Rene Descartes is not only a known philosopher, but he also contributed significantly in the field of mathematics. It is with the same vigor and methodological reason he applied in the realm of Mathematics by which he comes to his conclusions in the Meditations. Hence, we see him going about his arguments, thoughts, opinions, and conclusions in a reasonable, methodological fashion, forming skeptical hypotheses in every step. In a way, Meditations can be regarded as a guide for the readers: it seeks to take along the reader with the meditator in his journey of the unknown and knowing.
It tries to convince them to follow his step-by-step argumentation and skepticism, and to accept the obvious logical conclusion of each. Yet, although his conclusions are impressive and convincing, a crack in his reasoning might break down his arguments. The purpose of this paper then, is to examine the ideas, assumptions, and arguments presented by Descartes. However, this paper will only concern itself with the first two parts of Descartes’ Meditations (Meditation I: Of the Things Which May Be Brought Within the Sphere of Doubt and Meditation II: Concerning the Nature of the Human Mind: That It Is Better Known Than the Body).
The First Meditation: Methodic Doubt In the First Meditation, Descartes cast all things into doubt. He does this by first questioning all that he knows as he remembers his senses has deceived him before. He says: All that up to the present time I have accepted as most true and certain I have learned from either from the senses or through the senses; but it is sometimes proved to me that these senses are deceptive, and it is wiser not to trust entirely to any thing by which we have once been deceived (Descartes, pg. 0). He then continues to give proof of his reasons for doubting what he knows to be true. He considers if he might be crazy, dreaming, or deceived by God or an evil genius. He reasons out that he is not mad as the mad people who imagine things when these are clearly not the case, and dismisses that possibility. He considers that when is dreaming he is convinced that what his senses perceive are real, only to find out that it was not.
Finally, he thinks that perhaps an omnipotent being, God, deceives him into believing all the things around him exists even if these are not true, yet he cannot accept that because it would go against the nature of God’s goodness, hence he supposes that it is “not God who s supremely good and the fountain of truth, but some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole energies in deceiving me; I shall consider that the heavens, earth, colors, figures, sound, and all other external things are nought but the illusions and dreams of which this genius has availed himself in order to lay traps for my credulity” (Descartes, pg. 33).
Ending the first part, he closes with likening himself to a prisoner who while sleeping enjoys freedom but knows that it is only a dream, and is afraid to wake up. The meditator knows that he has opened a Pandora’s box of questioning and yet chooses to go back to his former beliefs for the meantime. Descartes’ method of questioning and casting all that can be questioned as being false is the underlying concept of skepticism, and his has been called methodic doubt. One by one he stripped his notions of truth so he could get to the most fundamental part, for he says he only needs one immovable point on which to build truth.
Descartes’ questioning of the senses and perception is useful in order to arrive at the fundamental point of his argument which is to find what is absolute, what cannot be doubted given that he is casting everything in the sphere of doubt. We find out in the second part of the Meditations that though everything can be cast into doubt, there is one thing that cannot: his thoughts doubting themselves. No matter what happens, there is an absolute truth: that he is thinking. And he thinks, he exists. But then what is the point of all these? When does an individual begin to think? Is it not that the thinking process is facilitated by the accumulation of ideas, ideas gleaned from the dubious world through imperfect senses?
Does this mean that the mad person who can comprehend his existence is as sane as the rest? It seems convenient to cast everything into doubt and the senses in question to arrive at the fundamental point of the consciousness. But what is the consciousness, where does it stem from? Does it not have a vessel? Are we to accept that we are merely floating consciousness in the abyss? Or that we are simply consciousness being deceived by an evil genius? Descartes’ Belief in the Idea of God and the Evil Genius Which brings us to Descartes’ discussion of God and the evil genius. Descartes casts everything into doubt except God, that is why he could not accept that God will deceive him.
Of course this can be argued as Descartes way of trying to coax the conservative Jesuits to read and accept his arguments, for if he downright casts God into the realm of doubt as he did his body then he might be excommunicated or ordered to be killed as Galileo. Then if it is not God it must be something as powerful yet evil, the evil genius. If we follow this train of thought, does it make sense? This borders on theological argument, but why would an all powerful, all good God as believed in by the meditator allow an evil genius to deceive him? If the All powerful, all good God is indeed all powerful and all good, then he will not allow this evil genius to exist, or would he?
Because then if God and the evil genius are pitted against each other, who will win if they are both powerful and so on? Also, where did this idea of an evil genius come from? It is, according to the flow of arguments in the Meditations, necessitated by the theory of being deceived. Something must be doing the deceiving, and that something must be powerful enough to paint the world and deceive the beholder. A being as powerful as that can only be God, but since it goes against God’s nature, then t must be the evil genius. But what is the cause of this evil genius? Was it not the need of the meditator for an evil genius to support his arguments? Hence, can we not argue that there is no evil genius? In the same vein, that there is no God?
Descartes said: I have long had fixed in my mind the belief that an all-powerful God existed by whom I have been created as such as I am (pg. 32). He provides no reason, no proof of God’s existence but proceeds with his meditations as though this was a given. Why would it be? Is God’s existence and goodness really necessary? Can these not be cast into doubt as well? Or the thought of casting God into doubt is unspeakable? For if we will really cast everything into the realm of doubt, would not there be only the self talking to itself? Descartes’ unwillingness to put God to the test makes Descartes’ methodological reasoning biased. If Descartes is biased in his reasoning, can we accept the conclusions he has arrived at?
