Instructor: Dr. Bob Zunjic
Meditations On First Philosophy
|By their epistemological turn and
foundational inspiration, the Meditations are rightly considered
to be the seminal work of the entire rationalist strain of Modern
Philosophy. Rationalist, but not, as may be expected, overly objectivist.
While aspiring to attain absolute certainty as objective and universal foundations of knowledge Descartes
proceeds in a very surprising manner - by introspectively reviewing
the contents of his own mind.
Meditation I examines all possible reasons for doubt (both
natural and supernatural) in order to make sure that the grounds
for knowledge have been properly tested. This approach requires
that what counts as knowledge can withstand any kind of skeptical attack and scrutiny.
In keeping with this method Descartes constantly raises the extent and the intensity of doubt. Instead of simply presenting the definite results of his examination
he engages the reader in the whole meditating process that
is unfolding, as it were, before our eyes.
A trilingual HTML edition of the Meditations is available at: http://www.wright.edu/cola/descartes/
Concerning Things That Can Be Doubted
Descartes does not start his meditations with some first certainties,
as one would expect, but with those things that are uncertain, or better
to say those that are dubitable. He wants to attain the aspired certainties
(if there are any) by going through the readily available uncertainties of our beliefs.
Question: What are the "things that can be doubted"?
Answer: Opinions, Beliefs, Assumptions. In brief, everything that is not known with certainty.
Supposition: One cannot at the same time know something and doubt
Certainty: In order to vindicate our claims to knowledge we need to demonstrate
that we are certain in what we deem to know. But certainty is not given.
It must be attained and based on indubitable reasons. Thus we need
to find absolutely convincing assurances that we are not mistaken.
goal of finding absolutely certain knowledge could be achieved only by going back to the very beginnings of our
mental experience and by reflecting upon the foundations of human experience. "I would have to start again from the very beginning." The beginning is very personal.
Admission: Consequently, Descartes starts with a summary of his own life story: he recounts how
he acquired his convictions and how he became aware that they lack certainty.
is no novelty to me in the reflection that, from my earliest years, I
have accepted many false opinions as true, and that what I have concluded
from such badly assured premises could not but be highly doubtful and
Time: The phrase "from my earliest years" seems to be pointing to the time when Descartes was still studying at
the Jesuit College of La Fleche (1606-1615). Even though he fared
exceedingly well in the school, with the exception of mathematics, he
was not convinced that the knowledge provided by the sciences and other
disciplines was properly founded. It is, however, pretty unlikely
that already at that time he was able to articulate his intellectual dissatisfaction
and develop a well rounded project of epistemological renovation. In fact,
Descartes says that he realized how badly secured are his opinions only
several years before the moment of undertaking the meditations (aliquot
annos = Il y a déjà quelque temps).
The first vague ideas on the "badly assured premises" may have
occurred in 1619, when Descartes was "detained in lodging" in the small
town of Neuburg-on-Danube. He "stayed (there) all day shut up alone in
a stove-heated room, where (he) was completely free to commune with (himself)
about (his own) thoughts". That situation, closely resembling the setting
depicted here in the Meditations, may have generated the strategy
Realization: "I have realized that if I wished to have any firm and constant knowledge in the sciences, I would have to undertake, once and for all, to set aside all the opinions which I had previously accepted among my beliefs". In the following paragraph "setting aside" turns into a more radical "destruction". However, only in 1628 Descartes clearly formulated the plan of starting anew from much better secured premises. It took him another ten years though to embark seriously on the project. "But this enterprise appeared to me to be of very great magnitude, and so I waited until I had attained an age so mature that I could not hope for a later time when I would be more fitted to execute the project..."
Maturity: Before he was 45, Descartes obviously did not
feel intellectually and otherwise ready to carry out his contrivance.
In the winter of 1639, however, he decided it was time to grapple with
the problem of his uncertain convictions, not just to brood over the idea. Consequently,
if we can believe his own account, he withdrew from the public to execute
his plan of going through his beliefs and opinions:
"Now, however, I have delayed so long that henceforward
I should be afraid that I was committing a fault if, in continuing to
deliberate, I expanded time which should be devoted to action."
"The present is opportune for my design; I have freed my
mind of all kinds of cares; I feel myself, fortunately, disturbed by no
passions; and I have found a serene retreat in peaceful solitude." (The Meditation probably took place somewhere in the vicinity of Utrecht.)
Ego: The most frequent word in these opening statements is the
"I" - a strong indication of the decisive shift in Descartes' focus from
the study of the external world (the "book of nature") toward self-examination
(the study of Self).
