Truth suffers from too much analysis

Descartes’ First Meditation

Posted by allzermalmer on April 1, 2012

This is the first blog, of a series of blogs, on Descartes’ Meditation on First Philosophy. I will try to do one meditation per blog. So this would be a series of six blogs based on each of the Meditations in his book. [I might to come up with a way to do all the objections and replies that he obtains from his books and his meditations.]

This is Descartes’ First Meditation, and it is titled “Of Those Things That May Be Called Into Doubt“.

Descartes comes to realize that he held many false opinions that he once acted as true and these were from his childhood until the time of this meditation. He points out that whatever he holds which is built on a shaky foundation can only be doubtful. So he comes to realize that the structure needs to be utterly demolished and would have to begin from the bottom back up by constructing something lasting and unshakeable. He came to hold some “false opinions” and is going to try to correct them.

“whatever I had…built on such shaky foundations, could only be highly doubtful. Hence I saw that at some stage in my life the whole structure would have to be utterly demolished, and that I should have to begin again from the bottom up if I wished to construct something lasting and unshakeable in the sciences.”

It comes down to doubt to take some time for seclusion and think over these things that are accepted from childhood to that moment. It has become time to think them over scrupulously. He does not need to prove that every opinion or belief he held was false, because that doesn’t seem achievable. He doesn’t need certain or indubitable reasons to withhold assent. He only needs some sufficient reason for doubting them. He will attack the principles that form the basis of all former beliefs, he shall undermine the foundations and the building will collapse.

“But since reason already persuades me that I should no less scrupulously withhold my assent from what is not fully certain and indubitable than from what is blatantly false, then, in order to reject them all, it will be sufficient to find some reason for doubting each one…once the foundations are undermined, the building will collapse of its own accord, I shall straight away attack the very principles that form the basis of all my former beliefs.”

Descartes comes to find out that he has accepted as fully true what has come either from the senses or through them. However, it has been discovered that either what we have learned from the senses or through them, has failed him in that some were false. Prudence now dictates that he should never fully trust them once he has figured that he has been deceived. What this means is that he has had sensory experiences that turned out to be false (i.e. building looks small but is actually quite large). He also finds that what he has learned through the senses, been told by someone else, has turned out to be false (i.e. someone lied to him). And these other people would learn of them from the senses and also have the same problem he has of learned from the senses instead of through them. This helps to form the basis of the argument from illusion.

Although the senses sometimes deceive us about things that are little or a long way away, they are still things which there are no doubt, although learned them from the senses. Like now sitting at a table, with a pad of paper in one’s lap, a pen in one’s hands, and a shirt, pants, socks, and shoes on, or having a cup on the table, or having a body. What reason would there for to doubt these things?  Could compare oneself to a madmen who are naked and say that their body is made entirely out of glass, or say they see their body is made entirely out of feathers. But they are just lunatics, madmen, and we should not follow their example. This is a partial attempt to throw doubt onto those things like the body or a chair, which in some way seemed exempt from the argument from illusion, by comparing ourselves to madmen.

But Descartes finds that he can even doubt that he has a body or those things that would have seemed to be exempt from the argument from illusion without relying on saying we are madmen. Descartes finds that when in his dreams he has all the same experiences as these madmen when they are awake. When he has been asleep, he has the same experiences of those familiar things he mentioned earlier, but he was lying naked under the bed sheets. He has had very distinct things in his experiences of dreaming before, just as distinct as when he was awake. When he thinks clearly on the difference between dreaming and being awake, he finds that he can never distinguish between dreaming and being awake by any conclusive indications. This means he cannot decide if he actually has a body or not, these everyday type of objects he invoked to escape the argument from illusion aren’t safe from the argument from dreams.

“How often my sleep at night has convinced me of all these familiar things—that I was here, wrapped in my gown, sitting by the fire—when in fact I was lying naked under the bedclothes.—All the same, I am now perceiving this paper with eyes that are certainly awake; the head I am nodding is not drowsy; I stretch out my hand and feel it knowingly and deliberately; a sleeper would not have these experiences so distinctly…When I think this over more carefully I see so clearly that waking can never be distinguished from sleep by any conclusive indications that I am stupefied; and this very stupor comes close to persuading me that I am asleep after all.”

However, when asleep, we have these experiences of particular things like a cup. It is red and has some shape. It shall be admitted that things seen in sleep are “painted images” which could only be formed on the basis of a resemblances with real things. It is for this reason that general things are not imaginary, but real and existing. For when a painter wants to represent a siren, they must combine some simple parts of different things they’ve experienced from the senses. The colors and shapes must come from real things. This means that he comes to rely on general characteristics to avoid the argument from a dream, which is that those general things we have in dreams come from something simpler that they have experienced when not dreaming, which help to form our dreams. These things are simple and universal.

