Descartes overall objective in the Meditations is to question knowledge. To
explore such metaphysical issues as the existence of God and the separation of
mind and body, it was important for him to distinguish what we can know as truth.
He believed that reason as opposed to experience was the source for discovering
what is of absolute certainty. In my explication, I will examine meditation two
in order to discover why knowledge was so important to Descartes.
Meditation One The first meditation acts as a foundation for all those that
follow. Here Descartes discerns between mere opinion and strict absolute
certainty. To make this consideration he establishes that he must first attack
those principles which supported everything I once believed.(quote, paraphrase)
He first examines those beliefs that require our senses. He questions, whether
our senses are true indicators of what they represent. By inspecting our
sometimes firm belief in the reality of dreams, he comes to the conclusion that
our senses are prone to error and thereby cannot reliably distinguish between
certainty and falsity. To examine those ideas that have objective reality,”
Descartes makes the improbable hypothesis of an evil genius, as clever and
deceitful as he is powerful, who has directed his entire effort to misleading
me (). By proposing this solution he is able to suspend his judgment and
maintain that all his former beliefs are false. By using doubt as his tool,
Descartes is now ready to build his following proofs with certainty.
Meditation Two Comparing his task to that of Archimedes, Descartes embarks on
his journey of truth. Attempting to affirm the idea that God must exist as a
fabricator for his ideas, he stumbles on his first validity: the notion that he
(Descartes) exists. He ascertains that if he can both persuade himself of
something, and likewise be deceived of something, then surely he must exist.
This self validating statement is known as the Cogito Argument. Simply put it
implies whatever thinks exists. Having established this, Descartes asks
himself: What is this I which necessarily exists? Descartes now begins to
explore his inner consciousness to find the essence of his being. He disputes
that he is a rational animal for this idea is difficult to understand. He
scrutinizes whether perhaps he is a body infused with a soul but this idea is
dismissed since he cannot be certain of concepts that are of the material world.
Eventually he focuses on the act of thinking and from this he posits: I am a
thing that thinks.(20 ) A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies,
wills, refuses, and that also imagines and senses. To prove that perception on
the part of the mind is more real than that of the senses Descartes asks us to
consider a piece of wax.Fresh from the comb the qualities we attribute to the
wax are those derived from the senses. Melted, the qualities that we attribute
to the wax are altered and can only be known to the intellect. Descartes
demonstrates how the information from the senses gives us only the observable,
it is the mind that allows us to understand. The results of the second
meditation are considerable, doubt has both proven the certainty of Descartes
existence and that his essence is the mind.
Meditation Three Descartes main objective in the third meditation is to prove
the existence of God. Before he can begin he must first explore his concept of
ideas. Moreover, he must clarify what constitutes an idea as being clear and
distinct. Using his existence as an example he reasons that whatever he
perceives very clearly and very distinctly is true. Concerning the beliefs he
holds of the sensible world, he comes to the conclusion that these things could
have been caused by things outside himself, and the ideas are similar to those
things. Up to this point Descartes has held that God could deceive him about the
truth of simple matters, such as that 2 + 3=5. To affirm that such objective
ideas are safe from doubt, Descartes has to prove that God exists and that he is
no deceiver.He finds that doubt carries within it the idea of certainty.
From this query he follows with the idea of a perfect being, which by comparison,
he is aware of his imperfections. It is Descartes view that such an idea could
only have been placed in our minds by a perfect being. His reasoning for this
is as follows: At the very least there must be as much in the total efficient
cause as there is in the effect of the same cause.() From this declaration he
ascertains that a perfect thing exists and by definition the perfect thing is
God. He also concludes that God is no deceiver: for it is manifest by the
light of nature that all fraud and deception depend on some defect. Content
with his claims Descartes is now ready to move ahead with his argument
concerning true and false.
Meditation Four Descartes having proven that God exists must now make some
clarifications concerning why God is no deceiver. The main question that needs
clarification is this: If God is no deceiver then why do we err? Descartes
answers that we are prone to make mistakes because our wills are infinite but
our intellect is not. The will gives us the faculties of assertion, denial and
suspension of judgment. The intellect allows us to perceive things clearly and
distinctly. Like God we have an infinite will, but we are imperfect because are
understanding is finite. Descartes concludes that because we are free we are
responsible for our errors. It is possible however, that if we use our
faculties properly we will not assent false judgments. Confident that God has
created us such that if we perceive things clearly and distinctly our reasoning
will not be wrong;Descartes is now free to explore the possibilities of
material things and the mind body relationship.
