Descartes' Distinguished Distinctions

Descartes overall objective in the Meditations is to question knowledge. To explore such issues as the existence of God and the separation of mind and body, it was important for him to distinguish what we can know as truth. He believed that reason as opposed to experience was the source for discovering what is of absolute certainty. Here Descartes discerns between mere opinion and strict absolute certainty. To make this consideration he establishes that he must first attack those principles which supported everything I once believed. He first examines those beliefs that require our senses.

He questions, whether our senses are true indicators of what they represent. By inspecting our sometimes-firm belief in the reality of dreams, he comes to the conclusion that our senses are prone to error and thereby cannot reliably distinguish between certainty and falsity. To examine those ideas that have objective reality, Descartes forwards the hypothesis of an evil genius, as clever and deceitful as he is powerful, who has directed his entire effort to misleading me. By proposing this solution he is able to suspend his judgment and maintain that all his former beliefs are false.

By using doubt as his tool, Descartes is now ready to build his following proofs with certainty. In Meditation two, Descartes embarks on his journey of truth. Attempting to affirm the idea that God must exist as a fabricator for his ideas, he stumbles on his first validity: the notion that he exists. He ascertains that if the can both persuade him of something, and likewise were deceived of something, and then surely he must exist. This self- validating statement is known as the Cogito Argument. Simply put it implies whatever thinks exists.

Having established this, Descartes asks himself: What am this I, which necessarily exists? Descartes now begins to explore his inner consciousness to find the essence of his being. He disputes that he is a rational animal for this idea is difficult to understand. He scrutinizes whether perhaps he is a body infused with a soul but this idea is dismissed since he cannot be certain of concepts that are of the material world. Eventually he focuses on the act of thinking and from this he posits: I am a thing that thinks A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, and that also imagines and senses.

To prove that perception on the part of the mind is more real than that of the senses Descartes asks us to consider a piece of wax. Fresh from the comb the qualities we attribute to the wax are those derived from the senses. Melted, the qualities that we attribute to the wax are altered and can only be known to the intellect. Descartes demonstrates how the information from the senses gives us only the observable; it is the mind that allows us to understand. The results of the second meditation are considerable; doubt has both proven the certainty of Descartes existence and that his essence is the mind.

Descartes having proven that God exists must not make some clarifications concerning why God is no deceiver. Thus, the question in need of clarification is this: If God is not a deceiver but is Absolute Goodness, then why is man so prone to err? Descartes answers that we are prone to make mistakes because our wills are infinite but our intellect is not. The will gives us the faculties of assertion, denial and suspension of judgment. The intellect allows us to perceive things clearly and distinctly. Like God we have an infinite will, but we are imperfect because our capacity for understanding is finite.

Descartes concludes that because we are free we are responsible for our errors. It is possible however, that if we use our faculties properly we will not assent false judgments. Confident that God has created us such that if we perceive things clearly and distinctly our reasoning will not be wrong; Descartes is now free to explore the possibilities of material things and the mind body relationship. In the fifth meditation the essence of material things is considered. Before he begins with material considerations however, Descartes finds it necessary to offer another proof for the existence of God.

Since Descartes has just demonstrated that we gain understanding through ideas, he is able to continue with an ontological argument proving that God necessarily exists. The claim that is the glue to this argument is that a supremely perfect being must necessarily exist. God without existence is like a triangle without 3 sides or a mountain without a valley. (Paraphrase) A supremely perfect being would lack some perfection. Next, he turns his attention to material issues, namely the body. First Descartes separates sensation as being separate from his imagination because he does not have any control over it.

Doubt takes over at this point and Descartes must again face the same problem he did in meditation one: the unreliability of the senses due to dreams or hallucinations. To counter this Descartes concludes that our knowledge of material things is based on our knowledge of God. He asserts that God has created him with such a strong belief in the existence of material things that they must not be false because God is not deceptive. By using God as his proof for the material world, Descartes has left himself in a precarious situation.

Were it to be found that God does not exist the rest of his assertions would subsequently crumble. Nevertheless, Descartes is satisfied with the progress that he has made and is now ready to prove the existence of material things. There remains but one question as we approach the end of the Meditations–whether material things do or do not exist. To prove the existence of material objects Descartes’ previous meditations contain his answer. He believes that material things can exist, if they are the objects of mathematics.

