Descartes’ Meditations is a discussion of metaphysics, or what is really real. In these writings, he ultimately hopes to achieve absolute certainty about the nature of everything including God, the physical world, and himself. It is only with a clear and distinct knowledge of such things that he can then begin understand his true reality. In order to acquire absolutely certainty, Descartes must first lay a complete foundation of integrity on which to build up his knowledge. The technique he uses to lay this base is doubt.
If any belief can be doubted it is not certain, therefore making unusable as a foundation. Descartes starts by looking at our usual sources for truth. Authority, which is churches, parents, and schools, he says, are not reliable sources for truth because time shows we all die, and that we are eventually proved wrong, much in the same way the accepted truths of science have changed dramatically over the course of history. Also, he considers the generally excepted view that our senses dependably report the absolute nature of reality.
Like authority though, Descartes discards the senses as a source of truth because of the ‘Dream Argument’ or the belief that based on the senses there is no definite way of proving that you are dreaming or that you are awake. Therefore it is possible that everything we believe is false, making the senses an unreliable source. Upon establishing this, Descartes doubts the existence of a physical or external world. Despite that he has an idea of things in the world, he has no definitive way of knowing if they exist beyond his own mind. Another foundation that he tries to confirm is mathematics.
But he soon realizes math’s truth isn’t completely reliable because of the ‘Demon Hypothesis’, which acknowledges the possibility of an all powerful, malicious being that is deceiving him about everything, including mathematics. As a result, Descartes ponders the possibility that he has no way of being completely positive about anything, even is existence. It is only after some deliberation that he comes to the conclusion that it is impossible to be incorrect about everything because he has doubt, and to posses doubt, there must be a doubter.
Hence, he doubts, therefore he exists. With the assurance of his existence, he is presented with the deeper question of what he, himself actually is. Descartes knows that he is not just a body based on his doubt of the senses. Despite the fact that he feels he’s not a body, he does believe he has properties, such as doubt, that make him a substance. From this he concludes that his is an immaterial substance and that his essential property is self-consciousness because you can have no real proof of yourself except through your own thoughts or consciousness.
Descartes articulates this belief in the statement, “I’m aware that I’m aware. ” Furthering this with the belief that the essential property of existence itself is self-consciousness. Accordingly, he has established the first absolutely certain foundation of truth that he was seeking. Although he cannot yet be sure of the existence of anything external to or outside of his mind, the certainty of his own thoughts cannot be doubted. This leads us to wonder about the relationship between the immaterial mind and material body, commonly known in philosophy as the mind/body problem.
Descartes takes the stance of a strong dualist or someone who believes that the mind and the body are not only separate, but competent of independent existence. Other positions are that of the weak dualist, who feels that while the mind and body are metaphysically distinct, they cannot exist independently of one another, and that of the materialist who deem that only physical things and physical procedures exist, while the mind does not. Beliefs of this nature are brought up in relation to Descartes’ question of what makes a thing particularly itself through time and change.
For him, it is the mind/soul that exists through time and change. Hoping to discern the existence of anything else aside from himself, an immaterial substance, Descartes considers a variety of ideas he has within his mind and contemplates whether he could have conceived them himself or not. Predominantly he finds that he has the idea of a perfect being. And upon further consideration, he feels that he could not have been the cause of this thought because it is impossible for an imperfect being to be the cause of the idea of a perfect being.
Descartes is imperfect in that he is not all knowing (omniscient) or all powerful (omnipotent), and is most certainly mortal. Based on this ‘Causal’ proof he says, “ I have the idea of a perfect being, and that idea has to have a cause, and since I am imperfect, the idea has to have be originated from a perfect source or God. ” Another way in which Descartes proves the existence of God is through an ‘Ontological’ proof. This states that an essential property of a perfect being is existence, or that the idea of a perfect being proves that there must be one because the definition of a perfect being must include that it exists.
At this point he observes that his existence depends upon God, or that only God exists necessarily, while everything else exists contingently. With this in mind, Descartes deduces that the reliability of mathematics can no longer be doubted because God guarantees the truth of all self-evident ideas,(self-evident not meaning obvious), but ones that can be calculated through mathematical physics. Therefore, Descartes now knows that a perfect being exists and that he is not alone.
