Rene Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy


Rene Descartes’s “Discourse on the Method”

October 21, 2021 by Essay Writer

Rene Descartes’s “Discourse on the Method” highlights several strong beliefs–including that the human mind is a malleable, thinking machine, and that our distinctive thoughts are the foundation for the functioning of our immortal souls, although there are certain concrete laws of nature (Descartes, 29). As such, he would agree with Rumsfeld’s belief that “known knowns” exist that form our basic understanding of the world, such as proven mathematical and scientific principles. He would also at least partially agree with the idea of difficult “unknown unknowns”, albeit with the addition that a partial acquisition of these unknown ideas into our perception of knowledge is a natural process for the constantly developing mind (Rumsfeld, Tuma seminar 09/21).

Descartes often enjoys reveling in a discussion of doubt and even argues that his “second maxim was to be as firm and decisive. . . and to follow even the most doubtful opinions, once [he] had adopted them, with no less constancy than if they had been quite certain” (32). In this instance, he highlights that the “unknown unknowns”–ideas he thought he had about particular areas of knowledge– ought to be given at least an attempt of interpretation (Rumsfeld). Although a method of exploring the dark without guide may not necessarily be expected, he suggests it is nevertheless a very positive experience that allows a person to grow (Descartes, 32).

As such, acquiring knowledge from these “doubtful opinions” or “unknown unknowns” may or may not be difficult, but is regardless a naturally-occurring step towards growth (Descartes, 32, Rumsfeld, Tuma, 09/21). Thus, Descartes’s claims suggest that the “unknown unknowns” are subtle, subconscious forces affecting our malleable minds with a remarkable amount of influence–despite their increased acquisitional difficulty–as “known knowns”, and would thus likely side with the major premise of Rumsfeld’s argument (Rumsfeld).

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Man as More Complex than a Machine as Depicted in Chapter Five of Rene Descartes Discourse on the Method

October 21, 2021 by Essay Writer

Descartes feels that man is far from just a complex machine or animal. In Part Five of his Discourse on Method, he establishes two means by which to identify if a machine is really a rational human being or not. The two means are separate criteria that both strongly portray Descartes’ belief in mind-body dualism. Mind-body dualism is the belief that the mind and the body are two separate and distinct substances. Descartes feels that the mind of man is what sets him apart from being a complex machine or animal. This idea forms the foundation of his two criteria.

The first criterion established is that a machine could not actually use words or other signs in conjunction with each other to declare its thoughts to others. A machine may be programmed to respond to a number of different stimuli such as certain words or physical interactions, but that same machine will never be able to react to any and all possible stimuli. Descartes believes that even the simplest of men can respond to any stimuli while using at least some type of understanding or reason to form a complete statement as a response. A machine, on the other hand, cannot possibly be built to respond to all possible situations with a complete response such as this.

Descartes uses this criterion to distinguish man from other complex animals as well. He states that while even the dullest of men can formulate complete sentences or assertions from words to display their thoughts, the brightest of animals cannot do such a thing. There are a number of animals who have the organs necessary to speak the language of man, but they still lack the mind to understand how to speak with the words man uses. Even in the case of the few animals that actually can physically speak using these necessary organs, such as parrots, they still do not know or understand what they are saying and are simply using mimicry to copy the noises they hear. Descartes points out that even men who are born lacking the necessary organs to speak, whether they are blind or deaf, can still create their own languages to convey their thoughts with reason and understanding such as men without these handicaps can while using spoken language.

Descartes makes the point that the natural movements animals use or unique sounds they make to portray their emotions should not be confused with the complex language system used by man. He believes that these actions do not show true understanding or thought. Instead, Descartes relates the actions of animals to the reactions of a machine to a stimulus, as the animal is just acting through its parts as a machine would. Another misconception Descartes believes some people make is thinking that animals may speak to one another but through a language that cannot be understood by men. He argues that this cannot be true due to the fact that animals have the same organs as man and could just as easily make their language understood by man as it is understood by their fellow animals.

The second criterion to distinguish between man and machine is that no machine can do all of the tasks that humans are able to do. Although a machine may be better than man at performing a specific task, that same machine will still fail in other tasks. The task a machine performs is only possible through the disposition of its organs/parts and not from its own knowledge or mind. If a machine were to be created that could perform all the tasks that man could, it would need a new, separate part for each individual task that man could possibly perform. Descartes believes that man can perform literally any task through his mind, and, therefore, for a machine to be able to perform all the tasks that man can, it would also need to have an infinite amount of parts.

This argument of Descartes’ may also be used to differentiate between man and animal. It is obvious that many animals have much more skill in some of their actions than man has in these same actions, but these same animals also completely lack the ability to do other skills that are deemed simple by man. To Descartes, the fact that certain animals can do certain activities better than man can does not prove that they have any intelligence. It is similar to the clock’s ability to count time better than a human could. This is in spite of the fact that the clock has no intelligence and could in no way do anything a man could do, other than keep time. An animal may be able to run faster than man can, such as the clock can keep time better than man can, but neither has the capability to do something man considers simple such as count the number of hands they have.

Descartes’ philosophic view of mind-body dualism is prevalent throughout his two criteria. He believes that because the body and organs of man are near identical to those of the animals around him, it would be reasonable to believe that man would also act similar to these animals, as in without his deep thought or reason. To Descartes, the fact that the human mind is separate from their physical bodies is what makes them different from these animals. He believes that the mind of man could not just be a physical thing because it could then be recreated such that a machine could be recreated. As noted earlier when discussing the second criterion, no machine could possibly match the human mind due to the impossibility of creating a machine with an infinite amount of parts/organs. A comparison between the organs of man and animals is also a strong example of support for the argument of mind-body dualism. If the mind were simply the combination of the organs in the human body working together, there would be no reason for animals not to possess this same mind, which Descartes has already argued (through his two criteria) could not possibly be true.

I disagree with Descartes’ reasons for thinking why man should not himself as a machine or animal. I find basic flaws in the fundamental ideas behind his two criteria. His first criterion is based on the lack of a formal system of language for animals. He uses this fact to claim that animals, therefore, cannot have reason. In the time since Descartes put together his ideas in the Discourse on Method many scientific gains have been made in this area, and many of the findings from these experiments have come to completely disprove Descartes’ ideas. Animals have shown large capacities to learn, from gorillas knowing over two-thousand symbols in sign language to dogs differentiating between photos of other dogs and photos of different animals. Both of these examples show the animal ability to not only learn, but also to reason. An argument could possibly be made to say that these two signs of intelligence are mere instances of animals using mimicry, such as parrots speaking, but an argument based around this is nothing but speculation. Activities such as these display a more vast knowledge and mental capacity than Descartes previously thought possible.

His second argument was based solely on the fact that while some animals can be better at one thing than man, they cannot possibly do all that man can do. I find this argument faulty in that someone could also compare one man to another. While one man can do some things the other can’t, it does not justify one as having a mind and the other not. I believe that no living thing, neither man nor animal, should be compared to a machine, as opposed to Descartes’ argument that just man should not be able to be compared. This is because I believe that both animals and man both have the ability to reason and react to all stimuli while machines cannot possibly be given the ability to do either of these based on Descartes’ “infinite parts” argument.

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The Importance of Freedom in Rene Descartes’ Book Meditations on First Philosophy

October 21, 2021 by Essay Writer

The Reason for Freedom

In order to be an individual you first need to desire individuality. Once the realization that total individuality is impossible is factored in, all that remains is the desire to desire. With this insatiable quest comes no reason or responsibility. Yet social construct dictates that in order to obtain what is desired the individual must use reason. However too much reason leaves a rigid husk that will one day, due to humanities destructive nature, allow desire to exceed reason. When desire exceeds understanding negative consequence is imminent. Furthermore, when reason and desire are in balance truth is obtained and desire is fulfilled.

