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Introduction to Philosophy

Introduction to Philosophy
Lecture 13

Descartes – Meditations on First Philosophy – Meditation I

Introductory Remarks: As I’ve said before, this is a very important work in philosophy, in intellectual history, and simply the history of ideas. Descartes method of so-called “hyper-bolic” doubt is one of the cornerstones of the scientific method – doubt everything that is not certain, and proceed from there. Some have called this the irrational quest for certainty. Ponder that as we think through these arguments.

A) What Can you REALLY Know? By now, these are familiar argument. The project of the Meditations is to find a foundation for all knowledge. Descartes reviews which claims or propositions he can know without doubt. He seeks a give a justification for the normal claims we know about the world and figure out which conditions give us the right to say that something is true. The first step to justifying knowledge involves radical, or “hyperbolic,” doubt. He begins by demolishing his opinions, that is, he rejects anything for which there is a reason or argument to doubt – everything he only or just knows vs. anything which is certain. Well, just about everything can be doubted, that is, there are possibilities that call into question the truth of pretty much all of our supposed knowledge. He says he knows he is sitting before the fire, holding the paper in his hands, reading, writing…fairly mundane bits of knowledge everybody, except brain-damaged madmen, knows.


B) The Dream Argument: But, Doubtful says, don’t we sometimes dream and think we are awake? We even have very plausible dreams that include things like wearing your favorite PJs in front of the fire.

1) I often have perceptions like the ones I usually have in sensation while I am dreaming.
2) There is no definitive way of distinguishing dream experience from waking experience.
3) It is possible that I am dreaming right now and that all of my perceptions are false
First Objection: But right now my eyes are wide open, I shake my head and I am not sleeping. Dreams don’t have this level of clarity.
Reply: Come now. We have dreams where we think we are awake, dreams that seem very real while we are dreaming. Can’t that be the case now? There is no reliable method for distinguishing dreams from reality.
Second Objection: Ok, so maybe I am dreaming about the fire and the PJs, but surely I can’t be dreaming about believing that 2+3=5, or that a square has 4 sides. That MUST be true, certainly so. (See Below!)

C) The Deceptive God Argument: Descartes declares that he is sure there is an all-powerful God who created Descartes as he is. How do I (Descartes) know that such an all-powerful God did not create anything but ourselves (Descartes) and how do I know that all-powerful God is not just making us think that the earth, sky, sun, and even numbers exist? Remember that we get things wrong occasionally, so it seems possible that we could be in a radical state of mistake with regard to sun, earth, sky, and even 2+3=5!


We (Descartes) believes an all powerful God who has created us.

2) God can deceive us even about matters of mathematical knowledge which we seem to see clearly. (2+3 might not equal 5!)
3) It’s possible we are deceived about even in our basic mathematical knowledge
Objection: Perhaps, there is no God! Maybe we are just the links in a random causal chain. Or perhaps God is not perfectly good.
Reply: That just increases the chances we may be in radical mistake! A less perfect cause of the universe implies that there may be more mistakes, such as a radically false set of beliefs!

C) The Evil Demon Argument. Descartes says that his old familiar opinions (such as 2+3=5, that he’s sitting in front of the fire in his PJs, etc.) keep coming back. Opinions and beliefs die hard. To carry out this project of demolishing possibly false beliefs, he says we need to posit an opposite force to God, an Evil Demon – a malicious, powerful, cunning demon has done all he can to deceive me. To be on his guard against accepting possibly false beliefs as knowledge, he will think that the sky, the air, even his own hands, feet, and eyes do not exist, at least as he thinks he knows them to exist


Instead of a deceitful God, we will assume that an Evil Demon exists, one who is capable of deceiving us, as we (previously) supposed God to be able to do.

2) I have reasons to doubt the all what my senses tell me, and I even have reason to doubt whay my reason tells me about mathematical propositions.

