Descartes’ case for doubt in the First Meditation

Pearl asked:

I am a 17 year old college student doing a paper on Rene Descartes first meditation. I am totally lost here. I am confused about what question he is asking. I submitted my first draft and the professor said it was not right. I thought Descartes was asking the question ‘Were all his beliefs which were based on his senses’ true and right. Please help me!

Answer by Craig Skinner

You may be confused because Descartes doesn’t actually say, in so many words, what is the question he is asking. Irritatingly, philosophers often don’t directly (or at all) say what question they are trying to answer, why it matters to them, and what arguments they will use in support of their answer. And Descartes is one of the clearer writers — just wait till you tackle the poorer writers among the great philosophers (and I hope you will).

But we can work out his question from the text. I will word it as:

‘Are there any beliefs which I can rely on with absolute certainty as being true?’

He starts (para 1) by saying that many of his former beliefs were false or doubtful. Therefore he must ‘build anew from the foundation, if I wanted to establish any firm and permanent structure in the sciences.’

So we learn two things from this.

First he thinks science needs a philosophical foundation. He doesn’t argue for this, just assumes it. These days, most scientists and many philosophers think science can manage just fine on its own. But let’s leave that point.

Secondly, he is convinced that a new foundation is needed. He doesn’t say here what’s wrong with the old foundation (scholastic philosophy, especially Aquinas influenced by Aristotle) but clearly doesn’t think it adequate.

So, if many former beliefs are doubtful, the new foundation must be a belief which can be relied on as absolutely certain. If there is such a belief, then he can start with it as the foundation on which his firm and permanent belief structure is built.

And, of course, in the succeeding Meditations he tells us what he considers that belief to be, and attempts to prove from it that God exists, the material world, including my body, exists, and that we can mostly rely on the evidence of our senses and our reason after all.

However, in the first Meditation, after his preliminary remarks about the need for a foundation of sure belief, he spends the rest of the text describing the method he will use in his search for such a belief — the famous method of doubt. He says he will doubt everything which can conceivably be doubted. This includes all beliefs based on the senses and all beliefs based on reason.

As regards the senses, we can doubt them because

1. They sometimes deceive us, a commonplace observation.

2. When I dream I think I am awake and doing things. So, at any time when I think I am awake, I might really be dreaming, and all the assumed external world an illusion.

3. A malicious god could put ideas in my mind suggesting an external world when no such thing exists.

As regards reason, he feels that although we think we know 2+3=5 with certainty, again a malicious demon could trick our minds so that every time we add these numbers we make a mistake, thinking the sum is 5 when it isn’t; or trick us when we count the sides of a square so that we mistakenly think there are four.

So he concludes by saying he will assume a powerful evil demon deceives him and that the heavens, earth, colours, figures, sound, all external things, and his own body are but illusions.

If then, as per this methodological doubt, we can’t rely on the evidence of our senses or on our powers of reasoning, what is left that can be the foundational belief ? Read on, for he tells us this in the second Meditation.

Good luck with your studies.


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