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Note 1: I own a copy of this book, and also of "Discourse on Method and other writings" in Penguin Classics, translated and introduced by F.E. Sutcliffe. This last text includes a translation of the Meditations and has a good introduction to Descartes. Another paper source I have used is "The Encyclopedia of Philosophy" Ed. P. Edwards. Back.
Note 2: Descartes starts with flattering the Theological Dean and Doctors, and indeed his motive is to prove God's existence to men. This had been tried many times before and one wonders why God, supposing he exists, has made it so difficult for human intellects to prove that he exists with the same clarity as mathematical theorems can be proved. On the same assumption, I do not see why an existing God would want or need fallible and weak men to prove his existence. Back.
Note 3: Here (unspecified) "infidels" are calumniated, for it is suggested they have no real moral virtues. Apart from that, one may ask what is the need for proofs of faith if faith suffices, or the need for faith if there are proofs of it. Back.
Note 4: Here it is correctly concluded the given argument is circular. (The small in faith may wonder why God, whatever his own favorite religious faith, has not provided a clearer manual for humans about how to behave and clearer proofs of his existence). Back.
Note 5: On the authority of Solomon (and the Bible) it is suggested that those who are sufficientlly intelligent can come to - presumably correctly - infer the Lord's existence from the Lord's works.
This looks like an argument from design.
One answer to that is as follows: That human beings cannot explain something complex except by assuming it has been somehow designed by something at least equally complex proves little except about human beings, and besides, even if the argument is correct the design may come from nature's interacting processes - that may be taken to be more complex collectively than any individual item they produce - rather than from a transcedent God.
And if something complex requires a maker which is at least as complex, so does the maker. This is circular, or very close to it, and therefore it seems much more sensible to assume, instead, that given collections of things can grow into greater complexity through processes inherent in those things and their environments.
That is: one meets the argument "There must be a maker of things (seeing they are made so well, etc.)" with the child-like but correct: "Pray, who made the maker?". If there always was a maker who needed not be made, but made nature, one may as well assume there always was nature that needed not be made, and somehow grew into what it is now. Back.
Note 6: If God's existence is so demonstrably certain, then why is this demonstrably not evident to all men? And why did the Lord in his wisdom not provide every human being with a sort of foolproof instinctive knowledge of His Existence, Plan and Desires? (These are questions Descartes doesn't answer.) Back.
Note 7: Descartes, in other words, acts like a good Catholic, and provides a philosophy which will serve as an assistant to Catholic faith. (This was the medieval conception of the task of philosophy.)
In any case, it seems fair to say that it does require faith beyond knowledge to assume that there is personal experience after the death of the body: all direct evidence is against it. Back.
Note 8: This is mainly correct, especially if restated: There is little apparent evidence that personal experiences exist after one's body has died, and also little apparent evidence that there is a personal maker of the universe.
What is curious is that nevertheless so many men and women have believed that they would continue to exist somehow after death, and that there is somehow a personal maker of everything.
It would seem that most men choose their faith by wishful thinking, and not by rational thinking. (But even so: Why men would desire to survive for an infinitely long time seems odd, especially if one also asks what they would do all that time.) Back.
Note 9: The method Descartes refers to consists of
(1) methodical doubt so as to find clear definitions
His statement on his method differs a bit between his "Regulae" and "Discourse on Method". Here I merely summarize. Back.
Note 12: This is very probably true.
What is more interesting is this fact: The intellectual foundations of all ideologies and philosophies, as these are put forward by their founders, is not at all such that "all the world is capable of understanding them".
Most men are followers and do not really fully understand what and who they follow, or indeed why, apart from education and example. Back.
Note 13: What is said about "metaphysical speculations" is mostly true - see Note 12 - and part of the reason that such speculations are more complicated than geometry is that they are more comprehensive. However, one wonders how metaphysical arguments, proofs, demonstrations " surpass in certainty and evidence, the demonstrations of Geometry". Back.