Meditation II
A) The Cogito Argument. Progress! In the second meditation, Descartes starts off by talking about Archimedes, who said that with a fixed point and a large enough lever, you can move the world itself! Descartes is on the lookout for his fixed point, and he thinks he finds it in the Cogito. Memory may be false, my senses my not exist, and body, shape, extension, and movement may be nothing other than illusions. So what remains? Perhaps just the Socratic proposition that the only thing certain is uncertainty! We have called into doubt not just the reliability of sense perception since we might have sensory misfires or mistakes, but even that we have senses at all! In addition, we also doubt the existence or reality of our bodies, mathematics, and even God. We have convinced ourselves that perhaps there is nothing in the world at all? What’s left for an Archimedean point? Not much! But at least one more thing is certain. Even if I assume that there is an all powerful deceiver, from the very fact that I am deceived it follows that I exist. Cogito Ergo Sum!

1) I Think.
2) I am!
This conclusion can follow from any kind of thinking (e.g., imagining, sensing, feeling, and reasoning). Perhaps I am deceived about the objective content of any thought, I might even be thinking I am Papa Smurf. Dreams or the Evil Demon can definitely do that. However, I cannot be deceived about the fact that I exist and that I have an experience of perceiving objects with certain characteristics. And, since I can only be certain of the existence of myself insofar as I am thinking, I know myself as a thinking thing (res cogitans).

B) The Argument For Real Knowledge as Rational Process (Not Sense Perception) Ok, so I am. But, what is it that exists? Clearly, it can’t necessarily be my body as I know it. Remember that it’s possible that all knowledge of objects external to my mind, or my mental stage, could be in radical mistake. In other words, it’s possible that all knowledge of external objects, including my body, could be false as the result of the actions of an evil demon. I think I have a body with limbs, ears, liver, and lungs etc., but that might be a trick of the demon. I could be a very highly evolved cloud or even a vastly different Martian. Luckily, it is not possible that I could be deceived about my existence or my nature as a thinking thing. Thus my existence, if known, has to be known through my mind, whatever that turns out to be.


The Evil Demon could cause of all knowledge of external objects, including my body, to be false.
But a la Cogito Ergo Sum, it is not possible that I could be deceived about my existence or my nature as a thinking thing (Res Cogitans)
Even corporeal objects, such as my body, are known to us much more through the mind than through the body.


The mind is known to us as distinct from the body, and even better to us than the body!

To support and add to this, Descartes gives us the following argument for what we come to know as Cartesian Dualism. This view says that what we know about the mind is separate and distinct from what we know about the material body, thus the duality between mind on one side and body on the other. This argument results from him reflecting on the nature of the wax beside his fire and the changes the fire causes in the wax.

All the properties of the piece of wax that we perceive with the senses change as the wax melts. The taste and smell of the honey vanish as it warms, the color changes, it sounds different when you tap it, and it is less hard to the touch.
Even more lasting properties of the wax change as the shape is lost, the size increases, the wax changes from solid to liquid as it heats.
But the wax is the same piece of wax it always was. It changes form, but it is still the same piece we started out with.
Thus, what we know of the wax we know through our mind and faculty of judgment, not through our senses or imagination, since these latter things change, but the wax is the same piece of wax.
Thus, every act of clear and distinct knowledge of corporeal matter, or external stuff, also provides even more certain evidence for the existence and nature of our selves as thinking things.


Our mind is much more clearly and distinctly known to us than our body.

This is the rationalist’s account of the world. It is our rational faculties, our minds, that understands and ponders reality, and comes to hold knowledge of what exists. Knowledge is that which can be demonstrated through rational process and inference, not what is shown by sense-data and perception.
III. Mediation VI – The Distinction Between Mind and Body
Introductory Remarks: In Meditation VI Descartes gives two proofs for the real distinction between minds and bodies. One of these involves a contrast between the simple nature of the mind (he says soul, but…) and the complex nature of the body. The other picks up the materials which Descartes had provided for himself in Meditation II and III and puts them together into a proof. From Meditation II Descartes takes the fact that the essences of mind and body are distinct. From Meditation III he takes the language of clear and distinct ideas, and the existence of God and from God’s omnipotence concludes that God could make distinct any two things which I clearly and distinctly perceive could be distinguished. Since the essence of mind and body are different and these ideas are clear and distinct, it follows that God could make them distinct. Descartes concludes that they are in fact distinct. There is a debate in the scholarly literature over whether this last step is justified. This also is a philosophical problem about which one might write a paper.

