Whether a God is instilling thoughts in him, or if he is the author of those thoughts, they both prove that he exists.
The second way that Descartes proves he exists is by referring to the “deceiver”. Descartes says that if he is being deceived by a demon, that he must exist or he wouldn’t be misled in the first place. “Then too there is no doubt that I exist, if he is deceiving me. And let him do his best at deception, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I shall think that I am something” (18).
Originally Descartes described his conception of self as a “rational animal” of sorts, but found that there was no way to further define this definition, so to better describe “self” he defined “I” as a body with natural faculties. First it occurred to him that he “had a face, hands, arms, ant entire mechanism of bodily members…”(18), but he had to be more than just that because “the very same are discerned in a corpse” (18). It then occurred to him that he can eat, walk, and that he could sense things as well as other various things. These he attributed to a soul. “But as to what this soul might be” (18). he either did not think about or simply imagined it as a rarified I-know_not_what. Since not all natural bodies could do all of this that the soul was thought to be able to do, the abilities of this soul must be natural facilities of certain bodies, an this was Descartes definition of “self”.
Descartes pretended that everything that he could see was false and unreal. More so he stated that he would pretend that his memories never took place and that he has in-fact no senses whatsoever. If this were true then nothing could be certain except that fact itself. After this he thought about whether there was something, some “God” above everything, and whether this God was what made him think these very thoughts. But then he himself might be the creator of these thoughts, and that then he must at least be something.
Descartes then continued by recalling that he denied having and senses, and therefore no body. He is tied to his body, which is tied to his senses, but he has set the parameters “that there is absolutely nothing in the world: no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies” (18). If this is true then he cannot exist. Yet if he can persuade himself of anything then his mind exists, and therefore he exists. “Suppose that there is some supremely powerful and, if I may be permitted to say so, malicious deceiver who deliberately tries to fool me in any way he can” (19), then “there is no doubt that I exist, if he is deceiving me” (18). So, so long as he thinks that he is something, he shall never be nothing, so it is now established that “I am, I exist” is true every time it is uttered or conceived in ones mind.
With this Descartes established that his mind exists. Descartes can’t use this to prove that the natural facilities of the body exist, only that the mind exists, every thing else can still be a creation of his mind, or of him imagination. When asleep you sense what is going on, only to find later that is a creation of you imagination, this proved to him that the senses can be a figment of the imagination, so his definition of “Self” cannot be proven to be true. He now found himself reevaluating his definition of “I”, and he found that he is a “thinking thing”. A thinking thing is “a thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, and that also imagines and senses” (20). I, or self then cannot be proven to be anything more than just that, a thinking thing.
Descartes has multiple themes within his second meditation. He speaks about what knowledge, when it comes down to it, can we trust. Descartes searches deep inside his own mind for ” just one thing, however slight, that is certain and unshaken”. While racking his brain for answers he comes to a sublime realization: we think therefore we are. Our understanding of thought allows us to discover our existence. We can use our human reason to answer all the questions of our existence. We also can understand that if there is a great deceiver then that means that we have to exist to be tricked. This is true even if there was a great deceiver that spent of its time trying to lie to us and make us distrust the truth. You wouldn’t be able to trick something that never was self-aware. There would be no need, no gain in that deception.
Descartes then puts his theory through the test by comparing humans to wax. What separates us from it is our reason. A fresh wax candle has a shape, color, size, and scent. If it is held up to a fire it will melt and loose all of these qualities, but it is still the same wax and nobody disputes that. So an object can remain the same object even when ones senses say that it is not. The wax does exist through mind and not imagination because it a real thing that can be felt by the senses, and I understand what the wax is because even when all of my senses tell me that it is no longer what it was I still know that the piece of wax is the same piece of wax that it was.
We can think, reason and comprehend. All of which a piece of wax will never be able to do. His theory still holds true even when instead of wax a body is used. The body used to be alive, has all the same parts, and at one time was alive. But it still is not able to produce anything remotely close to a cognate thought. It has all the qualities that a live person has but it does not have the spark of life that turns the gears in its head. It cannot reason because it cannot do anything. So we have no proof that the wax existed and now we cannot tell that the body exists.
In essence, we all exist because we are able to prove our existence. We can prove it through methods much like Descartes, by abandoning all tainted knowledge until we find that one “point.” Also we are able to prove things do not exist on the same token. Inanimate objects cannot contemplate their existence because they lack the capability of thought. And those who can perceive cannot be fooled, because we have to exist to be tricked.