He stubbornly holds that an idea of a perfect being is necessarily true and necessarily means that the perfect being exists for who will put that idea to him, him an imperfect being who must be incapable of conceiving anything perfect? Already there is a fallacy in his thinking, for this becomes evidently a tautological argument. But more than that, his defining this ultimate being, this perfect being as based on an idea of it throws off his arguments. What of the heavens and the sea? Of earthly things which he has ideas of also, then does it not mean that they are true because he has ideas of them? Will he point out that these are a different case because our idea of these material things are based on our perception of them through our senses?
And that mythical figures such as mermaids are complex images formed out of simple things combined yet still has basis on sensory perception? Then, can we argue that his notion of an ultimate being must have come from the simple idea of an imperfect being and make that complex, let us say a carpenter who we know can build a house, and if he can build a house maybe there is a perfect carpenter who can build a world? For why would a perfect being, perfectly good, can be doubted if we so choose? The Second Meditation: Arriving at Consciousness Descartes’ argument supposes there are simple things that do not need explaining but which can be taken for truth. If there is no ultimate Being, and no evil genius, who then makes up all the illusion?
The mind as the powerful deceiver, as it is the only thing that can attend to the train of his thoughts simultaneously. If we do doubt God, we will more or less arrive at the same conclusion, that the only thing that we cannot doubt is one’s own skeptical thinking. As Descartes makes clear when in the passage: is there not some God, or some other being by whatever name we call it, who puts these reflections into my mind? That is not necessary, for is it not possible that I am capable of producing them myself? I, myself, am I not at least something? But I have already denied that I had senses and body… am I so dependent on body and senses that I cannot exist without these?
Bu I was persuaded that there was nothing in all the world, that there was no heaven, no earth, that there no minds nor any bodies: was I not then likewise persuaded that I did not exist? … but there is some deceiver or other, very powerful and very cunning, who ever employs his ingenuity in deceiving me. Then without doubt I exist also if he deceives me, and let him deceive me as much as he will, he can never cause me to be nothing so long as I think that I am something (Descartes, pg. 34). Here is saying that he thinks he is something, which lays the groundwork for: But then what am I? A thing which thinks. What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, conceives, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels (Descartes, pg. 37).
Of course in this statement can be summed up the famous “I think, therefore I am”. But it is not merely thinking per se that Descartes is saying here, but rather self-awareness, or consciousness. One’s consciousness is absolute: it tells him that he does exist for certain, even if everything else is illusion. Hence, one’s consciousness implies one’s existence. The Consciousness and the Wax Argument The truth is fundamental, common sense. The consciousness needs no explaining because everybody understands what it is. But let us ask, where does consciousness come from? Perhaps this is no longer part of Descartes’ philosophy, as his thesis has been chiefly to prove that if one has consciousness then he exists.
That is why the important construction of the statement, I think, I am. It is necessarily has to be the I who has understanding of being. How does one think though? Through the ideas garnered from sensory perception? To explain further, and in a way define himself better through example, Descartes turns to the analogy of the wax. Descartes asks how he knows of the wax, when its physical properties change? When its color, texture, size, shape, smell change, is it still not wax? Thus: what then did I know so distinctly in this piece of wax? It could certainly be nothing of all that the senses brought to my notice… for all these are found to be changed, and yet the same wax remains… (p. 39).
Descartes argues that the wax does not change, but he knows it not through the senses but because he grasps the idea of the wax with his mind: But what is this piece of wax which cannot be understood excepting by the mind? …what must particularly be observed is that its perception [of the wax] is neither an act of vision, nor of touch, nor of imagination, and has never been such although it may have appeared formerly to be so (Descartes, p. 39). Further, he uses the wax to affirm his existence when he says that his perception of the wax no matter how distinct or indistinct only proves the existence of his mind as being the thing that processes all these, proving not the wax but the nature of his mind. In this way Descartes is actually saying that all we know, we know from the mind. That is why he believes that we know the mind better than we know the body.
This not only affirms his consciousness, but also affirms Meditation I’s methodic doubt. After all, we only know the world through ideas – these ideas including dreams, concepts, images, perceptions, and memories – hence, we know the world indirectly. Also, these ideas represent something else – something that is external or separate from the self, that which we do not identify with I, making them separate from the mind as well. Since these are external to the mind, these can be illusions, false images or faulty representations. And if these ideas can be trusted, what can be but the absolute existence of the thing that conceives these ideas in the first place, the mind, the consciousness. Conclusion
Descartes’ Meditations is undoubtedly an important text in history, and its methodic presentation convincing. His thesis that we could doubt everything but the existence of the self via the consciousness makes perfect sense – with or without the reference to an ultimate Being or an evil genius, as his insistence, or his inclusion of these, stains his logical arguments, for there is no logical basis for God or the Devil. But then, since these does not cripple nor in any way change the outcome of the meditations, then it could be safely dismissed as perhaps a necessary inclusion to encourage conservative readers of the time to consider a novel idea before they turn a skeptic eye on him.
Subject: René Descartes,
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 28 November 2016
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