We can prove the existence of these objects because we can understand them with our intellect. There remains a question regarding our imagination. Descartes reasons that it is not essential. The understanding is greater than the imagination. Descartes assumes to have a body based on what his senses perceive. He begins to explore this notion that he had previously dismissed to doubt. He inquires whether his senses give him reason for bodies to exist. He comes to the conclusion that they do because God has given us a great inclination to believe that these ideas proceeded from corporeal things.

This proof progresses into the nature of how mind and body co-exist. Descartes beliefs are as follows: It is from nature that we distinguish other bodies and their interpretation. We are inclined by nature towards things that benefit us. This is for our own self- preservation. Descartes makes the distinction between mind and body. He states that the mind is a thinking, Absolute thing, while a mass or body is merely physical/corporeal, an extended thing. The mind is indivisible whereas the body can be divided.

It is the mind’s task to differentiate the part of the body affiliated with a certain sensation. God has endowed us with these natural inclinations to allow us self-preservation. Descartes now dispels his dream hypothesis because he realizes that wakefulness is the interaction of both mind and body. He leaves us with the message that we must acknowledge the infirmity of our nature. The Cogito argument as it looks in the Meditations II runs like this: Thus, this pronouncement I am, I exist is necessarily true every time I utter it or conceive it in my mind. P. 18) Descartes Second Meditation is an attempt to find a truth that he can accept with certainty. In order to accomplish this, Descartes has established that his postulate must be open to strict scrutiny as to expel all doubt to its validity. In the third paragraph of the meditation he has discovered such a certainty, the claim that I think, therefore I am/exist. This proof, known as the Cogito, is Descartes first progression towards his goal of perfect knowledge. This proof so that we can have a better understanding of its meaning.

To evaluate the Cogito argument, we must first understand it clearly. There are four key statements in meditations two that lead Descartes to the certainty that he exists. Herewith is a summation of Descartes’ argument: 1) Am I so tied to the body and to the senses that I cannot exist without them? 2) But certainly I should exist, if I were to persuade myself of something. 3) Then there is no doubt that I exist, if he (evil demon) deceives me. By thinking, one can be certain that he exists. Though argument may seem simple and straightforward, upon closer inspection this is not the case.

There seems to be some questions concerning the Cogito’s interpretation, the most important being: What is the first certainty that Descartes uncovers? By examining the inferential, intuitional and epistemic interpretations, we can discover which interpretation of the Cogito was mean by Descartes in Meditation II. At first it seems obvious that Descartes had meant for the Cogito to be an inferential argument. Of the key propositions in the Meditations all seem to have the commonality of thinking as their first premise.

The second premise posits the notion: Whatever thinks exists; followed by the conclusion: therefore, I exist. To know something by inference is to discover something based on previous knowledge. In Descartes case, he has come to know a metaphysical certainty, existence, based on a prior metaphysical certainty, thinking. The soundness of this reasoning is good because know matter what we do it is impossible to deny that we thin. Absolute certainty is existence. Using the criteria for inference then, it is impossible that I exist is the first certainty.

This is a weak argument for in order for this inference to work; Descartes would have to make revisions to meditation two. However, since he feels so strongly of this first certainty, I am not convinced that Descartes had meant for this interpretation. The interpretation of the Cogito, maintains that it is certain because Descartes has intuited it. Descartes idea of intuition is likened to a flash of insight. The problem of this argument is that the idea of intuition is too subjective an interpretation to prove that he exists. There is no way to replicate this procedure and obtain the same conclusion as Descartes.

The evidence for this interpretation is not strong enough to render it to be the one Descartes intended. Having established his existence, Descartes finds that his essence is the mind. He places a major importance on the intellect. In further meditations it is the mind, through understanding, that leads us to various conclusions. Near the end of Meditation two, Descartes demonstrates how the ideas of the mind are more attuned to finding knowledge than are senses are. The point that he makes here is that only through the mind can we understand the essential qualities of the wax.

A melted piece of wax exhibits qualities such as extension mutability, and expansion. Descartes’ presentation of the mind/body duality and its problems have intrigued philosophers, scientists, geometers, religionists, etc. and readers alike for a bunch of centuries now. In reading Descartes though I think someone focused on critical analysis only (where critical implies a negative attitude) misses out on the real value of Descartes’ treatise, in that he advanced a method for deriving arithmo-geometric function and measure while at the same time arguing in favor of God.


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