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Descartes First Meditation Essay, Research Paper
Rene Descartes asserts that our most fundamental beliefs are uncertain, and consequently, all beliefs resting on these basics are also uncertain. In his First Mediation, he sets out to find and destroy all beliefs in order to eventually create a stable foundation in which all of these beliefs may rest. With such a concrete structure, the sciences and mathematics will finally have their axioms firmly grounded. Yet, destroying all beliefs individually is an impossible task; instead, by presenting reasonable doubt in the most basic of beliefs, beliefs from the senses and from understanding, Descartes will ultimately refute all thought supported by these basic beliefs.
In his first argument, Descartes introduces beliefs derived from the five senses: touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound. From the outset, it may seem impossible to disprove sensory images like “sitting by the fire, wearing a winter dressing-gown, holding this piece of paper.” (13) Yet, Descartes does not need to explicitly disprove each of these statements; instead, showing a reasonable example of doubt will be enough to discredit these beliefs. Descartes introduces his argument with the notion that sensory beliefs constantly deceive us. For example, if a coin is hidden underneath a book, the coin is still exists, although we may be unable to sense it. However, he abandons this train of thought, as he claims that there are instances when such doubt in impossible. Holding a book, for instance, is a sensory belief that apparently seems to be certain.
Instead, he argues that we can never be certain whether at this very moment, we are dreaming or awake. After all, dreams are indistinguishable from reality because during a dream, a person is unaware that he is dreaming. In fact, no single criterion has been established to distinguish between the conscious and a sleeplike state. Consequently, since this very instance may be a dream, all beliefs based upon the sensory organs are dubitable. Besides, many of us, at one point in our lives, have wondered this very philosophical question: Am I dreaming? Yet, even now, most of us would claim that we are awake; however, while in a dream, no one actually believes that they are actually sleeping. Nevertheless, Descartes doesn’t concretely prove that we are dreaming. He doesn’t have to. Instead, he merely raises the point that, at any moment, we may be dreaming. Just by presenting this simple possibility, Descartes successfully destroys all of our sensory beliefs. In a short few paragraphs, he questions the certainty of nearly half of our most basic beliefs.
Still, the beliefs from understanding are unaffected. Beliefs from reason, including those from mathematics and logic, are ideas that hold true regardless of the situation. After all, two plus three is always five and a square always has four equal sides; unlike sensory beliefs, these beliefs remain constant in both the dream and conscious states of living. In his “evil deceiver argument,” Descartes claims that, however unlikely, there exists the possibility that an almost omnipotent, malicious demon is constantly controlling our thoughts and supplying our minds with incorrect information. If from the very beginnings of existence, the demon controlled us into falsely believing that two plus three is five, when in reality the sum is six, we would always have been deceived. As a result, if a malicious demon does exist, all of our thoughts from reason may be rendered dubitable. In twelve short paragraphs, Descartes demolishes all of our basic beliefs, with it crumbling all of the corollary beliefs that were once supported by them.
The mastery of Descartes’s argument lies in the utter simplicity of the organization of the work. At first glance, Descartes’s goal, to destroy all beliefs in order to eventually create a stable structure in which all beliefs will be firmly grounded, seems like an immense and perhaps, impossible task. Yet, instead of individually destroying each belief, he divides all beliefs into two general categories, those derived from the senses and those based upon reason. From there, he explains in great detail two examples, the dream and malicious demon arguments, which creates possibilities for these beliefs to be untrue. By introducing even the slightest doubt, Descartes destroyed the intellectual structure of the world. Moreover, Descartes’s First Meditation is straightforward text that is relatively easy to read and understand. In fact, while most works of philosophy are often considered abstruse and arcane, Descartes’s piece is surprisingly easy to comprehend. The clarity in his structure makes his arguments easy to follow.
In addition, Descartes’s style of writing almost is a premature form of stream of consciousness. In fact, his particular writing method makes it seems as if his thoughts are directly transposed on to sheets of paper, with no revisions or reorganization in between. While contradictions may appear abundant throughout his work, Descartes’s simply provides us with the origins of his ideas. His style contributes to the effectiveness of his work, and through his “ramblings,” Descartes discusses possible objections to his ideas, thus providing a premature defense of his ideas. Even though his writing may appear sprawled, his work is surprisingly coherent and easy to understand. For each of his arguments, he provides three or four premises, explains in detail their relationship, and explicitly states each conclusion. Ultimately, the combination of unyielding unity of the each argument and random thoughts makes his original ideas seem impenetrable, as if they came straight from his head to the paper.
Descartes’s argument, however, presumes that reality is created through the senses of an individual; that is, my world — the computer in front of me, the music blasting in my ears, and the scrumptious smelling cookie in my hand — exists because of my perception of these objects. As a result, according to Descartes, because I may be in a dream state, my senses are creating a false reality, which in turn, causes the skepticism of all sensory beliefs. However, reality exists independent of my perception of an object. For example, if a coin is hidden underneath a book, I may not see the coin. Yet, even though my senses have deceived me, the coin continues to exist. In fact, my perception of reality has nothing to do with reality itself. Consequently, even if I am dreaming and I interpret my dreams as real, the outside reality still continues to exist. However, Descartes, in his dream argument, correlates the uncertainty of perception of reality with the uncertainty of reality itself. Yet even if we are dreaming, reality continues to exist, which in turn, prevents Descartes from destroying all sensory beliefs.
In conclusion, Descartes sets off to destroy the very foundation all beliefs rest upon. By doing so, he will have the opportunity to replace this dubitable basis with a more rigid, solid structure, creating no ambiguity in the sciences and mathematics. Yet, instead of individually disproving all beliefs, he tries to bring doubt into two major categories: beliefs derived from the senses and those from understanding. In his dream argument, he introduces that the idea that at the very moment, we may be dreaming; therefore, our senses would then be deceiving us. Furthermore, a malicious demon may be controlling our thoughts, poisoning the rationality of the world. As ridiculous as these two arguments sound, these two successfully bring reasonable doubt in all of our most basic beliefs, providing a means of destroying our belief system. Ultimately, we are only left with the belief that we have the capability to think.
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