Philosophy: Science, Religion, and Making of the Modern Mind
Descartes believed that in order to get rid of the disbelief and the skepticism that a person might have, one had to doubt everything he or she knew. This was the basic idea behind the method of universal doubt. The strategy he employed was that people must first doubt the truth of everything even that which is considered obvious and true so that they can be certain that there is a sure truth to it. A person must doubt even that which has evidence such as the evidence of the senses. Descartes considered that a person must also doubt the reasoning process itself. This, he describes as demolishing everything. Descartes does not encourage doubting for the sake of it, but his main objective is to use the doubts he has to ensure certain truths. There are some proposals whose truths cannot be doubted and Descartes is certain about them (Broughton 106). After the demolition, one has to start the rebuilding process and since everything has been demolished the rebuilding stars at the foundation. As one reads the different meditations, one cannot help but notice that Descartes has employed these methods. He uses the dream argument, the deceiving God argument and the evil demon argument to make people understand doubt (Banach)
In the dream argument, Descartes contends that the same perceptions he experiences when he is awake are the same ones he has when he is dreaming. He does not know of any signs, which can distinguish between the dream experience and the waking experience. Using these thoughts, it then follows that he could be dreaming right then and his perceptions are not true. He contends that his senses had often deceived him. He had seen towers which seemed round at a distance yet when he got closer to them they were square. He perceived that one could make error in judgment based on the internal and external senses. He gave the illustration of people who were amputated and they reported that they experienced pain in the place where the organ was supposed to be. This shows why he did not trust in his senses (Descartes).
Descartes was getting rid of the commonly held belief of his day that knowledge originated from the senses. He perceived that the senses could not truly be relied upon when describing the size and shape of objects that were far away. In the deceiving God argument, Descartes observes that people believe in a God who is all-powerful and who created them. That God is so powerful that He has the power to deceive people on matters that they consider true. This includes mathematical knowledge such as the basic facts of addition. The third argument is the evil demon argument. Those who might not believe in an all-powerful God, which is able to deceive, may believe that an evil demon is capable of doing the same thing. The idea of an evil demon seems possible to Descartes at this point. Later, he perceives that it is quite absurd to have both an all-powerful God and an evil demon (Newman).
In the first meditation, he did not believe that anything ever existed. Descartes had previously stated that nothing existed, not even his physical body. He therefore struggled with the idea of his existence and he sought ways to prove that he did exist. In the second meditation, Descartes focuses on the argument for his existence. He contends that even if all the other beliefs he had held were false, one of them must be true. Using the arguments of a deceiving god or an evil demon, Descartes considers that if one of them can deceive him, then he must exist, for him to be deceived. He perceives that if there is one who is supremely powerful and tells him that he does not exist, then even if he does his best, he shall not believe him, because he knows that he is something. He posits that god cannot have such power to deceive him if he does not exist. His point and belief of existence also comes from doubt, for he posits that if he doubts that he exists, then it is granted that he exists. This makes him certain that he exists (Broughton 119).
Descartes contends that if he is thinking, then he exists and this convinces him that he is a thinking thing. He describes a thinking thing as being able to doubt, deny, have knowledge of a few objects, loves, hates and perceives. By the fact that he has been able to convince himself of something, it means that he existed. Descartes knows that just as he cannot believe and trust his senses, he cannot also trust his imagination since it thinks of ideas and objects that are not real. At this time, Descartes had not yet proved the existence of material things. Since he was in doubt of everything including his physical body, he found it hard to explain whom the “I” was in “I exist”. He describes how the wax changes when it is placed near the fire. When it is fresh from the hive, it still contains the sweetness of honey and the smell of the flowers. One can tell its color and size. It is hard to touch, handled easily and it is cold. Once the wax is placed near the fire, everything about it changes. The smell and the taste cease to become pleasant, the color changes and it increases in size. It ceases from being a solid and it becomes a liquid. Despite all the changes, the wax remains and it is still seen as such (Descartes).
Descartes wanted to find out whether there was a god and if that god could be a deceiver. He perceived that this would make him assured of anything. Descartes had an idea about God’s existence as a perfect being. He thought of a God who was “sovereign, eternal, infinite, immutable, all-knowing, all-powerful and the creator of all things” (Descartes). He was surer of this God than he was of physical objects. He considered that that there had to be as much reality in the efficient and total cause as there was in its effect, since the effect became real from its cause (Descartes). The question of error comes into being and he perceives that since God is a non-deceiving God, he could not have given him the ability to go wrong if he were using that ability correctly. He must therefore find the causes of error since a perfect God could not have given him something wrong and he concludes that it is his fault when there is error.
He contends that judgment comes from combining the intellect and the will and that error will occur when the will is not used correctly. Descartes claims that he could not have been the cause of God’s idea because the idea of God represents something perfect. He concludes that his perfect idea of God’s existence can only be caused by God’s perfection. This assures Descartes that God surely exists and that he is not a deceiver. By proving the existence of God and His non-deceiving nature, Descartes moves to explain the existence of material things, since until then he is only certain of his and God’s existence. He then perceives the need to explain the existence of material things. He thinks since God exists, then he must be in an external world (Newman).
In the second meditation, Descartes proved that “I exist”. The “I” did not certainly mean his physical body but it rather referred to his mind, reason and soul. He had not yet proven the existence of material things, which included his physical body. He states that material things exist because he gets his ideas from them. The proof of God’s existence makes him aware that God gave the reasoning ability. He states that:
“there can be no doubt that God possesses the power of producing all the objects I am able distinctly to conceive, and I never considered anything impossible to him unless when I experienced a contradiction in the attempt to conceive it aright” (Descartes ).
His imagination also proves to him that material things exist. He posits that sensations can be caused by three external things and these are god, material or corporeal substance and other created substance (Newman 6). Since he has already established that God is the creator of all things and he has concluded that God is not a deceiver, he perceives that sensations are caused by material or corporeal substances. Descartes describes God as the author of His being. He contends that by knowing God better, he should not be too quick to trust his senses and he should not doubt fully what they are trying to teach. He is assured that God can produce whatever he conceives (Descartes).
Banach, David. Important Arguments from Descartes’ Meditations. 2006. Web. 27 June 2011
Broughton, Janet. Descartes’s Method of Doubt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002
Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy: in which the Existence of God and the Immortality of the Soul are Demonstrated. 2011. Web. 27 June 2011
Newman, Lex. Descartes’ Epistemology. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2010. Web. 27 June 2011
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