A) Imagination vs. Pure Understanding. When you imagine triangle you don’t merely understand that it has 3 sides, but you also imagine a mental image of a triangle in your mind’s eye. You both understand and imagine a triangle. Now consider a chiliagon, which is a figure with a thousand sides. Can you imagine such a geometric figure? Can you hold a mental image of it? No, but when it’s described or defined you do understand it. This crazy figure can only be understood, not imagined. Now, the faculty of imagination is not essential to me since I would remain the same person without it. Descartes explains: in understanding, the mind gazes on ideas in itself, whereas in imagination, the mind “intuits something in the body similar to an idea either understood by the mind or perceived by sense.” But I still need a reason to think my body exists. Thus far it is still only probable, and I need a “necessary” conclusion.


B) Mind and Body are Distinct – Understanding Argument. Descartes reasons that if he has a vivid and clear thought of something, then God, or whatever, could have created it in a way that exactly corresponds to Descartes’ thoughts. In other words, the fact that Descartes has an understanding of X, and the fact that he has an understanding of the distinct Y would entail that X and Y are separate. See page 29. ,

1) If I clearly and distinctly understand one thing as distinct from another it is so.
2) I am certain that I exist as a thinking thing, while I am not certain of the existence of my body.
3) I am a thinking thing and nothing else. My mind is distinct from my body.

C) Mind and Body are Distinct – Extension Argument Secondly, Mind and Body are distinct by extension. Minds are thinking things which are not extended, bodies are extended and do not think. The problem is that you can’t see a body without some kind of corporeal existence, in other words, a form of some kind is necessary for the body, even if it’s a vat! See p 29 again. Formally:

1) I, the mind, am a thing that thinks and not an extended thing (at least it’s not yet shown to be certain that I am an extended thing, given all my Cartesian doubts).
2) I can’t conceive of a body as being not extended, or not having a corporeal existence.
3) My mind is distinct from my body.

D) Mind and Body are Distinct – Divisibility Argument. The mind is indivisible, one complete thing, while bodies are divisible. You can separate the body into arms, legs, nose, teeth, etc. In fact, if you lose an arm or even a tooth, you lose a body part. Can you lose a part of your mind? No, you can lose properties or powers of the mind, like losing some power of sense perception, but you can’t lose a piece or part of your mind. The mind is not parted out like that. See p. 32

1) My mind is not divisible.
2) My body is divisible,
3) My mind is distinct from my body.

E) The Mind’s Relation to the Body. We will be mercifully brief here. The answer Descartes gives in the meditations has spawned almost as much philosophy as the question he raised. Supposing that minds and bodies really are distinct from one another, how do they relate to one another? Minds are thinking things which are not extended, bodies are extended and do not think. Descartes answer is that minds are affected by bodies in perception and that bodies are affected by minds in action. Thus, when I see a tree, the tree is causing light rays to hit my eye, this information is taken by the animal spirits up to the brain, and passed through the pineal gland (the actual seat of the soul) to the mind where it is perceived as the idea of a tree. On the other hand, if I decide to lift my arm, my mind issues a command which is passed through the pineal gland to the brain, and from the brain the animal spirits are animated in such a way that my arm raises. This is two way causal interaction. It is two way because the mind causally affects the body in action, and the body causally affects the mind in perception. It is causal because the process is causal and not say logical or aesthetic or some other kind of relationship. It is interaction because it is one kind of entity acting on another, that is minds on bodies or bodies on minds.


F) The Mind-Body Problem

After Descartes articulated this theory, philosophers in the next generation (and thereafter) were struck more by the theory’s difficulties than what it explained. How can a mind, which is immaterial, cause any kind of change in a body at all? How can a body, which is material and occupies space, affect something which is immaterial and does not occupy space? It is possible to evade some of these difficulties in various ways. However, for Descartes the difficulties are compounded by Descartes heirloom or antiquated theory of causality which plays a crucial role in Descartes’ proof for the existence of God. This theory holds that the effect inherits something from the cause. This explains the connection between cause and effect. Given the real distinction, however, it appears that there is nothing which can play this role for minds and bodies because they are, on his analysis, so distinct, so what do they have in common? This again is a philosophical problem well worth writing about.

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