Friday, September 29, 2006

Rene Descartes Has Doubts--Meditation I

1. SEVERAL years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences. But as this enterprise appeared to me to be one of great magnitude, I waited until I had attained an age so mature as to leave me no hope that at any stage of life more advanced I should be better able to execute my design. On this account, I have delayed so long that I should henceforth consider I was doing wrong were I still to consume in deliberation any of the time that now remains for action. To-day, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares [and am happily disturbed by no passions], and since I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.[L][F]

2. But, to this end, it will not be necessary for me to show that the wholeof these are false--a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach; but as even now my reason convinces me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false, it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt. Nor for this purpose will it be necessary even to deal with each belief individually, which would be truly an endless labor; but, as the removal from below of the foundation necessarily involves the downfall of the whole edifice, I will at once approach the criticism of the principles on which all my former beliefs rested.[L][F]

3. All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.[L][F]

4. But it may be said, perhaps, that, although the senses occasionally mislead us respecting minute objects, and such as are so far removed from us as to be beyond the reach of close observation, there are yet many other of their informations (presentations), of the truth of which it is manifestly impossible to doubt; as for example, that I am in this place, seated by the fire, clothed in a winter dressing gown, that I hold in my hands this piece of paper, with other intimations of the same nature. But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors as to cause them pertinaciously to assert that they are monarchs when they are in the greatest poverty; or clothed [in gold] and purple when destitute of any covering; or that their head is made of clay, their body of glass, or that they are gourds? I should certainly be not less insane than they, were I to regulate my procedure according to examples so extravagant.[L][F]

5. Though this be true, I must nevertheless here consider that I am a man, and that, consequently, I am in the habit of sleeping, and representing to myself in dreams those same things, or even sometimes others less probable, which the insane think are presented to them in their waking moments. How often have I dreamt that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed? At the present moment, however, I certainly look upon this paper with eyes wide awake; the head which I now move is not asleep; I extend this hand consciously and with express purpose, and I perceive it; the occurrences in sleep are not so distinct as all this. But I cannot forget that, at other times I have been deceived in sleep by similar illusions; and, attentively considering those cases, I perceive so clearly that there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep, that I feel greatly astonished; and in amazement I almost persuade myself that I am now dreaming.[L][F]

6. Let us suppose, then, that we are dreaming, and that all these particulars--namely, the opening of the eyes, the motion of the head, the forth- putting of the hands--are merely illusions; and even that we really possess neither an entire body nor hands such as we see. Nevertheless it must be admitted at least that the objects which appear to us in sleep are, as it were, painted representations which could not have been formed unless in the likeness of realities; and, therefore, that those general objects, at all events, namely, eyes, a head, hands, and an entire body, are not simply imaginary, but really existent. For, in truth, painters themselves, even when they study to represent sirens and satyrs by forms the most fantastic and extraordinary, cannot bestow upon them natures absolutely new, but can only make a certain medley of the members of different animals; or if they chance to imagine something so novel that nothing at all similar has ever been seen before, and such as is, therefore, purely fictitious and absolutely false, it is at least certain that the colors of which this is composed are real. And on the same principle, although these general objects, viz. [a body], eyes, a head, hands, and the like, be imaginary, we are nevertheless absolutely necessitated to admit the reality at least of some other objects still more simple and universal than these, of which, 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 (cogitatio) are formed.[L][F]

7. To this class of objects seem to belong corporeal nature in general and its extension; the figure of extended things, their quantity or magnitude, and their number, as also the place in, and the time during, which they exist, and other things of the same sort.[L][F]

8. We will not, therefore, perhaps reason illegitimately if we conclude from this that Physics, Astronomy, Medicine, and all the other sciences that have for their end the consideration of composite objects, are indeed of a doubtful character; but that Arithmetic, Geometry, and the other sciences of the same class, which regard merely the simplest and most general objects, and scarcely inquire whether or not these are really existent, contain somewhat that is certain and indubitable: for whether I am awake or dreaming, it remains true that two and three make five, and that a square has but four sides; nor does it seem possible that truths so apparent can ever fall under a suspicion of falsity [or incertitude].[L][F]

