Thursday, 2 December 2010

Descartes' Meditations: Sixth Meditations

This is the last of the six Meditations: phew! Hopefully you'll be feeling philosophically exercised, epistemologically enlightened, and ready to solve all the big questions of the universe. Or not. Now would be the time to think about whether or not you find Descartes satisfying, and if not, why not? Answers below...

Sixth Meditation Of the existence of material things, and of the real distinction between the soul and body of man

So we've established that I exist, that God exists, and that triangles and other basic concepts of pure mathematics exist. But what about material things like trees and benches and great tits (stop sniggering
at the back)? I can think about things without being able to imagine them: I can imagine that there is a shape with a thousand sides (that's a chiliagon, kids) just as easily as I can imagine that there is a triangle with three sides. I can imagine that I have a body which I can control and which can shape the outside world, but that doesn't mean that it necessarily exists except in my mind. I get the ideas I have of external things through my senses, through my experience of colours, sounds, smells, pain. So if we're going to figure out whether the external world really exists, it makes sense (geddit?) to start with my senses. My senses tell me that I have a head, hands, feet etc.: a body, which seems to be part of myself. And my body seems to be in the middle of lots of other bodies which affect it in different ways, and it seems to experience hunger, thirst, sadness, happiness, anger etc., and to come into contact with things which are hard, soft, hot, cold, stinky, noisy, ugly or pretty, amongst other things. Because so many of my ideas come to me through the things I experience through my senses, it's easy to persuade myself that all of my ideas come through my senses. It also seems like this body is my body and that I can't be separated from it. But my experience also suggests that these ideas which I get from my senses might be wrong: we've all done that thing where you see towers in the distance and they look round but then when you get up close you realise that they're actually square. And we know that even internal senses can screw up: amputees get itchy toes even when they don't have toes any more. And there's no way of being sure whether at any particular point I'm asleep or awake.

Having spent a lot of time thinking about this I reckon that I shouldn't believe everything my senses tell me; but then on the other hand, I shouldn't always assume that they're wrong, either. The only thing I'm certain of is that I'm a thing that thinks, so I must be a soul that is distinct from my body and can exist without it. But then if God made me with senses, they must be right at least some of the time, even if I can never trust them completely. I must really have a body, though one that's distinct from my soul, and that needs to eat and drink and sleep and there must really be things in the world that are separate to me like food and drink and beds and things that I bump into when I get up to go to the loo in the middle of the night. But plenty of things which seem obvious are really just the result of lazy thinking: the air I breathe isn't just the empty space in between things; things that are far away aren't just really small. But it's ok: having a body means that I'll get mixed up sometimes, but I can think hard and learn stuff and eventually arrive at ideas that are closer to the way the world really is.

Well, isn't that a relief? When I started out, I wasn't sure of anything: now I'm sure of plenty. I know that I exist, and that I'm a thinking thing, and I know that God exists and is good and isn't just messing with me, and I know that my body is separate from my soul, and can't always be trusted but usually gets things more or less right, and I even feel pretty confident that I'm not dreaming, because I know that when I'm awake I can remember stuff that happened last week or five years ago but when I'm asleep I can't even remember what happened in my last dream and, get this, I am absolutely convinced that I am entirely made out of glass.

Photo credit: markvall

1 comment:

Laul said...

thank you - a greater re-speaking of Descartes i will rarely find!

I read something recently - wondered how it might fit with this conclusion:

"One can never really give a proof of the reality of anything; reality is not something open to proof, it is something established. It is established just because proof is not enough. It is this characteristic of language, at once indispensable and inadequate, which shows the reality of the external world. Most people hardly ever realize this, because it is rare that the very same man thinks and puts his thought into action..."

— Simone Weil

thanks again,