Thursday, 11 November 2010

Descartes' Meditations: First Meditation

First Meditation Of the things which may be brought within the sphere of the doubtful

Years ago, when I was about 22, I started to realise how many things that I'd believed all of my life just weren't true. I decided then that I should work hard to get rid of all my false assumptions and start again so that I didn't believe anything I wasn't absolutely certain to be true. But I thought I was too young to start then, so it's only now that I'm 32 that I'm really getting down to business [Note: if you are 20, 30 seems old. For those of us who are not 20 any more, it does not seem all that old any more]. I've arranged my life so I don't have to worry about anything, and I can just sit by the fire all day thinking really hard. I don't need to take apart each of my beliefs one by one: if I destroy the foundations, everything I've built on them will collapse too.

Now, everything I've believed up till this point I've learned through my senses, through things I've seen or heard or felt. But can I trust my senses? Surely I can: I know for a fact that this is me, sitting by the fire in my dressing gown. Or do I? Some mad people think that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they're pumpkins, or that they're made of glass. Am I mad? Well, I do dream, and let me tell you now that my dreams are ker-azy. But how can I be sure that I'm not dreaming all of the time? But wait, even if I can't tell the difference between awake and asleep, there are still some things I can be sure of: whether I'm asleep or awake, 2+3=5, right? But what if the world wasn't created by a good God but by an evil demon who went to a lot of effort to fool me into believing in a world that's completely made up [yes kids, just like in the Matrix]? It seems pretty implausible, but there's no way to prove that that's not what's going on. I shall have to think about this some more.

Photo credit: G Travels


Laul said...

A student said to their lecturer in Sheffield one time 'nothing really exists - you're not really there; its all in my imagination'.
The lecturer got out a pan of boiling water (from somewhere!) and said 'you wont mind if i poured this over your head then'.

My very unsubtle point - pragmatism i guess. You can believe that the boiling water isn't real, but it will still darn well hurt. Theories are good and drive advancement etc, but the very essence of life means that if you just think about things you will die (probably of hunger, or maybe boredom). Charles Foster says something similar to that when he promotes pilgrimage as the antidote to gnosticism, as when you're on the road you are deeply aware of how connected you are to other people and the basic needs of life.

Also, i'm not sure we do learn everything through our senses. Some people think we have a lot of residual evolutionary memory, like knowing how to swallow from day 1, being afraid of reptiles, curing up in a ball to protect ourselves, then need to discover etc. None of them are learnt through our senses, but through our genes (like any good mammal).

What does Rene have to say about THAT, other than 'i bet he doesn't understand geometrical proofs'?



Marika said...

Well, some of what Descartes says will come out in the next few meditations; you can see how convincing you find them. I guess the problem is, how do we KNOW that a pan of boiling water will hurt us, when we know that we get other things wrong. Asking that question might not be very practical, but I'm not sure how practical the philosophical quest to get at the nature of the universe is. Don't we sometimes have to ask those big questions?