Descartes made clear his intention to reawaken the use of reason as a means of making truth attainable. He first explains how life can be made easier through obtaining knowledge. Also that power comes with knowledge and with this power comes a mastery of the secrets of the universe. “Knowing the power and actions of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies in our environment as clearly as we know the various crafts of our artisans, we could like artisans put these bodies to use in all the appropriate ways, and thus make ourselves the masters and owners of nature,” (Descartes, Discourse 6,24.) Men left solely to desire will never attain truth as they will be prevented by their own bias.

It seems that our will and desire stops us from obtaining knowledge. Descartes discusses in his Meditations how our free will is a tool to obtain more knowledge; it hinders us when we allow our motives to get in the way of objectivity. “My errors depend on a combination of two causes, to wit, on the faculty of knowledge that rests in me and on the power of choice or of free will that is to say, of the understanding and at the same time of the will,” (Descartes, Meditations 4,23.) The extent of understanding is finite and desire tends to extend beyond our understanding causing intuitively leaps with no proof. “Errors come from the sole fact that since the will is much wider in its range and compass than the understanding, I do not restrain it within the same bounds but extend it also to things which I do not understand; and as the will is of itself indifferent to these, it easily falls into error and sin and chooses the evil for the good, or the false for the true,” (Descartes, Meditations 4, 23.) He makes it clear that the misuse of freedom and freewill cause sin and error. In order to be successful and without error then freewill must be used in conjunction with reason and never get ahead of understanding. “If I abstain from giving my judgment on anything when I do not perceive it with sufficient clearness and distinction, it is plain that I act rightly and am not deceived. But if I determine to deny or affirm, I no longer make use as I should of my free will, and if I affirm what is not true, it is evident that I deceive myself…I do not escape the blame of using misusing my freedom; for the light of nature teaches us that knowledge of the understanding should always precede the determination of will,” (Descartes, Meditations 4, 24.) Judgment error is a part of infrastructure but this same part is what we must overcome in order to achieve our goals.

God is perfect and has given man extensive talents and abilities, He has therefore, not made man to “suffer” in his error but for man to use his freewill to obtain more knowledge. As the pursuit of knowledge is the sum of its harvest. “And it is true that when I think only of God I discover no cause of error…when recurring to myself, experience shows me that I am nevertheless subject to an infinitude of errors,” (Descartes, Meditations 4, 22.)Because it is in our nature to error we overcome it and become masters and possessors of nature by fighting against this error. “For trying to overcome all the difficulties and errors that prevent our arriving at knowledge of the truth is a matter of fighting battles; when we accept some false opinion on an important question of some significance, that is a defeat, and we need much more skill to recover from it than we do to make good progress when we already have principles that are well founded,” (Descartes, Discourse 6, 26-27.) Although, our failure to unlock truth lies still lies in our error that is drawn from our finite understandings. “I fall into error from the fact that the power given me by God for the purpose of distinguishing truth from error is not infinite,” (Descartes, Meditations 4, 22.) The desire for knowledge has to be drawn of our freewill. No one can teach us how to want to possess knowledge. “I am convinced that if in my youth I had been taught all the truths I have since tried to demonstrate…I would have never acquired…a practiced ability to find new truths whenever I set myself to look for them,” (Descartes, Discourse 6, 28) If we can overcome our lack of understanding through fulfillment in knowledge obtained out of our desire for knowledge we can achieve all greatness.

In Notes from the Underground freedom is humanity’s last line of defense against over rationalizing. Life could be quantified. Science could one day predict the career path, deviations, and entire life of an individual. Yet to be merely a chart or graph is not truly living. “Who wants to want according to a table? Moreover; he will immediately turn from a man into a sprig in an organ or something of the sort; because what is a man without desires, without will, and without wantings, if not a sprig in an organ barrel,” (Dostoevsky 26.) Desire and the capacity to seek thrill and lack consistency is the very definition of individuality and as men are individuals then our free will is our true capital. “His chief-est defect is a lack of good behavior and consequently a lack of good sense; for it has long been known that a lack of good sense comes from nothing else but the lack of good behavior,” (Dostoevsky 29.) In our destructive natures we find the proof that man cannot be boxed by reason alone. Like the child that begins, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, to play gently with his pet cat yet he eventually turns to amusement through torture of the cat, thus is the destructive curiosity of mankind. “Because it really is impossible while perceiving reason, to want senselessness and thus knowingly go against reason and wish self-harm,” (Dostoevsky 26 .) Free will is uplifted by its mystery and insatiable characteristics that could be ultimately charted out, yet men should not accept life by this chart. Man should value freedom solely because he is free to value it. “You shout at me that no one is taking my will from me here; that all they’re doing here is busily arranging it somehow so that my will, of its own will coincides with my normal interests, with the laws of nature, and with arithmetic. Eh, gentlemen, what sort of will of one’s own can there be if it comes to tables and arithmetic, and the only thing going is two times two is four? Two times two will be four even without my will. As if there were any will of one’s own,” (Dostoevsky 31.) Freedom opens doors that reason can only contemplate about. It is not bound by error as there is no good or bad behavior, only what is profitable, only what is most desired.

Dostoevsky’s argument accounts for retort by listing possible counterarguments. It stands that, because of reason and science he has discovered that freedom is best. Without knowledge and reason, trial and error, or experimentation, Dostoevsky would not have come to this knowledge of freedom. It seems then that his knowledge of freedom and his understanding of the values of freedom have been brought to him through reason thereby making reason the largest contributor to his ideas about freedom. Descartes argument is thoroughly strengthened by his constant reaccreditation method. He consecutively attempts to establish objectivity within his works stating that these ideas are gifts from God and that readers may not find his works applicable to daily life as they are incomplete. “As for the benefit that others might get from learning about my thoughts, this couldn’t amount to much because they’re still not very developed; much more has to be done before they are ready for practical application,” (Descartes, Discourse 6, 27.) He even ends the Discourse with a strong personal statement about how he plans to carry himself, not as a man after fame or fortune, a man driven by greed, or a misuse of freewill, but as a good man doing honest work. “And I shall always hold myself more obliged to those whose favor enables me to enjoy uninterrupted leisure than to any who might offer me the most honorable employments of the world,”(Descartes, Discourse 6, 31.) However, Dostoevsky states that men like this, good men, well behaved, are merely stalling the moment that their destructive behaviors take over. “They’re constantly appear in life people of such good behavior and good sense, such sages and lovers of mankind, as precisely make it their goal to spend their entire lives in the best-behaved most sensible way possible, to become, so to speak, a light for their neighbors, essentially in order to prove them that one can indeed live in the world as a person of good behavior and good sense,” (Dostoyevsky 30.) This same man will later, without reason, perform some destructive behavior. Freewill without reason however is not something that either of them argues against. Dostoevsky has been oppressed in this “underground”; most of his suffering is self-inflicted but there is no reason, no truth to be found, no grand mystery in the underground. “You see, reason, gentlemen, is a fine thing, that is unquestionable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, while wanting is a manifestation of the whole of life-that is, the whole of human life, including reason and various little itches… While human nature acts as an entire whole, with everything that is in it, consciously and unconsciously, and though it lies, still it lives,” (Dostoyevsky 28.) Both arguments are reinforced by their author’s melding opposing ideas in to emphasize their approach as most prominent. Both arguments deteriorate as they acknowledge the opposition. Descartes preaches the importance of freewill as if it is a poison that siphons the success out of truth. Dostoevsky calls upon reason repeatedly to create his argument and to orchestrate the similarities between freewill and reason. In essence they both prove themselves by stating that reason and desire are both necessary. Man must have a balance of these qualities to achieve his goals and fulfill his desires.