9. Nevertheless, 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 ? And further, as I sometimes think that others are in error respecting matters of which they believe themselves to possess a perfect knowledge, how do I know that I am not also deceived each time I add together two and three, or number the sides of a square, or form some judgment still more simple, if more simple indeed can be imagined? But perhaps Deity has not been willing that I should be thus deceived, for he is said to be supremely good. If, however, it were repugnant to the goodness of Deity to have created me subject to constant deception, it would seem likewise to be contrary to his goodness to allow me to be occasionally deceived; and yet it is clear that this is permitted.[L][F]

10. Some, indeed, might perhaps be found who would be disposed rather to deny the existence of a Being so powerful than to believe that there is nothing certain. But let us for the present refrain from opposing this opinion, and grant that all which is here said of a Deity is fabulous: nevertheless, in whatever way it be supposed that I reach the state in which I exist, whether by fate, or chance, or by an endless series of antecedents and consequents, or by any other means, it is clear (since to be deceived and to err is a certain defect ) that the probability of my being so imperfect as to be the constant victim of deception, will be increased exactly in proportion as the power possessed by the cause, to which they assign my origin, is lessened. To these reasonings I have assuredly nothing to reply, but am constrained at last to avow that there is nothing of all that I formerly believed to be true of which it is impossible to doubt, and that not through thoughtlessness or levity, but from cogent and maturely considered reasons; so that henceforward, if I desire to discover anything certain, I ought not the less carefully to refrain from assenting to those same opinions than to what might be shown to be manifestly false.

11. But it is not sufficient to have made these observations; care must be taken likewise to keep them in remembrance. For those old and customary opinions perpetually recur-- long and familiar usage giving them the right of occupying my mind, even almost against my will, and subduing my belief; nor will I lose the habit of deferring to them and confiding in them so long as I shall consider them to be what in truth they are, viz., opinions to some extent doubtful, as I have already shown, but still highly probable, and such as it is much more reasonable to believe than deny. It is for this reason I am persuaded that I shall not be doing wrong, if, taking an opposite judgment of deliberate design, I become my own deceiver, by supposing, for a time, that all those opinions are entirely false and imaginary, until at length, having thus balanced my old by my new prejudices, my judgment shall no longer be turned aside by perverted usage from the path that may conduct to the perception of truth. For I am assured that, meanwhile, there will arise neither peril nor error from this course, and that I cannot for the present yield too much to distrust, since the end I now seek is not action but knowledge.[L][F]

12. I will suppose, then, not that Deity, who is sovereignly good and the fountain of truth, but that some malignant demon, who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful, has employed all his artifice to deceive me; t will suppose that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, figures, sounds, and all external things, are nothing better than the illusions of dreams, by means of which this being has laid snares for my credulity; I will consider myself as without hands, eyes, flesh, blood, or any of the senses, and as falsely believing that I am possessed of these; I will continue resolutely fixed in this belief, and if indeed by this means it be not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of truth, I shall at least do what is in my power, viz., [ suspend my judgment ], and guard with settled purpose against giving my assent to what is false, and being imposed upon by this deceiver, whatever be his power and artifice. But this undertaking is arduous, and a certain indolence insensibly leads me back to my ordinary course of life; and just as the captive, who, perchance, was enjoying in his dreams an imaginary liberty, when he begins to suspect that it is but a vision, dreads awakening, and conspires with the agreeable illusions that the deception may be prolonged; so I, of my own accord, fall back into the train of my former beliefs, and fear to arouse myself from my slumber, lest the time of laborious wakefulness that would succeed this quiet rest, in place of bringing any light of day, should prove inadequate to dispel the darkness that will arise from the difficulties that have now been raised.[L][F]


Blogger Esrever said...

