Descarte’s Theories on True Beliefs

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23/09/19 Philosophy Reference this

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For Descartes, the Meditations sought to establish a foundation upon which one can deduce as to whether beliefs they hold are actually true or not, as opposed to a delusion of the senses or a dream, through the refinement process on the discourse of his method of scepticism. Perhaps best analysed through his analogy of an apple basket being representative of the mind where, just as the presence of rotten apples could spread disease to the good ones, so too do false beliefs murk those that are held to be true. The only way to ensure the basket is full of good apples is to empty it and examine each apple individually, so as to ensure its quality before returning it to the basket, and discarding the bad ones. This is the starting point for Descartes, through his method of doubt if one is to observe their thoughts and surroundings, dismantle them and rebuild them in accordance with reason they will eventually reach certainty. The eminent maxim ‘cogito ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am) is the derivation of this, the very act of doubt affirms the certainty of thought, and more importantly, the existence of the mind as a ‘thinking’ thing. He questions as to whether his mind was simply being stimulated to believe in the illusion of a physical body or experiencing the five senses, however, internally deduced that if he could convince himself of something, then he must surely exist. Positing the existence of an evil genius who had employed ‘all of his energies’ into deceiving him through manipulation of the senses and the external world, the mere fact that such an evil genius is capable of deceiving him would logically follow to prove that he exists, therefore, try as the evil genius may, he would never be able to convince Descartes that he was nothing[1].

Pierre Gassendi, another seventeenth century quasi-sceptic, objected to Descartes’ use of falsehood for the basis of doubt[2], arguing that it would have spared the need to postulate the evil genius or indeed a God capable and willing to deceive his own creations. Gassendi further adds that having proceeded with uncertainty for the basis of doubt as opposed to rejecting everything ‘as if absolutely false’[3] may have prevented him from going down the route of understanding all sensory experience, including the manifestations of our sleep, to be illusional. In his reply, Descartes re-emphasises the need to suspend judgement in order to view things in a clear and distinct way, the proposition that everything one has hitherto believed is false is in itself a false statement. He argued that ‘pretending’ to doubt things under the guise of purse falsehood was necessary to contribute towards bringing the truth to light, likening it to astronomers imagining the equator or where mathematicians add new lines to given geometric figures[4]. In the First Meditation, he indicates that the mind is categorically distinctive in the world, therefore even during periods of inactivity (such as being asleep or comatose) the mind still exists. The mind has the capacity to internally reflect and evaluate opinions with the aid of reason, it isn’t however enough to merely notice recurrent habitual opinions, one must actively meditate in order to reconsider and reassemble them in a logical manner. To pretend for a short time that these former opinions are ‘utterly false and imaginary’[5] is to over time counterbalance preconceived opinion with a clear, distinct perspective. This could be viewed as a prudent attempt to reconcile the foundations of his methodology, noting that there can be no erroneous consequences for ‘carping’[6]. When Descartes refers to the method of universal doubt, he meant a method that begins with consideration of grounds for radical sceptical doubt, as such is the purpose of the Meditations to describe a general method for investigating many sorts of truths: the mathematical, the physical and the metaphysical[7]. Instead of telling us to test each of our beliefs through a method of radically denying each of them, he is exhorting us to reject ‘merely probably cognition’[8] He concluded that doubtful enquiry shrouded in this way perfectly complemented philosophical openness, the pursuit of knowledge and the love of truth.

