Last updated: September 12, 2019
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Descartes’Medtitions

 

Descartes, René, 1596-1650, a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. His philosophy is called Cartesianism.  The new age of seventeen century witnessed new scientific inventions, new observations, and new theories coming up all over Europe. The medieval philosophy of scholastism was no longer adequate for the rapid changes. A new philosophy was needed. René Descartes was the first philosopher of modern age. He offered the first metaphysical theory in response to the new changes in the scientific domain. (Lavine.1984, p.92). Descartes disliked philosophy. He argued that philosophers have no knowledge of mathematics; they base their arguments on age-old authorities, which are ancient and outdated. Descartes sets himself to make philosophy relevant in the age of scientific inventions and discoveries. Truth is Descartes’ passion. (Lavine .1984, p 92)

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He overthrows all existing beliefs so that he may attain the truth. This is how the modern philosophy begins, with complete break from medieval philosophy and Scholastic philosophy. Descartes writes his Meditations with this in mind. He overthrows all his beliefs and starts his reasoning.

He begins his meditation by doubting everything and starts to build from those simple things, of which, we are certain. He decides that only thing he can be certain of, is that he is thinking. He builds his arguments from this preposition. He thinks of infinity therefore, there must be an infinite Being, God. If God is the originator of his ideas he cannot be deceived, God cannot be the source of error. Therefore he concludes that his free will is the source of error. He goes on to explain the mind body relation and concludes with the knowledge of God he can attain truth by making use of reason.

 

Meditation I

 

The first meditation starts with the meditator realizing that many of his believes held from his youthful days were false. Now that he retired and has a leisurely life, he proposes to rid himself of all those beliefs. To address each problem would take ages so he starts with the belief on which all other believes are built (Descartes,1647/1901).

 

The meditator had formerly accepted as truth all that his senses revealed like the fact that he is seated near the fire, in a dressing gown with papers in his hands. How can he doubt these facts, which are obvious? However, he realizes that he has earlier dreamt that he was standing near the fire, dressed in dressing gown while he was lying undressed in bed. Now, though, he is awake he assumes that he is asleep and dreaming, for dreams are formed of real things. Even the painters may imagine strange things but the simple basics things, as colour, size etc. are real and existent (Descartes, 1647/1901).

For the same reason although general things may be imagery, more simple things as color quantity and magnitude are real. That is why, Physics, Astronomy, and other science are dubious. Arithmetic and geometry which deals with simple things are more certain, for whether we are dreaming or awake two plus two is always four(Descartes,1647/1901)

The Meditator realizes that even simple things can be false. The omnipotent God can make our mathematics dubious. However, God who is supremely good would not deceive us, so the meditator concludes that it must be an evil gene that is deceiving him. He decides all that he believes the sky, colour, sound even his body and senses are illusions and dreams. This is a difficult task, for just as a prisoner who dreams of liberty, when he begins to suspect that it is but a dream, fears to awaken, likewise he may fall back into his former opinions (Descartes, 1647/1901).

Meditation II

The meditator is firm in his decision to find the truth and discard anything as false, anything that is open to slightest doubt. He recalls Archimedes’ famous saying that he could shift the entire earth given one immovable point: similarly, he hopes to achieve great things if he can be certain of just one thing. Recalling the previous meditation, he supposes that what he sees does not exist, that his memory is faulty, that he has no senses and no body, and that extension, movement and place are mistaken notions. Perhaps, he remarks, the only certain thing remaining is that there is no certainty (Descartes 1647/1901).

The meditator wonders that is it not he who is doubting. He has denied that he has body or senses. Nevertheless, he is thinking. The deceiver cannot make him non-existent as long as he is thinking. Therefore, he concludes: “I think therefore I am” (Descartes, 1647/1901).

The Mediator’s next question is, what this “I” that exists. He initially thought that he had a soul, by means of which he was nourished, moved, could sense and think; and that he have a body. All these attributes are cast into doubt, except one: he cannot doubt that he thinks. He may exist without any other of the above attributes, but he cannot exist if he does not think. Further, he only exists as long as he is thinking. Therefore, thought above all else is inseparable from being. The Meditator concludes that, in the strict sense, he is only a thinking thing that thinks (Descartes, 1647/1901).

Meditation III.

