René Descartes begins his Meditations on First Philosophy by adapting what seems to be a rigorously scientific method. The French intellectual who is best known for the proposition “cogito, ergo sum” chooses to doubt everything that he knows and perceives in order to distinguish between certain and uncertain things. In his second meditation, Descartes sets out to prove that he truly exists in the world where nothing can be known for sure. Beginning with the statement that “nothing is certain”, the philosopher transits to asserting that his existence is beyond any doubt (Descartes, “Meditation II” 356). What are his arguments?
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Assuming that he is being deceived and thus cannot trust his senses, Descartes renounces his body and his perception of the surrounding environment and questions whether he can exist without a body. His answer is positive since the philosopher believes that if he asks questions, there should be someone who asks those questions (Descartes, “Meditation II” 357). And as those thoughts are his, Descartes concludes that he should be the one who is thinking. Interestingly, the intellectual seems to be unsure of how to define himself, yet all his attempts at doing so lead to the corroboration of the fact that he indeed exists.
At first thought, the philosopher’s argument looks plausible. Once a person begins to think about it, he or she is trapped by the feeling of inevitability of human thought. Being conscious creatures, people find it hard to clear their minds of all the sensations, ideas, and reflections. Nevertheless, the logic of Descartes’ reasoning is not perfect. While he aims to doubt every aspect of his existence, the intellectual does not suppose that his thoughts can also be an illusion.
Based on his reasoning, thinking should be no different from sensing or imagining as both actions supposedly have a subject. Descartes eventually arrives at this conclusion, but he uses the reversed logic. Once he establishes that he is real because he is able to think, the philosopher moves on to suppose that his senses can be similarly real, since he exists and experiences them.
Descartes’ argument is further developed in “Meditation VI” where the philosopher interprets mind and body as independent though connected entities. To support his claims, the intellectual compares the qualities of mind and body and deduces that they cannot be the same thing since the body is divisible and mind is whole (Descartes, “Meditation VI” 362). In addition, Descartes notes that body parts can be removed without affecting individual’s ability to think.
However, the philosopher only considers removal of inessential organs such as arm or foot, without meditating on the consequences of removing a head that is most closely connected to the mind. Such seemingly illogical omission suggests that the Descartes might have intentionally chosen certain body parts to support his main claim.
It can be argued that the intellectual made a mistake in his interpretation of mind as the support for his existence due to his human nature. People’s consciousness revolves around themselves, since they see, feel, and reflect on the word as if they were its center. Living inside a body creates the inability of individuals to perceive the reality from the objective standpoint, which means that the scientific method of falsification cannot be successfully applied for proving one’s existence.
Just as people cannot see the objects that are too small, like atoms, or too big, they are incapable of observing the world from a neutral position that would allow distinguishing illusions from the undeniable truth. In fact, this leads to the question of whether objective reality exists, as there is no one to observe it. Following this line of reasoning, it is highly unlikely that mindfulness exists separately from a body or can prove one’s existence outside or in the absence of physical body, as suggested by Descartes.
Some people might disagree with the above-mentioned ideas by saying that despite differing opinions among people, some things and facts are accepted by most individuals as truth. Therefore, the perception of the world is not completely subjective and to a certain degree reflects the surrounding reality in an accurate way. Furthermore, it can be proposed that the existence of common knowledge in heads of multiple individuals indicates the transcendent nature of mind that is not bound to a physical body.
Nevertheless, such interpretation of human consciousness cannot be fully accurate. According to the idea of mind being independent of a body, the thinking process should never stop as there is nothing to regulate it. While it is unknown what happens after death, thoughts tend to disappear during certain phases of sleep or a syncope. Thus, mind appears to be connected to and affected by a body.
In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes defended the theory of dualism that separates consciousness from the material world. Aiming to demonstrate the significance of rational understanding of the world, the philosopher attributed his existence to his thinking, while doubting his senses, memories, and imagination. With his work, Descartes made an important contribution to the development of philosophy; however, his arguments were not always strictly logical, inspiring arguments and rebuttals.
Descartes, René. “Meditation II: The Nature of Human Mind, and How It Is Better Known than the Body.” The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, edited by Gideon Rosen et al., W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, pp. 356-361.
—. “Meditation VI: … The Real Distinction between Mind and Body.” The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, edited by Gideon Rosen et al., W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, pp. 361-362.