Written on January 06th, 2007 by Shawn Anthony
Descartes’ First Meditation is a philosophical inquiry into epistemology, from a very skeptical position.
Descartes is obviously dedicated to self-reflection as a means leading toward authentic self-understanding as concerns his own rational or irrational awareness. He writes:
“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.”
He begins his Meditation by cognitively positioning himself as one who is prepared to critically analyze his own beliefs, as well as the foundations upon which they have been built. Perhaps more importantly than this, Descartes seems prepared to embrace the results of his personal dive inward - even if requires him to label all of his beliefs as false, or seriously questionable.
The question concerning “how one comes to know” is at the forefront of Descartes’ Meditation. He cites the senses, which at times can be deceiving, as the most informative epistemological trait. Descartes even goes so far as to call into question obvious experiences which seem to inform the senses: “… 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.” This, he goes on to say, because of its similarity to dream states, could be a mere dream itself. We really do not have a way to distinguish between the two, according to Descartes, save rationalism/reason.
The existence of God is also of no real help either, epistemologically speaking. God, according to Descartes, could be as deceptive as the sense, if not the root cause of the sensory deception: “Nevertheless,” he says, “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.”
God is good. God, as a result could not be the source of such obvious deception; evil is not of God. A wily demon must be the force behind such epistemological deception. Descartes writes: “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; I 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 …”
Descartes, by the end of his Meditation, has laid a serious foundation for the ultimate level of doubt which later would pave the way for Western rationalism, which cites human reason as the principle source of knowledge.
I would agree, as far as rationalism and reason are concerned. After all, we are talking about a specific sort of knowledge, correct? Human knowledge. Human reason seems to me to not only be the principle source of human knowledge, but also its principle catalyst. Descartes, for example, began his Meditation by preparing himself for personal reflection concerning his beliefs. This act was made possible through his personal ability to access reason and rationality via premeditation. Descartes, by the end of his Meditation, realized he could only know he existed because he was in-fact thinking (cogito ergo sum?).