Descartes - Meditations

26 May 2014

It’s easy not to see a person like Descartes' significance for his time, not being in it and submersed in the changes and questions of the time. Him, along with people like Copernicus, Newton, Pascal and Galileo, launched the world out of the medieval period. And this book is one of the major landmarks in that movement—a movement who’s authority became less grounded in the Bible and other ancient texts and more based in the mind and in reason. It was people like him who brought the world to all its crazy technological advances. A skeptical yet persistent mind that sought after certainty and perfection, and believed it could always be achieved. He not only kicked off modern philosophy with these thoughts, but he partook in some major achievements. Much of his mathematics, like the x y coordinate system, is the basis of much of what we use today. He’s apparently a pretty big deal (despite him often being only an entertaining topic of conversation in philosophy 101).

Misc thoughts while reading Meditations

Compared to Discourse on Method, Meditations goes more in depth into his thought process and his conclusions, something that was lacking in Discourse, which makes it a bit more interesting to read. The book plays as if it were a journal of daily meditations, though it unfortunately most likely did not happen this way.

I have yet to get too deep down the whole truth debate. I was hoping that midway through I would feel a bit psychedelic, but that didn’t happen. Some of it, as Descartes does and admits, seems a bit goofy. But perhaps it’s necessary, and despite this book being an attempt to pin down certainty, I think it also shows how uncertain we often are when we dig deeper and how feeble our knowledge is. Practically how far down this can you go, and how far would you really ever want to go?

Descartes seems very reasonable in some areas, and not so much in others. One example is his assumption-turned-fact of an infinite perfect God existing. His ideas and attributes of perfection are very anthropomorphic and I think at some level kind of arbitrary. It seems he was digging for something to grasp on to and God was it. The thing that was already implanted in his mind that gave him a grounding he needed and wanted.

It makes sense, give when he was around, his obsession for certainty and the desire to have his mind work like mathematics, but it seems very maddening and anxious. I think that’s where people like Kierkegaard come in against some of these mindsets. And not only does it seem maddening and anxious, it seems perhaps the beginning of a mindset of rationalized and dismissive injustices. People ranked on a scale of imperfect to perfect, better and worse, more useful and less useful. The utility of the mind being prized, and the productive prized above the unproductive. A faulty way of life or thought process is simply a imperfection of your very mechanistic humanity.


Part One

About the Things We May Doubt

Things formerly perceived as true he now sees as false. Instead of re-assessing every thought he had, he decides to rip away his entire foundation and build on top of another.

The senses sometimes deceive us. And even though there are many things that seem matter of fact, like having a body and hands and feet, it may be just an imagining, like a crazy person thinking he was something he was not. And beyond this, life could all be a dream. There are times dreams seem so real that in the moment you can’t distinguish. However, there do appear more simple things like mathematics that seem to be universal and undeniable whether while dreaming or awake. God seems one of those things, but let us even doubt his existence, or let us suppose that he does exists and is deceiving us at every moment.

Part Two

Of the Nature of the Human Mind; and that it is Easier to Know than the Body

With all this doubting, perhaps there is nothing that I can find to be certain in the world. In considering that there is no physical world or that I have no senses I can perceive myself still in my mind without a body. And even if there were a giant deceiver, as long as I am thinking, I am. I exist.

He continues to cling to this notion and begins seeing a greater and greater separation between his mind and his body. Though he perceives the physical through the senses, it is only in his mind that he has the intuition and understanding to perceive and judge, which are still themselves feeble. He concludes he can see himself nothing more as a mind, and the only thing he still cannot doubt is that he exists.

Part Three

Of God that he exists

Here, Descartes says he closes his eyes. He attempts to get more familiar with himself. He is assured that he is a being which thinks. He has made a general rule that only the things that are clear and distinct to him can be accepted as true. He was certain again that though he perceived objects outside of him and could not be certain of their nature, he could be certain only of the idea that he had about them.

Descartes reflects more on the way the mind perceives. It takes in these externals, it judges, it feels, it imagines. And this ability of understanding seems engrained in his nature, as if implanted inside of him. It does not seem to come from the will. There must be some faculty or power that is helping.