It is no less indicative, however, that Descartes does not elaborate the
nature of this "I" beyond stating later on that it is mental. The vacuousness
of the "I" will have proved very instrumental in reducing this
Self to thinking and ultimately in creating a gap between the mind and
|| Personal Story; Philosophical Journal.
||The Author, The Meditating Subject ("I").
||Intellectual Crisis; Previous Knowledge Badly Assured.
||Radical Beginning; Staging a Situation of Philosophical Renovation.
||Certainty; To Establish Firm and Lasting Foundations of Knowledge.
||Methodical Doubt; Withhold Assent to All Dubitable Claims.
||Trust; To Gain Over the Reader (Novice) to Meditate Along.
|Meditation = a continual or extended thought, usually based
on spiritual introspection and aimed at illumination. By taking over
this old form from the religious tradition of spiritual exercises and applying it to epistemological
issues Descartes created a new genre: philosophical meditation. The
ascetic rejection of the flesh is here transformed into a more modest
cognitive detachment from the senses. Instead of religious salvation the philosopher
seeks to accomplish an "epistemological salvation" in view of the threatening
First Philosophy = the part of philosophy dealing with the
first principles that lay grounds for everything else (reality or
knowledge); in Aristotle, it is metaphysics (ontology) that studies
the principles of the existing world; in Descartes, it is epistemology
seeking the firm and permanent principles of human knowledge. This
turn (known as epistemological) moves from the ordo essendi (order of being) to the ordo
cognoscendi (order of knowledge, order of reasons).
Epistemology = theory of knowledge; the branch of philosophy
that studies the possibility, the conditions and the nature of knowledge.
Both the Meditation-format, which was purposely chosen to provide
a convincing framework for an introduction to philosophizing, as well
as the project of First Philosophy, being itself a primary striving to attain the truth,
had a preparatory function with regard to the ambition of securing the
ground for the real knowledge of life experience and the sciences. However,
there is one big difference. Instead of immediately kicking off a new construction of knowledge out of a preconceived plan (as
was common in the tradition of previous philosophy) Descartes set out
to first destroy the existing structure in order to prepare the ground
for a new (better) edifice. In this way he wanted to avoid previous mistakes
and blunders and so attain absolute certainty that the new construction
is sound. Only after the ground has been cleared the new foundations could
be laid down with confidence that the newly errected edifice will be solid
||In order to be able to accomplish this
goal of finding a reliable foundation of knowledge the meditating
subject needs to apply a very rigorous procedure of destroying opinions: "I will therefore
make a serious and unimpeded effort to destroy generally all my former
opinions." The demolishing ball for the existing structure of knowledge will be doubt. It has the advantage of both being destructive and easy to handle. The effect of
doubting is justly compared to a demolition of a sumptuous but dilapidated
edifice of knowledge.
||The inspiring idea of Descartes' procedure is de
omnibus dubitandum est (= everything is to be doubted). At first this sounds very skeptical, almost paranoid.
The corrosive doubt that has to be exercised must be both universal (no exceptions) and radical
(ruthless and far-reaching) but, unlike paranoid doubt, it is methodical (systematic).
||In many respects Descartes' tactic is truly skeptical. He strenuously seeks
possible grounds for doubt in order to identify the propositions that
are suspicious and dubious and thus have to be discarded. Resorting
to excessive doubt may create the impression Descartes strives to
undermine the very possibility of human knowledge. But he is not a
skeptic who wants to dismiss everything we believe to know. He has
a positive aim - certainty as the hallmark of the believability of
||While his tactic may look like skeptical Descartes' strategy is the very opposite of
skepticism. He feverishly examines a series of all possible cognitive
levels in hope that by sifting through their claims he will finally
reach not the negation of knowledge but the realm of indubitable knowledge. This
requires a proper understanding of his pledge to demolish all his
previous opinions. The destruction is conducted for the sake of replacing opinions with
knowledge not in order to abdicate from knowledge. Destruction does not mean proving that everything is false nor does it amount to the refutation of every claim to knowledge.
|| To be sure Descartes does not want to start dogmatically by
professing things he cannot prove. However, he realizes that if he
cannot prove anything beyond any doubt, he can easily disprove everything
simply based on the very possibility of doubt (if it exists). This procedure comes very handy because it is much easier and safer to doubt than to assert and prove something. Thus Descartes' destruction means more rejecting temporarily everything that could be doubted than proving that it belongs to the repository of falsities. "It
will be enough to make me reject them all if I can find in each some
ground for doubt." This gives a powerful tool in search for knowledge
that should not be compromised. That's the main reason why Descartes
does not make any difference between incomplete certainty and obvious
falsity. On the contrary, he reverses the usual burden of proof for
the purposes of his epistemology: for the verdict he does not seek a reasonable doubt let alone
the beyond reasonable doubt clause - a
slightest shred of suspicion suffices to condemn the opinion and to
|Beyond reasonable doubt
||95% to be condemned
||51% to be condemned
||0,000... ...1 to be condemned
Note: The rejection, however,
is rather a suspension than a total disbelief. The existing doubts
do not suffice to conclusively prove the falsity of our opinions -
only to shatter our trust in them. This makes the doubt provisional
and tentative, though progressive.
Method of Doubt
Character of Doubt
||Going through Stages.
|| How to carry out this doubt without omitting anything
in the process? This looks like a daunting, impossible task. Fortunately,
Descartes does not need to do any of the following two things:
(a) To demonstrate that his opinions are "all false";
(b) To "examine each one (opinion) in particular".
|First of all, the number of possible statements
is virtually unlimited and nobody can survey all opinions. It
would be practically impossible to complete the inspection of
|Second, even if this were possible, it is questionable whether
Descartes would be able to prove that all of these opinions
are really false.
|The problem at this stage is not that Descartes cannot inspect
each and every opinion, but that he cannot find out exactly
which opinions are to be dismissed and separated from possibly
true opinions. He lacks an indubitable starting point and a
positive criterion of demarcation between truth and falsity
that would decide beyond any doubt which propositions are true
||If all opinions cannot be inspected, the examination
focuses on the existing foundations (sources of knowledge). Thus only
those principles which lay ground for our current beliefs are being
examined, not all derived opinions. In this way all beliefs could
be tested at once insofar as they are directly grounded on these principles
(the structure of knowledge depends on its foundations). Therefore the destruction of the foundations will entail the collapse of the condemned structure.
||Hence Descartes does not start the investigation by claiming that human mind is very
weak and obscure. If that were the case his own undertaking would
be futile. Even less does he dismiss all human knowledge as entirely unreliable.
