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.
- “Meditations on First Philosophy”at Internet Sacred Text Archive
- Descartes’ works at Early Modern Text