As a devout Catholic, Descartes’ enquiry naturally arrived to questioning the existence of God. Although not traditionally a dualist, he made a distinction between the human mind and body, two creative substances which are to be accepted as the bedrock of reality and human mechanics. Whilst the body, anything that occupies space, is understood through its principal attribute of extension (e.g. knowing what a toe is because you are able to extend yours); the mind is understood through its capacity to think, knowing for example what emotions such as anger, sorrow and happiness are. Where there are arguments that suggest they can interact with one another (to be explored later), seen for in example how the emotion anger may physically manifest in someone’s face turning red and their heart rate increasing, this is not to be confused as them being one concurrent entity. Rozemond’s ‘Real Distinction’ argument[9] encapsulates this, beginning with the premise that ‘I’ can doubt that I am extended but I cannot doubt (that is, I am certain) that I think. For any intrinsic properties α and β, conceptually speaking, if it is possible to doubt that something is β whilst not doubting (or being certain) that it is α, then α is not a mode or feature of β. With this in mind, knowing that extension is the principal attribute of the body, through the process of elimination, I can say that extension is not the principal attribute of the mind insofar as every substance is believed to have exactly one principal attribute. The substance of the mind, our thoughts, is not an extension of the substance of the body, ergo the mind is a different substance from the body. Working from this, if A and B are different substances, they must be really distinct, meaning that the mind must also be really distinct from the body out of essentiality.

Descartes then proceeds to throw a ‘C’ into the mix – God. Certainty of perfect knowledge must rely on some universal standard of perfect knowledge, one which presupposes all other types of knowledge. To summarise his trademark argument, the mere fact that one exists and has within their perennial nature the ability to idealise over a perfect being like God proves that God exists, for all ideas are derivative apart from the idea of God[10]. Gassendi evaluated on Descartes’ proposition that an infinite entity (God) has more representative reality than that of a finite entity (humans). For surely as the human intellect is not capable of conceiving infinity, so too can’t it contemplate, or even have, any idea representative of an infinite entity[11]. Descartes held it to be false that the infinite is understood through the negotiation of a boundary or limit, for there is no limit to God’s power, the world has been created in such a way to reflect that it is for example simply impossible for God to create a rock which is too heavy for him to carry[12]. He draws on Gassendi’s claim that to attribute such divine traits is to use our intellects to simply amplify our own, adding that in amplifying these traits we make them greater than what they originally were, and although we don’t know everything there is to know of God, all the attributes we recognise are truly there. Moreover, he attends to the underestimation of questioning the cause of existence (as the causes of coming into existence were widely academically commented on up until that point). For example, the architect is the cause of the house, and a mother is the cause of her child, works only in the causes of their coming into being. Once the work on the house is completed and the child is born, they remain in existence with no further input from this kind of cause. But, the sun is the cause of the light it emits, and God is the cause of created things such as the sun, not just as causes of the coming-into-existence of these things, but also as causes of their existence and their remaining existence[13].

Thus, in inferring that a created entity can stay in existence independently of anything else, one clearly attributes a perfection to it that only a creator could possess. Gassendi is surprised to find that not everyone shares Descartes understanding of God, maintaining that he imprinted the of himself onto them as he did to Descartes. Albeit plausible to question how one receives this idea in the first place, Descartes maintains that being surprised about this is like being surprised that although everyone is aware of the idea of a triangle people differ in what properties they notice about it[14]. If one was to define the word ‘idea’ in an explicit sense akin to his definition of it, then it cannot be denied that we one some idea of God, unless one is willing to say that they don’t understand the meaning of an idea which is the most perfect thing conceivable. In addition to this, Descartes argues, someone who denies having any conceptual idea about God is not only stating his lack of knowledge of God by natural reason, but also that he couldn’t get knowledge of God though faith or in some other way. In a nutshell, someone without a perception or idea that corresponds to the meaning of the word ‘God’ cannot meaningfully state that they believe or disbelieve his existence.

This could potentially lead Descartes towards the Euthyphro Dilemma, where Plato mulled over whether goodness is loved by the gods because it is good, or because is in itself only good because it is loved by the Gods. Whilst Descartes does not consider this, it would probably dissolve on the grounds that God as the creator gives all creations attributes, therefore attributes can be said to depend on God. He exists outside the categories of our understanding, namely time and space, and does not abide by our laws of logic as he created them. For Descartes, the will of God is not distinct from his intellect, thus, it is impossible to suggest that God would will something that is not good. In his later Sixth Objections, he identifies that because God willed the creation of the world to coincide with the concept of time, it would make sense for him to have created it from outside of time, a place of eternity. Because God willed that the three angles within a triangle are to equal two right angles, they cannot be said to equate to anything else. There is no prevailing standard of goodness apart from God’s will, so too is there no such possibility of a deceiving God. As far as a general method for testing opinions and beliefs, radical sceptical doubt is used as a starting point for Descartes to unlock the foundations of his seminal finding, the existence of the mind as a mental substance clear and distinctive from the body, the world and the senses. To therefore conclude that ‘ego sum, ego existo’ (I am, I exist) is to recognise it as being necessarily true in every possible world whether conditionally proposed or conceived in one’s mind.