In that case his search for certainty would be self-contradictory.
The only reasonable strategy is to examine human knowledge at their
very sources: the senses and reason.
While performing the examination of the two main cognitive sources Descartes will abstain from believing
in any of his beliefs derived from them.
||Descartes first focuses on the senses: "Everything which
I have thus far accepted as entirely true and assured has been acquired
from the senses or by means of the senses (= hearsay)."
This statement points to the following (implicit) thesis, which is
in fact the target for the initial part of the doubting process:
|The First Principle
To Be Examined:
|All my reliable knowledge comes from
||Granting that sense perception is the source of our
knowledge, does it provide any certainty? The ensuing critique of
the senses does not purport to say that no sensory belief could be
reliable, only that such beliefs could not be regarded certain if
we have no reasons in their favor other than those obtained through
custom and common sense.
III DIALECTICAL EXAMINATION OF COGNITION
||Descartes first examines logical (normal) reasons for
doubting the reliability of the senses.
||The Illusion Argument. Descartes
first addresses the occasional deceptiveness of sensation. It is a
common fact that the senses are sometimes deceptive, especially
when we are confronted with "things that are barely perceptible and
very far away" (mirages, optical and other illusions;
cf. a "bent oar" in the pond). Therefore, it is prudent not to trust
(Sayings: "Fool me once, shame on you, fool
me twice, shame on me"; "Once a liar, always a liar.")
||Yes, the senses sometimes fail, but
that is an exception to the rule. The senses do not deceive us invariably;
if that were the case, we would not be able to identify moments
of deception at all. The senses are not designed to operate under
extremely unfavorable external conditions
(small and distant objects, those immersed in mist or water).
However, the perception of "immediately present things" is reliable:
"There are many other things which we cannot reasonably doubt, for
example, that I am here, seated by the fire... How could I deny that
these hands and this body are mine?"
Correction of the
The senses provide self-evident knowledge about immediate
objects in good external conditions.
||The Madness Argument.
The reliability of immediate sensory knowledge is compromised by the
way how some people perceive themselves. Their senses are otherwise
intact but they see themselves dressed in fancy robes when they are
in fact in nude. This shows that we can deny self-evident things or assert
those that plainly contradict reality. To falsify reality perceptually
it suffices that our mental balance is deranged as is the case with
those "lunatics (insensés) whose brain is so troubled and befogged
by the black vapors of the bile that they continually affirm that
they are kings while they are paupers, that they are clothed in gold
and purple while they are naked..." Since all knowledge of our own
body and our surrounding is dependent on sense perception and since
perception of immediately present objects could lead astray, how can
we in general trust our senses? After all, we could be really
insane and thus defective perceivers.
||The comparison with insane people
is not appropriate because we are not following their example (in
other words: we are not insane). How do we know that? By relying not
only on sheer senses but on the good sense (sensus bonus = reason)
as well. (This entails the second principle to be examined: sensus
communis as another source of knowledge but Descartes does not
name it yet.) The problem lies not with the senses - they are not
defective in themselves although they suffer from the mental disorders
in the interpretive neural centers. Insane people make use of the
senses, but they do not correct the distortions supervining on their
perceptions and self-perceptions by virtue of reason. They cannot
because they have lost the power of reason. This is why they do not
distinguish between madness and sanity (rationality). Fortunately,
these people make up only a small portion of human kind and any conclusion
based on their inability to report reliable self-perceptions cannot
be justifiably stretched to include all humans.
||Note: It is no accident that Descartes discards insanity without rest as totally opposed to knowledge whereas he is much more selective in dealing with sense illusions and dreams. The aforementioned distinction between
insanity and reason is not only an epistemological one; it points
to the birthplace of insanity as a social fact. As Michel Foucault
has shown, never before the 17th century have insane people been systematically
isolated and treated as socially deviant persons.
The senses are reliable when we are qualified perceivers,
that is to say - when internal conditions are satisfactory.
The Dream Argument. Extreme pathological conditions
are not the only ones that nourish doubt about sensory knowledge.