The meditator reflects on what he has ascertained so far. He closes his eyes and puts away all things that are physical. He is not certain of anything except the fact that he is a thinking being. A thinking being, who doubts, affirms, knows some, and does not know many things. He realizes that these modes of consciousness exist in him. All that he perceives clearly and distinctively must be true. However, he is not certain of even the mathematical terms, for God can deceive him. Inorder to ascertain this he must first know the nature of God (Descartes, 1647/1901).The meditator classifies his thoughts into three categories. First, there are simple Ideas, for example we think of a man or an angel or God. Second, there are emotions and judgement.We cannot be deceived by the first two. However, the error comes due to judgement.The common error is to think that the ideas in one’s mind conform to things outside mind. . Considering ideas in the mind  as modes of thought and not referring them to anything outside the mind, should render him immune to doubt (Descates, 1647/1901).

It seems there are three sources for ideas: they can be innate; they can be adventitious, coming from outside of us, as with our sensory perceptions; or they can be invented by us, such as our ideas of mermaids or unicorns. The Meditator concedes that he cannot yet be certain which ideas come from where. The idea that comes from substances is more objective than the ideas that come from accidents. The idea of supreme God infinite, eternal omnipotent has even more objective reality (Descartes, 1647/1901).

Now it manifests that effects derive their reality from their cause. That something cannot proceed from nothing and that the perfect cannot proceed from something imperfect. For example, the idea of stone can only be produced by something that possesses it, either formally or eminently, all that constitutes stone form a cause (Descartes, 1647/1901).

The Idea of God as omnipotent, infinite and supreme are so exceptional that it would not have come from within the meditator.There has to be a source. Therefore, he concludes that God must exist (Descartes, 1647/1901).

The meditator decides that the idea of substance would have come from him since he is of substance. However, since he is finite, the idea of infinite substance must come from elsewhere. He could not have gained the idea of infinite substance just by negating the finite. Indeed, how could  he  have the notion that he is finite and imperfect, unless he had some idea of a Being more perfect, by which to recognize his deficiencies (Descates,1647/1901)?

The meditator concludes idea of God is very clear and distinct and more objectively real than if the Meditator could exist without God, he would have come to be out of himself, or from his parents, or from some other being less perfect than God. If his parents or some other imperfect being created him, this creator must have endowed him with the idea of God. If this creator is a finite being, we must still ask with respect to it how he came to possess the idea of an infinite God. We can trace this chain back through countless creators, but we must ultimately conclude that the idea of God can originate only in God, and not in some finite being. (Descartes, 1647/1901).

Finally, the meditator ponders over the source of his idea of God. It would not have come from himself, through his senses, or through fictious mind. The only alternative is God in creating him had placed this idea within the meditator as a mark of an artisan (Descartes, 1647/1901).

Meditation IV.

The meditator ascertains that all his knowledge that is certain and objective including the knowledge of the existence of God has come from his intellect and not from senses or imagination. He decides to go on pondering over things, which are purely intellectual with no connection with matter. He is now sure that God does not deceive him because deception is a sign of imperfection, malice and feebleness, which is not of God. However, the capacity of judgment can never mislead us if we use it aright. The more skillful the artisan the more perfect his work. God always wills to be perfect. Then is it perfect that we are subjected to error (Descartes, 1647/1901)?

The meditator is aware that he his feeble and finite but God is Infinite and Perfect. If we consider Gods work in totality, we can see the perfection (Descartes,1647/1901).

From where does the error originate? The meditator realizes that his will is much wider in range than his understanding and extending it to things that one does not understand causes error. If we abstain from giving, judgment on things that are not clear and distinct, one does not commit error. However, when we determine to affirm what is not true, than we misuse our freewill to create error. (Descartes, 1647/1901).

The meditator finds no cause to complain that God has not given him intelligence that is more powerful since it is proper that a finite understanding should not comprehend all things. He does not complain that God has given him free will larger than understanding because a free will, which is less than complete, ceases to exist (Descates, 1647/1901).

Therefore, in this meditation he concludes that he has found the source of error and falsity. He decides that as long as he makes judgment on things, which are clear, and distinct he will never be deceived and finally arrive at truth (Descartes, 1647/1901).

Meditation V.