The Fourth Objections to the Meditations, authored by Antoine Arnauld, are held with high academic accord, offering many interesting and crucial objections to the Meditations, the first of which concerns the argument that the mind and body are really distinct (seen in the Sixth Meditation), so much so that the mind can exist without it. Arnauld probes the inference from our ability to clearly and distinctly conceive the mind and body as separate to them actually being separable: claiming that supposing he knew for certain that a right angled triangle can be drawn within any semicircle, no matter which point it starts to be drawn from, hence that the triangle formed by the diameter and the angle of the semicircle is right angled. In spite of this, he may doubt that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to he squares on the other two sides, perhaps going so far as to convince himself of some fallacy. But now, if he were to use the skeleton of Descartes’ argument, he may appear to have confirmed his false belief, for if he were to ‘clearly and distinctly perceive’ that the triangle is a right angled one, but doubt the square on the hypotenuse as being equal to the squares on the other two sides, it can therefore be shown that it does not belong to the essence of the triangle that the square on the hypotenuse equates to the squares on the other two sides[15]. Descartes doesn’t allow for the potential of an additional property to be discovered, and with this example, you would be left with a right angled triangle that didn’t follow Pythagorus’ Theorem.

One could only suppose Descartes’ reply to follow along the lines of claiming that he does not clearly and distinctly view the triangle as being right angled, but to do this would illustrate Arnauld as having a clearer perception of his own mind and nature than Descartes over the nature of the triangle. Whether this tears down Descartes’ position is tricky to answer, what can be stated however is that we can clearly and distinctly understand the triangle in this geometric construction to be right angled without being aware that the square on the hypotenuse equates to the squares on the other two sides[16]. This can be likened to perceiving the mind clearly and distinctly without doing so to the body, thus clearly and distinctly perceiving the mind to exist without the body[17] (Van Cleve, 1983). Returning to the case of the ‘right angled triangle’, such is the only thing perceived clearly and distinctly where we are oblivious to note that it is representative of Pythagorus’ Theorem, whereas the mind can be perceived in such a way without the body and vice versa. In order to reconcile a more workable criticism, Arnauld would have to somehow prove that he could clearly and distinctly perceive the right angled property of a triangle which does not align with Pythagorus’ Theorum, a conclusion impossible to reach, laying the groundwork for his later comments on Cartesian dualism.

Arnuald notoriously departed from the backbone of Descartes’ position, the rejection of the union of the mind and body making it possible for them to exercise causal action on one another, for a person’s body cannot act causally onto his mind, and had a degree of difficulty with the notion of a person’s mind being able to causally act on his body[18]. He drew on parallels with Nicolas Malebranche’s The Search After Truth, where he commented on Descartes’ thoughts surrounding an idea of matter that reveals its nature consisting in extension alone, adding that since sensible qualities, such as colour and taste, are not reducible to modes of extension, they cannot exist external to the mind. Since these qualities exist in the mind through the mind’s perception of these qualities, the mind itself must be distinguishable from the body[19]. Arnauld proposed that the union of mind and body as we know it consists in a natural concurrence of thoughts in the soul with traces in the brain and of emotions in the soul with movements akin to those of animal spirits. Whilst it remains plausible for us to not know everything about the nature of God’s union between mind and body, what we can be sure of is the fact that the mind is as distinct from the body as a captain is to his ship, understood through their differing modes and principal attributes.