Note 14: It is noteworthy that Descartes claims his argument are at least as certain as mathematical demonstrations; that there are no better arguments for his conclusions (apart from his mistakes) than he gives; and that only the gifted can understand his arguments. Also, he explicily asks the theologians to protect his arguments - which seems somewhat odd if his arguments are as good as he claims they are, for in that case such protection seems hardly necessary, for the same reason as Euclid's arguments needed no special theological protection to be believed and transmitted. Back.
Note 16: Here the main stresses should be put on "if you deign to authorize your approbation and to render public testimony to their truth and certainty": Descartes much wanted this approbation (and had some good personal reasons for it: In his time one could still be burned for being a heretic).
The part "I say, that henceforward all the errors and false opinions which have ever existed regarding these two questions will soon be effaced from the minds of men." must be a somewhat Monty Pythonesque exaggeration. In any case, the reader will know that it did not happen. Back.
Note 17: Descartes Meditations was indeed directed against atheists, who are here again calumniated. Since Descartes in fact tried to find approbation for his philosophy on religious grounds, it should be remarked that in his days their were very few atheists.
And the claim that atheists tend to be "more arrogant than learned or judicious" may have been true about atheists Descrates knew, but seems to me at least as true of the theologians Descartes addressed, since to believe in a God whose existence one cannot rationally prove is easy for the impertinent, the ignorant and the careless. Back.
Note 18: This is interesting because Descartes had methodical doubt as his main principle in philosophy. Hence, here he claims in fact that by methodical doubt all doubts, at least on these basic questions of "the existence of God and the real and true distinction between the human soul and the body" can be laid to rest.
In spite of the promise of the sceptical philosophers of antiquity, who promised those who could understand their reasonings to the effect that nothing was certain a kind of peace of mind (called "ataraxia"), this is a pretty wild thesis: What Descartes claims in fact is that one can be a good Catholic on the basis of methodical doubt plus Descartes' reasoning.
In the following sentence Descartes again flatters the Theological Dean and Doctors. (It must be remembered that Descartes was a sincere Catholic, who conceived of himself as a champion of this faith.) Back.
Note 19: But there is a problem about these 'feebler minds', well expressed by the saying 'if God would not have loved the stupid, he would not have created so many of them'.
The problem is - as remarked above - why an infinitely powerful, wise and benevolent maker of everything has not provided the creatures he made in his own image (as the Bible has it) with a guaranteed maintenance manual and instead left the writing of such handbooks to mortal and fallible men like Descartes (and the authors of the Bible or the Koran).
And a related problem is this: Why a God as imagined by either of the major religions has not included quite a lot of science - physics, mathematics, medicine - in his own Holy Book(s). This might have prevented many millions of people to die young. Back.
Note 20: Actually, Descartes got considerable attention between 1640 and 1650. Part of the reason was that he was also a well-known mathematician and scientist, and that experimental science based on mathematical modelling was rapidly emerging, especially because of Galileo's writings.
It should be remarked - to the naive but intelligent, who may have read a lot of ill-written scientific papers and books - that both Galileo and Descartes were great writers, which is another part of the reason for their success. Back.
Note 21: The objection is fair enough and may be restated thus: Even if your mind infers that all it seems to be is something that thinks, it does not follow that this mind is not part or process of your brain, that is part of your body. Back.
Note 22: Descartes promises he will answer the objection I rephrased in Note 21: "I shall show hereafter how from the fact that I know no other thing which pertains to my essence, it follows that there is no other thing which really does belong to it." I will take this up when we arrive there, but may as well remark here that what Descartes says he can show seems to imply that he is omniscient. (For analogously: I know of no existing golden globe with a diameter of 1000 miles - but it doesn't follow from this that there is no such thing in the universe.) Back.
Note 23: I grant the equivocality, but then what an idea objectively represents is taken to be other than the idea (like a country - France or Utopia - and a map of the country) and one wonders how one can validly move from "I have an idea of X" (a map if Utopia) to "my idea of X is true" (Utopia exists). Indeed, this is the same sort of problem as I raised in Note 22.
