“Meditations on First Philosophy” by René Descartes

Descartes by Jan Baptist Weenix @ Centraal Museum in Utrecht

Descartes’ Wax: Why the Mind is Distinct From the Body

Descartes was meditating in his chair by the fire with a piece of wax in his hand. He had formed a notion that wax was something with a fixed shape, size, color and smell, when the wax began melting due to the heat, and changed into an indistinct mass. It became obvious that his previous notion was erroneous (not only that, it is impossible to have exact knowledge of wax due to the potentially infinite configurations of forms it can take on).

He begins to doubt his knowledge of all things. How can he be certain that any knowledge is indubitable?

In order to gain knowledge that is absolutely certain and true, he first tries to determine what causes it to be false and uncertain.

Where did he err with regard to his knowledge of wax? The error does not lie in his bodily senses, but in his mind, viz. in the junction between the mind and the senses, to be precise. There is a gap between what the senses perceive and what forms in our mind, i.e., our mental image, and the mind itself bridges that gap using its own judgment, which could be erroneous. In other words, we “see” only what we think we see. By discovering the subtle and imperceptible difference/gap between the two, Descartes re-discovers and confirms the distinction between mind and body.

Some four hundred years later, neuroscience provided evidence of the “gap”. Another boost to the claim that philosophers are way ahead of scientists in acquiring knowledge.

Why does Descartes Doubt the Senses?

Because all sensory experiences come to us via the same mechanism — Descartes explores basic neurology in some length in Meditations VI, if we know that some sensory experiences are imperfect, it is reasonable to cast doubt on all the rest, even though there is no evidence of their falsehood yet.

The question is not whether the sensory world can be of practical use to us, but whether it can be trusted as the ultimate proof of certainty.

I’m reminded of the parable of a man building a house on the sand vs. the rock. Descartes’ beliefs are the house, and his doubts are the floods and the winds that beat on that house. By doubting and examining all things that are not certain and indubitable, he is trying to eliminate all false beliefs, and rest his beliefs on a surer foundation.

Why God Exists

Descartes starts with a “clear and distinct” -to him at least- idea of God, and proceeds to prove that the idea must correspond with reality. His chain of arguments seem eminently logical, but the premise is not always true -many, if not most, people don’t have a “clear and distinct” idea of God, and those who do probably have no need of logical proof. I’ve yet to come across someone who became religious by reading Descartes.

I. The Ontological Argument

1. There are two possibilities, either nothing exists outside me (i.e., my mind), or something exists outside.

2. If nothing exists outside my mind, then whatever my mind can clearly conceive to exist does exist. I conceive without a doubt that I exist, therefore I exist. I also clearly conceive God, therefore God exists.

3. If things exist outside my mind, and they imprint my mind with their images, i.e., ideas, then the reality of these ideas, which are effects, corresponds with the reality of their causes, the things outside me. IOW, no-thing cannot cause some-thing, and an insubstantial and imperfect thing (whether it be myself or objects outside me) cannot create or imprint a substantial and perfect idea in my mind. My conception of God is substantial, therefore God exits substantially as a perfect Being, who has imprinted in me an image of Him.

II. The Discreteness of Time Necessitate a Creative Power which Does not Reside in the Creation Itself

For all the course of my life may be divided into an infinite number of parts, none of which is in any way dependent on the other; and thus from the fact that I was in existence a short time ago it does not follow that I must be in existence now… In order to be conserved in each moment in which it endures, a substance has need of the same power and action as would be necessary to produce and create it anew, supposing it did not yet exist, so that …the distinction between creation and conservation is solely [that of conventional reason].

There and Back Again

After going on a mental journey of doubt and uncertainty, and finally resting on the certainty of his own existence and that of God, who is the ultimate cause of all existences. Descartes returns to the sensory world, with renewed confidence. In Meditations VI, he reasons that, since God is beneficent, the senses which He gives us are also beneficial to us, if judged wisely.

Appendix: Others’ Objections and My Replies

I. Response to Refutation of Meditation III:

You wrote, “Evolution, the process of gradual development over time, contains the very idea of the more perfect coming out of something lesser.”

I think Descartes would perhaps respond by saying that “evolution” belongs to the corporeal world and the senses, and therefore does not constitute a legitimate refutation to his logical argument.

We see something more perfect coming after something lesser, but that doesn’t mean there is a causal relation between the two. Some thing being prior in time is not necessarily causal in nature. To refute Descartes, you have to prove that something more perfect is effected by something less perfect.

You wrote, “Descartes asserts that the idea of God within him is the most clear and distinct (self-evident) idea that he knows. This “truth”, as Descartes perceives it, is an assumption”

Not an assumption. He doesn’t assume that everyone has a clear and distinct idea of God, but that his idea of God is the most clear and distinct idea he knows within him, in fact, as clear and distinct as his own existence and his knowledge of geometry. He obviously doesn’t assume that everyone has a clear knowledge of geometry either, since it requires rigorous logical thinking, which is not everyone’s specialty. To put it in another way, he is certain of the existence of God, to the extent that he can be certain of anything,

You wrote,“Descartes does not provide sufficient reason for God’s lack of deception”

It is evident that we have the faculty to discern truth from falsehood –we wouldn’t be talking about deceit if that’s not the case. If all of us were deceived all the time, then we wouldn’t be aware of it at all, just as if all men were born blind, we would never realize our lack of sight. Following premise 2, a being full of deceit, which is a defect, cannot cause something that is perfect, or an idea of that perfection which includes truthfulness. Since we have this idea of truthfulness, it follows that God who causes this idea is not deceitful.

