A Lecture on Descartes’ Meditations – Delivered at Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth (a university in Pune) on October 19, 2011

Today I find myself giving a lecture on Descartes’ Meditations, having been asked by Professors Karekar and Karve to whom I’m grateful for the opportunity. The study of the Meditations nearly thirty years ago was one of the major catalysts of my decision to pursue a career in philosophy so the subject is dear to my heart.

As I remember, I was in the third year of a math major at Rutgers University and Descartes was familiar to me as the founder of Cartesian geometry which brought algebraic techniques to the study of shapes and figures. I was curious to learn what such a rigorous thinker would have to say about a subject that I was interested in but always regarded as somewhat wishy-washy or unrigorous. I thought Descartes would supply a much needed corrective rigor to philosophy but I must admit I was puzzled: when I saw in the syllabus the work of Descartes we would be focusing on was called the Meditations, I thought of meditation in the eastern sense which again seemed to me wishy-washy or unrigorous. Perhaps some of you here in India, unfamiliar with Descartes work, have a similar impression.

I did not wonder then but I do now why the same word, ‘Meditations’ could be used by Descartes to describe what he was doing and also used by mystics to describe what they do. The common ground that they share is of course the adoption of a contemplative, inner-reflecting attitude, though the direction Descartes takes with that attitude is very different.

As Descartes informs us in Meditation I, his aim is to base all his beliefs on a secure, indubitable foundation. Indeed the full title of the Meditations is Meditations on First Philosophy. In that way, Descartes’ epistemology or theory of knowledge is foundationalist in that it maintains that all knowledge claims should be based on a few foundational principles. This is in contrast to coherentist theories of knowledge that allow justifications to be circular if the circle is appropriately robust.

Now foundational theories of knowledge in the west are at least as old as Plato who in the 5th century B.C. traced all his substantial Ideas or Forms to the sun-like Form of the Good which illuminates all others. And certainly Aristotle thought all the truths of a given science be demonstrable syllogistically from that science’s first principles. In Plato and Aristotle we see two different tendencies in foundationalism: In Plato there is extreme foundationalism in the sense that all the sciences can be traced to the one Form of the Good; in Aristotle, there is the weaker foundationalism that allows each science to be derived from its own distinct first principles but insists all the sciences be united in their use of Aristotle’s scientific method.

Descartes, writing in the mid 1600’s—the Meditations were written in 1641—was certainly aware of these twin pillars of medieval scholasticism. What’s different about Descartes is that he unites both tendencies of foundationalism: Plato’s tendency to unify all the sciences and Aristotle’s employment of a common rigorous method. Descartes says in his first sentence of Meditation I that it’s been some years since he’s noticed that many of the beliefs he formerly held he now knows are false; therefore he is resolved to doubt all beliefs that can be doubted and base all future beliefs on indubitable foundations. So in Descartes, on the one hand, we have a uniform rigorous method, the method of doubt, and on the other hand we have the assumption that all justified beliefs of all the sciences can be based on a common foundation. Needless to say this is a very ambitious project. Let’s see if and how far he succeeds.

In what follows, we’ll measure Descartes’ success against the three questions we should put to anyone who proposes a novel method of acquiring knowledge. First, is the method sound? Second, how closely does he himself follow the method he’s proposing? And third, how many knowledge claims we commonly take to be valid come out as knowledge under his method?

But before we put Descartes to the test of our three questions, let’s have a summary of the Meditations. Descartes himself gives a quick summary of each of his six meditations written as if over six continuous days.

Thus Meditation I is subtitled ‘Concerning Those Things That Can Be Called into Doubt’. Here Descartes, considering the possibility that he may be dreaming or that an evil demon may be deceiving him, finds that he can doubt almost everything, certainly all the evidence of his senses which he had formerly based all his knowledge of the external world upon.

In Meditation II, which is subtitled ‘Concerning the Nature of the Human Mind: That It Is Better Known Than the Body’, Descartes is disturbed by his doubts of the night before but is still resolved to believe only that which he finds to be indubitable. Here he famously concludes that even if a deceiver is deceiving him, he cannot doubt that he exists. This is because doubt or thought implies the existence of a doubter or thinker. Descartes elsewhere summarizes this argument as the famous ‘Cogito ergo sum’ or ‘I think therefore I am’. In general Descartes concludes in Meditation II that the mind is better known than the body, thereby launching what has come to be known as the privileged access view of the mind.

In Meditation III, which is subtitled ‘Concerning God, That He Exists’, Descartes notes that the meditation of the previous night arrived at an indubitable proposition because it was as he says, “clear and distinct”. Descartes explanation of what he means by clear and distinct is not always clear and distinct. Essentially it can be summarized as follows:

a) An idea is clear if we cannot help taking notice of it. Examples of this would be strong physical sensations, such as pain, or thoughts, such as the desire for something.

b) An idea is distinct if it cannot possibly be confused with anything else. Some ideas, such as toothache, are clear (we must take notice of it), but indistinct (in that we can be unsure of exactly where the pain is).

This leads him to wonder whether he can arrive at other clear and distinct propositions. But first Descartes notes that to assure the truth of clear and distinct propositions, however indubitable they may appear, requires him to prove the existence of a non-deceiving God. This he does by arguing that the perfect idea he has of God can only have been caused in him by a perfect, existent God. The principle he appeals to is that there must be at least as much perfection in the cause as in the effect. Some have argued that even the ‘I think therefore I am’ doesn’t count for Descartes as proving his own existence until he first proves God’s existence.