Dreams represent a non-pathological equivalent to madness, and one
which is very common: while only a few individuals are totally insane we are
all accustomed to sleep and we all have dreams. "I must remember
that I am a man, and that consequently I am accustomed to sleep
and in my dreams to imagine the same things lunatics imagine when
awake..." Dreams show that even under non-defective mental conditions
sensory knowledge could be deceptive. "How many times has it occurred
that the quiet of the night made me dream of my usual habits: that
I was here, clothed in a dressing gown and sitting by the fire,
although I was in fact lying undressed in bed." Dreams are therefore
a "hyperbolical exasperation" of insanity that makes a stronger
case for doubt because they are so common and widely spread. One can even claim that
insane people are never so wild in their perceptions as dreamers
could be. Very often in dreams we experience "even less plausible"
things than those reported by insane people. As regular dreamers
we are therefore even more disposed to sense things that undermine
the trustworthiness of our senses.
||Note: The above reasoning gives a strong support
to those who criticize the interpretation of M. Foucault. For instance,
J. Derrida contends that, for Descartes, insanity represents only
"a particular case, by no means, the most serious one of sensory illusions".
Insane people are not "sufficiently insane" to be invoked as ultimate
rebuttal against sensory knowledge.
||Disregard for reality in dreams does
not amount to a sweeping case against the senses. Sleeping perceptions
cannot compromise the good perceptions that possess much better quality than dreams.
"What happens in sleep seems not at all as clear and distinct as all
this" (= I am perceiving now). In addition to the obvious lack of
clarity and distinctness, dreams do not allow acting "with design
and deliberate intent". This gives us a tool to separate valid perceptions
from those that are only dreamed. If the distinctness and clarity
of perceptions are lower in dreams than in reality and if the
content of dreams is involuntary (as opposed to our conscious acts),
then we can draw a demarcation line between the two and trust only
clear and distinct waking perceptions. And justifiably so.
The perceptions that are clear, distinct and amenable to deliberate
control are reliable.
||The Indiscernibility Argument.
Despite his personal experience with fateful dream Descartes did not believe in the so called "lucid dreams" that, according to the controversial testimony, allow deliberate control and produce clear and distinct images. Hence he did not invoke them as a counter-argument for further doubt. But he adduced a special subclass of dreams that closely resemble wake perceptions. Sometimes we have vivid dreams that are qualitatively just
like waking perceptions. "But I am speaking as though I never recall
having been misled, while asleep, by similar illusions. When I consider
these matters carefully, I realize so clearly that there are no conclusive
indications by which waking life can be distinguished from sleep that
I am quite astonished, and my bewilderment is such that it is almost
able to convince me that I am sleeping."
Thus, at least in the case of very vivid dreams (and who has not experienced
them?), it is virtually impossible to draw a clear demarcation line
between being awake and being asleep. Now this presents a problem:
If I cannot distinguish with certainty between my waking perceptions
and vivid dreams, then my waking perceptions provide no reliable knowledge simply because I cannot be sure that they are not dreamed as well.
||Note: Descartes only contends
that the resemblance between his waking life and his dreams is quite
sufficient to allow doubts about seemingly undeniable immediate perceptions.
How to discern wake condition from dreaming is an old epistemological problem. For the difficulty compare the Riddle of
Chuang Tsu: 'I fell asleep and started
to dream I was a butterfly flying over the meadows. Upon awakening
I don't know whether I am a man who was dreaming to be a butterfly,
or a butterfly now dreaming to be an awakened man.'
"The Matrix" movie offers another parallel: "You ever
have that feeling where you're not sure if you are awake or still
Sometimes it is really difficult to distinguish between dreams
and reality. But this difficulty does not prove that we are dreaming
all the time and that there is nothing real to be conveyed by our
senses. Dreams in themselves are not empty; they must have some
content: people, animals, houses, trees, things of whatever kind.
This content is based on our perceptions of reality or at least
manifests the same regularity regardless of our ability to distinguish
between dreams and waking perceptions. Even when dreams produce
illusions they are like "painted images", i.e., representations
made in the likeness of real things (bodies, limbs, organs). "We
must at least admit that these things which appear to us in sleep
are like painted scenes and portraits which can only be formed in
imitation of something real and true ..." The fact that both waking and dreaming perceptions display the same patterns and shapes suffices to claim that they preserve something that is reliable in our sensory perceptions.
Note: This answer does not refute the indiscernibility
argument as such, only the claim that there is nothing reliable and real since only dreams exist. In the 6th Meditation Descartes
will introduce memory as the distinguishing mark between sleep and wake:
dreams are never linked by memory as the waking experiences are.
Therefore it is not plausible to claim that we are in a state of
perpetual dreaming. In that case no one would be able to speak sensibly
about the distinction between reality and dreams. To be sure, the
previous thought (about different levels of distinctness) might
be a part of the dreaming process itself, but then the question
of reliability will apply only to the reality of dreaming. (Although
"The Matrix" movie suggests that regular life is just a dream, even
within that condition it is possible to penetrate the veil of illusion
and attain the knowledge of reality, truly by means of a pill.)
At least some general things we perceive both in our dreams
and while being awake are real and therefore their sensory
reports are undeniable.
The Imagination Argument. Those "general things"
(representations of bodies, heads, arms, eyes, etc.) that make up
our dreams could be just a product of our imagination. This
argument is rather implicit than explicit, but it could be reconstructed
from what Descartes says as proceeding in two steps: (a) and (b).
(a) The content of our dreams could be concocted the way
artistic ingenuity works in fantastic (or surrealist) painting =
by putting together in a strange manner otherwise really existing
(b) The extravagant imagination of dreams could invent entirely
new forms that have never been seen before (cubist or abstract) = in that case not
even the parts of the bodies would persist throughout the process.
