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Descartes – Meditations on First Philosophy Essay

“Give a detailed account of Descartes’ systematic doubt or methodical doubt in Meditation 1, making it certain that you distinguish between real doubts and so called hypothetical/metaphysical doubts. Then, explain in detail, exactly how Descartes dispels each and every one of these doubts during the course of the subsequent Meditations beginning with the cogito. Do you think that Descartes has been completely successful? Explain.”The main goal of Descartes in Meditations on First Philosophy was to find truth behind all of his beliefs in order to build a solid foundation of certainty, and to focus his beliefs strictly on his idea of certainty; essentially to question knowledge. Descartes beliefs are mainly based on the theory that, if someone thinks that they really know something, they must be correct.

Descartes meditations bring about 3 key issues that are discussed throughout the entire book; the existence of him being a thinking thing, God as a supreme being and being deceived by the Evil Genius, as well as the idea that the body is an extension of the mind. Descartes provides a solid argument throughout the entire book, calling into question every aspect of what I is, and the world around him. Descartes is trying to decipher whether or not he, anybody or anything in fact is real and he also goes on to argue that our knowledge is gained via our everyday experiences. Through examining each meditation, discussing the cogito, as well as what he discusses in terms of his senses and the external world, the dream hypothesis and his evil genius theory; I will conclude that in fact he does exist, knowledge exists, and God exists.

There are two real doubts in which Descartes talks about throughout the meditations. The first being the senses and external world in which he believes causes one to doubt. He claims that in order for him to believe that of his senses he must acquire complete certainty, and he says that we should ask ourselves whether perception is really a legitimate means for attaining knowledge, can we trust our senses? If not, what grounds do we have to deny? Descartes claims that at times the senses can become deceiving under certain circumstances.

He says that certain lighting, distance and even depth perception can cause one to conclude incorrectly with regards to their senses. With this in mind, he introduces the lunatic hypothesis. He believes that he can doubt his senses even if the external conditions are perfect as long as the internal conditions are not. The idea of common sense realism is also established which is the idea that truth come from the senses and the way that they appear. Common sense says that the only way to know the body is through the mind because it is visible and touchable. Descartes then dismisses the idea because he says he would not be able to perceive with his meditations if he were to deem this belief as being true.

The second real doubt that Descartes brings to our attention is the dream hypothesis. This is the idea that sleeping and reality cause one to doubt. Descartes says that everyone is prone to dream and that if he is dreaming, everything he thinks he is experiencing is in fact false. This doubt then goes from a real doubt to a metaphysical doubt. He asks, if I am dreaming, is there anything that is true, reliable and certain? If not, then everything must be an illusion.

He says that we sense while we are sleeping therefore when we are awake, or what we believe to be awake, how do we know that we are not actually asleep? He says …let us assume that we are sleeping and these particulars are not true; that were opening our eyes; moving our head, and extending our hands (pg 60). He claims that if in fact we were dreaming these issues they must be true because in order to dream something, one must have had to experience it at some point. Therefore we must acknowledge that things seen in our dreams are painted images which must be true and exist.

The idea of the Evil Genius is a metaphysical doubt, logically speaking. In this sense, God is perfect, and would never allow deception and error to take place because they are imperfect and God consists only of perfect qualities. God would not allow one to be deceived because he is supremely good, therefore deception and error must be a result of another source. He says that if his origin is from something other than God, he could have easily created him so that he makes mistakes and until he finds his origin doubt is going to occue.

Descartes supposes that God is just a tale so he says let us just fraction him out of the equation entirely. Descartes decides that he is just going to doubt everything based on two principles. The first being that everything should be doubted at some point by those who seek the truth and the second being that things that are considered doubtful should be treated as if they are false. With that in mind he concludes that he does exist even against all doubts because the Evil Genius can never say that Descartes is non-existent because he thinks he is something therefore he must be. I think, therefore I am.

In meditation one Descartes starts off talking about the foundations of his beliefs in order to gain better knowledge on the grounds of certainty. He says that any sort of knowledge he has previously to the meditations he received through his senses and that they can at times be deceptive. What grounds do we have to deny the idea that knowledge comes from the senses. Descartes claims that because we sense while we are dreaming, there is really no way of determining whether or not we are awake or asleep. What we perceive through the senses could have be obtained during slumber and we would be none the wiser. He says that I extend this hand consciously and deliberately, and I feel it (pg 60). He argues that if he were in fact sleeping while doing so, it would not have been so clear and distinct.

