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Descartes’ work entitled Meditations, is a work on metaphysics in which Descartes hopes to achieve absolute certainty about three issues: the soul as “a thinking thing” distinct from or without a body, the belief that God exists, and the belief that the external world exists. In order to acquire absolutely certainty which can be applied to these issues, Descartes first lays a foundation of integrity on which to build his knowledge. The technique he uses to lay this base of integrity is doubt. He discards all of what he believes to be true or fact and instead chooses that if any belief can be doubted it is not certain, therefore making it unusable as a foundation. Descartes first jettisons any information, knowledge, or truths that are based on his senses. Here, he applies the “Dream Argument,” (152) where he states that based on the senses alone, there is no definite way of proving that you are dreaming or that you are awake, thus, remedying any truths based upon the senses unreliable and doubtable.
Deeming the senses as unreliable, Descartes then turns to why and how his senses are deceiveable. He begins to doubt something that “I have long fixed in my mind,” his belief that God is an all-powerful, good, power. Instead, he believes that God could in fact be an evil deceiver, who created him and fooled his senses. “I shall then suppose, not that God who is supremely good and the fountain of truth, but some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole energies in deceiving me,” (153). If this is so, Descartes considers what could possibly be true then. Already denying his senses and body, he concludes that he exists because the deceiver deceives his thought. As long as he (Descartes) thinks, he knows that he is something. He comes to the definitive conclusion that: “I am, I exist, is true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it… But what am I? I am a thing that thinks,” (156). From this, Descartes concludes the famous philosophical statement, “I think therefore I am.” Descartes rationalizes this postulation by understanding that I exist because I can think of the concept of an evil deceiver. The evil deceiver can deceive us in everything, or senses and our thoughts; but to deceive us in our thought, we must have to be thinking. In other words, there would not be an evil power capable of deceiving if there was no one to deceive. Now, although he is not yet sure of the existence of an external world, God, or anything outside of his mind, the conviction of his own thought can no longer be doubted. This truth now leads Descartes to question his relationship between his mind and body.
With this truth that he exists, Descartes sets out at determining that the soul is a thinking thing, distinct from or without a body. In order to prove/disprove this truth, Descartes uses the only truth he has proved thus far; he focuses on the act of thinking and from this he postulates, “I am a thing that thinks, a thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, and that also imagines and senses,” (156). Descartes asks us to consider a piece of wax as a metaphor for the body. This wax in it’s original form can be seen, touched, smelled, tasted, and heard if struck, similarly to a body. Descartes further progresses the analogy:
“But notice that while I speak and approach the fire what remained of the taste (of the wax) is exhaled, the smell evaporates, the colour alters, the figure is destroyed, the size increases, it becomes liquid, it heats, scarcely can one handle it, and when one strikes, no sound is emitted,” (157).
This forces Descartes to ask, “Does the same wax remain after this change?” Descartes answers that if he relied on his senses to determine the answer to this question, the answer would be no; because according to all of his senses, the wax in it’s new form is nothing like it was in it’s original form, and all identifying characteristics to his senses have now changed. However, he knows that the answer is in fact yes; the wax in it’s new form is the same wax that used to be in it’s original form. Descartes knows this to be true because of his mind, his ability to think rationally, and his ability overrules his senses, “… it is my mind that perceives it,” (157). This example, more than any others, provides Descartes with acceptable knowledge and allows him to conclude the truth that the mind/soul is a thinking thing that exists distinct from or without a body. The conclusion of the second meditation are significant because Descartes method of doubt has proven that Descartes does in fact exist and that his essence stems from the mind. From here, Descartes moves to Meditation III, and the notion of God’s existence.
Descartes sets out to see whether one can perceive or confirm the existence of an idea that is external to him, an idea such as God. Descartes knows that he is imperfect due to the fact that he has doubts and desires, is finite, limited in time and space. However, to know that he is imperfect means that he has to have some idea of what perfection is. Descartes’ belief in God is such that God is infinite, independent, omnipotent and omniscient, and created him as well as everything around him. His thought of God is that of perfection, and perfection is a thought/ideal which Descartes knows and possesses. He realizes that within him lies this idea of a perfect being and that, because he is imperfect, he is incapable of producing this idea alone. Descartes rationalizes that an idea of perfection could not have come from an imperfect being, such as himself. “It only remains to me to examine into the manner in which I have acquired this idea from God; for I have not received through the senses, and it is never presented to me unexpectedly…” (165). Consequently, a greater force must have placed this idea of perfection in Descartes mind. At this point he observes that his existence is dependent upon God’s existence, or that only God exists supremely/ultimately, while he and everything else exists contingent upon the existence of God.
