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Philosophy: First Meditation of René Descartes Essay

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Updated: Jan 30th, 2021

Why does Descartes think there is reason to doubt all beliefs based on our sense capacity? (First Meditation).

René Descartes began his philosophical work with the first meditation. In this meditation, René questions or doubts the true existence of everything he had known. He claims that he had held from his youth “… many false opinions for true and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles were highly doubtful…” (Descartes 21). He further explains that all he had known, accepted, and held as the highest truth, were received through his senses.

Since he considered senses deceptive, “…I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us” (21). Descartes argue that it is not prudent to put absolute trust in our senses. He bases this argument on the premise that once deceived, a person should be more careful for it is likely for them to be deceived again.

According to Descartes, the deception of the senses is so strong that it presents its self as the absolute truth to even thinking beings. He further states that though he was sited next to the fire wide-awake, and certainly looking upon the paper he was holding in his hands, it could still be possible that it was all but a dream! To this, he states that there are, “…no definitive signs by which to distinguish being awake from being asleep” (22).

However, René Descartes’ work does not claim that senses are always deceptive, “But it may be said, perhaps, that, although the senses occasionally mislead us respecting minute objects…there are yet many other of their information (presentations), of the truth of which it is manifestly impossible to doubt.” He further says that it is unreasonable to doubt his existence. One reason that René Descartes claims as the weakness of the senses is our human background knowledge. He says, “Others are in error respecting matters of which they believe themselves to possess a perfect knowledge” (51).

By questioning the certainty of two plus three being five, René argue that as much as adding the values represent simple and general objects, our responses could be a result of the background knowledge we have on arithmetic. With no such information, even dealing with absolute objects that their existence is absolute becomes complicated. In support of this opinion, Descartes claims there is an evil god who deceives us to believe the existence of such matter as the sky, the ocean, air, and objects when in the actual sense there is none. He states, “…the belief that there is a God who is all powerful, and who created me, such as I am, has, for a long time, obtained steady possession of my mind.

How, then, do I know that he has not arranged that there should be neither earth, nor sky, nor any extended thing, nor figure, nor magnitude, nor place, providing at the same time, however, for [the rise in me of the perceptions of all these objects, and] the persuasion that these do not exist otherwise than as I perceive them ?” (24). René Descartes also argues that senses are like illusions.

That human beings see these illusions daily in their sleeps and imaginations and it is quite hard to be certain whether what we see, hear, and smell are mere perceptions. He says, “…just as of certain real colors, all those images of things, whether true and real, or false and fantastic, that are found in our consciousness are formed.” He says that at times he has been deceived in his sleep by illusions so clear that distinguishing them from the real state of happenings is almost impossible. This often amazed him.

How does Descartes think he finally has no reason to doubt beliefs based on our sense capacity? (Sixth Mediation)

In meditation six, René Descartes searches for the truth and attempts to dispel the reasons and claims for his doubtfulness. In doing this, he sets out on a planned course; to recall all he had believed as true, examine the reasons that made him doubt them, and to consider what to continue believing. He says, “I will recall to my mind the things I have hitherto held as true…perceived by the senses, and the foundations upon which my belief in their truth rested… examine the reasons that afterward constrained me to doubt of them; and, finally, I will consider what of them I ought now to believe” (62).

Having even doubted his own existence, claiming it could be a deception of the senses, Descartes attempts to establish a strong and rooted argument for his decision to believe that there was no reason to doubt beliefs based on senses. On things he had perceived, he says, “I perceived that I had a head, hands, feet and other members composing that body which I considered as part, or perhaps even as the whole, of myself.

I perceived further, that that body was placed among many others, by which it was capable of being affected in diverse ways, both beneficial and hurtful; and what was beneficial I remarked by a certain sensation of pleasure, and what was hurtful by a sensation of pain” (62). One may ask, what made Descartes doubt the very things he believed in before? To which he answers by using an illustration. He talks about towers which when observed from a distance seem to be round and when looked from closer, appear to be square. Since the structure remains unchanged, he concluded that there could be error in judgment based on external senses.

He further tried to justify his doubting by claiming lack of definite distinction between dreaming and being awake. Descartes finally changed his belief in none reliance on senses after careful consideration of many factors. On his belief that there was no line between dreams and actual occurrences, he said, “I now notice that there is a considerable difference between these two; dreams are never joined by the memory with all the other actions of life, as is the case with those actions that occur when one is awake.”

He also realized that he had a body. He learned from his “nature” that the body senses pain and heat caused by any external physical thing it comes into contact. His “nature” taught him further that there existed a connection between the mind and body. This, he illustrates by using analogy of a sailor and his ship. A sailor only sees damage caused to his ship but does not feel the damage himself. However, the mind feels when the body is injured because they are related. He also notes that the mind and the body are different.

In his concluding remarks, Descartes appreciates the senses and the great service they offer in enhancing human understanding. He asserts that senses help in correcting error humans are prone to and help in recognizing those errors. He further asserts that, “…knowing that all my senses … indicate to me what is true than what is false, in matters relating to the advantage of the body… make use of more than a single sense in examining the same object… being able to use my memory in connecting present with past knowledge… I ought no longer to fear that falsity may be met with in what is daily presented to me by the senses,” (71).

Descartes hold that our true sensations only partially resemble things or resemble only the primary quality of things. Explain what Descartes view of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is and why he holds it.

In meditation six, Descartes attempts to draw a line between primary and secondary qualities. He further attempts to explain how senses perceive the primary and secondary objects. He categorizes things such as color, heat, and tastes as primary while others like shape, texture, and size as secondary qualities. According to Descartes, primary qualities of an object are distinctively perceived because they are geometric qualities.

On the other hand, Descartes says secondary qualities can be misleading as they are non-geometric. Their perception is often obscure. He says, “But I am accustomed to imagine many other objects besides that corporeal nature which is the object of the pure mathematics, as, for example, colors, sounds, tastes, pain, and the like, although with less distinctness…” (62). The understanding of these primary and secondary qualities, require the use of both sensory and intellectual perception. What distinction does Descartes put between these perceptions? He says sensory perception involves the use of imaginations while intellectual perception involves the use of understanding.

To explain how sensations only give a partial resemblance of primary figures, while intellect views both its primary and secondary, Descartes uses an illustration of a triangle and a chiliogon. He says, “But if I desire to think of a chiliogon, I indeed rightly conceive that it is a figure composed of a thousand sides…but I cannot imagine the thousand sides as I do the three sides of a triangle. Thus, I observe that a special effort of mind is necessary to the act of imagination, which is not required to conceiving or understanding and this special exertion of mind clearly shows the difference between imagination and pure intellection” (61).

Descartes’ views secondary qualities as exclusively existent in the mind and not in the body. He further explains that these qualities could be a result of things in the world. Since the secondary qualities do not reside in the objects, use of senses to perceive objects only gives one dimension of the objects. Having explained that our comprehensive understanding of objects involves our imaginary and intellectual perceptions, and that senses are deceptive, the use of senses alone does not constitute an objects entirety.

Descartes in his conclusion of meditation six, which is the last meditation too, makes interesting accounts of possible reasons for our senses misleading us. He says that the purpose of our intellect is to make judgment on what is true or false. On the other hand, our senses are meant to guide us in our worldly activities and are therefore ill equipped to make accurate judgment. Therefore, our error in judgments is a result of over dependence on our senses. The responsibility of accuracy in judgments should be for the intellect.

Work Cited

Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy. Sioux Falls, USA: NuVision Publications, LLC, 2007. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Philosophy: First Meditation of René Descartes'. 30 January.

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