In Meditation IV, which is subtitled, ‘Concerning the True and the False’, Descartes argues that though a perfect God cannot be a deceiver, we err when our wills give assent to propositions that we have not perceived clearly and distinctly.

In Meditation V, which is subtitled, ‘Concerning the Essence of Material Things, and Again Concerning God, That He Exists’, Descartes argues that the clear and distinct idea of Material Things he has is that they have extension. Here he gives another proof of God’s existence as follows: just as the essence of material things involves the idea of extension so the essence of God involves the idea of existence; hence God exists. This is rather like Anselm’s ontological argument.

And lastly, in Meditation VI which is subtitled ‘Concerning the Existence of Material Things, and the Real Distinction between Mind and Body’, Descartes argues that as the essence of material things is extension and the essence of mind is thought, the two must be distinct substances launching what has come to be known as Cartesian Dualism of mind and body.

Now let’s turn to our three questions. The first question we should ask ourselves is whether Descartes’ method of doubt is sound? Here two points are in order. First we should note that it doesn’t follow that just because each of our beliefs is dubitable taken one at a time, that they are all dubitable collectively. Usually we doubt one belief only because we believe another contrary belief. Less trivially, we might say Descartes begs the question against what are called coherentist theories of knowledge, the chief competitor of the sort of foundationalism that Descartes espouses. If we substitute ‘dubitable’ with ‘unjustified’, Descartes seems to be assuming that just because each of our beliefs is unjustified in isolation that the whole system of our beliefs is unjustified. The coherentist would say they are collectively justified or mostly justified because they mutually support one another.

Descartes, like other foundationalists, may respond that dubitable beliefs all supporting one another without indubitable foundations is just an instance of circular reasoning. But this he doesn’t do. To be fair, coherentist theories of knowledge weren’t wide spread in Descartes day as they are today. Still we should note that the foundationalist’s charge of circularity begs the question against the coherentist because the coherentist’s point is precisely that not all circles are vicious.

The charge of circularity can be more appropriately leveled against Descartes. The Cartesian Circle as it’s come to be known can be stated as follows: Descartes needs God to insure the truth of his clear and distinct ideas but his proof of God’s existence relies on an unproved principle, namely that there is at least as much perfection in the cause as in the effect. Some philosophers have attempted to rescue Descartes by pointing out that he doesn’t regard this principle as a clear and distinct idea subject to the doubt that he’s raised about things like geometrical proofs and the ‘I think therefore I am’; he views it as something that it is taught to him by the natural light of reason. Regardless of whether Descartes can be cleared of the charge of circular reasoning, it is clear that this principle on which he hangs the existence of God and therefore nearly everything else is not true in all cases. First of all modern philosophers would have a problem with anything phrased as loosely as, ‘the cause is at least as perfect as the effect’. But even if we were to excuse Descartes for using language we today find difficult, it is clear in the modern day and age that the principle just isn’t true. Today for example, we know that a computer can execute its program perfectly without the cause or computer programmer being in any sense perfect or even perfectly able to execute the directions included in his program. Moreover today we would find the principle as well as God significantly more dubitable than the evidence of the senses which Descartes challenges.

So we have negative answers to each of the three questions we posed earlier. The method of doubting everything that can be doubted in isolation begs the question against the coherence theorist, the chief competitor to a foundationalist like Descartes so the method isn’t sound. Neither does Descartes strictly adhere to the method he’s espousing: as we saw in his argument for the truth of ideas perceived clearly and distinctly he relies on beliefs that we today would find dubitable. And lastly if clear and distinct ideas can’t be rescued from the sort of all pervasive doubt that Descartes has unleashed, then very little of what we commonly take to be knowledge comes out as knowledge under Descartes method. Knowledge of external objects doesn’t survive; knowledge of the existence of other minds doesn’t survive; What survives? ‘I think therefore I am’ survives Cartesian doubt though without God’s existence being proven, Descartes doesn’t think this counts as knowledge. It is merely indubitable. Similarly contents of the mind such as ‘I have a visual impression of the color red’ is indubitable, though I can’t claim any such certainty for any particular external object being red. And we have seen that without the existence of God to guarantee the truth of clear and distinct ideas, none of even these very unambitious beliefs count as knowledge; they’re merely indubitable.

So why study Descartes? My answer is that Descartes is responsible for many of the ideas we have today. The two main ones I can think of are the ideas of skepticism in science and the distinction between mind and body. Both of these ideas are no longer accepted by the so called experts of today. Most philosophically inclined scientists today espouse a Kuhnian view of the scientific method. And among cognitive scientists today, very few are Cartesian dualists, working instead on materialistic, or connectionist theories of the mind. Nevertheless, both Cartesian skepticism and Cartesian Dualism are part of the modern man’s conception of the world. Why I remember in my first class on Descartes’ Meditations thirty years ago, we were asked to write papers on how we would characterize the mind. I didn’t choose consciousness, or intentionality as the defining characteristic—I chose indubitability as did a number of the other students. Right or wrong Descartes views are part of the modern psyche and even if we want to challenge those views it is useful to know and appreciate their origins.

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One Response to A Lecture on Descartes’ Meditations – Delivered at Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth (a university in Pune) on October 19, 2011

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