Dostoevsky’s language and proximity would at first glance make it seem that he more accurately captures humanity. He works to create vey poignant examples that demonstrate distinctly his use of words and his meanings. His work speaks to the average man that is tired of being the tail of society, driven into the underground for shelter from the lifeless ritualistic behaviors of everyday life. He shuns reason because men are free. “While human nature acts as an entire whole, with everything that is in it, consciously and unconsciously, and though it lies, still it lives,” (Dostoevsky 28.)Not even our own intellect can remove our desires. A chart could measure the desire of man, but it is the fact that man desires that is more important that the measurement. Descartes’ argument is more scientific. He describes practical tools like scientific peer-review, public scientific research publishing, and truth seeking as a means of explaining the universe. “At the beginning it is better to avail oneself only to ones that just happen around us… better than, that is, to resorting to more contrived experiments…when we don’t yet know the causes of the more ordinary ones, and the factors they depend on are nearly always so special and so minute that it is very hard to spot them,” (Descartes, Discourse 6, 25.) This distances the average man from Descartes’s ideas. Dostoevsky completes his connection to everyday struggles by forcing inquiries. He even concludes chapter 8 stating, “As if there were any will of one’s own!” This puts into question the very integrity of freewill and our ability to desire, as if it could be predetermined. This pulls into the realms of the abstract and places the two arguments on equal footing. Without reason freedom is but choices and never choosing but simply rejoicing in the fact that one can choose. Truth is only as useful as it can be applied. When the application of truth is beyond understanding the result is a detriment. Both authors’ provide skewed views of humanity but together their views show the importance of both freewill and reason.

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Analyzing Rene Descartes’ Philosophy

October 21, 2021 by Essay Writer

Descartes has six meditations listed in his book. He vividly discards the need for believing in things that are not necessarily certain. In his books, he tries to state the relevant things that people he claims people should know for sure. According to the way the meditations are outlined in the book, it seems he had experienced the meditations in six consecutive days because the following meditation refers to the previous one as yesterday. It is believed that he started to work on his meditations in 1639 and till to date; his context is one of the best philosophical texts to be written. It has influenced many philosophers greatly around the world.

Descartes’ proof of the existence of God is both fascinating and at the same time barely understood. Descartes argue that the existence of God emanates from the simple but complex premises he created. He clearly states that the existence of the perfect human being and other animals is enough proof of the existence of a supernatural God (Witham, 2011). However, Descartes tendency of expressing his philosophies confuses many people which account for the confusion that revolves around his arguments.

Descartes’ first meditation is all about expressing the doubtable aspects about god. He introduces the readers to the several falsehoods that he had believed in. Descartes’ resolved on trashing everything that he believed in and started to build a new foundation of knowledge and belief based on credible aspects (Witham, 2011). He believed that he only needed one reason to doubt his existence so that he could create a foundation based on that doubt.

In his reflections, he states that some of the simple things can also be subjected to doubt. He says that the belief in an Omnipotent God could be false. He states that this is because people believe that god is extremely good and that he would not lead them into bad things. He further states that people the belief on omnipotent god means that the people would reason that god would never deceive them by all means. The irony is that he also states that when people believe that there is no God there is a higher tendency of being deceived because of his believe that the human imperfect sense was not created by a perfect being. By avoiding being skeptical, he says that an evil being is responsible for human imperfection because God created us in his likeness (Witham, 2011).

The first meditation is evidently full of skeptical doubts while skepticism is a hot philosophical debate on its own. Descartes mysteriously raises the question of how humans claim to understand the world around them with certainty without wanting to know who may be responsible for their existence. It is at that point that he started to raise doubt so that he can understand the world in a better way. His idea is not meant to argue the existence of God but at the same time, they cannot be ruled out since they have created a foundation of knowledge to understand the world. Descartes uses philosophical methods that enabled him to believe in the truth that was indubitable. He was able to divide his question and doubts into manageable parts where he started with simple aspects and dealt with the complexities afterward. These methods helped him to support the existence of God by comparing humans with animals and other objects that did not have a soul and finally came to the conclusion that the existence of humans is the main proof for the existence of God.

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Nagel and Descartes on Consciousness in Defense to Dualism

October 21, 2021 by Essay Writer

Have you ever wondered if it was possible to actually know another person’s or even another animal’s conscious state? This question has sparked numerous discussions and debates which basically summarizes the idea of consciousness. What is consciousness? By checking Oxford Dictionary of English and to directly quote the definition, the literal meaning of consciousness is “the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surrounding”. Basically, it is a person’s awareness and how they see the world. It is sort of the first person perspective of a human being. Due to this, each and every one of us has a conscious state because we see, understand and interpret our surroundings, or in general, the world in our own ways. To comprehend and grasp the idea of consciousness is such a complicated process because the topic is open to countless different discussions and interpretations. In particular, there are two philosophers in this term paper that were introduced to help support my ideas and opinions regarding consciousness and its relationship to dualism. These philosophers are the following: Thomas Nagel and René Descartes. These philosophers are compared to one another that helped me formulate an opinion regarding the topic. Another important key concept that is vital in expounding consciousness is dualism. Based on Scott Calef’s interpretation, he stated that it focuses on mind and matter and their differences. Through this, in my own understanding, dualism is basically an idea that helps philosophers to understand and compare the mental and physical world.

To begin, the first philosopher that will be thoroughly discussed is Thomas Nagel. One of his famous works entitled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” in my opinion explains the ideas of consciousness in an in depth manner. All living organisms have a conscious mental state or experience, therefore, there is something is it like to that organism. By reading his work, I was able to understand and formulate an understanding or conclusion on what it means to have consciousness. Just like his book title, I will relate my understanding to the life of a bat. Basically, all scientists and science teachers would explain that bats lived in caves, would sleep upside down and could fly. Through this, we then know that this is how these living organism slived in their everyday lives, but we never actually know how it feels like to live in a cave, sleep upside down and to fly. To further expound my idea, I believe that us human beings can only perceive and interpret one another in third person perspective, but we may not actually know and exactly know the first person perspective. In my opinion, it is impossible to know someone’s conscious state completely and precisely. To add, in relation to Nagel’s ideas, I strongly believe that if any living organism has consciousness or is aware of their surroundings, then there is a feeling on how it is like to be that living organism, but it may never be shared nor one hundred percent be known of their perspective unless you are that living organism.

The second and last philosopher that will be discussed and talked about is René Descartes. Through all the class discussions, I can safely explain and expound a brief background of his beliefs which is he doubted every single thing. He believed that by doing so and by doubting everything is to think. Another idea that will be introduced is the mind-body problem. This concept first originated from his ideas. Based on my own understanding, to summarize his mind-body problem idea, he said that the mind and body are distinct and very different from one another. Furthermore, based on the ideas of The Information Philosopher, the mind is a spiritual thing while on the other hand the body is physical. Additionally, I believe that the way René Descartes perceived this idea is that he saw that the mind is where people’s thoughts are located, this is something that people can keep to themselves without the fear of it being uncontrollably exposed to the outside world. This is because people are in control of their thoughts or basically everything that is going on inside their heads. Because of this idea, Descartes believed that these thoughts can help influence the physical world. For him, the physical world is something that cannot be controlled or in other words uncontrollable, and therefore cannot be controlled by people. There are consequences and events that people unknowingly experience out of the blue because the fate of the physical world is untouchable. Although, he believed that the mind is a powerful thing because it is free from the physical world. Therefore, I concluded that our thoughts can influence our actions that can help change the outcomes that externally happen in the physical world.

