Descartes’ First Meditation

Melania asked:

What is the main point of Descartes first meditation and what are the arguments for and against it?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Just before the Meditations begin, Descartes gives a 2-page Synopsis summarizing the main points of each. He says:

‘In the first Meditation I set forth the reasons for which we may, generally speaking, doubt about all things and especially about material things…’.

Also, he begins each Meditation with a preliminary summarizing sentence. For Meditation 1 this reads ‘Of the things which may be brought within the sphere of the doubtful.’

So, the main point of Meditation 1 is to introduce his method of doubt (methodological scepticism). He feels that the best way to reach clear and distinct knowledge is to begin by doubting the evidence of his senses that there exists an external world including other people and his own body. He then goes on in Meditations 2-6 to establish what is left that he feels can’t be doubted, concludes that it is the ‘cogito'(I think therefore I am’), and attempts to reason his way back from that to knowledge of all that he doubted. He is a rationalist rather than an empiricist – reason rather than observation is the royal road to sure knowledge.

He gives 3 arguments in Meditation 1 in favour of his methodological scepticism.

1. Senses sometimes deceive us
2. Dreaming argument
3. Evil genius argument

To deal briefly with each:

1. It is commonplace that our senses sometimes deceive us regarding things far away or hardly perceptible. Maybe they always deceive us – see arguments 2. and 3.

2. Descartes sits by the fire with a paper in his hands, and reflects that sometimes he dreams he is doing this when really he is asleep in bed. How does he know, right now, that he isn’t dreaming. He can’t be sure, and, in general, we can’t be sure at any time that we are really awake rather than dreaming, so that the fire, the paper, his hand may all be figments of his dreaming imagination.
Descartes feels (I agree) that whether awake and asleep, we are not deceived as to truths of maths/logic. His example, we know that 2 + 3 = 5 in our dreams.

3. An evil genius with godlike powers could be controlling his mind so that the heavens and the earth and all in them are illusions. Here he could be deceived in thinking 2+3 = 5, the evil genius sees to it that he makes a mistake every time he attempts addition or counting.

In Meditation 1 he gives no argument against methodological scepticism beyond hinting at his belief in an all powerful, benign God who is no deceiver. Such a God is the key bridge from the cogito back to knowledge of the external world, and in Meditations 3 and 5 he gives two arguments for God’s existence which both fail. Hence, his methodological scepticism has been of enduring philosophical interest and value, but his attempts to reason his way out of it are generally judged a failure.

At the end of the last Meditation, he counters the dreaming argument by suggesting he can distinguish the waking state (from sleep) by the fact that memory connects the events of our waking life but doesn’t connect dreams with one another or with the whole course of our lives. And, of course, he counters the evil genius argument by claiming clear and distinct knowledge of a benign, omnipotent God who is no deceiver.

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