Descartes again confronts God’s existence in Meditations V. Here, Descartes attempts to fuse existence with essence. He postulates whether God may exist without any essence of Descartes thought. He asks, just because I think of some piece of knowledge that holds to truth and fact inside my head, does that automatically make it true? “…if just because I can draw the idea of something from my thought, it follows that all which I know clearly and distinctly as pertaining to this object (the triangle in Descartes mind) does really belong to it, may I not derive from this an argument demonstrating the existence of God?” (171). Descartes first answers this question in the negative, stating that just because his knowledge holds to truth and fact, that does not mean that such a piece of knowledge exists anywhere throughout the world in the form that Descartes holds in his mind. However, upon further analysis, Descartes reverses his answer to the affirmative. He states that, “from the fact that I cannot conceive a mountain without a valley, it does not follow that there is any mountain or any valley in existence, but only that the mountain and the valley, whether they exist or do not exist, cannot in any way be separated one from the other,” (172). Descartes uses this knowledge to affirm that just because the essence of his God (the God inside of his mind) may or may not exist, does not mean that the essence of God, Himself, does not exist. Consequently, Descartes concludes that the essence of God does exist, just as every mountain that exists is certain to have a valley.
In Meditation IV, Descartes sets out to prove that the external world exists. To do this, Descartes first re-acknowledges the existence of the mind as a thinking thing and God. Then, Descartes proceeds to show that external experiences and images which he experiences are neither produced by himself or God. He again confronts the senses of the body. Descartes conjoins the senses of the body with the mind’s imagination. He states that imagination is not true intellect, and that because of this, imagination may be misleading and not the truth. As he stated when differing between the mind as a thinking thing distinct from or without a body, he reiterates that the bodies senses are deceiveable, and thus, produce a cloud of doubt over any truths derived from them. Because of this, Descartes does not considers the imagination a source of truth. However, Descartes does use the imagination as a source for the proof of separation of the body and mind. He states:
“I possess a body with which I am very intimately conjoined, yet because, on the one side, I have a clear and distinct idea of myself inasmuch as I am only a thinking and unextended thing, and as, on the other, I possess a distinct idea of body, inasmuch as it is only an extended and unthinking thing, it is certain that this I (that is to say, my soul by which I am what I am), is entirely and absolutely distinct from my body, and can exist without it,” (176).
To illustrate that the external world exists, we can regress to Meditation III where Descartes talks about an experience that effected his mind and senses, which he had no control of, which would prove that an external world existed beyond himself or God. When Descartes places his hand near an open flame from a fire, he has no choice of whether or not he wishes to feel the heat from the fire once he places his hand near it. This experience serves to prove that nature, (i.e. an external world), exists because neither God nor Descartes himself willed him to feel heat from the fire. Even if Descartes had willed himself not to, he still would have felt the heat through his senses and his mind; the choice not to feel the heat is not within his powers. “Just now, for instance, whether I will or whether I do not will, I feel heat, and thus I persuade myself that this feeling, or at least this idea of heat, is produced in my by something which is different from me…” (160). Thus, without any ability to prove this experience to the contrary, Descartes concludes that this event must have come from an external world.
Although considered one of the greatest philosophical minds of all time, Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy poses some inaccuracies which can be used to question Descartes entire argument. His work in Meditations only escapes scrutiny if you allow for a circular argument to serve as the basis for it’s justification. Most prominently, “I think therefore I am,” is the postulate which Descartes first formulates upon his quest for truth and his method of discarding all knowledge that may contain doubt. He begins by doubting something that he had long fixed in his mind, that was his belief that God was an all-powerful, good, power. Instead, he was forced to change his belief to include that God could in fact be an evil deceiver, who created him and fooled his senses. “I shall then suppose, not that God who is supremely good and the fountain of truth, but some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole energies in deceiving me,” (153). However, in formulating his postulate of “I think therefore I am,” Descartes works uses the assumption that there has to be an evil, omnipotent being, capable of deceiving him; this “evil” being initially went by another name to Descartes, before he believed this being to be evil… God. This renders Descartes basic foundation for all other truths he has rationalized (the soul as a thinking thing; the existence of God; the existence of the external world) inept. The circular argument can be seen if you start at a different point of Descartes argument, the proof of the existence of God. At this starting point, instead of assuming that God exists to prove that Descartes exists because he thinks, the assumption would be that Descartes exists in order to prove that God exists. In this scenario, the next logical step would then be, now that we have proved that God exists, to prove that Descartes does in fact exist (even though this would have been assumed in order to prove that God existed).
Descartes’ focus in Meditations on First Philosophy is the absolute truth of knowledge. To ensure the integrity of his newly acquired understanding of reality, Descartes uses the method of doubt to discards any minute detail he once believed the truth if it could be cast in doubt. It is through this method that he can grasps the true nature and understanding of reality. Even though his argument is flawed in it’s reasoning, after establishing the existence of himself, God, and the external world through this method, Descartes feels he possess a clear and distinct picture of reality in which to live his life.
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