Meditation Five In the fifth meditation the essence of material things is
considered. Before he begins with material considerations however, Descartes
feels it necessary to offer another proof for the existence of God. Since
Descartes has just demonstrated that we gain understanding through ideas, he is
able to continue with an ontological argument proving that God necessarily
exists. The claim that is the glue to this argument is that a supremely perfect
being must necessarily exist. If this is not the case the being in question does
not meet the criterion for perfection. God without existence is like a triangle
without 3 sides or a mountain without a valley. (paraphrase) A supremely perfect
being would lack some perfection. That taken care of, he turns his attention to
material issues, namely the body. First Descartes separates sensation as being
separate from his imagination because he does not have any control over it.
Doubt takes over at this point and Descartes must again face the same problem he
did in meditation one: the unreliability of the senses due to dreams or
hallucinations. To counter this Descartes concludes that our knowledge of
material things is based on our knowledge of God. He asserts that God has
created him with such a strong belief in the existence of material things that
they must not be false because God is not deceptive. By using God as his proof
for the material world, Descartes has left himself in a precarious situation.
Were it to be found that God does not exist the rest of his assertions would
subsequently crumble. Nevertheless, Descartes is satisfied with the progress
that he has made and is now ready to prove the existence of material things.
Meditation Six There remains but one question as we draw near the end of the
meditations, whether material things exist. To prove the existence of the
material objects Descartes draws on his previous meditations to find the answer.
He believes that material things can exist, if they are the object of
mathematics. We can prove the existence of these objects because we can
understand them with our intellect. There remains a question regarding our
imagination. Descarte reasons that it is not essential. The understanding is
greater than the imagination. Descartes assumes to have a body based on what
his senses perceive. He begins to explore this notion that he had previously
dismissed to doubt. He inquires whether his senses give him reason for bodies
to exist. He comes to the conclusion that they do because God has given us a
great inclination to believe that these ideas proceeded from corporeal things.
() This proof progresses into the nature of how mind and body co-exist.
Descartes beliefs are as follows:It is from nature that we distinguish other
bodies and their interpretation. We are inclined by nature towards things that
benefit us. This is for our own self- preservation. Descartes makes the
distinction between mind and body. He states that the mind is a thinking,
unextended thing, while the body is a physical extended thing. The mind is
indivisible whereas the body can be divided. It is the minds task to
differentiate the part of the body affiliated with a certain sensation. God has
endowed us with these natural inclinations to allow us self preservation.
Descartes now dispels his dream hypothesis because he realizes that wakefulness
is the interaction of both mind and body. He leaves us with the message that
we must acknowledge the infirmity of our nature. ( )
Explication It is Descartes hope in Meditation two that he is able to find his
first certainty. By use of the Cogito argument Descartes does just that.
Having proven his existance he turns his attention toward the essence of his
nature. As the title of the second meditation suggests, he proves that are
essence is of the mind and thus more known to us than the body.
The Cogito argument as it looks in the Meditations runs like this:
“Thus, after everything has been most carefully weighed, it must finally be
established that this pronouncement “I am, I exist” is necessarily true every
time I utter it or conceive it in my mind.” (P.18)
Descartes Second Meditation is an attempt to find a truth that he can accept
with certainty.In order to accomplish this, Descartes has established that
his postulate must be open to strict scrutiny as to expel all doubt to its
validity. By the third paragraph of the meditation he has discovered such a
certainty, the claim that I think, therefore I exist.What he is trying to
say with this statement is that every time he thinks something in his mind, he
has proof that he exists. It is not possible to think without also existing.
This proof, known as the Cogito, is Descartes first progression towards his goal
of perfect knowledge. For this reason it is important that we examine this
proof so that we can have a better understanding of its meaning.
To evaluate the Cogito argument, we must first understand it clearly. There
are four key statements in meditation two that lead Descartes to the certainty
that he exists. Herewith is a summation of Descartes’ argument:
1) Am I so tied to the body and to the senses that I cannot exist without them?
