Descartes Essay, Research Paper
Ren? Descartes is often referred to as the father of modern philosophy. Although some controversy exist over the appropriateness of such a label one can hardly dispute the fact that his approach to philosophy was dramatically different than many of his contemporaries. Descartes grew tired of how dogmatically the ideologies of past philosophers were presented and how dissimilar and unsystematic each was. Breaking free of the custom of merely reworking prior philosophical doctrines Descartes took a fresh approach to discovering knowledge, truth, and understanding. He disregarded the classic texts in favor of what he called “the great book of the world.” In his travels though he found no more unity of notions among the public sector than he did of the philosophers he held with such reverence. This lack of a unifying truth among both philosophers and the commoner troubled Descartes. He began questioning all that was presented to him and, in the end, found mathematics and geometry to provide the only absolute truths. Enamored with the systematic clearness of mathematical propositions he attempted to incorporate such a method into philosophy. And hence we have Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy.
As a student Descartes discovered no continuity of truth among neither his masters and contemporaries nor among the common people. Throughout his life Descartes encountered numerous situations where commonly held truths turned out, upon further consideration and meditation, to be false. So Descartes began to doubt, but to simply label him a skeptic would be a grave injustice to the extent of his doubt. Upon reaching retirement Descartes began paying closer attention to the great accumulation of false truths he had acquired. Overwhelmed by the credulousness of the world, he temporarily entered into a state in which he asserted “that there is nothing of all that I formerly believed to be true of which it is impossible to doubt.” One must make note of his temporary immersement into such a state; for Descartes himself admits that it would be ludicrous for one to go through life perpetually doubting everything. Having made this point clear Descartes does, for a brief stint, doubt everything. He questioned authority and the power enshrined in authority figures such as Aristotle and Aquinas. Along with authority he is hesitant to accept the notions and ideas of other individuals because such things may not be commonly held as self-evident. Astoundingly Descartes even questions that which we often consider most genuine and obvious; that which is perceived through the senses, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, visual, and auditory sensations. At this point in his theory he cannot be sure that anything associated with the world around him actually exists. So often our senses perceive us, such as an amputee who feels a pain or itch where his/her limb once was. He questions also whether or not we can be assured of a waking state, for in our dreams we perceive objects, and as if in our dreams cannot our imagination constantly be creating the objects we perceive. Descartes was leery of scientific hypotheses as well for the very reason that they so often are based on observations of objects which he cannot be assured exist. He even goes so far as to doubt mathematics; not pure math which he so privileged such as geometry, but the most simple calculations and principles often recalled directly from memory. Such doubt can exist because often mistakes are made in such rudimentary calculations. Descartes credits these fundamental errors to an evil genius, perhaps the antithesis of our perceptions of God, who plants these erroneous conceptions into our mind. Citing how often he is deceived Descartes even calls into to questions the existence of God. If God is all knowing and all good how can one be deceived, why not an evil Deity? As earlier stated Descartes does not advise or prescribe a constant state of doubt such as this for one would certainly be driven to the fringes of insanity.
At this point Descartes as established his theory of systematically doubting everything conceivable in our world, and even those things unworldly; God and a Satan-like figure. It is this very system of doubt however which accounts for the existence of at least one thing in the universe; Descartes. To doubt is to think, and to think is to exist. Cogito Ergo Sum, I think therefore I am, possibly Descartes most profound contribution to modern philosophy. A thinking thing is what Descartes calls himself at this point. An ambiguous thing, no mention of extension, figure, embodiment, or form of any kind, for thoughts can presumably exist without body. A thing which doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, imagines, and feels. As a result of these characteristics Descartes, and only Descartes, or the thing that is Descartes, necessarily exists, for through the aforementioned attributes all else in Descartes world can theoretically be manifested solely from his thoughts. However because he does have conceptions of an outside world some faculty of his existence must be perpetuating them or sensing them, so at least he must exist. It would be a grave contradiction for Descartes to think that he is not a thinking thing. It seems this affirmation of the cogito is the prime conclusion drawn from his systematic doubt methodology. He proposes doubting as a type of thought, and he is well aware of his abilities to doubt and this awareness necessitates his existence. At this point nothing else exists save a thinking thing, most likely a reference to mind.
