Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy is an impressive work deducting the nature of knowledge and reality. This critical epistemological work is filled with difficult concepts. My goal is to breakdown the main concepts for you, the reader, so that you may obtain more of the dense content. There are three main ideas to tackle in this first meditation. The dissolving of trust in our sensory knowledge, the dream state and the ultimate deceiver hypotheses. This will all make sense in the end of this brief digest.
Descartes opens meditation one by describing his current perception of his metaphysical dilemma. The foundation of the issue is all of his knowledge lies in what he considers “false opinions.” He intends to shed these opinions by withdrawing himself into solitude. The first step he conceives, is not to dissolve each opinion but larger ideas in which the particulars derive.
Is seeing believing?
The first foundation of knowledge in which he disputes is the knowledge we obtain from the senses. “ never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once.” He describes our senses as in some cases deceiving us. Imagine, if you will, that you are in a desert. You look towards the horizon, dehydrated, and glance at a beautiful oasis. The water so real you are embraced with relief. No longer enslaved to your despair and thirst. Now as you reach the oasis, it is clear it was only a mirage. Were you deceived by your senses? This is an example of what he concludes as casting doubt upon the knowledge gained from this mode.
Are you awake?
Even still, if we assume our senses can be dishonest, we can be sure we are still sitting here reading this digest. Comfortable, engaged, enticed and awake. However, this is our next predisposition to dissolve. Descartes imagines we are not sure that we are awake. Remember for a moment the last dream you visited. While asleep did you feel as if the dream was reality? Were you aware that you were dreaming? How do you differentiate between asleep and awake?
Since we can not be sure that we are either awake or asleep, Descartes rejects the knowledge we suppose we know in this way. This leaves us with only one truth remaining. All we can be sure of is “arithmetic, geometry and other such disciplines.” The principles of science and mathematics are all that remains.
Are you a brain in a vat?
Now, the grail of mind altering revelations is that of the evil genius. Not even the remaining knowledge of science and mathematics can survive the master mind. A more modern rendition of this idea is that we are brains in a vat deceived by some external authority in such a way that when you go to count the sides of a triangle, you count three. Now imagine if you will that this was false and you are really being deceived each and every time you do this. Imagine adding two and two and getting four; yet, the real answer is forty-two. How then can we even trust our capacity to reason or articulate mathematics?
Meditation one leaves us with some doubt in regards to our reality. Do not give up now, we will reestablish some sense of reality in meditation two. He discusses the mind-body problem and delivers the most famous quote: “Cogito ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I exist.”
To be continued…
Up next: “The Mind and Body”