“In this category (i.e. simple and universal) it seems we should include bodily nature in general, and its extension; likewise the shape of extended things and their quantity (magnitude and number); likewise the place in which they exist, the time during which they exist, and suchlike…arithmetic, geometry, and other disciplines of the same kind, which deal only with the very simplest and most general things, and care little whether they exist in nature or not, contain something certain and indubitable. For whether I am waking or sleeping, two plus three equals five, and a square has no more than four sides; nor does it seem possible that such obvious truths could be affected by any suspicion that they are false.”

Descartes has gone over two types of arguments that show the frailty of his thinking, and how he’s believed some things that have some sufficient reason to withhold from the general principles that gave a foundation for his questionable beliefs, those he found to be false. He has come to realize some weaknesses, but it is not enough to have realized these things, he needs to remember it as well. This is because, as he says, “accustomed opinions continually creep back into my mind, and take possession of my belief, which has, so to speak, been enslaved to them by long experience and familiarity, for the most part against my will.”

These fundamental general beliefs that he held, and lead to him to assent to some false beliefs, and has become so familiar to him. It is now harder for him to break with these false opinions that he has held. These opinions keep creeping back into his mind because these opinions take possession of his beliefs and he becomes enslaved by them. This happens through long experience with them and developing a familiarity with them. What he has also found is that his long experience and familiarity has been very successful, but they have also been found to be false. As Descartes says, “my concern at the moment is not with action but only with the attainment of knowledge.” He has found that false beliefs have lead to actions, successful ones and unsuccessful ones, but they didn’t help him to attain knowledge. This is because some of the successful ones have found to be false, and so we cant’ trust some of these beliefs, even if they are successful.

Now he introduces an argument that casts doubt on those things that he has said seemed to be beyond doubt with the dream argument. This new argument will cast doubt on the most simple and general things, like that of mathematics and having a body part like a head. Those things that he said could escape the dream argument now have to contend with an evil demon. This evil demon is all powerful, which means that there would be no body, no sky, no chair, and etc.

“I will therefore suppose that, not God…but some evil spirit, supremely powerful and cunning, has devoted all his efforts to deceiving me. I will think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds, and all external things are no different from the illusions of our dreams, and that they are traps he has laid for my credulity; I will consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, and no senses, but yet as falsely believing that I have all these.”

This is the most radical of skeptical arguments, in one sense. All those things that Descartes invoked to escape the previous skeptical arguments can’t escape this argument. This argument gives him sufficient evidence to doubt those general principles that he held when he was growing up from a youth till the time of these meditations. He has found so many things that were false, and thought of ways that he could try to escape them, but finds that those previous principles that held can’t stand up to all of these skeptical arguments that he has presented. He has to now, from this position, try to find a new general principle that would be able to escape these skeptical arguments. This means he needs a general principle that can’t be called into doubt based on these skeptical arguments that he presented.

“Just as a prisoner, who was perhaps enjoying an imaginary freedom in his dreams, when he then begins to suspect that he is asleep is afraid of being woken up, and lets himself sink back into his soothing illusions; so I of my own accord slip back into my former opinions, and am scared to awake, for fear that tranquil sleep will give way to laborious hours of waking, which from now on I shall have to spend not in any kind of light, but in the unrelenting darkness of the difficulties just stirred up.”

Descartes “accustomed opinions continually creep back into [his] mind, and take possession of [his] belief, which has, so to speak, been enslaved to them by long experience and familiarity, for the most part against [his] will…[his]concern at the moment is not with action but only with the attainment of knowledge.” This has made him a prisoner who enjoys imaginary freedom either from a dream or from the evil-demon. When he finds that some of his former beliefs are false, he is afraid to be woken up and so sinks back into his illusions. So he slips back to his former opinions, which have arisen out of long experience and familiarity that they carry.


Descartes has found that he held to some false beliefs. Whatever the foundation of these beliefs, he has found that this foundation has led to some false beliefs. He does not plan to question all of his particular beliefs, but he plans on questioning the “corner stones”, general principles, that were the foundation of his former beliefs. He only needs something sufficient, not certain, to break down these false beliefs that he held. Once the foundation is undermined the rest of his beliefs collapses. He finds that those things he learned either through the senses or from the senses have turned up to be false from time to time, and so it would be prudent to not trust them completely, argument from illusion. But he still has some beliefs like that of a body or objects, which don’t seem to be questioned by this argument. He finds that he has dreams that show that his body is not as clearly known as he once thought, and he can’t tell the difference between a dream and waking, i.e. argument from dream.  But he finds that dreams are built off of simple and universal things like color and shape. Our dreams would use things like this to escape the argument from a dream. Now he introduces an all powerful demon that presents to him things that are simple and universal, but they are deceptions that the demon presents to Descartes, which are to get Descartes to believe in these things even though they are false.


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