A problem arises from Descartes new acceptance of a perfect being in addition to himself that asks why would a perfect being create or even have the ability the conceive imperfect beings such as humankind. In other words, why didn’t God equip Descartes with an all-inclusive intellect if that was God’s only option within his power. This question is actually part of a much larger area of debate that is known as the ‘problem of evil’. This ‘problem of evil’ stems from the question of why God or a perfect being would create a universe or reality in which evil, or completely pointless badness, exists.
As a solutions to this Descartes says that God gave us both perfectly free will and a limited intellect. Free will can only occur when an agent is free when committing an act(A) if and only if at the time of doing act(A), the agent could have done otherwise. But for this solution to be plausible, Descartes says that God has given us the ability to improve that intellect, through work and study, hence it is within our means to better our intellect considerably, leading to his assimilation of wisdom and virtue. It also follows that evil is a product of a limited intellect, so it is us, not God, that is responsible for evil in the world.
Another possible solution to the ‘problem of evil’ is the theory that our world or reality is the most perfect of all possible worlds, therefore God cannot intervene without making things worse. There exists some reasonable conjecture dealing with these solutions. One is that many modern philosophers, scientists, and psychologists accept the view of determinism, that which states that all actions have a prior natural, sufficient cause, or in terms of people, that human personality is completely determined by social conditioning and genetic makeup.
Another idea deals with the notion that freedom or freewill is not compatible with God’s omniscience. To put it another way, if God is all knowing, and knows what I will do in the future, then I must do what God knows I will do in the future. This means that I have no choice in what God knows I will do, since God already knows that I will do it, therefore eliminating my freewill. These are some of the considerations when thinking about Descartes proof of God’s existence. In the Sixth Meditation, the last section in our text, Descartes hopes to prove the existence of the external world and matter (physical objects located in space).
To do this first he again acknowledges the existence of minds as an immaterial substance and God. Next, he shows that external ideas, or images of things are neither fashioned by himself or by God because he has ideas of things that don’t depend on his will. From this he can say that he will know matter exists if its image was not a product of the mind or god. To prove this attributes the existence of external ideas to the imagination, which is the psychological power of receiving and processing images.
Then he says that thinking is his only essential property which excludes imagination because thinking or consciousness doesn’t require images. He states that the only reason we have an imagination is because we have temporary physical bodies. He then concludes that he is not the cause of his external ideas. To show that God is not the cause of external ideas or images he first states that it is self-evident that external things refer to objects in space. Subsequently, if God is causing these ideas, then they are not in space.
But that would mean that God is deceiving him about a self-evident idea, which can’t be possible because holding to the truth that God is perfect, God is incapable of deception. Consequently, God is not the cause of these external ideas because God ensures the truth of self-evident ideas. To summarize, neither God nor Descartes is the cause of external ideas, therefore proving that matter exists. Now that Descartes has established the existence of the external world, he hopes to further his understanding of its true nature.
He finalizes that we can accept as accurate those parts of our external ideas, which are self-evident, or those that can be mathematically represented. Descartes calls these characteristics that can be represented mathematically primary qualities, such as shape, spacial location, weight, and height. All those which cannot be deduced utilizing mathematics, like color, taste, feel, smell, he refers to as secondary or subjective qualities. They cannot be considered accurate representations of the external world because they’re only particular ways in which the human body perceives the world.
It is with these preceding ideas which he accepts the nature of the external world. The obvious conflict between science and religion is another concern that Descartes hopes to resolve. The reason these two ideologies seem to be conflicting is because they both provide competing and different ideas about the true nature of reality. Religion offers that the goal of human life is acquisition of salvation and eternal life. Conversely, what science tells us is that the world is completely deterministic or all just a course of random evolution.
Descartes feels that the two, mind and matter, are in completely different arenas, both of which were created by God. The mind deals chiefly with freedom, and personal responsibility, which lies in the field of religion. Whereas matter is more connected to science, buts doesn’t negate the influence of God because God provided us with a system, mathematics, to better understand the physical world around us. Thus, if accurately comprehended, no conflict should arise between science and religion.
Descartes’ focus in Meditations is absolute certainty. To achieve this he first must strike all that he has come to accept as false and only then start to rebuild is foundation of knowledge. To insure the integrity of his newly acquired understanding of reality, he uses the method of doubt. It is only through this method that he can grasp the true nature of reality. After establishing the existence of himself, God, and the external world through this method, Descartes feels he now possess a clearer picture of reality.