Descartes’ Meditations, 1/3

In this post, I intend to explain Rene Descartes’ Meditations. It is one of the most important and influential books in the history of philosophy, so deserves to be understood. I do not intend to engage with the text very much, merely explain what the text is about. I shall leave readers to muse upon it themselves. It consists of six episodes, supposedly composed successively over six days. I shall divide this post into three so as to make it sufficiently in depth without being impractically large.

The First Meditation

About the things we may doubt

In the first meditation, Descartes informs us that he has reached a point in his life where he now feels ready to address an issue he has until now not been ready to answer. He wants to understand our foundations of knowledge, and ask how we come to know the things we know. He outlines a system of doubt which has come to be known famously as ‘Cartesian doubt’. He decides to doubt absolutely everything he knows, then build back up his knowledge of the world with firmer foundations. He describes it in a letter, reasoning that if you had a barrel full up with apples and you wanted to know if there were any rotten apples in the barrel, you would tip all the apples out, examine them, then put the good ones back in, lest a rotten apple spoil the good apples.

He states from the beginning that he believes in God, but for the benefit of sceptics, he shall doubt even God. We will come back to this in the third meditation. He asserts that if he destroys all foundations, whatever he attests as true will therefore have to be true, or closer to the truth than he has yet managed. The first thing he says is that the senses can be doubted. Imagine a stick is under water, we are unable to observe its dimensions and details accurately. We also mishear people and mistake things in the distance for other things. So firstly, we doubt our senses.

Secondly, he draws to our attention the fact that we can have dreams which seem so real we believe they are. You are reading this now, but how do you know you’re not dreaming that you’re reading this? However, he admits that even if you can’t be sure you’re awake, the objects of your dreams, must have been learned during a waking state. Hands and feet, red and blue, wet and cold, all these things need to have been experienced first before we can dream about them.

So Thirdly, he tells us that one thing we must be able to be sure in is mathematical certainty. Even if we can’t trust what we see, 2+3=5 must surely always be true. But Descartes asks us to imagine that it is possible that there is a malicious demon which tricks us into thinking it is 5 when really it is 6. Or we may simply have an ill grasp of numbers that stops us from comprehending the truth of sums. If this feels too outdated a concept, imagine that you are a brain in a lab, being fed data which creates your experiences. The scientists feed in the answer ‘5’ to the question ‘what is 3+3?’, you would never be any the wiser.

The Second Meditation

On the nature of the human mind; and that it is easier to know than the human body

Descartes was famously a mathematician, and that comes through here. His first point is that to remove us from this doubt, all that we will need is a single axiom, a singular indubitable foundation. He finds it by saying that whilst he can’t have any certainty in the world (at this point), he can have certainty in one thing- he thinks. Even if he is deceived about everything he knows and experiences, it is still true that there is an ‘I’ which is having those experiences. He states that “I am, I exist”. This would later be known as ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’, I think, therefore I am.

Descartes next states that he can be certain of his mind, but not his body. He also identifies that they must be separate things, for he sees no reason to identify himself with his body, just with his mind. This came to be known as ‘Cartesian Dualism’, and is still a problem among some philosophers today as the question- are mind and body one, two or three substances (mind, body, soul)?

He notices that whether he has control of his body or not, he has control of his thoughts. He not only experiences thought, but can decide to think and create thoughts too. “Cognitas Res, I am a thinking thing”. Although he believes his body and mind to be separate, he attests that his body is real nonetheless. He has experience of his senses and of his body. He also has experiences that his imaginings can move his body and so forth. There is a connection from mind to body. He must have a body to be able to imagine he has a body, because “imagining is nothing other than contemplating the figure or image of a corporeal object”.

From this body, we get to know the world. We can now trust that our bodily senses are the source of our perceptions. What degree of truth those perceptions have is another matter, but we cannot doubt that we do in fact have perceptions. He gives us an object to contemplate- you have in your hand a ball of bee’s wax. Smell it, it smells faintly of honey, see? It also holds a faint flavour of it. However, hold it to a flame and the smell and taste disappear, the wax will begin to soften. Hold it closer to a flame and it turns from a solid to a liquid. What is the true nature of bee’s wax? Is it a hard, solid substance? Is it a liquid? There is a problem of how we ascertain the true nature of the wax by perceptions. The wax must have an essential nature which makes it the wax and not something else. It must have a bee’s wax-ness to it, regardless of what state it is in.

Descartes posits that we have the faculty of rationality. We know the wax in each state because of the intuition of the mind. We see the wax as a hard substance and as a soft substance, but we apply the faculty of imagination to draw associative causal connections between the conditions of soft wax and hard wax. Further from this, we can impute onto objects characteristics such as ‘can change texture when near heat’. If we had seen the wax as hard, and had seen the wax as liquid, but not the transition in states, we may not recognise it, but the more we observe, the more our rationality applies our senses and therefore the better we come to understand things.

Now Descartes makes one last observation before closing this meditation- this method can be used to understand anything else in the world. If we can apply our senses to it, we can apply our rationality to it. We can even apply it to our mind. What can we know better than our own mind, since it is the thing we can be most certain of? Most importantly, we can know it better since we can apply our observations to our own imaginings.

CLICK HERE to read part 2.

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