Wow, I’m so confused now because I don’t know if I’m truly writing this response, if I’m dreaming of writing this response, if I’m not writing this response because writing isn’t truly writing, or if me writing this response is either a deity or a demon controlling my thoughts and perceptions! Basically I think philosophies like this are absolutely ridiculous, and that they should be outlawed from being published (even though everyone at some point in his or her life will have these thoughts). The absurdity is that there is absolutely NO way of disproving such philosophies because, after all, how do we know proof is proof? Everyone has had these thoughts at one point or another, such as “How do we know one and one is two?” or “How do we know that what I perceive to be purple is what you perceive to be purple?” First off, I just think this viewpoint is extremely pessimistic. It suggests that humankind has made no intellectual progress since its initial existence (if there are such things as humankind and existence that is). Not only is this philosophy pessimistic and, in my opinion, meaningless, but it also just seems to be an easy way of giving up: I shouldn’t have to learn mathematics because math cannot be proved; I don’t care that my wife left me because she may not exist. I’m sure some of these things I’m saying sound just as ridiculous as the philosophy itself and seem to make no sense what-so-ever, but I just see this as proof of the absurdity of the “experiencing isn’t believing” philosophy—it’s so illogical that I don’t even know how to argue against it. What makes it worse is that it CANNOT be disproved, yet it’s the most ridiculous argument imaginable. Honestly, who publishes such nonsensical crap?

4:22 PM  
Blogger daltonRussell said...

I like this "meditation" because it kind of defines "over-thinking". Essentially, Descartes just left off where he the fire. He gained some knowledge it seems, even though he was thinking about what seems like an impossibly undefinable subject. The knowledge he gained might have just been "expanding" his mind by thinking outside the box, but this is still of worth in my opinion. For us, as humans to think like this I believe is good. I have always been told not to overthink things, and sometimes it can be bad, but most of the time I think I gain something from it. This example of overthinking is obscure because he is thinking about something that seems extremely ridiculous and it is also something that can never be pinpointed, but he still does it just to reassure himself of what he does

8:16 PM  
Blogger elle_ecrit87 said...

Well, I stayed with this guy for a little while, and then got lost. I understand where he is coming from as far as dreaming. Sometimes I know I am dreaming and am relieved because the dream is stressful, or i am incredibly dissapointed because I have come to the bitter realization that what I am doing and feeling is not real, and the dream will end. Sometimes I think there are times when we are awake and think: last night that dream was so real, am i still dreaming now? However, I totally disagree with these people who essentially say that life is entirely an allusion just like our dreams. "The Matrix" was an OK movie, but I believe there IS in fact a spoon.
I think maybe people would be happier or at least more content if they just submitted to the fact that life is real, but imperfect and we don't have to pry into every little detail. Does 2+2=4? yes, and debating about how it could possibly be otherwise, and our teachers have been lieing to us all along, is really useless because that is how the world sees it: 2+2=4.
In my opinion, looking at the world as if the whole thing is an illusion is actually more depressing than the realization that we are decieved by things or that we will never understand them; or that we will never be able to perceive that we are deceived. As much as humans have an insatiable lust for knoweledge and that is usually a great thing, sometimes ignorance really is bliss. There is no need to go around thinking that nothing really exists. If nothing really exists, than how can nothing (meaning the person, since the person is also an allusion) perceive something? It's impossible. Nothing can not perceive something, it can only perceive nothing. Bottom line: I wholeheartedly believe the world does in fact truly exist and it is not an allusion.

8:42 PM  
Blogger FriendofAll said...

The whole point of all of this, isn't to say that reality as we see it is false, but to try to pinpoint with absolute accuracy what we can really know. There is some doubt to be had in what we obtain from our senses. Everybody knows this. However, Descartes is trying to find something solid upon which he can base a rational, justifiable belief that what we experience is at least somewhat accurate in relation to an ultimate reality. Perhaps these trains of thought aren't the most usable ideas, but they are attempts by human reason to gain a greater understanding of the universe and an attempt to know truth. People who accept without questioning have experienced a death of curiosity which, if widespread, would limit how far people can go intellectualy. Giving up would be to accept everything at face value and do what your told because obviously that other guy knows something you don't. Someone, somewhere needs to ask these types of things. And besides, its pretty fun to crack your brain over the nature of existance and reality. Doesn't being here make finding out what "here" is meaningful?

