Seventeenth century philosopher Rene' Descartes' six Meditations

This paper focuses on the seventeenth century philosopher Rene’ Descartes’ six Meditations. In his writings, he attempts to quantify his existence, the existence of the world around him, and that of an all- knowing and powerful being, God. Each of the Meditations is briefly reviewed, and key points are explained. The concepts and conclusions that Descartes reaches are applied to the age-old question, Does God exist? Introduction According to Rene’ Descartes (1596 – 1650), man is a thinking thing, a conscious being who truthfully exists because he is certain that it is so.

All that man perceives is internally present and not external to him or his mind. Can one perceive or confirm the existence of an idea or object that is external to him, namely . . . God? In order to understand Descartes’ argument and its sometimes radical ideas, one must have at least a general idea of his motives in undertaking the argument. The seventeenth century was a time of great scientific progress, and the blossoming scientific community was concerned with setting up a consistent standard to define what constituted science.

Their science was based on conjunction and empirical affirmation, ideally ithout any preconceived notions to taint the results (Dicker, 1993). Descartes, however, believed that the senses were unreliable and that science based solely on information gained from the senses was uncertain. He was concerned with finding a point of certainty on which to base scientific thought. Eventually he settled on mathematics as a basis for science, because he believed mathematics and geometry were based on some inherent truths.

He believed that it was through mathematics that we were able to make sense of our world, and that the ability to th! nk mathematically was an innate ability of all human beings (Rorty, 1986). This theory becomes important in Descartes’ Meditations because he is forced to explain where the mathematical ideas that he believed we were born with came from. The basis of Descartes’ entire argument is that the senses cannot be trusted, and his objective is to reach a point of certainty, one undeniable truth that fixes our existence.

He said it best in his own words; “I will . . . apply myself earnestly and openly to the general destruction of my former opinions” (Gueroult, 1984). By pinions he meant all the facts and beliefs about the world which he had previously held as truths. Any point, which had even the slightest hint of doubt, was discarded and considered false. Descartes decided that he would consider all things until he found that either nothing is certain, which is itself a point of certainty, or he reached the one undeniable truth he was searching for.

In order to accomplish this certainty, in the first Meditation he asks the reader to assume that they are asleep and that all their sensory information is the product of dreams. More significantly, Descartes implies that all consciousness could actually be a dream sta! te, thus proving that the senses can be doubted (Williams, 1986). The dream argument has its problems, however. One is that images in dreams can be described as “painted images”. But a dream image is only a portrait of a real-life person, place or thing. If we are dreaming then it is implied that at some point we were conscious and able to perceive these things.

If we are able to perceive these things then we must admit that we have senses and that our senses are, at least partly, true. This was exactly what Descartes as trying to disprove, and it was one reason he abandoned the dream argument. The second problem with this argument is that it points to mathematics as a point of certainty. “Whether I be awake or asleep, two plus three equals five and a square does not have more than four sides: nor does it seem possible that such obvious truths can fall under the suspicions of falsity” (Gueroult, 1984).

Even when we are dreaming, the laws of mathematics and geometry hold true, but they cannot be Descartes’ points of certainty for a simple reason; these abilities that Descartes believed were innate, still had to come rom somewhere. If they are in our heads when we are born, someone had to put them there. Descartes’ question is who, and he comes up with two possibilities. One possibility is that our inherent mathematical abilities are the gift of a benign creator, a gift of God.

As a supremely good being, he would not allow us to be deceived, and mathematical processes would be a point of certain and undeniable truth (Baier, 1986). If this were the case, the idea of mathematics would meet Descartes’ objectives as a point of certainty. The existence of God cannot be proven and so there is a econd possibility that Descartes proposed. He asks the reader to imagine that instead of a benign God, there is an “evil genius . . . who has directed his entire effort to misleading (us)” (Gueroult, 1984).

In this case, all things in the physical world would have to be thought of as deceptions, because all our sensory information, including ideas of sizes, shapes and colors would be fed to us by the evil genius. This is enough to prove that mathematics cannot be a point of certainty. Having decided that we have no senses that are not deceptive, Descartes, in the Meditations, looks for omething outside the world of sensation to find some certainty. What he discovers is that he knows he exists. He knows he exists because he is thinking he exists.

If there is an evil genius out there deceiving him at least he is secure in his thoughts. By thinking he exists, by knowing he is “something”, not even the evil genius can convince him he is “nothing”. His point of certainty comes down to the statement “I am, I exist” or more aptly translated “I think, therefore I am” (Williams, 1986). Nature of the Meditations Descartes overall objective in the Meditations is to question knowledge. To explore such metaphysical ssues 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. Meditation One The first meditation acts as a foundation for all those that follow. 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” (Gueroult, 1984). 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 true and false. To examine those ideas that have “objective reality,” Descartes makes the improbable hypothesis of “an evil genius, as clever and deceitful as he is powerful, who has directed his entire effort to misleading (us)” (Rorty, 1986). 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 t! ol, Descartes is now ready to build his following proofs with certainty. 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 (Descartes) exists. He ascertains that if he can both persuade himself of something, and likewise be deceived of something, then surely he must exist. This self-validating statement is known as the Cogito Argument (Rorty, 1986). Simply put it implies whatever thinks exists.

Descartes now begins to explore his inner consciousness to find the essence of his being. 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 declares: “I am a thing that thinks. ” A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, and that also imagines and senses (Williams, 1986). The information from the senses gives us only the observab! e, 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. Meditation Three Descartes main objective in the third meditation is to prove the existence of God. Before he can begin, he must first explore his concept of ideas. Moreover, he must clarify what constitutes an idea as being clear and distinct. Using his existence as an example he reasons that whatever he perceives very clearly and very distinctly is true.

Concerning the beliefs he holds of the sensible world, he concludes that these things ould have been caused by things outside him. Up to this point Descartes has held that God could deceive him about the truth of simple matters, such as that 2 + 3 = 5 (Rorty, 1986). To affirm that such objective ideas are safe from doubt, Descartes has to prove that God exists and that he is no deceiver. He finds that doubt carries within it the idea of certainty. From this query, he follows with the idea of a perfect being, which by comparison, he is aware of his (Descartes’) imperfections (Baier, 1986).

It is Descartes view that such an idea coul! only have been placed in our minds by a perfect being. His reasoning is that: “At the very least there must be as much in the total efficient cause as there is in the effect of the same cause” (Gueroult, 1984). From this declaration, he ascertains that a perfect thing exists and by definition, the perfect thing is God. He also concludes that God is no deceiver: “for it is manifest by the light of nature that all fraud and deception depend on some defect” (Tweyman, 1989). Content with his claims Descartes is now ready to move ahead with his argument concerning true and false.

Meditation Four Descartes having proven that God exists must now make some clarifications concerning why God is no deceiver. The main question that needs clarification is this: If God is no deceiver then why do we err? Descartes answers that we 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 understanding is finite (Baier, 1986).


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