After ordaining the cogito Descartes sticks to the mathematical method he envied so, and attempts to establish a criterion which can serve to prove the existence of other truths. This criterion he establishes is the standard of clear and distinct ideas. The only truths in the world are those which are conceived both clearly and distinctly. Descartes defines a clear idea as “that which is present and apparent to an attentive mind.” He defines distinct ideas as those “so precise and different from all other objects that it contains within itself nothing but what is clear.” The cogito passes this standard as Descartes is clearly aware of his thinking existence and also his distinction from all else in the world. To be true, an idea must be self-evident as well as explicitly displaying a distinct cause and contextual set of consequences. With this test Descartes can continue on his sojourn to discover truth.
As seems customary of philosophers, Descartes addresses the age-old controversy concerning the existence of God. At this juncture Descartes has mentioned two possible deities, an omnipotent, omniscient Being, and a contrasting “malignant demon.” It appears that both cannot co-exist so the affirmation of one denies the existence of the other. He questions where his thinking existence came from. His parents possibly, but only in a physical, temporary sense. Descartes is searching for a sustaining cause; hence we arrive at his ontological argument. Descartes has an idea of a perfect Being and attempts to assert His reality. This conception of a perfect being with infinite, eternal, and perfect qualities and characteristics must exist outside of Descartes thoughts. Existence is a necessity for an infinitely perfect Being, because Descartes has already established his own existence, and if God did not and Descartes does, Descartes would be more perfect than God. To avoid a solipsistic view such as this Descartes affirms a perfect Being necessarily exists as existence is a quality of perfection. To understand this argument Descartes grants the ability for a finite individual to comprehend perfection and infinity which to some, including myself, seems a bit suspect.
This confirmation of God’s existence denies the existence of an evil genius but the question still remains of where error comes from. In lieu of the confirmation of a perfect sustaining Being, how can deception and error exist. Descartes shifts the blame of error from an outside entity to some cause within himself. He attributes error to his powers of reason and will. Reason, according to Descartes, allows one to conceive true ideas clearly and distinctly. Will on the other hand is one’s infinite ability to choose, commit, or consent to a particular course of action. Each decision or thought process involves a dichotomous relationship where will and reason interact. Erroneous judgments and decisions occur when will extends outside the realm of reason, or what ideas are known both clearly and distinctly. Whereas one’s will is infinite, one’s reason is constrained to discrete clear and distinct concepts. Error stems from will working where reason has not and cannot. Supposedly as long as one chooses courses of action within the realm of clear and distinct ideas no mistakes will occur.
What else can we know clearly and distinctly in the world besides our own existence and that of God? It is here where Descartes returns to his assertion that his conception of objects that surround him can theoretically be nothing more than thoughts and need not be objective realities. Descartes calls such an action as creating an outside reality imagination, or an inward or internal application of the mind. This virtue of imagination accounts for the corporeal existence of objects such as triangles as well as abstract ideas such as chiliogons. A distinction exists however between triangles and chiliogons, as triangles are encountered in reality whereas a chiliogon cannot be encountered. This point may contribute a bit of empiricism to Descartes’ theory as experience with an object allegedly confirms its existence outside of the mind. A differentiation exists between what he perceives and that which he conceives. It is here we come upon his notion of primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities are always perceived clearly and distinctly and include figure, extension, motion, and quantity. Secondary qualities appear to be derived from the primary qualities and include taste, smell, sound, and texture. Since primary qualities pass the criterion for clear and distinct ideas and are associated with corporeal bodies it follows that corporeal bodies must exist as God is not a deceiver. Extension is the essence of body and is conceived clearly and distinctly, and we have the causal inference of objects existence, objects must exist. Operating within the context of clear and distinct ideas our will commits to the existence of objects and a Holy contradiction would ensue if we were mistaken.
From the confirmation of corporeal objects Descartes considers substance defining it as “an existent thing which requires nothing but itself to exist.” Similar to the standard of distinct ideas each particular substance is also independent of all others. Descartes’ conception of substance is important when considering his view on the relationship between mind and body. One can clearly and distinctly understand the attributes of thought and ex