9:30 AM  
Blogger Krangor said...

I am with Decartes up to this point; How do we know what we perceive is real? How do we know we can trust our senses and that an ultra-powerful evil genius isn't deceiving us? I don't think we can know for sure. Stuff like this is kind of irrelevant as far as everyday life goes, but the mental gymnastics can be fun. It is good to cut through our shadows and illusions every now and then to see why we really believe what we believe.

Esrever, you seem to think this is some sort of moral philosophy or that Decartes is saying that this should have some sort of influence on our actions, but it's not. It just an attempt to get down to what we really know to be true (which at the end of this meditation is nothing, but in either the next or the meditation after that he offers an argument as to why we can trust our perceptions).

btw: I don't think we can dismiss an argument just because there is no way to disprove it. That actually seems a pretty good reason to accept an argument, or at least to investigate it more thoroughly. Just because it's a pretty unsettling thought that maybe, just maybe, we nothing and none of this real is no reason to outlaw the publishing of material on the subject. If you start outlawing philosophies that don't match your worldview, where do you stop?

10:24 PM  
Blogger Beatrice Baudelaire said...

I appreciate the contrast between believing that the Diety is infinitely good and knowing that we are more than occassionally deceived in spite of the persisting belief in a good/perfect Diety. I would be interested to know how many people would rather take the responsibility for their own deception and thus believe that God is imperfect (or atleast absent from this realm) rather than believe that they are guided by a mischevious imp or a spiteful/manipulative God. I lean toward the former idea that many factors are involved in my perception of the world but God is not likely one of them. This of course rests on my conviction that the world does exist and that I am responsible for interpreting and navigating it correctly to make both survival and completion of my goals possible. It is far more appealing to admitt that I am not perfect, but at least in over-all control of my navigation of the world rather than to believe that I am only seeing what I am meant to see as applies to the goals of some great puppet master both ignorant and apathetic to my own goals.

2:45 PM  
Blogger AimerVoyage said...

I tend to agree with the majority, you can't dismiss an idea just because there is no possible way to disprove it. We're talking about an idea, not a law, not something that is going to be written in stone. I personally think that this is a very influential concept. The whole idea may be meaningless in the end, but I frequently find myself asking... why IS the sky blue? who SAYS that the sky is blue? And I do get the sensation from time to time that I'm not really doing what I think I am doing. Wouldn't that feeling have to come from somewhere? It would certainly have to have SOME basis. I'm sure that there really is a spoon, but who says that the spoon exists as we perceive it. Senses misguide us all the time. Relative pain is very common. You think something may hurt your index finger, but in truth it's your middle finger that's suffered the injury. We are only human, and our nerves and pathways are as well. And as we know, we make mistakes.
I, like Beatrice, also frequently find myself asking what all of this is for, if I'm not even the one that decides what to do with it. Why am I working so hard for a degree that won't even affect my life at all, if God's plans are already made FOR me. I would much rather it be MY responsibility.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Willow said...

I have to agree with those who posted before me...WHAT THE HECK!!! Man this philosophy really makes no logical sense. I'm sure that it does to someone, but not to me. I think that he really overthinks himself. He is like someone that thinks that changing means that they must make a "360" degree turnaround. And we all are smart enough to know what happens when we make a "360" degree turn around...Why we end up right where we left off...And I think that is something about a fire??? In the end I really think that Decarte is so confused that he doesn't even know what to think...

7:25 PM  
Blogger AubergineClementine said...

That was really the most trippy thing I've read in a while. I'm really glad this is entitled a meditation because that describes it pretty well. However, I just read daltonrussell's comment and it kind of enlightened me... over-thinking, as you say, can be beneficial, I find that purging my brain of questions I might have can be meditative sometimes. And I think that Descartes recognizes this, as other bloggers have pointed out. His outside-the-boxness is refreshing, yet confusing. But that's basically philosophy is a nutshell.

8:35 PM  
Blogger swiffer_mop1234 said...

