Descartes-Meditations on First Philosophy

Social IssuesPhilosophy

  • Author Jeff Stats
  • Published November 17, 2006
  • Word count 1,605

The Meditations of First Philosophy is considered one of most important of all of Descartes’ works. This philosophical study contains Descartes’ complete metaphysical and epistemological position. He considers the problems of the sources and nature of knowledge; the validity of truth, by questioning everything in sight even those truths that are evident to everyone; the nature and destiny of man; the existence of God, and the creation of the universe. An important issue in his work is that Descartes' doubt is a practical and rational doubt. That is, the meditator, or the person thinking/arguing, does not just doubt everything at random without any reasons, but is providing solid motives for his/her doubt at each stage. For instance, the author rejects the possibility of being mad, because it would weaken the rationality with which he doubts things. Thus, Descartes is trying to set up his doubts within a rational framework, and in order for his arguments to proceed he needs to stay within those rational borders.

Descartes was the first one among philosophers to raise the subject of skepticism. He was the initiator of the claim that we really cannot know with certainty anything about the world around us. The main idea behind this claim is not that these doubts are possible, but that the possibility of the doubts themselves can never be entirely overestimated. From this Descartes’ point it follows that if people can never be certain about things, then how can we claim to know anything? This skeptical approach was the basis for the new philosophical dogma and became popular with Western people as the ground for their knowledge and understanding of the world.

The main problem with this approach however is that no one actually lives skepticism, meaning that no one actually doubts such things as whether other people really exist, or is things are real. On the other hand it has to be taken into consideration that it is difficult to live without skepticism nowadays.

Another important notion brought by Descartes work is the development of a conception of the mind in which the senses and the imagination are mental faculties, rather then spiritual as was argued before him. His claim about people being a thinking creature in the first places provides a better understanding all of his philosophical preferences. Making a concrete distinction between body and soul is one of the major distinguishing points in his work. It give us essential insights into our nature and world and provides with such important conceptions as that of the mind or soul which he says is distinct from the body and thus does not die with the body, but is immortal. This concept in particular is one of the major in religion and for a spiritual person believing in God; it helps us realize with the tools of rational mind the eternal truths of the universe. It’s a great work leading us from doubtful thoughts to the more logical and methodically proved understanding of things around us.

Further I would like to proceed with a more in-depth concentration on the work itself, the details of each chapter of the book. The Meditations on the First Philosophy consists of six parts each of which represents a different topic for discussion. Meditation One: is called “Concerning Those Things That Can Be Called into Doubt.” The author begins this meditation by saying that there are many false opinions that he had to believe were true in his youth, but are now clearly false. So, Descartes sets out in this meditation to give reasons why we can “doubt all things, especially material things, so long, that is, as, of course, we have no other foundations for the sciences than the ones we have had up until now.” The reasons for doubt that he provides are twofold. First, Descartes argues that people are often deceived by their senses and thus, cannot know for certain that what they recognize is all true. Also he states that we are not provided with definite signs that can tell us whether we are sleeping or wide awake, which again puts us in doubts of our mere existence in the present moment. His second argument is that even things such as arithmetic and geometry, which seem very certain, might also be mistaken as he sees the mistakes of others that they do not see, thus he argues that he himself is probably deceived as well.

The title of Meditation Two, “Concerning the Nature of the Human Mind: That It Is Better Known Than the Body,” obviously expresses the purpose of this meditation. In this meditation, Descartes discovers things which cannot be doubted, as opposed to the first meditation, and thus forms groundwork for what he was looking for. For instance Descartes states in the first meditation that he cannot be certain if he has a body or senses, because it might happen that an evil genius is deceiving him. However, he states that there is no doubt to that point because he exists, if someone is able to deceive him. Thus he found something that is truly un-doubtful. That is where his famous “I think, therefore I exist” expression originated from, it explains that only thought exists and thus, not even the evil genius from the first meditation can separate it from him. Besides the author states that he exists as long as he is thinking and if he were to stop thinking, then he would cease to exist.

In the Third Meditation, entitled, “Concerning God, That He Exists,” Descartes tries to nullify all of his doubt by proving the existence of God. He wants to prove that a truly perfect God exists and in doing so Descartes argues that the cause of his ideas must be at least as perfect as the ideas themselves. He states that something cannot come of nothing and that this something has to contain a reality itself in order to create something. He also says that the idea of God could not have been originated within himself as he views himself to be finite as opposed to God who is infinite and omnipotent and all good. So, he has to admit that he certainly understands that there has to be more reality in an infinite substance than there is in a finite one. So, he concludes that God necessarily exists in his third meditation.

“Concerning the True and the False,” is the fourth meditation by Descartes which shows how we can make mistakes even though God cannot deceive us because of his perfect nature. In this part he claims that the power of “willing and power of understanding” when regarded apart from each other do not cause problems, rather, it happens when they are both together. He says that will extends further than the intellect, so will is not in the same boundaries as intellect thus a person gets into matter that he fully does not understand and thus he is deceived and in sin. Further, Descartes states that because he is finite or limited as opposed to almighty God, and that he is not sure whether it is good for all the humans to be exactly alike in not making the mistakes, because otherwise it may not be good for the universe as the whole. However the author says that people can avoid making mistakes and achieving our greatest potential, IF people restrain their will when making judgments.

In Meditation Five, “Concerning the Essence of Material Things, and Again Concerning God, That He Exists,” Descartes goes on to give another proof for the existence of God and thus he wants to prove that everything depends upon God. He argues that there are certain things that are unquestionable, such as the fact that a triangle has three sides and its three angles are equal to two right angles. Similarly the idea of God is as of a creature that is perfect, all knowing, all powerful, and good, which follows that it is impossible for a perfect entity to be non-existent, for that would mean the imperfection. He further affirms that he cannot think of God except as of something existing which means that existence is inseparable from God, and for this very reason he really exists. Descartes states that everything is dependent upon God, because once he realized that there is God, and that everything else depends upon him, and that he is not a deceiver, he concluded that all things which he clearly and distinctly perceives have to be true, because of their connection to God.

His sixth meditation is called “Concerning the Existence of Material Things, and the Real Distinction between Mind and Body,” in which the author tries to bring an end to the doubts that actually led him to look for truth. He says that it is evident that he has ability of sensing, of receiving and knowing the ideas of sensible things. However he could not use that ability unless it is existent. He reasons that something physical or material must be causing the ideas and that this something is a body, which is distinct from the mind. In addition and also in conclusion of the paper he states that his “nature” given to humans by God instructs him that he has a body, which senses things such as heat and pain. Further, his nature teaches him that there is a connection between his mind and his body and therefore, there is a union between mind and body, although they are different things because mind is indivisible, un- extended, and thinking, while the body is divisible, extended, and unthinking.

Jeff Stats is a staff writer at www.mindrelief.net

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