2) But certainly I should exist, if I were to persuade myself of something. 3)
Then there is no doubt that I exist, if he (evil demon) deceives me. 4) I am,
I exist or in other words I think, therefore I am.
These claims respectively suggest, that by denying, persuading, and being
deceived; a certain faculty of thought is being used. By thinking, one can be
certain that he exists.
Though the argument may seem simple and straightforward, upon closer inspection
this is not the case.There seems to be some questions concerning the Cogito’s
interpretation, the most important being: What is the first certainty that
Descartes uncovers?What perspective does he use to rationalize this
certainty?, and how does he back it up? By examining the inferential,
intuitional and epistemic interpretations, we can discover which interpretation
of the Cogito was meant by Descartes in Meditation two.
At first it seems obvious that Descartes had meant for the Cogito to be an
inferential argument. Of the key propositions in the Meditations all seem to
have the commonality of thinking as their first premise. Similarly the second
premise and the conclusion seem to follow the same pattern. The second premise
posits the notion: Whatever thinks exists; followed by the conclusion:
therefore, I exist.
To know something by inference, is to discover something based on previous
knowledge.In Descartes case, he has come to know a metaphysical certainty,
existence, based on a prior metaphysical certainty, thinking. The soundness of
this reasoning is good because know matter what we do it is impossible to deny
that we think. It seems simple enough, until we consider that Descartes seems
to emphasize that his first absolute certainty is existence. Using the criteria
for inference then, it is impossible that I exist is the first certainty.
This is a weak argument for in order for this inference to work; Descartes would
have to make revisions to meditation two.However, since he feels so strongly
of this first certainty, I am not convinced that Descartes had meant for this
The intuitional interpretation of the Cogito, maintains that it is
metaphysically certain because Descartes has intuited it. Descartes idea of
intuition is likened to a flash of insight.It can be seen to be true, the
same way we know that that 2+3=5.He simply knows he exists based on a direct
understanding. With this interpretation, cleary the proposition I exist is the
first certainty. The problem of this argument is that the idea of intuition is
too subjective an interpretation to prove that he exists. There is no way to
replicate this procedure and obtain the same conclusion as Descartes. The
evidence for this interpretation is not strong enough to render it to be the
one Descartes intended.
The evidence for the epistemic interpretation of the Cogito is good. I feel
that this is the most reasonable interpretation because it seems to be in
character with the whole of the meditations. Descartes reasoning behind his
metaphysical certainty is that he simply has no reason to doubt it. Previous to
the second meditation, Descartes had used doubt as his tool; in doing so he felt
it necessary to suspend all judgment. Here he is able to scrutinize all the
major arguments of meditation two and come to the conclusion that he has no
reason to doubt that I exist. It could be conceded that Descartes did not
explore enough sources of doubt. This objection seems inconsequential
considering the scope of the problems from the other interpretations.
Having established his existence, Descartes finds that his essence is the mind.
He places a major importance on the intellect. In further meditations it is the
mind, through understanding, that leads us to various conclusions. Near the
end of Meditation two, Descartes demonstrates how the ideas of the mind are more
attune to finding knowledge than are senses are. The point that he makes here is
that only through the mind can we understand the essential qualities of the wax.
Melted a piece of wax exhibits qualities such as extension and mutability.
These are concepts that are only clear to the intellect. The main point that
Descartes was trying to get across by using this wax experiment is, that if he
can understand the wax better with his mind, then it certainly follows that he
should know himself better through the same faculty.
The Meditations has given me a better understanding of philosophical issues. I
have learned to suspend judgment so that I may use my intellect to understand
things. Descartes presentation of the mind body problem has given me a new
topic to explore. Is it the mind that rules the body or the body that rules the
mind. Where does one begin, and the other end? By using some of Descartes
methods I have attempted to see his arguments, and tried to come to my own
conclusions. The mere fact that Descartes found so many certainties in the
Meditations is surprising. It is not always easy to find a hypothesis that
stands up to doubt. The Meditations have taught me to be open minded, and to
acknowledge that sometimes we make mistakes. However, if we take caution and
use reason carefully we are capable of finding certainty.