And just like the mind seems to take in these things from the outside, so there seems with everything to be a cause. And this cause must be more perfect than the effect. It cannot infinitely regress. There must be a starting point, a first idea. Here Descartes concludes he is not alone. There must be something else besides him, other beings, or another being.

Here he goes on to prove the existence of God. There must be something else. There must be a cause. And there must be something perfect and infinite, how else would he have this idea of God, and why else would he constantly be searching for more perfection?

Part Four

Of Truth and Error

Having begun to detach himself more and more from the physical, Descartes attempts here to go further into the immaterial, of the mind and of God, both of which he at this points believes he can understand much more than anything physical.

And when I consider that I doubt, that is to say, that I am an incomplete and dependent being, the idea a complete and independent being, that is to say of God presents itself to my mind with such distinctness and clearness, and, from the fact alone that this idea is found in me, or that I, who possess this idea, am or exist, I conclude so evidently that God exists, and that my existence depends entirely on him in each moment of my life, that I do not think that the human mind can know anything with more clearness and certainty.

He reflects that God, being perfect, would never deceive, since deceit is imperfection. The deceit I have must not come from God, but it must be from myself, it must be my error, my imperfection, my defect. I am a midway point between this perfect and infinite God and nothingness, and my imperfection and error is simply a misuse of my will. To escape error and come to truth, I must only fix my attention sufficiently on the perfect and weed out only the clear and distinct.

Part Five

Of the Essense of Material Things; and, Once More of God, that He Exists

Descartes now wants to emerge himself out of all this doubt and see if anything can now be known about the material. He perceives that there is length, width, height, duration in the physical. These are seen clearly and distinctly. He reflects on Geomotry, and that there are these truths which you can still imagine apart from the physical world. He finds that God’s existence is no less real to him than a number, than to mathematics.

He thinks about the association between certain things. A mountain must always have a valley. God certainly must involve existence. I can’t conceive of anything which absolutely necessitates existence but God. He must exist. And his existence can give certainty to everything else. There is a possibility of acquiring perfect knowledge.

But after I have discovered that God exists, recognizing at the same time that all things depend on him, and that he is no deceiver, and consequently judged that everything I perceive clearly and distinctly cannot fail to be true, although I no longer have present in my mind the reasons for my judgement, no contrary reason can be adduced which could ever make me doubt its truth, provided that I remember that I once clearly and distinctly comprehended it….

But even if I were asleep, everything which is presented to my mind clearly, is absolutely true. And thus I recognize very clearly that the certainty and truth of all knowledge depends on the sole knowledge of the true God, so that, before I knew him, I could not know any other thing perfectly. And now that I know him, I have the means of acquiring a perfect knowledge of an infinity of things, not only relative to him, but also concerning physical nature, in so far as it serves as the object of the proofs of mathematicians, who are not concerned with its actual existence.

Part Six

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

Descartes inquires more about the material here. He sees a difference between imagining something and conceiving things. He can imagine certain things, like a triangle, that he can hold intellectually and prove. There are other things which he cannot imagine but can only perceive them, or experience them, such as a polygon with a thousand sides. And I cannot prove the existence of my body in my mind, it’s only through perception that I can experience it, only through something external coming to my mind through the senses, something which is actually more vivid than the mind. Descartes finds that there is a high probability that these externals exist because of this.

He continues thinking, and remembers again that the senses can deceive. He cannot know them fully but he can know himself, that he is a being that exists and thinks. He finds that this is essentially what he is, and that he could exist just fine without his body. The mind, then, is necessarily separate from the body.

After continuing in his scepticism and in his reflections on the mind and the body and these senses, he remembers, and concludes that since God exists, and since he is no deceiver, there must be some truth to this physical world. He must contain the ability to correct the falsity in his views. There must be a means within himself for certainty, and Nature can indeed teach him at least some truth.

With this Descartes is satisfied. He wakes from his slumber and admits that it was all a bit silly. He needs not doubt anymore, and reviews that man is indeed very prone to error, and we should recognize this weakness in our nature.

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