This inference is clearly not valid, and one reason why Descartes might have believed it is that he confused the having of an idea with the truth of the idea, more or less as if having an idea is like having a tooth-ache. For - setting aside phantom pains - it seems normally true that one has a tooth-ache iff (if and only if) one has a feeling of tooth-ache, but it is normally not true that one has an idea of wjat really is so iff one has that idea. For one may well have ideas of things that do not exist. Back.
Note 24: That is a very weak argument, since it requires one to believe that X who denies the existence of Y must be wrong because neither he nor we understand Y. That God is miraculous or beyond understanding is no help whatsoever, and only contributes confusion: what one fails to understand cannot be used as an explanation of anything else than one's failure to understand it. Back.
Note 25: This is fair enough, if flattering the reader. (And it should be also remarked that the prejudiced often believe themselves to be unprejudiced, just as the stupid often believe themselves to be not stupid, and the ignorant usually believe themselves to be knowledgeable.) Back.
Note 26: This stands in contrast with Descartes' claims in his Preface, that his reasoning was better than any other for the same conclusions, and more certain than mathematical proofs. Back.another early text,
Note 27: There are indeed many objections published with the second edition of the Meditations, together with Descartes' answers. These can be found in the translation of Descartes' writings by Haldane and Ross. From a - much earlier - reading I concluded the best objections were by the Epicurean Pierre Gassendi.
Again, Descartes' plea seems odd when combined with his earlier claims that his metaphysical arguments were better and more certain than the proofs in geometry, that since Euclid have been the example of clear and uncontrovertible arguments. Back.
Note 28: This foreshadows Descartes' "Cogito ergo sum" arguments later on in the Meditations. I shall return to these at the appropriate places, but want to make a few remarks here.
First, I have always found Augustine's form - 'si fallor, sum' - better, and wonder whether Descartes knew it. He might have, since he was educated by the Jesuits.
Second, Lichtenberg's objection that Descartes should not have said "Ich denke" but "Es denkt" (in English: not "I think" but "it thinks" or "there is thinking", as in "it rains") is to the point and perceptive. This objection may be stated thus: If there is thinking going on to the effect that the thinking is by Descartes and that it is most beautiful proof ever of Descartes' existence, then what follows is that .... there is thinking going on, that may very well be mistaken.
Third, it should be pointed out that thoughts differ from feelings in that feelings normally give undeniable true information about the state of one's own body or mind, whereas thoughts normally give at best only true information about what one thinks, with no guarantee that what one thinks is really so. The reason is - it seems - that one's feelings always concern the states of one's own body, whereas one's thoughts may be about anything whatsoever.
And fourth and last for the moment, one may always say about any proposition X "Suppose X is not so". It seems to me this is always possible, even for necessary tautologies - and what it will learn us in that case is that our supposition leads necessarily to contradictions. Back.
Note 29: I shall save my comments till we arrive at Meditation II, and here make only two points:
First, as I stated in the previous note, it is a fallacy to infer from the fact that there is experience that what the experience represents also is a fact. (You may - presumably - think what you please, but most of the things you think may be false, and all of the things you think may be doubted, questioned, qualified etc.)
Second: Even if it were established it is impossible that - one's own - mind does not exist, it is not thereby established that one may know it, just like a reflection may show there is a mirror, without thereby establishing the mirror knows anything about what it mirrors, or about its own existence, even if the existence of a reflection entails the existence of something that reflects.
In some sense, no one who thinks or feels can doubt that there is experience going on - but this does not prove that what is thought or felt really is as it is thought or felt. And this applies especially to what is thought, as pointed out in note 27. Back.
Note 30: To write nothing except that of what one has exact demonstrations is a noble end, but difficult to achieve (if only because one cannot conclude anything without having made some assumption), and one may safely take it that in contexts like these the assurance is mostly rhetorical. Back.