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Allegory of the Cave, Descartes’ Meditations, and The Truman Show

July 30, 2019 by Essay Writer

In his Allegory of the Cave, Plato asks us to consider that the world we are living is the equivalent of a cave; in order for us to enter into this “sensible realm” of truth and knowledge we must actively pursue these values. In his First Meditation, Rene Descartes asks us to abandon all preexisting assumptions of the universe, as there is the possibility that we are being deceived. It is difficult to imagine there being any legitimacy to either of these scenarios that the philosophers set up, as we are so wrapped up in the intricacies of our own lives that it rarely crosses our minds whether there is any authenticity to what we are experiencing. However, the 1998 film The Truman Show brings a very plausible reality to these propositions. The Truman Show brings to life the notions of skepticism – the belief that they way you think things do not match up with reality – brought up by Plato and Descartes. Recalling the Allegory of the Cave, The Truman Show presents a world where man lives in a false reality. It correlates with the idea of man’s ignorance, and his escape from it, that Plato writes about. Likewise, The Truman Show bears resemblances to First Meditations in respect to its exploration of one man’s transition from trust to doubt in the world presented to him.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave describes a set of circumstances in which humans have been trapped in a cave their entire life, with their only connection to the real world being the shadows cast on the wall they face by a burning fire behind them. Because they have been stuck in this position for all their lives, this is how they perceive their world to be. Truman Burbank, the title character of The Truman Show, lives very similarly to the people in the cave. The enormous television show set he lives on that he lives on echoes the pseudo-reality that the cave provided to the prisoners in Plato’s allegory. The actors hired to interact with Truman are like the fire that gave off shadows for the people in the cave, as both of these gave the illusion of a true reality. However, also like the prisoners, Truman goes through most of his life never suspecting anything was wrong with the world he was presented with. Truman believes “that the truth is nothing other than the shadows” (Republic VII p.1133). At this point in time, Truman is not a skeptic, as he takes his fake world at face value and believes it to be reality.

The key aspect of The Allegory of the Cave is that the prisoner ultimately is freed from his shackles and allowed to finally perceive the sensible realm. Truman’s quest to seek out the truth in his existence represent his own breaking free of the shackles put on him by Christof and all others involved in the production of the TV show about Truman’s life. Plato writes of how once reality can often times be hard to come to terms with for someone who has lived in a state of ignorance his entire life. He relates it to coming out of a dim cave, and having to adjust your eyes once you step out into the sunlight. The light is intimidating, but it is worth following, as once we immerse ourselves in it we cannot possibly imagine returning to the dark state we were once it. This is applicable to Truman, who overcomes his fear of water to fight his way to reaching a reality he has up till then only seen remnants of. It was a risk, but in the end we see that it was nonetheless a risk worth taking. Once Truman hits the wall – the boundary between the cave and the sensible realm – Christof tries to coax him out of leaving. However, it is too late. Truman knows too much, and he cannot possibly consider returning to his dark cave.

Truman would have never come to terms with reality had he never expressed doubt in his artificial world. Rene Descartes emphasizes the significance of having doubt in your surroundings through his First Meditation. Descartes argues that our surroundings cannot be trusted, and so if one ever wants to truly reach a full understanding of their world they must doubt everything. The Truman Show explores this concept of doubt, as Truman leads the majority of his life without a single doubt in his mind that the world is as he thinks it is; he never doubts that his wife is really his wife, he never doubts that he has genuine friends, and he never doubts that his dad died long ago. By never doubting these things, he remained a slave to Christof for so many years.

Once Truman started to be skeptical of his world, he became closer to discovering the truth of his own existence. As strange things occur to him more frequently, Truman abandons the state of denial he had been living in for his whole life. He picks up on odd, unexplainable events that are taking place, such as the stage light falling from the sky or the radio’s crossed signals picking up conversations from the crewmembers that are filming Truman. Truman’s peers tried to dissuade him from having distrust in the world that they designed for him, however Truman does not cease to follow the gut feeling that Descartes encourages. Ultimately, Truman comes to the same realization that Descartes had; his world is being controlled by some kind of evil mastermind, and what he is seeing does not correlate with the world’s absolute truth. This is what pushed him to seek out this actual reality. If Truman had not abandoned faith in the things he observed that seemed so obvious, the film would have ended much differently and much more disappointingly.

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The Separation of Mind and Body

May 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

Since the publication of The Discourse on the Method, Renes Descartes appears to have become the poster boy for the position of mind/body dualism. Throughout the Discourse and his later works, Descartes postulates several arguments for the absolute distinction and, thus, separateness of the mind and the body. The position is not simply that the mind and body have different properties but that they are entirely different substances. In this essay, I will aim to outline Descartes’ principal arguments and assess their cogency with reference to modern critical approaches. It does sometimes seem, however, as though these modern responses cloud the air around the arguments which Descartes himself presented; charitable interpretations, though they might generate more acceptable claims, are often unhelpful when discussing the validity and soundness of the arguments which Descartes himself puts into words. Ultimately, I will seek to sustain the line of argument that although the work of Descartes’ critics has forced hidden premises to surface thus rendering his arguments valid, many of his premises are still riddled with flaws.

I would like to begin by addressing two arguments for mind-body separation which stem from the difference in properties between the two entities. Firstly, I will discuss the famed argument from doubt which, as Hooker points out, is often regarded as ‘his primary argument for the distinctness of himself and his body[1].’ The argument follows from the cogito conclusion; the meditator cannot doubt his own existence since his existence is evident from his thinking at that moment; the fact he is thinking is evident from his doubting. Descartes notes that ‘from this I recognized that I was a substance whose whole essence and nature is to be conscious and whose being requires no place and depends on no material thing.’ The skeptic cannot doubt that he exists, but upon contemplating his body, is unable to rely on its reality (it may be an illusion, for example.) It is clear, then, that the mind and body must be distinct since they do not both have the property of indubitability. Formally, Descartes argues that (1) I can doubt that my body exists (2) I cannot doubt that I exist (3) Therefore, I am not identical with my body.

The argument seems suspicious. Firstly, the argument as presented is not a formally valid logical proof; the premises do not naturally entail the conclusion without the addition of another premise. Descartes doesn’t add this premise but later commentators tend to accept its implicitness. It seems that Descartes is presupposing Leibniz’s law, the principle of the indiscernibility of identicals: ‘for all things, x and y, if x is identical with y, then for all properties, p, x has p if, and only if, y has p[2].’ Acceptance of the validity of the argument from doubt, therefore, relies on the acceptance of this principle. Descartes, though implicitly relying upon it, doesn’t provide an argument in its favour. Luckily, the indiscernibility of identicals is commonly accepted amongst philosophers although there are objections which have been raised. Hooker reminds us, for example, of Kenny’s belief in the limitations of Leibniz’s law; the law, he argues, cannot be used in ‘modal and intentional contexts.[3]’ According to Kenny, Descartes implicitly relies on the law in such a context and is consequently guilty of ‘needing a principle not applicable to its premises; or, as some would say, a false principle[4].’ Many would disagree with Kenny’s objection and accept Leibniz’ law as a limitless necessary truth of numerically identical things. However, the fact that it can be doubted weakens Descartes case since, firstly, he doesn’t defend Leibniz’s law or even recognize his use of it (Descartes wouldn’t have defended a law called ‘Leibniz’s law’ since it hadn’t yet been formulated, but he didn’t defend his use of the principle we would now refer to as Leibniz’s law) thus leaving him open to this kind of criticism. Secondly, even if Descartes is implicitly relying on Leibniz’s law, he is in no position to do so; he has only just concluded his own existence and is in no position to be asserting general laws about the identity of objects he hasn’t yet proved exist.

Hooker points out another issue with the argument from doubt; Descartes argues from his doubting that his body exists and not doubting that he exists to the ‘de re counterparts[5]’ of these assertions: his body has the property of being doubted by him and he as a thinking thing does not. This kind of move could lead to a farcical inference such as Hooker’s example of Tom and his father: ‘I can doubt that John has ever fathered a son, so John has the property of being possibly doubted by me to have ever fathered a son. I cannot doubt that Tom’s father has ever fathered a son, so Tom’s father does not have the property of being doubted by me to have ever fathered a son. Since John has a property not had by Tom’s father, the two are distinct[6].’ The argument is obviously fallacious.