II. Response to Kant’s Critique of Descartes:

Kant argues against [Descartes] by positing that the agent is aware that she is in time.”

I’m not clear on Kant’s conception of time, having not read Critique of Pure Reason. It seems that Kant simply assumed our conception of time, whether right or wrong, as an a priori principle, but it is questionable to me. We may exist and perceive in time, but it is not evident that we are aware of time itself.

For instance, when we observe a distant star, they appear to exist at the same moment of our observation, but in fact, the light rays from the star were issued millions of years before they reached the Earth. So we perceive something that existed millions of years ago as something current; It is possible that the “I” that one perceives in “I think” is also from the immediate past, but because one is unaware of time, he perceives “I” as existing in the present, and so concludes “I exist”, not “existed”, Even so, the “I” who perceives does “exist” in the present moment, regardless of time.

In order to be aware that she is in time she must have a reference point, …“this permanent [reference point] cannot, however, be something in me, since it is only through this permanent that my existence in time can itself be determined

The reference point of our existence, if indeed “permanent”, cannot be anything external and corporeal either, because none of the corporeal things are permanent, but change over time. In fact, it is by observing changes and motion in external objects, with ourselves as reference point, that we become aware of time.




14 thoughts on ““Meditations on First Philosophy” by René Descartes

  1. Great book! Decartes trashes his old belief sistem, searches for definite knowledge, then rebuilds it. It can help to those who want to go trough same phases with their own belief sistem.

  2. My first-year philosophy professor believed that Descartes didn’t really believe in God, that the arguments for God’s existence were simply put there as a sop for the religious authorities of 17th-c France to keep the philosopher out of trouble. I see no logical reason why my professor would have drawn this out of Descartes’ own writings, though. Perhaps he was, rather, reading the contemporary, agnostic ‘free-thinker’ into the seventeenth century and finding it hard to imagine some so rational as Descartes believing in God.

    Come to think of it, the same professor didn’t think Plato really believed in the theory of forms and transmigration of souls …

    1. If your professor can prove that Descartes’ arguments are faulty and inconsistent, then there might be some validity to his claim; if, OTOH, the arguments are logical, why would a rational man like Descartes not believe in them himself? He would be an irrational fool if he didn’t. Whether he wrote the treatise to pacify the religious authorities, or for whatever other reasons, is irrelevant.

      I have to admit, though, I find it hilarious that a professor in philosophy doesn’t believe in Plato or Descartes. What is his area of specialty?

      1. I was reading the “Objections and Replies” in which Descartes responds to atheists, philosophers and theologians. His attitude towards atheists almost bordered on intellectual arrogance, as if all of them were not thinking hard enough. The existence of God was to him as “clear and distinct” as the geometric properties of a triangle. Having grown up in an atheistic and scientific environment, I have to confess it was far from “clear and distinct” to me.

        Having said that, I think Descartes shows genuine, and rational, humility, when he acknowledges that his idea of God is imprinted upon him by God, and that he owes his own existence to God, not just as part of creation, but that his continual existence from day to day is dependent on the creative power of God. That. to me, doesn’t sound like someone who is parroting church doctrine to cover his rear.

  3. Thanks for linking to my post on Kant’s critique of Descartes!

    First off, I think you are right to be tentative in granting Kant his thesis on the a priority of time. His supporting premises are a tad question-begging, and their plausibility is given by the overall success of his project, such that the project is somewhat cyclical, but no more than a coherentist epistemology can allow.

    But Kant’s point is not that that the subject perceives that time is passing provides certainty of existence; it is that because the self perceives that external objects persist through time the self recognizes itself as existing in time with those objects, in immediate interaction with them. The knowledge of self is not deduced or mediated by external objects, it is merely given by experiencing self with external objects.

    In other words, the real emphasis in Kant’s critique of Descartes is in the immediateness of knowing of the existence of the self and external world all at once, not in being aware that the subject is in time, as you suggest, which I do not think is what Kant had in mind.

    1. Descartes anticipated Kant’s objection by pointing out emphatically that existence does not persist through time. From the fact that something was in existence a short time ago it does not follow that it must be in existence now, or that it must exist in a moment from now. The subject’s awareness of his own existence has no relation to time either. He is aware that he exists, not that he existed, nor that he will exist.

      Even if we grant that the subject is aware of time and that he needs a permanent reference point to know that he exists in time, as Kant posits, it does not follow that the permanent reference point is an external object. Firstly, because none of the external object is permanent. Secondly, there is something in me that also persist through time, namely, memory.