Thus imagination may create various combinations of pre-given parts,
combinations which more or less resemble existing things, or it
may go deeper and produce both new parts and entirely new shapes.
||(a) Fantasies of dreams operate within
certain limits: they must have some already existing constituents
even when they do not possess direct real models. The analogy with
painting points to some persisting parts and forms. "For in truth
painters, even when they use the greatest ingenuity in attempting
to portray sirens and satyrs in bizarre and extraordinary ways, nevertheless
cannot give them wholly new shapes and natures, but only invent some
particular mixture composed of parts of various animals." In other
words, even when they produce nonexistent beings (sirens, satyrs),
they make use of some real objects of the same general sort. Thus,
"these types of things, namely eyes, head, hands, and the whole
body, are not imaginary entities, but real and existent".
(b) If imagination produces entirely novel things beyond a mere combination
of already available and recognizable parts (which is possible), still
it cannot invent their more simple components. These components
are elements that make up all types of things, all objects and their
constituents. Invention and imagination cannot create or abolish these
elements. "And for the same reason, even if these types of things
- namely, a body, eyes, head, hands, and other similar things - could
be imaginary, nevertheless, we are bound to confess that there are
some other still more simple and universal concepts [which are true
and existent], from the mixture of which, neither more nor less than
in the mixture of colors, all these images of things are formed in
our minds, whether they are true or imaginary and fantastic." Hence,
imagination in this case would be just a cubist painter who uses "more
simple and universal concepts" to create or depict
reality. These concepts "are true and existent" and they represent the ultimate residue of reality.
To escape the arbitrariness
of dreams and imagination we need to look for more fundamental
and general "natures" that permeate both wake and sleep perceptions:
these are "simple and universal concepts".
||No matter whether we are awake or dreaming the objects we "see" must display these simple concepts and our reasoning must go by the rules of logic.
|| The certainty does not reside in the complex but in
the simple and the universal.
||What are these "still more simple and universal concepts"?
||They are the factors that explicate the corporeal
nature of all entities (simple concepts), or state some undeniable
truths of abstract nature (universal concepts).
||(a) Simple concepts are twofold:
(1) Those that are accidental and subjective
(= secondary qualities), and
(2) Those that objectively inhere to the entities
(= primary qualities of bodies).
Each body can be analyzed into these "objective qualities". They mark the limits of all analysis and consequently cannot be broken down into further elements. They are at once the most simple and general
components of reality: most "simple" because we cannot find more simpler components while retaining the integrity of objects (atomic structure goes below this level) and they are the most "general" because they inhere all corporeal objects.
Note: "Colors" are mentioned here in a very specific although misleading sense.
In fantastic (mythological) painting they indicate the residual
reality of the made up figures. Strictly
speaking, "colors" do not really belong to the category
of "objective" qualities. But they seem to possess a kind of
"primitive inescapability" (Rorty), which makes them irrefutable
as "sense-data" - not in the sense that I cannot be mistaken
in my color-perceptions but in the sense that when I see a color
then I really see a color. This "irrefutability" of my conscious
reports rather than a kind of transcendental claim that every object
must possess certain color may explain why Descartes lists
colors along with the physical "simples".
He is making an analogy between the colors in painting and physical
should be noted, however, that in the second instance he
calls the simples and the components as such the "true colors"
from which the objects are fashioned. This
confirms the interpretation that "colors" here in fact
stand as a general name for the primary qualities.
||The sciences that deal with these simple concepts ("treat only of
very simple and general things") possess "some element of certainty",
whereas "all the other sciences which follow from the considerations
of composite entities are very dubious and uncertain". The reason for this is that the simple concepts are quantifiable and measurable while the level of accuracy drops with the increase of complexity (it includes secondary qualities as well).
Note: A parallel with Ancient Philosophy: While Aristotle was
claiming that the sciences relying on "fewer principles" are "more
accurate", Descartes contends that those dealing with the more "simple"
components and concepts are more "certain".
||(b) Universal concepts are "common notions" which express
some obvious truths whose validity is secured by their analytic
form (mostly statements of Logic and Mathematics).
These concepts are a priori true regardless of external
or internal conditions.
At this point Descartes comes very close to name reason another major
source of our knowledge but, as in the madness argument, falls short
of any explicit formulation.
Note: Analytic concepts include statements like
these: "The part is less than the whole", "Two things
equal to a third are equal to each other", etc. Throughout the
Meditations Descartes uses such analytic concepts as a means
of conclusive demonstration.
||Another reason why the sciences dealing with more "general
things" are more certain: Statements made in the language of
Arithmetic or Geometry are absolutely undeniable ('two plus three
equals five'; 'a square has four sides'), whereas those asserted by
physics, astronomy or medicine could be called into doubt because
they are dependent on sensory perception.
||Congruence with real objects (General Things)
||Concatenation of pre-existing parts
||Simples and Universals
||How does this reasoning prove that the things we perceive
exist and that our perceptions are accurate? Obviously this is not
what the imagination argument proves. Descartes does not want to say
that primary qualities and universal truths prove that what we "see"
exists, that we are not dreaming, and especially not that what we perceive
in dreams is really so. He only wants to say that if these things exist they
must have these qualities as their boundaries and that they must appear
in our dreams within these boundaries as well. His reasoning is more about the reliability of our knowledge than about the reality of objects.