Arnauld expresses a similar worry within the fourth set of objections; simply because one can doubt that an object has a property, does not mean it doesn’t have that property. He uses the example of a right-angled triangle arguing that one might well be able to doubt that it has the Pythagorean property but this doesn’t mean that the triangle doesn’t have it since it is a necessary part of a right-angled triangle. The distinction of the triangle from this feature is impossible. Similarly, ‘despite my ability to imagine myself without a body, the body is indeed an essential part of me- something without which I could not exist[7].’ It seems that the property of being doubted by the meditator is not a genuine property of an object, it is a fact about the meditator. Descartes attempts to answer Arnauld’s worry in his replies. He argues that ‘…we cannot have a clear understanding of a triangle having the square on its hypotenuse equal to the squares on the other sides without at the same time being aware that it is right-angled. And yet we can clearly and distinctly perceive the mind without the body and the body without the mind[8].’ However, we know this fact about triangles. It is mathematically impossible for it not to be the case. In the case of the mind and body, we begin our investigations from a place of ignorance; although we can conceive of the two being distinct, they could just as easily be inseparable without our knowledge. As Hatfield puts it, ‘it is possible that the thinking self and the body are actually identical, and the reasoner is ignorant of that fact[9].’

Descartes later attempts to escape the claim that he derives his conclusion from ignorance by denying that the passages in the discourse which suggest this were not intended to be his conclusion (although, it does seem that they were: ‘from this I knew I was a substance whose whole essence or nature is simply to think, and which does not…depend on any material thing[10]…’) Descartes is sending confusing mixed messages here. However, at any rate, Descartes seems to be admitting himself that the argument from doubt, as stated in the Discourse, fails. It can be made valid but remains unsound.

Next, I would like to address the argument from divisibility. The argument simply states that the mind and body are separate entities; the former is indivisible and the latter divisible. Descartes maintains that ‘…when I consider the mind, or myself in so far as I am merely a thinking thing, I am unable to distinguish any parts within myself; I understand myself to be something quite single and complete. Although the whole mind seems to be united to the whole body, I recognize that if a foot or an arm or any other part of the body is cut off nothing has thereby been taken away from the mind.’ Once again, Leibniz’s law must come into play for the purposes of validity. The mind and body are distinct because they do not possess the same attributes i.e. indivisibility. Perhaps the most obvious issue here is that Descartes’ conception of the mind doesn’t seem to marry well with medical observations about the mind. Damage to the brain has been shown to affect our mind and diminish our mental capacity. Cottingham is very matter of fact about this particular point; he maintains that there is an abundance of evidence for mental capacity being diminished by damage to the nervous system, for example, ‘and the depressingly probable inference from this must be that the total destruction of the central nervous system will cause total mental extinction[11].’ In addition, he recognizes how common it is for the mind to seemingly exist in tension with itself i.e. for there to almost be two wills existing in the mind. Consciousness is not, therefore, necessarily a unified thing. Even if it were a unified thing, it might still rely on the physical brain which, as Descartes accepts, can be divided.

Descartes’ argument within the Meditations, often referred to as ‘the argument from clear and distinct perception’, seems much less susceptible to obvious fallacies than those arguments stemming from the distinct properties of mind and body, though fallacies are still present. The argument again emphasizes that the meditator is definitely sure that he is a thinking thing and has a sufficiently clear understanding of what thought is to enable him to accept the possibility that he might not be an extended thing. Equally, the meditator has a clear understanding of a body as an extended, non-thinking thing; it is essential to its being that it be extended but not necessary that it be a thinking thing. If the meditator can conceive of a thinking thing being non-extended and of an extended thing being non-thinking, then it is possible for God to create a world in which these clearly understood possibilities are actually the case in reality. If God could indeed create a thinking, non-extended thing and vice versa, then they must be distinct and separately existing things.

Firstly, many have recognized the issue of Descartes seemingly claiming that because he can clearly and distinctly perceive mind and body as existing apart, they can actually be distinct. Enter Arnauld, once again, with his triangle. He argues that one could clearly and distinctly perceive a right angled triangle to exist without possessing the Pythagorean property and Descartes seems to suggest this makes the object and the principle distinct. Evidently, they are not. Descartes replies by arguing that the Pythagorean principle is not a complete thing, and he is discussing complete things. As Cottingham states ‘his concept of mind is, he maintains, complete; for what he is aware of- his thinking- is sufficient for him to exist with this attribute and this alone[12].’ Still, however, we have the issue of how Descartes knows he will continue to exist without his body. ‘I think therefore I am’ only works if thinking can happen and if thinking relies on a brain, for example, then Descartes cannot claim that he would still exist without his body. Many have accused Descartes of underestimating the potential complexity of thought; Cottingham puts the problem succinctly: ‘ Why should it not be the case, as indeed modern scientific research seems increasingly to be discovering, that it is an extremely obscure and complicated process- vastly more difficult to understand than, say, digestion[13].’ In addition, the argument from clear and distinct perception rests on the reliability of clear and distinct perception which, although a discussion of it is beyond the scope of this inquiry, is questionable.

In conclusion, it seems that the arguments I have discussed for Descartes’ mind-body dualism are, largely, indefensible. I think it is fair to say that Descartes’ proofs can more often than not be made logically valid by the addition of premises which he presupposes. Taking the words on the page at face-value, Descartes’ failure to specify implicit premises would perhaps force us to conclude he often makes logically invalid assertions. The work of later critics has allowed him to be read more charitably. However, although we might be able to render Descartes’ arguments valid, it is often difficult to argue for their soundness.

[1] Hooker, M. 1978. ‘Descartes’s Denial of Mind-Body Identity’, in Hooker, M. (ed), Descartes: Critical and Interpretive Essays (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press: 1978)

[2] Leibniz’ law, in Hooker, M. 1978. ‘Descartes’s Denial of Mind-Body Identity’, in Hooker, M. (ed), Descartes: Critical and Interpretive Essays (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press: 1978)

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] Cottingham, J. Descartes (Basil Blackwell), 1986, chapter 5

[8] Descartes, The Fourth set of replies.

[9] Hatfield, G. Descartes and the Meditations

[10] Descartes, The Discourse on the Method, 6:32-3

[11] Cottingham, J. Descartes (Basil Blackwell), 1986, chapter 5

[12] Cottingham, J. Descartes (Basil Blackwell), 1986, chapter 5

[13] ibid.

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Descartes’ cogito: inference or intuition?

April 16, 2019 by Essay Writer

The kind of reasoning utilized by Descartes in order to arrive at his conclusion of the cogito has been questioned since its initial publication in The Discourse on the Method. The conjunction ‘ergo’ suggests the formula of an inference, that Descartes has concluded his existence from a premise. Yet, Descartes himself seems to deny the use of this kind of deductive reasoning favouring the idea that the conclusion stems from intuition. In this essay, I will seek to examine the potential issues with claiming the cogito conclusion to have been inferred and question whether the argument from intuition carries any more weight. Ultimately, I believe that once all has been considered, it has to be asserted that Descartes concludes ‘I think, therefore I am’ intuitively.