He uses the example that what we dream of are like painted images. For instance, he uses the example of an artist creating a siren or a hippogriff, they combine parts of other animals or something that we have never seen before to make it even though it is false. However Descartes goes on to argue that what her perceives through the sense could in fact be false, but since other things that are simple and universal are true, what is to say that we cannot trust our senses. He states..it is not improper to conclude from this that physics, astronomy, medicine, and all other disciplines that are dependent upon the consideration of composite things are doubtful and that on the other hand, arithmetic and geometry, which are simple and general and indifferent as to whether these things do or do not exists, contain certainty… (pg 61).

Descartes believes that it is completely impossible that these obvious truths are all under suspicion for being false. Going back to the argument regarding whether or not God exists he claims that the idea of God has been inside him forever and it must have been put in him by his creator. He begins to question if he is a deceiver or not, God is said to be supremely good so it must be something else, something foreign that allows him to be deceived since deception is an imperfection and God does not contain any imperfections. Thus the idea of the evil genius is born, the idea that this clever and deceitful being is dedicating every bit of energy into deceiving and misleading him. By creating this theory, Descartes now believes that all of his former opinions and views are false and he continues on with his meditations.

In the second meditation, Descartes is trying to determine what truth is, and what is not. He claims that he feels as though he is lost at in a sea of knowledge and he cannot keep his head afloat. His main goal throughout this meditation is to find something that is certain and absolutely unshakable. He believes that if nothing in his mind exists and it is only deceitful, what is true, maybe nothing is. Descartes says is there not some God who puts theses thoughts in my head? I could be the creator.

Am I not something? Am I so tied to a body and senses that I cannot exist without them? (pg 63) He believes that the deceiver can never bring about that he does not exist because as long as he thinks that he is in existence, then he must be. This is where the Cogito comes into play, the idea that whatever thinks, I think therefore I am. With that in mind, Descartes spends the next little bit trying to find what I is. He says that he has a face, hands and arms in which he refers to as his body and that surely sensing does not take place without the body to feel, touch, smell, taste etc.

Descartes also argues that thought does exist and it cannot be separated from him, he believes I am, therefore I exist, and as long as I continue to think I will continue to exist. If he ceases to think, he then ceases to exist. He says that he is …nothing but a thinking thing; a mind, or intellect, or understanding, or reason… and that …knowledge or I does not depend on things of whose existence we have zero knowledge (pg 65). In other words, he means that knowledge, or I does not depend on things of which we have no knowledge of. He even says that corpeal things [images formed by thought and which the senses themselves examine]; are more clearly and distinctively known to the I. He believes the mind is prone to error and that one must try to differentiate between perceiving through the mind as opposed through vision.

Descartes then introduces us to the example of wax. He says that although it has melted, and that the shape, smell, taste and everything else that he once witnessed no longer exist, the wax is still the same wax and it is the essence that has not changed. He claims that he knows wax not through what he saw but through the inspection of the mind alone. He states that what he thought he saw in terms of the wax was really only a result of his judgement, which is a part of his mind.

He claims what when he first saw it, it was perceived through an external sense or common sense and that it cannot be perceived without human mind. If I judge that the wax exists from the fact that I see it, certainly from this same face that I see the wax, is more evidence that I must exist (pg 69). He believes that since he knows our bodies are not professed through senses or imaginations but rather from the mind and intellect; he now knows that nothing can be perceived more easily and readily then his mind. He is basically saying that the senses provide us with observable traits about a subject whereas the mind and intellect give us understanding; his main point is that our perception is nothing but judgement.

The third meditation brings up the idea of the Cogito again. He cannot be doubted when he says, I think therefore I am, and that the ideas in which he has are real. Descartes says that …there can never be more objective reality produced then formal reality because it is impossible to create something out of nothing (pg 70). He says that he has an idea of what a perfect or infinite substance is and that is God, and since everything he perceives clearly and distinctively is true, then God must be perfect and infinite.

Because I have no reason for thinking that there is a God who is a deceiver, the basis for doubting, depending as it does merely on the above hypotheses [whether God exists or not], is tenuous or metaphysical (pg 71). He says that the certainty of the belief of the cogito lies in his clear and distinct perception; saying, thinking, and believing it make it true. Then he asks, what if something clear and distinct turned out to be false, but he quickly answers by claiming that he would not have known because he has already accepted it as being true.

Descartes then begins to talk about his thoughts and puts them into three classifications: ideas (images of objects), volitions or emotions (adding something to ideas), and judgements (either affirm or deny). He claims that there are three different kinds of ideas out there; innate ideas which are ideas that are born into a person and exist as long as the mind exists in which every mature rational being would have these.

