Descartes’ Meditations, 3/3

This is the final installment of my series on Descartes’ Meditations. Please read part 1 HERE, and part 2 HERE.

Fifth Meditation

Of the Essence of Material Things; and, Once More of God, That He Exists

I shan’t say a lot about this Meditation because he spends most of it re-treading the ground of the previous four. The one thing he does do here is propose a further argument for God, which relates to the nature of conceiving things. It is not a new argument, he simply reframes one he used earlier.

Firstly, he notes that we can imagine properties which a philosopher would call ‘continuous properties’. These include quantity, length, breadth, depth, and so forth. He also tells us that an idea is never ‘pure nothing’, even if they have no reality in the world, that they are imagined gives them a certain truth. For example, we can imagine triangles, even if we had never experienced triangles.

It is possible, then, to work out geometrical and numerical truths within, without any need for an external world. He then posits his idea that if you can work out geometrical truths (because they have values in themselves beyond nothing), one can extrapolate and use judgement to work out that God exists. I can imagine God without me, but I can’t imagine me without God. Descartes says that some of his detractors would argue that that just because you can’t imagine a valley without mountains, it doesn’t necessitate the existence of mountains or valleys. However, Descartes says that this argument is not analogous because you can’t (he believes) imagine reality without imagining God.

The final note he leaves us with is that God would be the next axiom to work from in terms of extrapolating our understanding further, in order to gain new truths about the world. One must, he says, keep God in mind at all times when contemplating the truth of nature, because whatever we have in mind at present tends to prime how we think of the thing we contemplate thereon. This, in its self is an interesting point, which you may wish to consider further- that the ideas you have in mind at any time actually prime what you will think about the things you consider further.

Sixth Meditation

Of the Existence of Material Things, and of the Real Distinction between the Soul and the Body of Man

The sixth meditation is of much interest, for two reasons. Firstly, he creates a working concept of what the imagination is, and secondly, he uses this to show us how we can have true certainty in what we know of the world, and of our selves.

He distinguishes imagination from intellection by stating that imagination takes conception and applies the power of internal application to understand something. Suppose you have an understanding of what a triangle is, you may say “it is an object with three sides”, Descartes would say that the acknowledging of an object with three sides becomes an imagining when one considers these three lines, maybe visually, in order to reach an understanding of what a triangle is.

Imagination takes a particular effort which is not needed when conceiving the idea of a thing. One can conceive of a triangle and comfortably imagine three sides; however, one can conceive of a one thousand-sided shape, but be unable to imagine it.

One further way it differs from intellection is in its functioning, by which I mean that it projects from the intellect. When considering a thing, the imagination takes the things we have learned from the world through the body and the senses in order to make an idea mentally tangible. This means that the imagination is a faculty which, beyond those values which are God, numbers and geometry, requires a connection with perception.

He then wishes to return to the issue of what he can comfortably know or not know. He spends a few paragraphs listing all the things which it is possible to doubt, which have previously been covered. Everything, that is, after God and geometry. However, he rescues us from doubt of that which is immediately perceivable. He first-off rationalises that I can only perceive something if it is within the grounds of my senses, that is, I can only perceive it if it is there, I cannot perceive things which are not there. He comes to this conclusion because the things we imagine are far less vivid than things which are real. That is why a one thousand-sided shape can exist in the world, it can be conceived to exist in the world, but it cannot be imagined to exist in the world. The other detail he adds is that the immediacy of our senses is on our side too. The things we perceive impose themselves on our senses without us choosing them to.

Those senses of the body are more immediate to me than those of the other senses such as sight perception, and he proposes that we learn to judge through the sensations of the body. For example, feelings of hunger tell us we need to eat, and feelings of pain tell us that there is something wrong with our body which we need to address. He wonders though, whether we can trust the judgements based purely on sense data. Seeing something from a distance can deceive us as to the nature of the object close-up, for example.

He does not think we should worry though. All things we perceive must be perceived as different because God wanted us to see them as different. Here, again, he uses his belief that God does not deceive to rescue us. If all things we perceive are clear and distinct in themselves by powers of perception, they must also exist as clear and distinct in the world. And therefore, we can never be deceived as to the fact that they exist. We can be mistaken as to the details, but our judgements can lead us to better truths, and in fact, ultimate truths. Our body, then, must also be clear and distinct.

Now, our minds are thinking, indivisible things, and our bodies are unthinking, divisible things. This problem does not interfere with our understanding of the world, he says, because our body and mind are so closely intertwined that they cannot be separated. Descartes postulates that perceptions may be something between physical matter and mind, they are the mediations between us and the physical world. He explains that these are either put there by physical force or by God. He reaches to the conclusion that God allows the physical force of perception to enter our mind, and therefore God is the intermediary of these things, and it is all done through the brain. Again, these perceptions may not always be true in detail, but this is why we have judgement, so as we can discern and ascertain nature.

The body teaches us about judgements, our perceptions via the senses teach us further, more complex judgements. That is the logical conclusion which follows his reasoning. Descartes says that that our judgements can lead us to false conclusions about the world. These false judgements include ‘this apple is red, therefore all apples are red’, and ‘my experience of the colour ‘black’ is the same as your experience of the colour ‘black’’. However, this is our fault, because we have not exercised judgement correctly. Instead, it does us well to remember that an instance of an object does not apply to every instance of that object. In philosophy, we distinguish between two things- type and token identities. Take 10p coins, for example. ‘10p’ is a type of coin, but every instance of that 10p coin is a token of the type. Not each one has to be exactly the same, but they each (tokens) all share in being 10p coins (type).

The one last thing he tells us is to understand the value of memory. We can prove that we are not dreaming because dreams and their contents cannot be connected in the same way that waking life and the contents of waking life can be. At this final point, he is sure he has rescued us from the problems of Cartesian doubt, as outlined in the first Meditation. This shall conclude my examination and exploration of this marvelous work. Please do take the time to think about the things he shows us in more depth. If, for example, you are not religious, see if you can adapt his ideas to meet a secular philosophy. Another idea would be to think about whether his ideas are all as relevant today. Whatever you decide, enjoy!

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