Before engaging in an exploration of the place of intuition and inference within the cogito reasoning, it is perhaps worth briefly and clearly summarising the question. Hatfield explains it succinctly: ‘…where does the conclusion get its force? Does it follow from a logical argument, that is, by deductive inference from the premise “I think”, perhaps with other premises? Or is it somehow known immediately, through the mere awareness of some thoughts?’ (Hatfield, G. Descartes and the Meditations, P.107) Essentially, which kind of reasoning is being used here given that the formula is both claimed to be discovered intuitively and presented as an, albeit invalid or incomplete, logical inference? Markie offers a useful definition of the two key terms: ‘Deduction is “the inference of something as following necessarily from some other propositions which are known with certainty” (AT X 369: CSM I 15). Intuition is the faculty by which we gain the initial certainties that make deduction possible.’ (Peter Markie. “The cogito and its importance”, in the Cambridge Companion to Descartes, P.144)

For structural ease, I would like to firstly address the possibility of the cogito as an inference and then as an intuition. Proponents of the inference interpretation might argue that some inferring is obviously occurring since Descartes has moved from one proposition to another, the addition of the conjunction ‘therefore’ suggesting the entailment of the conclusion from the premise. It is widely accepted that in order for the argument to be a logically valid syllogism, it would require the addition of a second premise allowing the argument to read as follows: 1) I think 2) Everything that thinks exists 3) Therefore, I exist. However, it is clear that this simplistic inference interpretation of the cogito simply will not work in accordance with Descartes’ ideas. Firstly, he explicitly rejects a syllogistic approach in his Second Set of Objections: …’he does not deduce existence from thought by means of a syllogism…’ As Cottingham rightly points out, Descartes approaches the cogito purely from a personal perspective; he concludes that he is existing purely from the fact that he is thinking in a specific moment. The entailment of existence from thinking is, according to Descartes, self-evident: ‘It is a contradiction to suppose that what thinks does not, at the very time when it is thinking, exist.’ (Principles I 7: AT VIII 7; CSM I 195, Cited in Cottingham, J. Descartes, 1986, p.36) It is only self- evident when it is occurring in time, however. Descartes is not making any general claims about the connection between thinking things and existing things but simply concluding his own existence from his own personal case of thinking. As Cottingham reiterates: ‘most logicians are accustomed to think of validity predominantly in term of timeless, non-tensed propositions, and many commentators…have managed fundamentally to distort Descartes’ argument by trying to construe in ‘blackboard fashion’, as an exemplification of some timelessly valid formal structure.’ (Cottingham, J. Descartes, 1986, p.36) Aside from this point, it doesn’t seem as if we can accept an additional premise at this stage, especially such a general claim as ‘everything that thinks exists’; Descartes is only just on the cusp of proving his own existence and is therefore in no position to be making generalisations about other things, beings or objects which he has still not demonstrated, exist. He is still in the process of doubting everything, the hypothetical ‘second premise’ would therefore be dubitable. Descartes has not yet refuted the notion of a demon controlling our thoughts and so any conclusions or inferences could arguably still be deceptive.

However, although Descartes blatantly rejects the idea of condensing his cogito into a strict, syllogistic inference, he does seem to accept that the hidden premise exists and is needed. He does not deny that ‘one must first know what thought, existence and certainty are, and that it is impossible that that which thinks should not exist, and so forth. (Descartes, The principles of Philosophy ‘) However, it seems that Descartes, in accepting the addition of this premise, is still guilty of assuming knowledge he is not yet in a position to have. As Hatfield maintains: ‘”I exist” is supposed to be her first item of knowledge. If she really has cleared her mind of all other judgements, where do these premises come from?’ (Hatfield, G. Descartes and the Meditations, P.111) He argues that ‘it appears so evident to the understanding that we cannot but believe it…’ (Descartes’ Letter to Clerselier)But Descartes has forced himself to doubt everything, including the simplest of propositions at this stage. It seems, then, that if the premise that ‘Everything that thinks must exist’ cannot be maintained without undermining Descartes’ claim to be doubting everything, the syllogism (which Descartes rejects anyway) fails and so does the idea that the premise is simply known to be true (the view which Descartes seems to support.)

I would now like to consider the cogito purely as an intuition. In order for the cogito conclusion to be asserted, both ‘I think’ and ‘I exist’ would have to be shown to be indubitable. For Descartes, the idea that he is thinking is a self-evident proposition; he states in the Principles that certain notions are ‘sufficiently self-evident…the most simple notions.’ (Descartes, The principles of Philosophy ) We can perhaps support this idea with Cottingham’s point that ‘doubting is a special case of thinking.’ (Cottingham, J. Descartes, 1986, p.39) It does seem to be the case that in doubting that we are thinking, we are proving to ourselves that we are. ‘Doubting it confirms its truth.’ (ibid.)It seems that the only way to escape the indubitableness of ‘I am thinking’ is to deny that we are doubting which, I think most would agree, goes too far. There would be no way of moving forward if we were to do this. In addition, ‘I think’ is an incorrigible claim; because it is an internal belief, it cannot be doubted. It is not necessarily true but is certain in the sense of being beyond doubt.

From this indubitable premise, Descartes moves on to conclude that he exists in one unbroken leap. It seems clear to us that for something to be thinking, it does have to be existing, how can it be otherwise? But it is here that those in the ‘inference-camp’, so to speak, would claim Descartes is presupposing a hidden premise. I think that the way Descartes resolves the issue does seem to be the most convincing. He draws a distinction between the way in which we actually, in reality, come to the conclusion that we exist and what is actually going on philosophically behind the scenes. In other words, ‘he argued that the judgement ‘I think, therefore I am’ is inferentially complex and contains an implicit major premise, but that everything needed is grasped in a single intuitive act of thought.’ (Hatfield, G. Descartes and the Meditations, P.112) Although this approach rather diplomatically seems to combine both the idea of inference and the idea of intuition, I cannot help but feel that Descartes is still championing the idea that he used an intuitive method to come to his conclusions. Although, after the fact, we can analyse an intuition and dissect its origins and the premises implicit within it, this doesn’t mean we didn’t arrive at a conclusion through intuition. Descartes seems to be saying that when he contemplated his thought and his existence and their interconnectedness, he was doing it by the method of intuition. This seems to me to be similar to arguing the following: that when we feel cold, we know we feel cold by virtue of feeling a sudden shiver. Though there are numerous anatomical factors which contributed to generating the shiver, it is through the shiver alone that we come to know we are cold. If my understanding is correct, then intuition in Descartes’ case is like the shiver and the implicit premises the underlying reasons for it.

For Descartes, general principles such as the ones which many claim help us infer the cogito conclusion (for example, ‘everything that thinks must exist’) can only actually be discovered after the drawing of the conclusion. Hatfield perfectly summaries the point here: ‘Descartes believes that such general premises are at work in the logic of the cogito reasoning…but they come to awareness only through reflection on particular cases of intuitively evident knowledge…the inference is accepted in a single intuition and subsequently analysed to discover its logical structure, including the tacit general premises.'(Hatfield, G. Descartes and the Meditations, P.115) By this understanding, Descartes escapes the issue of using a dubitable premise because he claims only to know about it after the fact. He is using only his intuitions, not any unjustified premises.

Markie adopts an interpretation of Descartes’ cogito which marries almost exactly with the aforementioned approach; he calls it ‘the self-evident intuition /immediate inference interpretation.’ (Peter Markie. “The cogito and its importance”, in the Cambridge Companion to Descartes.) Markie argues that ‘Descartes intuits the self-evident proposition that he thinks and simultaneously immediately infers that he exists. His knowledge that he thinks is intuitive in the primary sense of being self-evident and entirely noninferential; his knowledge that he exists is intuitive in the extended sense of being immediately inferred from the simultaneously intuited premise that he thinks.’ (ibid. ) This approach admits the use of both inferential and intuitive knowledge but covers them both with the umbrella of intuition. I think this represents a good example of Descartes recognising how nuanced our approach to this kind of question has to be; there is a point at which the formulaic nature of philosophy seems to be failing us since strictly speaking, Descartes’ conclusion is an inference but it is understood intuitively in real life. Descartes couldn’t say that he arrived at his conclusion through following premises x, y and z to their conclusion validly because this would be a false impression of how he came to gain knowledge.

Therefore, it is evident that Descartes’ cogito argument is not a straightforward case when it comes to establishing the type of reasoning used in drawing to his conclusion. The potential issues with claiming the cogito conclusion to have been inferred are many and, although the argument is laid out as a weak logical proof, it does seem as though ‘I think, therefore I am’ is a certainty arrived at primarily through intuition.

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Did Descartes argue in a circle?

