Descartes and the Material World

Can you doubt that the material world exists? If you can’t, does it follow that Descartes’ method of doubt is useless? It is very difficult to know for certain if the material world exists or not because we are dealing with metaphysical philosophy. Metaphysical philosophy is the branch of philosophy concerned with the basic nature of reality. Its aim is to give a systematic account of the world and the principles that govern it Rene Descartes, a French philosopher during the 17th century came up with many arguments concerning existence.

Descartes is called a dualist because he claimed that the world consists of two basic ubstances, matter and spirit. Matter is the physical universe, of which our bodies are a part. The human mind, or spirit, interacts with the body but can, in theory, exist without it, Descartes argued. Descartes wrote pieces of writing known as ‘The Six Meditations. ‘ During these meditations he attempted to rule out anything that can be doubtful. “So, for the purpose of rejecting all my opinions, it will be enough if I find each of them at least some reason for doubt,” he commented.

The results of these meditations will be discussed in detail. Although Descartes is very influential to modern philosophy, it came with a price. Many philosophers attacked Descartes’ arguments critically. One example where Descartes’ arguments have been attacked is in the book by John Cottingham. These arguments will be discussed further in this essay. In Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes first considered the strongest reasons that might be used to show that he could never be certain of anything. He clarifies that everything that humans accept as true has been acquired from the senses or through the senses.

Although our senses are our most “trustworthy friend,” they tend to deceive us from time to time. “It is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us ven once,” Descartes argues. In mentally sane beings, the best example where our senses may have deceived us is in our dreams. When we dream, we rarely know we are actually dreaming. So in turn, while dreaming, we are perceived with a “false” reality. These arguments included the idea that perhaps we might be dreaming, so that nothing we seem to perceive is real. There are though universal laws in which even if our physical existence is doubted still exist.

For example, Mathematics and Geometry would still exist because it does not rely on matter. Two plus two would still equal our as well as the fact that a square will always have four sides. Back to the meditation, Descartes reflected that perhaps God or some evil demon was constantly tricking his mind, causing him to believe what was false. Yet, it cannot be God because according to Descartes, God is supremely good. Descartes commences the Second meditation saying, “Anything of the slightest doubt I will set aside just as if I had found it to be wholly false. In another words, he will attempt to disregard anything that can be categorized as doubtful.

One thing, Descartes argues can exist without doubt, one’s existence. Nothing can make him doubt that. Descartes then introduced the famous Latin phrase cogito ergo sum, which means I think, therefore I am. Analyzing Descartes arguments, it is clear that one can doubt the existence of a physical world. Descartes gives the example of a piece of wax. When he first perceives the wax, it is hard, has a certain colour, shape and other qualities.

However when he puts that same wax next to the fire all its primary and secondary qualities change. It is not hard anymore; colour, shape and other qualities have changed. Nevertheless we still know that it is the same wax before we put it next to the fire. Our ind can understand that but our senses cannot. Many philosophers, on the other hand, disagree with Descartes. For example, the main objection to Descartes theories is the phrase, “See to believe. ” One cannot assume something without actually experiencing it for themselves.

In the case of the evil demon, evidence is needed to prove that it actually exists. If there were even the slightest evidence, maybe its existence can be argued upon but the truth is that there is no proof that this demon exists (although physical proof is sometimes not sufficient, for example, in the case of God). If there is a deception, there must be some ay to know whether one has been deceived. Otherwise the word “deception” doesn’t distinguish anything from anything else. For example, walking in the desert, one sees water but getting closer to it, it disappears and found out it’s only a mirage.

He/she has found out that he/she has been deceived. In the case of the evil demon, there is no proof that we are being tricked, as mentioned before. As written earlier, Descartes believed that existence may be just a dream but again many believe it is very doubtful. Many believe that dreams are just a reflection of ‘real’ life. In another words, we dream what we have experienced when awake. Dreams also lack the “massiveness and the tremendous degree of internal co-herence that waking-life experiences rather than dreams.

In another words, dreams lack things such as laws of gravity and ‘realness’ that are associated with ‘real’ life. John Cottingham criticizes Descartes in many ways. For example, Descartes points out that the reliability of the intellect is much greater than that of the senses. The question is how the intellect can doubt the senses if we take in our information from our senses and only our senses. Another objection is that from the fact that we are thinking does ot seem to be entirely certain that we exist.

For in order to be certain that one is thinking one must know what thought or thinking actually is as well as what our existence is . All in all, Descartes’ work is very influential to modern philosophy. As John Stuart Mill once said, in an argument no one is 100% correct or incorrect, so there it would be unwise to discard anyone’s opinion. For all humans know, Descartes’ may be wrong or not but his method of doubt is definitely not useless. In another words, in light of these arguments, it seems that the most plausible position is to keep an open mind.


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