Note 31 If indeed the understanding of the mind is only possible if one understands it is a mortal soul, then Descartes' task is easy indeed.
Also, Descartes here states something ever since then known - in philosophical circles - as "Cartesian": a conception of the soul entirely distinct from all the conceptions which we may have of body.
This is a very odd distinction, for many reasons, two of which follow:
First, very many of our experiences, feelings, desires and beliefs are - very intimately indeed - related to our own body and its states. This may be a fallacy, but it is certainly how things appear to be.
Second, to presume there exist both a body and a soul much complicates one's ontology: One of the fundamental attractions of both materialism and idealism is that these are monistic ontologies: in the end there are only material things (if materialism is true) or only mental things (if idealism is true).
On Descartes dualism suddenly there arise both a sphere of ideas and a sphere of material facts in one's fundamental metaphysics, and no hope of reducing the one to the other, and a considerable problem of explaining how the two can be related. Back.
Note 32: Then I find it highly doubtful, at least, that we may be assured that all the things which we conceive clearly and distinctly are true in the very way in which we think them if only because most people will have had the experience that they did clearly and distinctly believe something to be true - say, when watching a stage-magician, or a bent stick in the water - which afterward they knew to be not so. In short: Everyone know what it is to have believed falsehoods that seemed to be evident and true when one did believe in them.
In the same vein, there is little doubt small children have rather clear and distinct ideas about e.g. Santa Claus that for all their being quite clear and distinct and their tolerably well explaining quite a few things - such as: oddly dressed bearded men and the appearance of presents for many children - nevertheless are in real fact quite different from what small children clearly and distinctly believe are true. Back.
Note 33: The problem with the proposed 'essential distinctness' of mind and body is that everybody grants this in some way, but everybody who makes this distinction absolute is faced with the problem how the mind and the body can interact.
Indeed, in factual terms sofar no one has been able to give a complete satisfactory and adequate explanation of human experience and human cognitive abilities, and in factual terms everybody talks in a dualist way: On the one hand, as if there are feelings, desires, ends and beliefs, which are properties of minds, and on the other hand as if there are voltages, charges, differential coefficients, and atoms and molecules, which are properties of material things, that normally are not taken to have or be feelings, desires, ends or beliefs at all (but voltages, charges etc.). See the next note for more on this line. Back.
Note 34: The problem may be indicated as follows: It may be granted that molecules and atoms have no feelings, no beliefs, and no desires, but have charges, spatial location, etc.
Now if our own feelings, beliefs and desires are in fact the outcome of the dance of atoms and molecules between our ears, then how do our feelings, beliefs and desires arise from what is entirely without them?
And if our feelings, beliefs and desires have little or nothing to do with what happens in our brains and bodies (since - if Descartes is right - we are immortal souls who will survive our brains and bodies), then how is it that our feelings, beliefs and desires do seem to be tied to and dependent on our brains and bodies, and how indeed does our mind move our body?
These are difficult questions we will enter into later. As to the first question I just posed, it may help the reader if he (or she) contemplates the following four stars:
and asks: Is the shape these four stars form - the fact that they form the corners of a rectangular shape - reducible to the properties of these four stars? Or is there something given with the stars, such as their spatial arrangement, that is not reducible to the objects that make up the arrangement? Back.
Note 35: This seems to be mostly grammar: It so happens we don't use the term "mind" as a mass-term. However, since we are quite capable of judging mental capacity, as in "he was not himself that day, being very tired, and did not have his ordinary mental acuity" what Descartes says is mostly misleading. Back.
Note 36: Actually, such hope for another life after death seems quite odd to me for all manner of reasons, two of which are as follows:
A. What is the point of having a body and a life on earth if in fact this body and this life are only an infinitesimal fraction of one's existence (as an immortal soul)?
In any case, "life after death" seems mostly a hypothesis invented and believed to survive the disappointments and pains of life before death. That is quite understandable, as is most wishful thinking, but also quite incredible. Back.