April 4, 2019 by Essay Writer

Arnauld, within his objections to ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’, highlights what would come to be considered one of the most fundamental flaws in Cartesian reasoning; namely the evident circularity of reasoning from ‘Clear and Distinct perception’ to the existence of God, and vice versa. The problem has come to be christened ‘The Cartesian Circle’ and has lead to an abundance of philosophical discourse, both critical and defensive, on the subject. In this essay, I will seek to sustain the line of argument that Descartes is initially guilty of the charge of circularity levelled against him which he fails to escape within his reply. Though many have since proposed methods of overcoming the circularity issue which in themselves might seem cogent, ultimately they can only be achieved by the alteration of Descartes’ original argument or a forced interpretation of the text thus failing to demonstrate that Descartes did not, in fact, argue in a circle.

Before engaging in an analysis of the circularity problem it is perhaps worth briefly summarizing the steps which Descartes’ takes to arrive at his conclusion. The meditator having begun his contemplation doubting all that he knows and perceives, he eventually recognises the indubitableness of his own existence; Descartes’ famous ‘cogito’ reasoning states that he has to exist because he is thinking, the fact that he is thinking is evident from his doubting. Hatfield formally expresses how the argument subsequently unfolds: ‘1) I know with certainty that I am a thinking thing. 2) This knowledge is based solely on a clear and distinct perception of its truth. 3) Clear and distinct perception would not be sufficient to yield such knowledge if it were in any way fallible. 4) Therefore, clear and distinct perception provides a sufficient ground for knowledge; whatever I so perceive is true. ‘ (Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.144) Though Descartes has now established the basic reliability of his perceptions, they are still potentially open to doubt until they can be guaranteed by a non-deceptive God. The existence of this non-deceptive God can only be concluded by appeal to the proofs of the intellect which his existence supposedly validates. Cottingham summarizes the problem succinctly: ‘I need to trust my intellect in order to prove God’s existence, yet without prior knowledge of God’s existence I have in principle no reason to trust my intellect.’ (Cottingham, J. Descartes, pp. 66-70) Herein lies the problem of the Cartesian Circle. The method with which Descartes argues means that he never actually removes the doubt from any of his claims; we can doubt our clear and distinct perceptions (albeit only in a ‘slight’ and metaphysical’ way) which means we have to doubt the existence of God since we cannot trust the intellectual method we used to arrive at his existence. Yet, paradoxically, his existence is the only thing which could remove the doubt. ‘A particular method of ascertaining the truth (clear and distinct perception) is vindicated by proving that God exists and is no deceiver, but this proof relies on that very method.’ (Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.169) As a reader would naturally interpret it in the Meditations, therefore, the argument is almost certainly circular. I will now move on to consider how Descartes himself endeavours to escape the circle. In response to Arnauld’s criticism, Descartes appeals to the difference between what we clearly and distinctly perceive in the present and what we remember having perceived on a prior occasion. He argues that ‘…we are sure that God exists because we attend to the arguments which prove this; but subsequently it is enough for us to remember that we perceived something clearly in order for us to be certain that it is true. This would not be sufficient if we did not know that God exists and is not a deceiver.’ (Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.169) I think it is worth questioning whether this is actually a reply to Arnauld’s circularity worries; what Descartes seems to be implying here is that circularity doesn’t actually matter because all the existence of God does is allows the meditator to confidently rely on clear and distinct perceptions he is no longer having i.e. perceptions he only recollects. One can rely on current clear and distinct perceptions. Firstly, if, indeed, Descartes is saying what he seems to be saying, why exactly was there any need to doubt in the first place? As Hatfield notes, ‘this reply makes it seem as if the reliability of clear and distinct perception was never itself really placed in doubt ‘(Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.170), which, of course, it was. Descartes seems to have changed his tune, so to speak. Consequently, the reply doesn’t appear to tackle the circularity which Arnauld initially pointed out because Descartes has moved the goal posts. However, granting that he hasn’t and that this is the way he wishes, and has always wished, to argue, there still seems to be an issue; we still have to rely on God’s existence at some stage in order to trust our recollected perceptions and we still cannot prove his existence without presupposing the reliability of our clear and distinct perceptions. It seems that in order for the reply to work, we have to be able to prove God’s existence without clear and distinct perception. I don’t think that this is possible within Descartes’ framework as I now hope to demonstrate.

Descartes postulates two arguments towards the existence of God which, by virtue of their being arguments, already presume to trust the human intellect. However, aside from this fact, the arguments seem weak and thus unable to prove the existence of the God necessary to secure our certainty of recollected perceptions. Within the third meditation, Descartes explores the nature of ideas; he maintains that ‘there must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause.’ (The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. by Cottingham et alii. Meditation 3, P.28)The idea of a perfect, infinite God could not exist in us because we are finite; yet, the idea does exist in us. There must be a cause of the objective reality found in the idea of him; that cause would have to be God. However, in order for this argument to hold, the idea of God would have to be innate which does not account for the multitude of people who do not find this idea of God within them at all, or even the idea of a perfect being. In addition, there is nothing to suggest we could not create this idea of a perfect being from our own limitations i.e. imagine a limitless being. Descartes might argue that we cannot derive the idea of perfection from imperfection, presumably because we could not know limitations without the idea of perfection. One can easily conceive of us creating an idea of perfection, however, just by comparison with other, better humans and extending this to an extreme. Moreover, we might be unable to recognise a perfect being; what we think is a perfect being could be imperfect but simply more perfect than us. It seems, then, that this is a rather weak argument for God’s existence lessening our ability to use God to validate our recollected clear and distinct perceptions.

Descartes provides a second proof for the existence of God in the form of his version of the Ontological argument. The central idea is that necessary existence is part of the definition of a perfect being, the idea of which the meditator clearly and distinctly perceives. Therefore, God must exist. The most evident flaw in the proof rests in the fact that existence is not a predicate; if it were, anything could be brought into existence. Anything we could conceive of as perfect in our minds would necessarily exist and this is definitely not the case.

It seems that even if Descartes’ proofs for the existence of God were not as weak as they are, his reply against Arnauld’s circularity criticism still wouldn’t hold. Both arguments still appear to be relying on the clear and distinct perception of the idea of God which invites the return of the circle. Otherwise, how are we perceiving this idea? It could be argued that the idea of God comes from the ‘natural light’ (‘the intrinsic cognitive power found in all human minds'(Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.156)) which is not open to any doubt. However, if we could perceive things by this ‘natural light’, is there any need for the deceiving-God hypothesis? Hatfield also draws our attention to the fact that the natural light and clear and distinct perception are two different phrases representing the same idea: ‘…the cogito reasoning is seen by the natural light. Earlier, the same conclusion was attributed to clear and distinct perception. It therefore seems that the natural light and clear and distinct perception are the same thing described in to different ways.’ (ibid. p.157) One couldn’t be used in place of the other in this case. Descartes’ reply is also very limited if we can only clearly and distinctly perceive things in the present without God; as soon as we stop concentrating on the clear and distinct perception, it becomes a perception we have to recollect and we need God again. Hatfield is keen to mention, on behalf of Arnauld, that Descartes’ reply also does not seem to address the issue of the truth behind our clear and distinct perceptions: ‘whether or not we can doubt them, they might still be false. In that case, we should want a proof of their validity that does not rely on clear and distinct perception. It is that proof that Arnauld rightly says Descartes has not supplied.’ (Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.171)

To reiterate, then, Descartes’ reply to the circularity challenge states that we can clearly and distinctly perceive things without God but God is needed to remove our doubts about recollected perceptions. Most of our clear and distinct perceptions will be recollected since we cannot be clearly and distinctly perceiving things at all times. Therefore, the arguments for God’s existence have to be sound and cannot appeal to clear and distinct perception without falling back into circularity. The arguments which Descartes presents for God’s existence are either too weak to be convincing or appeal to clear and distinct perception so his reply is a weak one.