||This necessity renders irrelevant the issue whether the perceived
things exist or not, whether we are dreaming or not. The knowledge
that is indifferent to the question of existence seems particularly
apt for certainty regardless and beyond the divide of wake and dreaming
"For whether I am awake or whether I am asleep, two and three together
will always make the number five, and the square will never have more
than four sides: and it does not seem possible that truths so clear
and apparent can ever be suspected of any falsity or uncertainty."
||Since these "simples" are constitutive for
everything real Descartes goes even further and regards them as the
conditions both of existence and meaningful discourse. If primary
qualities are negated, both the world of dreams and the physical world
would cease to exist. If we negate analytic truths, nothing sensible
could be said about anything.
in final formulation:
If primary qualities persist even in dreams while analytic
truths remain un-shattered under all conditions, then the
statements reporting about primary qualities or those expressing
analytic truths are no less reliable when we dream than when
we are awake.
We are, therefore, justified in assuming that there is a material
world consisting of certain elements and organized logically/mathematically.
We can be sure that the things we perceive possess primary qualities
and that these qualities and their relations could be expressed in accordance
with analytic truths.
|Primary Qualities: The qualities that are believed
to be inherent characteristics of things and not dependent on
observer's subjectivity like secondary qualities. The distinction
was made already in Antiquity, but received a full elaboration only
in Modern Philosophy (Locke).
Sensus Bonus: (Latin: the good, "healthy" sense), i.e.,
reason (in contrast to the five senses, which are not cognitively
good as is reason); sensus bonus coincides with the common
sense insofar as they both denote that which seems sensible (rational)
to all people with non-defective abilities; however, this coincidence
is only partial, because sensus communis in Descartes often
denotes simply what is common both to the body and the soul.
Descartes placed the seat of reason in the cerebellum (the pineal
Analytic Statement: (from the Greek analytikos =
pertaining to taking apart), the statement true by definition,
necessarily true because of the relationship between its concepts,
or because the meaning of its predicate is already contained in
the meaning of the subject. The truth of an analytic proposition
is known in advance (a priori) and needs no empirical verification
(for instance, "a triangle is a plane figure with three sides"). One needs only
to understand what it says. Opposite to synthetic, a posteriori,
IV THE ULTIMATE STAGE OF DOUBT
Arguments I-V focus primarily on the question whether we can accurately
tell when we are perceiving real things, not whether such things exist.
The doubt which inspires these arguments is based on "natural reasons",
that is to say the reasons that are derived from real circumstances and
normal possibilities (assuming no supernatural intervention). Now the
existence of the world is being challenged from the vantage point of
"transcendent" considerations: Descartes asks what if something
superhuman (God or a demon) hampers our cognition of the "simples". If
God is an omnipotent being, then he could produce such a thorough
deception that we cannot break through it. The possibility of a
deceiving Deity is introduced to undermine the commonsense belief that
all our impressions must be traceable back to the experience of the real
||After examining natural reasons for doubt Descartes
has to rule out those that are not so likely and yet possible,
namely that there is a super-natural being powerful enough to cause
deception. Due to this non-experiential hypothesis the initial
natural suspicion turns into a profound metaphysical
||The Good Deceiver Argument (Deus Deceptor). External
conditions might be ideal, our cognitive organs non-defective, we
ourselves waking and focusing on simple qualities and analytic truths, but God might be deceiving us anyway about the content
of our perceptions and thoughts. (a) A powerful being like God "can do anything" (the
omnipotent Creator). Hence he could make that our images do not
correspond to anything real (Descartes assumes the validity of the
representational theory of perception all along). "But how can I be
sure but that he has brought it to pass that there is no earth, no
sky, no extended bodies, no shape, no size, no place, and that nevertheless
I have the impression of all these things...?"
(b) Perhaps God has created us so that we all the time hallucinate the
entire physical world along with the logic of our calculations which
urges us to believe that two plus three make five. "How can I be sure
but that God has brought it about that I am always mistaken when I
add two and three or count the sides of a square?"
If this is the case, one can be
deceived both about the existence of "simple elements" and the validity
of mathematical truths.
||Note: Why is mathematics rendered doubtful by the possibility that there is no external world and that God instills the illusion of an existing world into our minds? If there is no world, there are no elements and no universal truths expressing their relations. This argument does not invalidate the contention that mathematical propositions are analytically true - in dreams and hallucinations they could not be perceived otherwise but confusedly.
||God is by definition "supremely good" and it is "repugnant
to his goodness" to have made us so that we are always mistaken. "God
did not wish me to be deceived in that fashion." In view of so many
sensations, we cannot call into question the very existence of the
external world as reported by our senses. The same applies to our
rational reasoning (logic and mathematics). If it was contrary to
God's goodness to allow a permanent deception, it would seem also
to be inconsistent for him to permit even occasional deception.
"It would seem also to be inconsistent for (God) to permit me to be
(even) sometimes deceived." Or at least, he should not be involved in deception (Plato argues about this point in the second book of the Republic).
