Descartes’ First Meditation
Descartes begins his epistemological project by confronting the dilemma of false beliefs. We have all accepted beliefs and upon further investigation found them to be in error. In many cases a false belief will influence many other beliefs that one may have. For example you may have concluded A and from that established belief you reasoned to B, C, D and so on only to find later that you wrong about your original belief A. In the First Meditation Descartes takes inventory of his beliefs and places those beliefs that are questionable aside until he can first establish a secure epistemological basis for beliefs that are beyond doubt. Only then will he be able to move on and address the questionable beliefs.
Descartes observes that many of his beliefs are based on sensory knowledge. Therefore he takes up the task of calling into question the reliability of sensory beliefs.
1. Descartes’ first move is to note that his senses have been in error. However, because his senses have been in error at various times it does not follow that his senses are always in error. Therefore he has reason to question some of his sensory beliefs. What must be questioned at this point for Descartes are the perceptual conditions. For example, the error in his sensory equipment may be caused by poor lighting, he may be under the influence of mind altering substance, or for what ever reason the perceptual conditions are not such that his sensory equipment can interpret the experience. At this point Descartes can say that only some of his beliefs that are formed by his senses are in error and we trust that those beliefs that are accurate posses prime perceptual conditions.
2. However, what about dreams? Descartes recalls certain dreams where he falsely believed that he was awake. It is because of these dreams that Descartes believes he can’t distinguish between his dreams and when he is awake. What follows is he must call into question his perception of things. How can he know he is moving his hand right now? It could all be a dream.
In the movie The Matrix Morpheus poses the same question:
“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” I will return to this dreaming argument for further scrutiny.
Descartes believes that his dream dilemma gives him reason to question sensory beliefs, even beliefs obtained under prime perceptual conditions. At the same time he also holds there are beliefs that the dream argument does not address. The particular beliefs we form when we dream (“This is the best cigar I’ve ever smoked in my life” the dream I had last night) are usually false, the objects of our dream (the smoking lounge I was in, the cigar vendor, the cigar itself) come from things we experience when we are awake, and Descartes believes we can still be confident that some things of those kind exist. Thus for Descartes the dream argument does not address general truths about the world (the belief that there are physical objects, that they move in such-and-such ways, etc.) Also, the dream argument does not give Descartes reason to call into question beliefs about mathematics and the like.
In his pursuit of doubt Descartes considers the possiblity that he was created by God so that he existed in a constant state of deception even about things we have discussed above.
However this seems to fly in the face of Descartes’ conception of God. He writes: But perhaps God would not have allowed me to be deceived in this way, since he is said to be supremely good.
At the moment Descartes does not think this line of reasoning is valid. He says: But if it were inconsistent with [God’s] goodness to have created me such that I am deceived all the time, it would seem equally foreign to his goodness to allow me to be deceived even occasionally; yet this last assertion cannot be made.
What Descartes is saying is there are times when our senses fail us. If God would allow our senses to decieve us some of the time, and if this is compatible with his goodness then why can it not be compatible with God’s goodness to let us always be decieved? Thus Descartes places himself in a position to conclude that it is possible for God to have created him in such a way that he is decieved all the time.
Later in the Meditations Decartes returns to this argument and conclude that it is wrong. He will argue that although God allows us to be decieved some of the time it is against his goodness to allow us to be decieved all of the time.
4. Descartes does consider the possiblity that he was not created by God. In such a case Descartes believes he would have been created buy some inferior cause and that such inferiority would be compitable with the possiblity of being created defective so that he could be always decieved.
Hence if he was created by God it is possible for him to be decieved about general beliefs as well as mathematical beliefs. Likewise if something else created him. Thus Descartes has placed himself in an epistemologically pessimistic position where he may be mistaken about all his beliefs.
He concludes the First Meditation with a malevolent demon whose purpose is to deceive him about as much as possible. He begins to contemplate if there is anything left for him to believe that he can be sure about so that he can pull himself from his pessimistic pit.
In the Second Meditation Descartes will make advancements in his ability to know that he exists for after all if he thought then right or wrong, true or false, it would be he who was doing the thinking. This is his popularized quote cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). It his here that Descartes begins to address all that he doubted in the First Meditation.