Note 37: A basic problem with incorruptible nature is that nature is given to us as an unceasing flux: Most things keep changing all the time until they fall apart into their constituents, to which applies the same. Back.
Note 38: These points probably inspired Leibniz to a similar conclusion that the mind has no parts, is not divisible, and is much like a focus.
Apart from problems about things which have no parts and the fact that much or all of this is metaphorical, one may ask whether the mind could not be such as to have parts and be divisible but appear in experience as it does.
In any case, as the reader may see from e.g. Note 34, it seems far more plausible to me that the mind arises from the arrangement and interaction of some of the parts of the brain, and perishes if the brain perishes, just like a piece of paper - that arises from the arrangement of its parts - perishes if it is torn up. (But there is more to mind than shape, as the reader of all my remarks to the Meditations will find.) Back.
Note 39: That is clearly not cogent, and wishful thinking. One may as well conclude from the fact that since I can think of a perfect woman she therefore must exist.
In more general terms, one should have considerable doubts about any supposedly self-validating argument, just as one should about supposedly self-contradictory arguments: In either case, the supposed validation or contradiction tends not to follow from what was stated in the argument but from undeclared assumptions. Back.
Note 41: It is desirable to get an explanation of "what the nature of error or falsity consists".
This indeed is a problem, because we understand all manner of statements we know to be false or do not know to be true, but understand in any case. There is the additional problem that we know - I shall assume - that many of the things we believe we know are not quite so as we believe them to be.
Next, the difference Descartes draws between sin and error seems unclear, in that sin - for Descartes - seems to be those errors the Catholic Church objects to as immoral. Back.
Note 42: This we will turn to when considering the 5th Meditation.
Here it may be simply remarked that if there is an omnipotent benevolent God, He did not produce any clear incontrovertible evidence for His existence, for His desires, and also did not provide human beings with any clear manual, in as much as all founding texts of all religions are unclear, metaphorical and implausible for most non-believers in those religions. Back.
Note 43: The philosopher Berkeley might have added a warning to infidel mathematicians (namely that it is proved they cannot exist or cannot be good mathematicians).
In any case, atheist or agnostic mathematicians will feel very doubtful about Descartes' claim, and besides whether something is mathematically true seems to be not up to God, if He exists, for even God must conform to mathematics and logic. (If He doesn't, he is totally beyond human rational comprehension, and one is wise to speak only of what one either understands or may come to understand, with such means as mortal human beings may have.) Back.
Note 44: The distinction between thought and imagination is indeed important (and was already drawn by Aristotle, in "De Anima" = "On the Soul").
The basic differences according to Aristotle are that imaginations are fantasies derived from perceptions without any belief joined to them that they are anything else, while thoughts are judgments about imaginations, to the effect that these do or do not represent anything real. Aristotle, unlike Descartes, believed animals have imaginations but lack judgments.
Note that in imaginations such as animals presumably have, inferences are made, but only to such supposed facts as hang together with what the imagination is about.
By contrast, when humans judge an imagination linguistically, it may be related to anything else whatsoever in the whole universe, past, present and future, and this is something non-human animals seem to be wholly incapable of: They live in the here and now, and cannot think of most things beyond their own experiences and direct needs. (Surely, if they could, they could not so easily be hunted and killed by humans.) Back.
Note 46: This is again quite paradoxical: What Descartes is saying is that it is - to human beings, if Cartesians, at least - more evident (probable, plausible, credible) that there are human experiences and a God who designed them, than that there is a Nature in which there are human bodies, animals, stars, sticks, stones etc.
One point Descartes has not considered is the following point, which is quite interesting about human beings: ALL the experiences of other human beings are to ourselves at least as hypothetical as the existence of our own body and the commonsensical world in front of our nose - and I write "at least" for various reasons, one of which is that often people dissemble about what their experiences are to others. Back.
last update: Apr 16 2013