The Factual Deception Argument. Deception occurs - "I cannot
doubt that he does permit it" - therefore, it is not incompatible
with God's goodness. God's goodness is perhaps incompatible with
permanent deception, but since we are sometimes deceived, we do
not know whether we should exempt our elementary beliefs in simple
concepts and obvious truths from doubt or not. If deception happens
sometimes, why not most of the time? We cannot make any assertion to the effect
that God deceives only exceptionally or not at all. Simply, we do
not know God's ways. Thus everything remains uncertain.
||Note: Descartes was aware
that some theologians would rather sacrifice the intelligibility of
God's acts than limit his freedom in any respect (Objection VI).
||Deception is a mark of weakness and, consequently, it
contradicts omnipotence. If you insist that God nevertheless deceives
us or allows deception, I "would prefer to deny the existence of so
a powerful God, rather than to believe that everything is uncertain".
If deception occurs although it is inconsistent with God's goodness,
that means only one thing: it is not powerful God who deceives us
either perpetually or occasionally but something less than God. We
"have reached the state of being (we) now have" by virtue of some
source less powerful than God (destiny, fate, chance, "a continual
interplay of events"). Therefore we cannot either blame or credit
God for actual or potential deceptions. God does not exist ("God is fictitious"). However, if there is no Deceiver-God
, there is no externally caused systemic deception
either. Therefore we need to pay attention only to our own mistakes.
||Note: Why Descartes as a faithful seriously entertains the possibility that God does not exist? Is this a contradiction? Descartes was convinced that it was absurd to claim that God necessarily sustains the truth and nonetheless reserves liberty to create deception. So he wanted in fact to exonerate God from deception. In addition, as a philosopher, he could not help taking seriously the atheist option as well. Why deception occurs sometimes is explained in the 4th Meditation.
The Imperfect Creator Argument. No matter whether our cognitive
abilities have been created by fate, chance, interplay of events
or in any other non-intelligent way, they could be defective.
Moreover, if the origin of our mind is less powerful and good than
God, we have more reasons to believe that we are mistaken in our
perceptions and beliefs. This is a matter of probability and yet
its principle is sound: the more perfect creator the better his
chances are to create something perfect. If there is a likeness or a proportion
between the creator and his products, and this seems to be a plausible
belief, then a more intelligent and a more able designer could
and should create more perfect beings. Accordingly, in disclaiming any participation
of intelligence in the act of creation we are denying (or at least
diminishing) the last
hope for any epistemological security. So let us face the reality
of that denial: we cannot be sure.
|More Intelligent Creatures
||Less intelligent Creatures
|Less Susceptible to Deception
||More Susceptible to Deception
Premise: "To err and be deceived is a kind of imperfection."
Conclusion: Therefore only if we closely resemble a perfect creator can we be exempt from deception.
Premise: But we do not resemble a perfect creator if we were created by accident.
Premise: A degree of imperfection currently defines human nature.
Conclusion: Therefore we cannot claim that we are not being deceived.
||Note: A powerful and good God might have saved us from deception out of his mercy, whereas the anonymous forces of nature do not commiserate with us. But we have seen that deception occurs even under the assumption that God exists. Thus, either created by God or not, our mind remains subject to continual error and perpetual hallucinations (cf. the situation depicted in the brothers Wachowski's movie
|"To this reasoning, certainly, I have nothing to reply."
I cannot trust my beliefs simply because I am an imperfect human being possibly created by very imperfect forces. Therefore I could be wrong just about anything.
The world is revealed to be real only insofar as it is disclosed to our
experience, which might be deceptive.
V SKEPTICAL EPILOGUE
||Descartes now introduces an entirely
implausible hypothesis in order to sustain his doubt. He can stay on
alert against possible deception only if he assumes that the threat
of deception is total and thorough.
||Descartes was willing to accept the simple and universal concepts as the last residues of reliable knowledge if it were not for the possibility of a comprehensive deception caused either by a divine design or accidentally. Having been unable to rule out that possibility after examining both natural and supernatural reasons for doubt he found
"There is nothing in what I formerly believed to be true which I cannot
somehow doubt." On the contrary, I should be on guard against everything that can creep into my mind.
||Given this negative result Descartes must embrace a very rigid
methodical rule: Withhold Assent. "Thus I find that, in the
future, I should withhold and suspend my judgment about these matters,
and guard myself no less carefully from believing them than I should
from believing what is manifestly false..."
||Habit, Inertia. How to abide by this decision?
The force of habit and a natural leniency ("laziness
of mind") drag us back to the old customary beliefs and opinions which
make themselves masters of our convictions. All the more so as some
of them are "highly probable" while the required "epistemological
regimen" is very austere and unappealing.
Note: The famous verses
of Horace come to mind when reflecting on the power of habit: Cognosco
meliora proboque, deteriora sequor. The knowledge about what is
better does not necessarily determine the course of action if the
will for it is missing.
||General (Epidemic) Doubt. To withstand the habit
of deferring to customary beliefs, one should make a willful effort
in the opposite direction. "I would not do badly if I deliberately
took the opposite position and deceived myself in pretending for some
time that all these opinions are entirely false and imaginary." In
this way (by "allowing to be deceived") I will counterbalance
previous false opinions with my new self-deceptions in a kind of a
Note: The astounding strategy of "allowing to be wrong " and even volunteering self-deception is contrived here for the first time but it reaches its pinnacle in the second Meditation. We encounter the same type of reasoning time and again in the Meditations. Since it is possible that I am mistaken I should assume that I am actually mistaken and consequently I'll keep doubting my perceptions as well as what seems to be evidently true.
||Hyperbolic Doubt. What was just a deliberate
surmise needs now to be secured as the possibility of total deception.
