Descartes: Origins Of Knowledge Essay, Research Paper
Descartes believed that the origin of knowledge comes from within the mind, a single indisputable fact to build on that can be gained through individual reflection. In the first meditation he casts doubt on the previous foundations of knowledge and everything he has learned or assumed. He says “But reason now persuades me that I should withhold assent no less carefully from opinions that are not completely certain and indubitable than I would from those that are patently false.” In order to evaluate and discern what is actually true he divides the foundations of knowledge into three sources: the senses, reality, and context. In the second meditation he has found one true fact “I think, I am”. Descartes then attempts to discover what this “I” is and how it perceives reality. The “I” is a body, a soul, and a thinking thing. It gains perception and recognition through the senses, the imagination, and the mind. He runs into two major problems in these meditations. One is the existence of reality. Two is the connection between body and mind as he defines them.
Descartes is clearing away all knowledge that can be called into doubt. By doing this he hopes to create something real and lasting in the sciences, a foundation to build on. This indisputable fact will become the starting point or origin of all other true knowledge he can build upon it.
He starts the first argument by attacking the very beginning of knowledge, human senses. Descartes states, “Surely whatever I had admitted until now as most true I received either from the senses or through the senses.” Anyone will admit that their senses have deceived them at least once. According to Descartes it is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once. However, something seen from a distance is much more easily mistaken than something seen up close. The senses show us some things more clearly than others. Descartes then compares the average mind to that of the insane. Insanity, he defines as those who doubt what is obvious to the senses. From this perspective we must give our senses some credence, otherwise we could not function in reality.
At this point Descartes questions how we can know that the reality we perceive is true. He likens it dreaming “How often does my evening slumber persuade me of such ordinary things as these: that I am here, clothed in my dressing gown, seated next to the fireplace-when in fact I am lying undressed in bed!” There is no way to distinguish between being awake and asleep. Perhaps, even now we are dreaming, this not my body, and I am not writing this paper for philosophy but I am really lying in bed somewhere sleeping. However, dreams are based on reality. Whether this hand is real or dreamed, it is my hand, and it exists somewhere. Also, certain things are true in any context. Two plus three equals five and in no context can it be said to be untrue. The power to distinguish cannot be called into doubt as long as we hold that there is a reality whether we perceive it or not.
This brings up the question, does there exist a true reality. Assuming that there is a God, he is all powerful, and created this world; Descartes asks “How do I know that he did not bring it about that there is no earth at all, no heavens, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, and yet bringing it about that all these things appear to me to exist precisely as they do now?” Without a guarantee of reality, maybe context, in general is wrong. He doubts the supreme goodness of a God that would let him be deceived even occasionally. And if there does not exist a perfect God then it becomes more probably that he himself is increasingly imperfect. Descartes will assume the worst scenario, that God is really an evil genius. Therefore he must treat all external things as traps and deceptions.
By the second meditation Descartes has found the fact he is looking for, “I think, I am”. The simple fact that he thinks, which cannot be doubted, is the proof that he exists. Even if there is an evil genius deceiving him, the fact that there is some thing to be deceived proves that he exists. But what is this “I”? Of what parts is it made of and how does it relate to reality, or a perception of it?
The “I” is made of several parts. The first he recognizes as a body. He has hands, arms, and feet that he can easily claim as his own. Descartes recognizes them as the same parts as can be seen on a corpse. He describes a body as “…all that is capable of being bounded by some shape, of being enclosed in a place, and of filling up a space in such a way as to exclude any other body from it; of being perceived by touch, sight, hearing, taste, or smell; of being moved in several ways, not, of course, by itself, but by whatever else impinges upon it.” The body cannot sense, move, or think on it’s own these attributes belong to the other parts. The ability to eat, move, and sense can all be linked to the soul. However, although Descartes can state these characteristics of the soul he cannot define nor claim to understand it. He likens the soul to wind, fire, or ether none of which he can deny or explain. The last and most important part of the “I” is the mind. It is the thinking thing that proves his existence. An evil genius could trick him into believing this body is his when it is not, but his mind cannot be replaced nor absent without a loss of existence. Also, the mind and soul can sense and move, as they do in dreams, while the body remains motionless, almost absent.
Now, he has some understanding of what the “I” is, but how does it relate to, function in, and perceive reality? What faculties does the “I” use to recognize and judge things? It can sense things through seeing, smelling, tasting… It can also imagine, which is “…the contemplation of the shape or image of a corporeal thing.”
Descartes uses wax as an example to show how the “I” recognizes and evaluates things. A piece of wax has a color, shape, and size that are obvious the senses. It is hard and cold; when you knock on it, it emits a sound. These things he says “…enable a body to be known as distinctly as possible.” Now, when the wax is brought close to the fire it changes. It has lost its smell, the shape is disappearing, its size is increasing, and it has become a hot liquid. When you knock on it, it no longer emits a sound. “For whatever came under the senses of taste, smell, sight touch or hearing has now changed; and yet the wax remains.” Perhaps, the wax was never how it appeared to the senses but simply a body that was once manifest in these ways and is now manifest in others. As the imagination grasps it, an extended, flexible, and mutable body that is capable of many changes. Even so, the wax is capable of innumerable changes that it is impossible for one to imagine them all through the imagination. Descartes concludes “Therefore this insight is not achieved by the faculty of imagination.” The wax is not perceived through the senses or the imagination but through the mind alone. It is an inspection of the mind. This inspection is not infallible and its accuracy is dependant upon the attention and speculation given to the subject. Thinking is merely judging, reaching conclusions and assumptions based on connections.
Another example would clarify what is meant by “judging and perceiving through the mind alone.” Were you to look out the window and watch people crossing the street, you might say that you see the people themselves through the faculty of sight. But what you actually see is clothes, hats, and the like. You perceive these people through an inspection of the mind alone.
What things apply to the perception of wax or people can be applied to all things external. If his perception of things becomes clearer once he knows what faculties and reasons are used then he becomes that much more distinctly known to himself. He states, “For there is not a single consideration that can aid in my perception of the wax or o any other body that fails to make even more manifest the nature of my mind.”
Now, as to the problems Descartes creates with his explanations and arguments. It is not so much falsities he states but the omission of clear explanation and justification. The first problem is with reality and existence. He proves his existence in that he thinks, that some separate self consciousness must exist somewhere in order for any thought to take place. He has already cast a shadow over the validity of reality and whether this is a true reality he perceives. Descartes never refutes his own arguments of reality; and yet he includes a body and a soul as part of the “I” in “I think, I am.” The body and soul are directly linked to reality as he perceives it, the body is his physical extension to reality and the soul is the senses and faculty of motion inside reality. How would these be part of the “I” if reality is but a deception and the only thing that can be proven is that he exists as a thinking thing?
Another problem Descartes faces is a connection between the mind and the body. Exist means to stand outside. The mind has no extension; it takes up no physical space, does not exist in a place, and is not limited to a place or time. It can travel at will to another place. The mind can travel in time to plan ahead or reflect back. The mind, in effect, stands outside reality and can readily be proven to exist. The body is defined entirely by extension and location. It does not even necessarily exist and has none of the properties of the mind. How then are these two things connected? Descartes never explains this except to say that they are.
Descartes origin of knowledge comes from personal reflection, a meditation. He evaluates and questions his own existence and cannot continue until he proves and has an understanding of it. Even though he can prove his own existence he can’t prove anything outside of it. To Descartes all true knowledge is solely knowledge of the self, its existence, and relation to reality.