Since the publication of Arnauld’s circularity concern, scholars have attempted to interpret the meditations in such a way as to relieve Descartes of the charge of circularity or, at least, to interpret it in such a way that the challenge doesn’t matter. For example, some have suggested that by altering the way in which we view the intention behind the meditations, the circle can be avoided. If Descartes only intended to achieve maximum certainty as opposed to truth then his reply seems more generally adequate; we are certain of our clear and distinct perceptions until we stop having them at which point the doubt of the deceiving-God hypothesis can creep in. If we are certain/convinced of the proofs for a non-deceiving God’s existence then his deception is no longer a worry and we can be maximally certain of our perceptions. ‘We have not shown that clear and distinct perceptions are true and so have not shown that the proofs of God are true. But we have shown that they are maximally certain, thereby reaching our goal of unshakeable belief.’ (Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.171) It does seem, however, that Descartes aims towards truth on numerous occasions: ‘if I were unaware of God; and I should thus never have true and certain knowledge…’ represents just one example. He talks of knowledge and of truth. Loeb suggests that ‘knowledge, in the strict sense of scientific knowledge, is identified with unshakeable belief…’ (Loeb, L. ‘The Cartesian circle”, in The Cambridge Companion to Descartes, p.203) which would suggest that the idea of aiming for certainty is perhaps not such an unnatural interpretation of Descartes. Arguably, however, all this can do is lessen what the meditations seek to achieved; it doesn’t solve the problem, it simply dilutes Descartes’ intention until the problem no longer exists.

Another potential way of removing the circularity problem is removing the doubt in the first place. Hatfield offers a description of what this would entail i.e. arguing that God cannot possibly be a deceiver because the notion of God being a perfect being and the notion of him being deceptive are logically incompatible; ‘the supposed reason for doubt is removed and the circle is (allegedly) avoided.’ (Hatfield, G, Descartes and the Meditations, chapter 5, p.174) However, the circle is only avoided because this is not Descartes’ argument. The fact that there is a logical contradiction within his conception of a deceiving God is a separate problem but within the argument which we call circular, Descartes entertains the idea of a deceiving God. Therefore, though it may be able to remove the circularity problem, it doesn’t disprove the fact that Descartes argued in a circle. The ‘remove the doubt’ proposition also contains within it potential issues. For example, the idea of a perfect God could, in some way, be compatible with a deceiving God. (ibid.)

It suffices to say, by way of conclusion, that Descartes argues in a circle. He is guilty of the initial challenge postulated by Arnauld and then subsequently fails to provide an adequate response to the criticism. Though it is worth considering scholarly attempts to remove the circularity problem, these are only arguably useful when attempting to examine whether one could make the Cartesian reasoning work as opposed to whether Descartes made it work. Furthermore, it does seem that these propositions often rely on either an interpretation which doesn’t seem entirely as intended or a distortion of the argument into something which doesn’t necessarily resemble the original.

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The Role of Senses to Rene Descartes

February 1, 2019 by Essay Writer

In René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, he argues that the senses do not accurately help us understand the world. Descartes writes that he has begun to doubt all of his ideas. He decides that all those ideas come from the senses, which are not trustworthy. In the first few meditations, Descartes shows that one can use their senses to help them understand the nature of things, but the senses alone are insufficient to determine veracity. Descartes makes this argument through his discussion of the dream, his own existence, and the wax. Through these examples, Descartes proves that the role of the senses is in the mind more than it is in the body, showing that mind and body are separate.

For Descartes, dreams are evidence that one’s perceptions can be deceptive. Descartes argues that dreaming can prove the lack of use for senses in the body. When one is dreaming, they usually do not know they are dreaming. If one does not know they are dreaming, then one cannot know when they are awake. Descartes writes, “surely whatever I had admitted until now as most true I received either from the senses or through the senses. However, I have noticed that the senses are sometimes deceptive; and it is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once” (Descartes 14). If the senses are felt in a dream as well as in reality, Descartes argues, then one can not know if they are in fact dreaming or awake. One may conclude that any knowledge that relies on the senses should be examined, as it could be deception. Descartes writes that any given situation could be a deception of the senses. Even a realistic situation such as sitting by the fire in a gown could be just a dream, “how often does my evening slumber persuade me of such ordinary things as these: that I am here, clothed in my dressing gown seated next to the fireplace – when in fact I am lying undressed in bed” (Descartes 14). Descartes can feel the warmth of the fire in his dream so much that it does seem real. Moreover, if the senses make him believe that he can feel warmth, he cannot trust the warmth of the fire when he is awake. Descartes’ dream argument shows that although the senses help lead to understanding, one’s senses cannot determine truth. The senses can help one understand things like Descartes’ senses allow him to understand that fire is warm. In this case, the senses can not determine whether Descartes’ is feeling the warmth of the fire or dreaming the warmth of the fire. While dreaming, Descartes thinks of the warmth but in reality, he feels the warmth, showing mind and body are not one thing.

Descartes argues that doubt is the only way for him to discern between truths and falsities. If doubt is the only way for him to distinguish this, then determining truth, for Descartes, cannot be done through the body. It must be done through the mind and through thought. Descartes writes in his Second Meditation, “what then will be true? Perhaps just the single fact that nothing is certain” (Descartes 17). Descartes is arguing that the only thing a person can know is that things can be doubtful. If that person is doubting then that person must be something; that person exists. To understand this, one must use their thought. One’s body will only aid further understanding. This argument also stands for things that are knowable without sense experience but on intellectual experience.

Descartes further argues that the mind and body are separate through the use of his wax argument. When one describes something, the senses offer clues to how one can describe it. Descartes describes the wax, “…it has not yet lost all the honey flavor. It retains some of the scent of flowers…” (Descartes 21), and so on. Descartes gains the knowledge of these characteristics by using his senses. He knows it smells like honey because he is able to smell it. This idea goes for all the other characteristics and the corresponding sense. Descartes argues that the senses give one the image of an object, but not the knowledge of what that object truly is. The argument of the wax continues by Descartes heating the wax. The wax loses those characteristics that are sensed. This argument proves that the senses do determine traits of a substance but do not determine the nature of the substance, “so what was there in the wax that was so distinctly grasped? Certainly none of the aspects that I reached by means of the senses. For whatever name under the senses…has now changed; and yet the wax remains” (Descartes 21). While all the characteristics gained by sense have changed, the wax is still the same substance. The senses tell Descartes that things have changed, but he knows the object is still wax. He is using his rational thought. The senses provide the appearance of the thing. But when those appearances contradict each other one must disclaim those appearances as the thing itself. Descartes argues that the senses are a thing of the body, not of the mind. The mind tells you it is wax while the body tells you it is cold, hard, scented, and so forth. Descartes argues that this is because the senses do not belong to the object. In the case of the wax, “let us focus our attention on this and see what remains after we have removed everything that does not belong to the wax; only that it is something extended, flexible, and mutable” (Descartes 21). These things for Descartes are the wax itself, not the traits gained by sense experience.

In Descartes’ Meditations, he successfully argues that the role of the senses is in the mind more than it is in the body. Through further analysis, this argument proves that the mind and the body are separate. Saying that if one uses his or her mind to determine something without the use of his or her body, then these must be two separate beings. Through Descartes’ argument of the wax, his own existence, and the dream, he effectively argues this point. The wax provides a visual of something typically determined by senses that are further broken down into something that can only be truthful with the use of the brain and of knowledge. Descartes’ trial of his own existence provides the knowledge that the power of senses cannot provide truth but the power of the mind is strong enough to prove even the existence of a person. The dream presents the idea that the senses are untrustworthy. Through these small anecdotes of the senses, we gain a full picture of what the senses can and cannot do. What this argument proves is that the body and mind are separate beings with different purposes. These two beings work together to help us understand the sensible world.

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