This deception would affect even the truths of mathematics precisely because it is so thorough and comprehensive. When deception reaches that point it is difficult to distinguish it from the truth and therefore it becomes even more dangerous: nobody would suspect it let alone allow for the possibility that mathematics could be wrong. But I cannot ascribe such a thorough and continued deception to a good and truthful God. To sustain continuously our vigilance against that possibility of being deceived (which could not be overdone),
Descartes suggest to surmise that there is a certain "evil demon" (malin genie
= malignant genius), who has bent all his efforts to deceiving
us. This "evil demon" accumulates previous creationist
and atheist doubts (cf. Credence VII) and transforms them into a formidable
epistemological threat that suppresses any self-complacency. The only
way to counter his enormous power is not to accept anything and not
to trust any opinion even if it appears to be an obvious truth.
Note: The hypothesis of an "epistemological Satan"
should help us both to overcome dogmatic inclinations of common sense
and refresh our waning doubts regarding all judgments based on the
senses. This self-induced fiction makes it psychologically acceptable
to regard as false even those things that are merely uncertain but
possibly true. In addition, it gets around the unenviable position
of calling God a deceiver. Nonetheless, the fact that Descartes has
styled the demon as a supremely powerful being has raised eyebrows
even in then relatively liberal Holland. More recent variations on
this theme of profound illusions include virtual machines, a brain
in a vat, collectively induced delusions (a suggestive example is
depicted in "The Matrix": the evil demon is the matrix
itself). Or, if we choose to regard sensory
perceptions as an in principle inadequate rendering of the true structure
of the universe, we may say with Albert Einstein: "Reality is
merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."
|All powerful God
||can deceive me.
|All good God
||probably will not.
||unlikely to protect me from deception.
||will most certainly enjoy deceiving me.
Therefore I cannot rule out the possibility of radical deception. Not even with regard to the good God (who am I to judge God's ways?). Thus I have run out of options.
||From now on I will suppose that all "objective
things" that we see are nothing but illusions and dreams. I will
consider myself as having no body, "yet falsely believing" that I
have hands, eyes and the senses.
Why I am pushing my doubt beyond
the limits of any reasonable doubt? Because I don't want to take any
chances of being delivered to the whim of unnoticed deceptions. Thus
I'll rather sacrifice some probable beliefs than fall prey to the
lure of uncertainties.
||Descartes' logic works like this: If I cannot get any
positive and absolute truth I'll make sure at least not to succumb
to any falsity.
Note: Descartes refers to certainty when he uses the phrase "the knowledge of the truth"(three times!).
||Descartes is aware that his epistemological vigilance
requires absolute seriousness with this otherwise unlikely hypothesis,
and consequently, he needs to guard himself against the effects of
the malign genius' existence even though these effects might never
really occur. But it is hard to be consistently strict and rigid,
particularly if such a stance is commanded by an insight that is not
very agreeable. In real life we go by inclinations, not by philosophical
insights. But he now knows at least that the "liberty" of
ordinary life is imaginary and that it rests on illusions. On the
other hand, these illusions are pleasant and Descartes is understandably
"slow to wake up from this slumber..." Thus it seems that
the thinker (Descartes) is on the verge to relapse into the imaginary
security of his previous opinions.
Note: Cf. the parallel with an inmate who enjoys the imaginary
freedom while slumbering in a prison cell with the instructions of Morpheus in "The Matrix".
1. Does Descartes mean that the senses are not to
be trusted at all? No, the critique of the senses does not entail that
no sensory belief could be certain, only that such beliefs could not be
regarded certain as long as we stay within the realm of common sense prejudices
for the senses.
2. How does Descartes know that his senses have
sometimes deceived him? Of course, by using his senses? Is that a contradiction?
Not necessarily. He does not claim that the senses are always deceptive.
He only says he should not trust his senses completely.
3. Are things in the world so arranged that knowledge
must be fictitious? No, but doubt is advisable.
4. How does Descartes know that sometimes his dreams
are as vivid as waking perceptions? Is that a self-refuting statement?
It is a performative contradiction, but it does not invalidate his argument,
because he reports what he sincerely believes to be the case. In addition,
he does not claim indiscernibility as a general principle.
5. How can I know whether I am awake or sound asleep?
The very question resolves the dilemma, because if I raise it I am not
sound asleep (leaving aside the possibility of "lucid dreams"). Descartes
does not claim that he is awake because there are differences between
the concept of wake and sleep, but because he is able to consider the
6. Do skeptical remarks on simple concepts and obvious
truths affect the assumption that rational inquiry is possible? Is the
whole project of finding certainty hereby compromised? No. Mathematical
propositions were put temporarily into doubt, until certainty is reached.
7. Does Descartes want to make his mind completely
empty (tabula rasa)?
No, only not to take anything for granted.
8. How can we justify relying on reason
and logical truths in conducting this inquiry? We simply cannot start
philosophizing if we dismiss our reason.