The meditator starts the fifth meditation by stating that many of his questions regarding God’s nature and his own nature remains. However, he has to decide which of his ideas regarding the corporeal world are certain and which are confused. He states that mathematics and geometry as most certain (Descartes, 1647/1901).

When he thinks of this carefully, he sees that existence cannot be separated from the essence of God just as three angles cannot be separated from the essence of a triangle. It is not necessary to think of God. However if one thinks of God we have to attribute every perfection. The idea of God is discerned in many ways. First, we conceive anything but God to whose essence existence necessarily pertains. Second, it is impossible to think of two or more God and finally granted that such a God exists He must exist eternally (Descates, 1647/1901).

The meditator returns to the point that things perceived clearly and distinctively are true. Just as incase of a triangle though it appears to be a triangle we can calculate to find out the square of its base is equal to square of its two sides and we can be certain it is true(Descartes,1647/1901).

The meditator says that if only his mind was not pre-occupied with prejudices there would be nothing he could know more immediately and clearly than God. Once this is known we can be certain that what we perceive clearly and distinctively is true. Therefore, certainty and truth of all knowledge depends on the knowledge of true God. He concludes that since he has this knowledge of God he is certain that he has the means of acquiring a perfect knowledge of many things (Descartes, 1647/1901)

Meditation VI.

The meditator starts the meditation inquiring whether material things exist. First, he considers those things perceived through senses. He perceives his body, which experiences pain and pleasure. He also experiences joy, sadness, appetite, and anger. However, when he thinks why painful situation leads to sadness and pleasurable situation leads to joy he could only reason that nature has taught him so. His experience has taught him that senses cannot be relied upon. Now that he knows himself better he does not accept all that senses teach him neither does he reject everything (Descartes, 1647/1901).

He is aware of his essence as a thinking thing and knows that he possess a body, which is an extended and unthinking thing. Therefore, “the soul by which I am what I am” is entirely distinct from body and can exist without it.(Hughes,Glyn,2005)

The sensation of pain, hunger sorrow shows that we are not lodged in our body as a pilot in a ship but are closely united to it to compose one whole. If this is not the case, then when the body is hurt as a thinking thing we should not feel the pain but perceive the wound as a sailor would look at the damage in his ship. So all these sensations of hunger, joy, pain are confused modes of thought produced by intermingling of body and soul. This does not mean that sense perception should be used to make conclusion regarding things outside the mind without having carefully and mentally examined. For it is mind alone, not mind and body in conjunction that is required for the knowledge of truth.

When we approach the fire, we feel the heat and approaching it nearer we feel the pain. However, there is no reason to believe that fire contains something resembling pain. Nature has provided these sensations to signify to mind what is beneficial and what is hurtful (Descartes,1647/1901).

There is a great difference between body and mind. The body is divisible and the mind is indivisible. Although the whole mind is united to the body yet if a foot or an arm is taken away from body nothing happens to the mind. The faculties of willing, understanding, feeling cannot be said to be in parts. This nature of man composed as mind and body can be a source of deception. This consideration should help us to recognize the errors so that we can avoid or correct them (Descartes 1647/1901).

The meditator concludes the meditation saying that now he need not fear the falsity of his senses. He knows now that his senses indicate the truth regarding what the beneficial to his body. He is able to avail of all those senses to examine things together with memory to connect past and present, and understanding of causes of error, he need not fear the falsity of his senses. He need not doubt the truth of matters, which are examined by his senses, memory, and understanding. God is not a deceiver so he will not be deceived in this. However, in reality we have to make up our mind before can always examine each matter. Life of man is subjected to error. We must therefore acknowledge the infirmity of our nature (Descartes, 1647/1901)

Evaluation.

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Meditations are generally considered the starting point of modern philosophy. Descartes breaks Aristotelian notion that all knowledge comes form senses. He develops a new concept of mind, body and ideas. In the first meditation, Descartes uses skepticism in questioning everything that he believed. He gives outlandish reasons why he has to mistrust his senses. Philosophy, ever since has been marked with skepticism toward knowledge chain (Sparknotes, 2005).

Descartes also develops a conception of mind where senses and imagination are mental faculities.He also states that we are essentially thinking things that should work harder to understand our bodies. He says mind is essentially thinking and body is an extended thing so two have nothing in common. Philosophers still try to find out the relation between body and mind.

