Descartes’ Meditations I-III

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Descartes’ Meditations I-III
In Descartes’ Meditations, he is making a systematic attempt to find a necessary truth; that is, a truth that cannot be false. The purpose in finding this necessary truth is not only for self-affirmation, but to create something certain and undeniable in the sciences. He aims to acquire this truth through the extensive examination of the distinction of the human soul, the body, and the existence of God.

In his first meditation, Descartes’ raises what could be called into doubt. His way of finding a stable truth is to demolish everything that he once knew to be true, as well as the foundational method in which he formed such truths. To start this demolition and carry out his purpose, Descartes plans to doubt everything; or rather, he plans to find what can be doubted in his previous opinions until he may be left with something that he is not able to doubt and must be necessarily true.

He starts by recognizing that everything he has previously believed to be true has been acquired either from his senses or through his senses. These senses, however, occasionally mislead us; therefore they are not necessarily true. However, Descartes is left with the premise “about which doubt is quite impossible, even though they are derived from the senses.” He addresses the doubt in this particular premise, and those bodily parts that enable our senses, through a new thought that “there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep.” Therefore, he concludes that physics, astronomy, medicine and all other sciences that depend on these corporeal senses are doubtful; while he comes to the conclusion that arithmetic, geometry and other subjects of this kind, which deal with simple and general things, contain something that makes them certain. Descartes then brings his “long-standing opinion” of an omnipotent, supremely good God and questions whether he is being deceived in this last conclusion by said God. However, this deceit would contradict the ‘supremely good’ characteristic of this God. Therefore, he supposes that “not God, who is supremely good and the source of truth, but rather some malicious demon of the utmost power” that deceives him.

In Descartes’ early life (the end of the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth century), there was a vast amount of change occurring that was widely influenced by the Protestant Reformation. The initial purpose of this reformation was to change, or reconstruct, the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. The start of the Reformation in Europe is credited to a German Augustinian monk named Martin Luther. In 1517, Luther posted 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. These theses challenged the authority of the church by arguing that it is the scriptures that possess authority, therefore concluding that the interpretations of the church were just opinions. Thus, everyone set out to find a new truth, not an opinion. Hence, these influence on Descartes in his Meditation I to find an absolute truth away from the “opinions”. However, the problem that was raised by this Reformation was by what notion, or way, does one determine what is necessarily true? Descartes finds his deciding method of what the truth is through Foundationalism and Metaphysics; or through the justification of knowledge and the transcendental principles of reality.

In evaluating Descartes’ Meditation I, it is understandable that in order to find an absolute truth, the clearer route is to first start by uncovering the foundation of such former beliefs. I also find it to be true that if something has been false, or deceived, at one point (suggested towards the senses) than it cannot be necessarily true; it is contingent, because it contains variables that depend on something else in order to be true. However, the omnipotent God of the first Meditation is at this point unclear, and while it makes sense to put the “omnipotent God” aside and suggest that it is for now a deceiving power, this strategy is slightly interfering with the consistency, or clear presentation, of the argument.

The second Meditation presented by Descartes focuses on the nature of the human mind and how it is better known than the body. Recognizing the problems raised by his first Meditation, Descartes continues to yield to any falsehoods, no matter how slightly false they may be. He questions if there is a God who puts the thoughts in his head that he is now having, or perhaps he is the author of his own thoughts? The initial problem occurs that he has convinced himself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, so does it now follow that he too does not exist? He answers that if he is capable to convince himself of something then he must certainly exist. In looking to define what the ‘I’ is that necessarily exists by separating the body from the mind. Descartes says, “He (the deceiver) will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think I am something.” He concludes that the mind or the “thinking” part of us is what he discovers to be necessarily true; I think, therefore I am.

Descartes is explaining in Meditation II that because he is the “author of” his own thoughts, he is at least something. He is a conscious being. The other things that he knew to be true (that he held a piece of paper), but had no proof, he now knows to be true and certain because his mind is the ‘thing’ that makes its judgment and perceives and understands these things to be so. This justified reasoning affirms the certainty and truth to, not the actual senses but, sensory perception. This ‘thinking thing’ is, in part, similar to Kierkegaard’s belief of the inward path. Although Kierkegaard was an existentialist and did not believe in reasoning or rationality, his view shares agreements with that of Descartes. Such agreements are that we should strip ourselves of the external, or “outward forms,” and turn to our inward selves, or “naked” selves, to find meaning through our own perception. It will then follow that we are conscious beings that exist and otherwise cannot be false.

When examining the ‘naked wax’ Descartes stumbles upon another existentialist view (although he is not an existentialist philosopher. Again, these are merely similar ‘parts’ to a different ‘whole’). This view is brought about in a few very minor parts to his argumentation, but is more evident when he claims, “although my judgment may contain errors, at least my perception now requires human mind.” He claims at this point that not even an animal is capable of judgment, which alludes to the existentialist view that “we are in the world, but we are not of it.” According to the ‘inward’ thinking, this means that the world that we are in does not determine us as conscious beings.

Although I agree that in order to be conscious or aware, you must determine things to be true as you perceive them, I have a confliction with Descartes’ way of reasoning. More specifically, when he explains that once you purposely avoid the ‘deceiver’ and judge what we think to be true. How do we know, for certain, that this ‘thing’ is a deceiver, or (as he previously stated) how do we know that a ‘deceiver’ even exists? From this point Descartes is just telling the reader/us that it exists so that we follow with his claims of truth? That does not seem very ‘conscious’ of us to do something like this. Additionally, Descartes explains that he exists because “if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed.” All of his following points make sense with this claim, however, there is one small circumstance that Descartes did not consider. This is that he used the phrase ‘convinced myself’ to determine a time of existence. What about the times that we are asleep and after that realization we ‘convince’ ourselves to wake up? For example, I will on occasion have a bad and bizarre dream which I then realize is so, so I ‘convince’ myself to wake up. Would I have technically ‘existed’ for a short time in this dream world when I was convincing myself of something?

Descartes’ Meditation III touches on the existence of God. He starts by recognizing the ‘ideas’ that we know to be true but have no certainty of; the matters which we ‘see’ with our “mind’s eye”. He admits that an apparent mistake in his judgments are in his judging that the ‘inner ideas’ resemble the external. There is little, at this point, that is certain and much that is an uncertain “idea”. In order to clear this uncertainty and provide a necessarily true foundation upon which to necessarily form an ultimate truth, Descartes first reconsiders this ‘deceiver’ as an omnipotent God. He then addresses the idea of God in terms of objective and formal realities. The ‘idea’ of God is an infinite thing while he is also just a finite thing. Descartes concludes from this that God is not a contingent substance that could have come from himself, but that he is a necessary ‘idea’ that must therefore exist and be the cause of such ‘ideas’. Additionally, he tries to doubt the existence of God in the likeness that he doubted his own existence. However, these other ‘ideas’ that we have (desires and images) are results from lacking something which we discover we do not possess from such a God that does not have a lack of something. Therefore, everything must have a cause, except for God. Descartes basis his conclusion on the idea that ‘everything must have a cause’; which stems from the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas. While Descartes appears to make a valid argument in finding truth through our ability of reasoning, he does not consider that there may also be a reasoning for which we do things; or that there is a transcendental reason for everything that occurs. For this is a major factor to omit when considering the idea of a God.

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