I couldn't have put it better myself esrever. I have never liked philosophy, I mean I guess in philosophy everyone is right, because as esrever said it cannot be proved. People get way to rapped up in philosophy; whenever I think about philosophical things it just makes my brain hurt. I guess some people make their life of it, but what kind of profession is that. Let's just sit around and think all day...think...think...think. Give me a break! Maybe I'm just not cut out for it though, I mean I guess it could be fun for some people. It is definitely not for me though.

8:36 PM  
Blogger Magic Chicken said...

I'm pretty lost on this also. The first thing that comes to my mind when reading this is, oddly enough, the Internet community. Almost everything that Descartes says in this excerpt can be applied to the general perception of the Internet community. From my experiences on various message boards, it's fairly difficult to tell how someone really acts, if not impossible. This stems from more than simply a lie about one's age. There are people that can change their very behavior with the anonymity provided by an Internet message board or, well... a blog. The person on the other side of the conversation could be a ten year old girl or a sixty year old man. Of course, it's possible to narrow things down based on things such as grammar or seriousness of discussions, but these are based solely on perceptions from our mind. These perceptions general lead less mature people to conclusions such as “The Internet is only for porn” or “The Internet is not for serious discussion” that interrupt the flow of one attempting a different type of conversation. This leads to the major problem with the Internet community that is also present in this way of thinking in general: chaos. There is really no order present in this way of thinking. The only possible way for order to happen would be for people to share similar perceptions. But with this way of thinking, is it even possible to share a perception? Are there people to share perceptions? Do I have a very bad case of schizophrenia? Am I a clucking chicken that can make magical cheese puffs? If everything I've been told is a lie and my perceptions are not accurate, then the world, if it even exists, is nothing but chaos. Yet, many of the things that I perceive with my mind have some sort of order, even if I don't fully understand it! My head, if it exists, hurts...

10:28 PM  
Blogger Larogoth said...

I have to agree with esrever, upon reading this I was for the most part confused. The author was very abstract in his writing of this article. His philosophical views are way out there. However, like elle_ecrit87 I too can relate to what he was talking about when he discussed dreaming, but at the other end of the spectrum. I can not say that I have ever known that I was dreaming while I was dreaming. That is to say, I don't think I have ever realized I was dreaming during a dream and dreaded waking up as Rene Descartes discusses in the article.

12:00 AM  
Blogger wishlahaylagon said...

Are we real...or are we just puppets? Is everything we see just inside our minds? It's a scary theory but it is plausible. How do you know who or what is controlling your perceptions besides the influences that we've been taught since we were young, like society etc. Many people might even see God as a type of evil genius because he supposedly has the power to control everything we do, right? So besides the faith and belief he is good, there could be a good chance that he is controlling us, or at least someone along those lines. But luckily, since we are able to even think about this possibility we are real. I think therefore I am.

8:28 AM  
Blogger The Filthy Titan said...

You have to admire a man who listed everything!

Descartes... wonder how you actually pronounce that. Want to say "Descarts", but it's probably "Descart-AY-s", so I'll use that second one (I know I've heard that somewhere...)

Must admit I like that he decided to wait until he was older to think, since many of us in the class (myself included) are still rather immature- I like the philosophy that we aren't even grown until we are twenty-five, and at that point we reach maturity, not before.

(I'm living proof, lads and lasses!)

Anybody else get the feeling that Descartes might have driven himself mad once or twice? I admire his sheer guts in trying to determine if anything exists, and his bit about "how often have I dreamed" scares the living daylights out of me. I'm a writer at heart, and one of the big secrets of being a writer is that you are in your head most of the time- I've even found myself talking to myself without noticing it (hopefully, no one else noticed either). I don't mean to- I'm just not really "here".

It's that sort of thinking that fascinates me. Descartes could be right- hell, we could all be stuck somewhere else. I also like how he accepts the concept of God and the Devil- so rare these days- because it is actually a considerably more flexible concept than the idea that the devil is a "metaphor". He doesn't specifically say the devil, but he has a concept of some force that isn't God (the potent demon he talks of) and it makes his theory much "bigger" than it would be otherwise.

Also, just the idea that we may be lied to...

Descartes would have loved the Matrix!

4:49 PM  

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