From the outset Descartes sought to provide a starting point to which one would be able to step back and reexamine all their preconceived opinions and habitual beliefs in alignment with reason. In order to think more ‘clearly and distinctly’, he suggests to ‘pretend’ to suspend belief in what is being questioned in an absolute sense. What is commonly mistaken is the fact that these are the building blocks for the meditator, and it would be incorrect to interpret it as a prescriptive how-to guide. Scepticism plays a monumental role in the formulation of his methodology, present from the very first inference of his that the mind thinks, therefore its existence cannot be doubted. As far as how sound his reasoning behind using doubt at the crux of his enquiry, although it has serious flaws in places, overall holds up relatively well. So it would seem for the most part that he achieved what he initially set out to enquire.

Bibliography

•    Literature

Broughton J, Descartes’ Method of Doubt (Princeton University Press 2002) p297

Descartes R, Meditations on First Philosophy, translated by Cottingham J (New York: Cambridge University Press 1988).

•    Online Resources

•    Early Modern Texts -  Objections to the Meditations and Descartes’ Replies, J Bennet (2007), Fifth Objections (Gassendi) https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/descartes1642_3.pdf accessed 06/01/19

•    Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy – https://www.iep.utm.edu/aarnauld/#H2 accessed 07/01/19

•    Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy – https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arnauld/#ArnCar accessed 07/01/19

•    https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/malebranche/#CarDua accessed 07/01/19

•    Lecture notes/ handouts

Schuringa, C. (Autumn 2018). Descartes and the Existence of God Lecture. New College of the Humanities.

 Schuringa, C. (Autumn 2018). Cartesian Dualism Lecture. New College of the Humanities.


[1] Descartes R, Meditations on First Philosophy, translated by Cottingham J (New York: Cambridge University Press 1988). AT VII 25

[2] Objections to the Meditations and Descartes’ Replies, J Bennet (2007), Fifth Objections (Gassendi) https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/descartes1642_3.pdf accessed 06/01/19

[3] Descartes R, Meditations on First Philosophy, translated by Cottingham J (New York: Cambridge University Press 1988). AT VII 31

[4] Objections to the Meditations and Descartes’ Replies, J Bennet (2007), Fifth Objections (Gassendi) https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/descartes1642_3.pdf accessed 06/01/19

[5] Descartes R, Meditations on First Philosophy, translated by Cottingham J (New York: Cambridge University Press 1988).

[6] Objections to the Meditations and Descartes’ Replies, J Bennet (2007), Fifth Objections (Gassendi) https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/descartes1642_3.pdf accessed 06/01/19

[7] Broughton J, Descartes’ Method of Doubt (Princeton University Press 2002) p297

[8] Descartes R, Meditations on First Philosophy, translated by Cottingham J (New York: Cambridge University Press 1988). AT X 362

[9] Schuringa, C. (Autumn 2018). Cartesian Dualism Lecture. New College of the Humanities.

[10] Descartes R, Meditations on First Philosophy, translated by Cottingham J (New York: Cambridge University Press 1988). AT VII 42

[11] Objections to the Meditations and Descartes’ Replies, J Bennet (2007), Fifth Objections (Gassendi) https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/descartes1642_3.pdf accessed 06/01/19

[12] Schuringa, C. (Autumn 2018). Descartes and the Existence of God Lecture. New College of the Humanities.

[13] Objections to the Meditations and Descartes’ Replies, J Bennet (2007), Fifth Objections (Gassendi) https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/descartes1642_3.pdf accessed 06/01/19

[14] Objections to the Meditations and Descartes’ Replies, J Bennet (2007), Fifth Objections (Gassendi) https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/descartes1642_3.pdf accessed 06/01/19

[15] Descartes R, Meditations on First Philosophy, translated by Cottingham J (New York: Cambridge University Press 1988). AT VII 201-202

[16] Descartes R, Meditations on First Philosophy, translated by Cottingham J (New York: Cambridge University Press 1988). AT VII 244-245

[17] Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/aarnauld/#H2 accessed 07/01/19

[18] Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arnauld/#ArnCar accessed 07/01/19

[19] Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/malebranche/#CarDua accessed 07/01/19

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