Epistemological Arguments:

Descartes locates himself strongly in the rationalist camp as against Aristotle’s or his contemporary Locke’s empiricism. He strongly defends that true knowledge can be attained only through reason and that senses just help us to move through the world in our day today life (Newman, 2005).

Descartes defines knowledge in terms of doubt. He understands doubts as a contrast to certainity.As certainty increase doubt decrease and conversely as doubt increases certainty decreases. The knowledge therefore has to be based on complete absence of doubt. Descartes methodic emphasis on doubt rather than certainty is an epistemological innovation. This is called method of doubt (Newman, 2005).

The epistemological justifications can be divided into internalism and externalism.Internalism requires that justifying factors are accessible to knower’s conscious awareness. Externalism does not impose this requirement.Descartes’internalism requires all justifying factors must be taken from ideas arising from reason. Ideas are the only reliable source of perception. He follows an inside-to-out strategy. This has become the strategy of modern philosophy. The Meditation is designed to make the reader follow this strategy (Newman, 2005)

According to Descartes, knowledge should be indefeasible. The knowledge should be so strong that it is impossible to doubt.Indefeasibilty is more than just stability. A reader may not have doubts but may have doubts when someone raises objection later. Descartes standard of justification may sound too high. This requirement for justification has to be read in context (Newman 2005).

Descartes sets minimum standard targets as level of certainty arising from perceptions that are clear and distinct. His aim is to set a lasting foundation for knowledge (Newman, 2005).

Descartes brand of knowledge, his commitment to innate ideas can be traced to Platonic thoughts of form and matter. Plato had argued that only knowledge of form is true and that matter binds men. Descartes argues that knowledge by senses (matter) is dubious. In the allegory of cave, Plato describes humanity chained in cave where they are living in an illusion. When someone comes out of cave to sunlight, he is liberated. He likens the life in the cave to people living on sensual knowledge and liberated persons possessing knowledge of forms. Descartes arguments about importance of reasoning are similar to Plato’s philosophy (Newman 2005).

Descartes says that if we cease to think we cease to exist. This reduces man to merely a thinking being. However, man is not just a thought process.Infact according to Buddhism man attains fulfillment when he stop his thought process. He does not cease to exist but he attains peace and tranquility.

Ontological Arguments:

His ontological arguments are not very convincing. Descartes’ argument can be represented logically as:

(1) In our thoughts we experience an idea of the perfect being.

(2) Existence in reality is more perfect than existence in our thoughts alone.

Therefore, (3) the perfect being exists in reality (Still,2005) .

Descartes argues that perfection is a perfection hence it belongs to the characteristics of a Divine nature. However, a thing cannot possess a characteristic unless it exists. Existence is, therefore, a pre-requisite for perfection. For Descartes, it is not possible for us to possess the idea of a perfect being if this being lacks the most important characteristic of existence. If God did not exist then He would not be the perfect being, but we clearly have the idea of the perfect being so therefore He must exist. The problem with this notion, however, is that Descartes begs the question by building into premise (2) the concept of a perfect being, which has yet to be demonstrated. In order to demonstrate God’s existence, Descartes should not assume, or presuppose, that which he is attempting to conclude. However, by predicating the existence of God in (2) he has already concluded that which is later restated in the conclusion. Thus we are tricked ,for if we agree that existence is a predicate of a perfect being, even for the sake of argument then there is no choice left but to accept that God exists (Still,2005).

 

 

Publication Data:

Descartes, Rene’ Descartes’ Meditations, Translated by John Veilch Retrieved from

http//:www.wright.edu/cola/Descartes/intr.html.

 

 

 

 

References

 

Lavine.T.Z.(1984).From Socrates to Sartire,United States of America, New York.

Newman,Lex (2005).Descartes’Epistemology.Reteived on March 30,2007,from

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-epistemology.

Sparknotes (2006), Descartes meditations .Retrieved March 30, 2007 from

http://www.sparknotes.com?philosophy/meditations/section2.rhtml.

Still, James.(2005).Descartes’Meditations.Retrieved on March30,2007 from

http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/james_still/descartes.html

Descartes, Rene’ (1647), Meditations on the First Philosophy (John Veitch, Trans.).Retrieved on

March 30, 2007 from http://www.wright.edu/cola/descartes/intro.html