      1. Kant’s point was not so much that Descartes was wrong about not being able to deduce the existence of self from the passage of time but that Descartes was wrong that the existence of the self need be deduced. Kant’s point is that the experienced self is immediately known as existing without deduction. It is a further point, for Kant, that the existence of the self cannot be deduced from the cogito.

      2. The main difference between Descartes and Kant, as I see it, is that the former believes the “noumenal”(in Kantian terminology) self can be known directly by the mind through self-reflection, without resorting to the senses or external objects, or awareness of time, whereas the latter posits that the “noumenal” self cannot be known, but only experienced through the senses along with external objects in time, the “phenomenal”.

        So the question at issue here is : Can “I” know myself?

        Descartes’ point was not to prove that the self exists, but that the self exists as a substance that corresponds to our “clear and distinct” idea of it. In other words, the “noumenal” can be known.

        On the one hand, it is self-evident to Descartes that he, the subject, thinks, doubts, and wills, etc. He knows this in and of himself, the “noumenal”; OTOH, he also perceives himself, the object, as a thing with the faculty of thinking/doubting/willing, and this is done by the mind through self-reflection without awareness of external objects. To use an analogy, in a way it is like when Narcissus saw himself for the first time in the reflection of a pool. He slowly came to the realization that the image he saw was a mirror image of himself, because whatever he did, the image did likewise. In other words, there is an exact correspondence between them. That’s how he came to “know himself”.

        I have to admit, Descartes’ way of thinking makes a lot more sense to me than Kant’s. But perhaps I need to read Critique of Pure Reason before commenting further. 🙂

        There are a few problems with Kant’s position:
        1. As I mentioned in my comment on your blog, if the noumenal self cannot be known, where does Kant get the idea of the universal moral law and freedom that pertains to the noumenal self?
        2. If the noumenal world cannot be known, how does science make accurate predictions about the physical world, about things that are not yet available to the senses?
        The list goes on…

      3. I think you’re right about the main difference between Descartes and Kant, but I’m not sure the first problem you list applies to Kant. The categorial imperative is given to us by practical reason such that it is correct in virtue of its being made necessary by the way reason structures our experience. Thus, the categorical imperative only applies to the phenomenal realm because it is not possible according to Kant’s transcendental idealism for the categories to be applied to the noumenal realm as the categories are made possible by human subjectivity. For Kant, our only knowledge is of the phenomenal realm, such that he would deny that the categorical imperative, as a knowledge claim of reason, makes any claim about the noumenal realm.

        We have the metaphysical concepts we do, for Kant, because of the categories given to us by reason, such that the world outside of our heads isn’t structured by reason, such that those metaphysical concepts do not apply. We can still speak and reason about these metaphysical concepts, but we cannot say that they are true of the world beyond human experience, they are only true of the world of human experience. As such, it is perfectly within Kant’s rights to use the term “freedom” to discuss man’s following the rules given to him by his reasoning, and such a claim does not make any claims about the noumenal realm.

        The second problem you list isn’t a bane to Kant either. The phenomenal realm is not limited to physical experiences, but also includes knowledge acquired through reasoning as per the categories of the understanding (i.e. the mind). Kant would contend that we can have objective knowledge about the physical world as studied through science precisely because quantification and qualification are made possible by the necessary structuring of reality by the human mind, such that the commonalities in human cognizing allow for the intersubjectivity necessary for there being objective facts. So Kant’s view doesn’t preclude the legitimacy of science; it fits well with instrumentalism in the philosophy of science. There may be other problems for Kant’s view, but I do not think the two you listed are unavoidable for Kant.

      4. categorical imperative, as a knowledge claim of reason, makes any claim about the noumenal realm.

        CI is not just a knowledge claim, but also a command to act, which concerns the noumenal self.

        Moreover, how can a man be “free” to act if his reasoning is limited by the laws of nature and bound by necessities?

        the commonalities in human cognizing allow for the intersubjectivity necessary for there being objective facts.

        You lost me there. Could you elaborate/rephrase?

      5. You’re right that CI is a command to act, but why is it a command to act for the noumenal self?

        Your concerns for the incompatibility of laws of nature and freedom are in regards to the metaphysical freedom that we cannot have any certain answers of, so says Kant. When it comes to moral responsibility Kant seems to accept a practical compatibilism.

        As for intersubjectivity allowing objective facts: Kant thought that because neurobiological necessities cause humans to cognize experiences in certain ways, we can be certain of shared structures of consciousness, such that we can speak of objective truths, so long as we say that they are objective truths about how we experience the world.

      6. As for the first question, as I understand it, the “phenomenal” refers to how we perceive the world, our perception, whereas the “noumenal” refers to who we are, our being. Action belongs to being, not to perception.

        The “structures of consciousness” doesn’t address my second question at all. To use an analogy, the structure of our consciousness provides a map of the world, just as there are different kinds of maps, e.g., satellite view, street map, heat map, etc., so there are different ways to perceive the world. There are “shared structures”, when people perceive the world the same way due to their shared makeup. This I can understand and agree with. But, Kant only explains why there are maps, but he doesn’t explain why when we follow the direction of an accurate map, we reach the destination, but not otherwise. If the noumenal world cannot be known, all the maps, i.e., structures of consciousness, would be futile fantasies.

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