The next would be adventitious ideas which are acquired through sensations, he says these are ideas that are gained again his will for example hearing a noise or feeling heat. The final type of idea Descartes believes exists is fictitious or fabricated ideas which are ideas that are invented by the imagination. These ideas cannot be trusted and it is in this sense that one must learn to separate mind from imagination. The mind perceives through the senses; and sense perception does not occur without the body, therefore the body must exist.

Descartes uses an example of the sun, which he says arises from two different ideas, one which comes from the senses [derived from outside of him] and one which arises from astronomy or innate ideas. Through that notion the sun is known to be a large ball of fire, but through the senses the sun is perceived as being rather small and bright. He says that …if we assume that something is found in the idea that was not in its cause, then it results from nothing (pg 75). For example he uses the idea of hot and cold. He says that cold could be a privation of heat and vice versa but since ideas can only be of real things, the idea that cold is determined as a result of the absence of warmth, the idea of cold as something real is not true.

In sum, the perception of what is infinite was placed in my mind previous to the idea of finite substance, that is that what he believes God to be came before his idea of himself because God is infinite and you cannot add to perfection. Descartes said that he now knows that he depends on another being for existence and that he gained his idea of God not from his senses or unexpectedly but from his innate or natural ideas. He concludes that it would be impossible to exist unless God did exists because: …it is manifest by the light of nature that all fraud and deception depend on some defect (pg 80).

In meditation Four Descartes is trying to clarify why God is no deceiver. The main question that needs explanation is if God is no deceiver then why and how do we make mistakes? He believes that all men are prone to make mistakes because like God, our wills are never-ending but our intellect and understanding unfortunately is not. Our mind only allows us to observe things clearly and distinctly which is how we know that they are true. He says when I take note of the fact that I doubt or that I am a thing that is incomplete and dependent there comes to mind a clear and distinct idea of a being that is independent and complete, that is the idea of God (pg 81).

Descartes believes that it is possible; if we use our ability properly we will not agree with false judgments. He says I note that these errors depend on the simultaneous concurrence of two causes: the faculty of knowing that is in me and the faculty of choosing, that is the free choice of will, in other words, simultaneously on the intellect and will. Through the intellect alone, I merely perceive ideas about which I can render a judgement (pg 83). God has created us in a way that if we perceive things in a clear and distinct our, way of thinking will not be incorrect.

In the fifth meditation, Descartes is basically trying to examine the essence of tangible things. Since Descartes proved that we gain our beliefs and understanding through ideas, he is able to prove that God exists. He then uses the example of a triangle by saying that if God does not exist then a triangle does not have three sides. Since God is believed to be a supremely perfect being, there is no way that he would deceive because then that would conclude that he lacks some perfection. Descartes then attempts to explain the separation between mind and imagination. At this point doubt again gets the best of him and he must try to look beyond the unreliability of the senses.

Descartes goes on to say that what I believe must be considered above all here is the fact that I find within me countless ideas of certain things, that, even if perhaps they do not exist anywhere outside me, still cannot be said to be nothing (pg 88). He believes that our knowledge of material things is based on our belief that God exists. I cannot think of God as not existing no more than I can think of a mountain without a valley, nevertheless it surely does not follow from the fact that I think of a mountain without a valley that a mountain exists in the world (pg 89). Material things must be real because God does not deceive.

In meditation six Descartes is trying to prove once and for all if material things exist. Descartes then reflects all of the previous meditations to figure it out. He believes that material things can and do exist and that it is through our understanding that this is proven. He says that his senses perceive his body, therefore he must have one. assumes to have a body based on what his senses perceive. He begins to explore this notion that he had previously dismissed to doubt. He inquires whether his senses give him reason for bodies to exist.

He says that God has given us a great inclination to believe that these ideas proceeded from corporeal things” (pg 94). Descartes thinks that it is from life that we differentiate other bodies and their explanation. He believes entirely that the mind is a thinking, un-extended thing, but the body is a physical and extended thing because the body can be separated. Descartes then dismisses the dream hypothesis because he realizes that being awake is a part of both the mind and body. He proves that our essence is of the mind and is a lot more known to us than the body.

Throughout all the meditations Descartes constantly re-examines each belief and attempts to find the grounds of absolute certainty. It is through the dream hypothesis, the idea of the Evil Genius and his ideas about the senses that he concludes in fact that he is an existing thing, God does exist and so does knowledge. His arguments, although confusing at times were pretty accurate in deciphering between what is false and what is reality. By the end of the meditation it seems as though he is right back where he began and that in fact he did not get anywhere. He was better off to just believe what he originally believed then to question it and put him through such torture. In essence it was almost as though the only thing that he proved was that his senses were intended to help him figure out the world and everything about it not lead him to discovering the truths of the universe.

 Bibliography

Descartes, Rene. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. 4th ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Company, 1998.


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