Queen Christina of Sweden and Descartes.
Sunday, August 23, 2009

Meditations on First Philosophy

The assignment was to read the prefatory material and the first three chapters.

The first meditation focuses on whether his senses could be deceiving him. He wonders whether some demon could be feeding him false information. Descartes doesn’t imply this, but the idea that sensory information could be fed into a person, and that everything a person believes about the world is false, has become almost a staple of science fiction. The idea shows up in The Matrix, it shows up in computer games like Alpha Centauri, and in other books and movies. So while Descartes may be the first to harbor this idea, he certainly isn’t the last.

Descartes, however, is not engaged in preparing the way for speculative fiction. He wants to see what happens when he proceeds by doubting all things, and whether he can arrive at any degree of certainty that is not conveyed by faulty epistemological equipment, i.e., the senses.

In meditation two, about the mind he proceeds to discuss the mind. He finds that it is the mind that is most important in thinking about the world. There is no direct access to things of the world. The idea of a thing is separate from the thing itself. The post-structuralist separation of signifier (word) and signified (thing) is similar to Descartes separation of idea and thing.

When he considers a specific thing, in his case wax, he realizes that all of the things that he can sense about it, taste, smell, feel, and so forth, are things that are not part of the wax itself. If the wax is heated and melts, these qualities will vanish, but the wax itself remains. So these qualities do not seem to have anything to do with the wax itself, which remains itself despite any changes in appearance. These qualities seem to parallel what the scholastics called accidents, i.e., they were not part of the substance, or essence of a thing.

Just as the wax exists as it is independent of any sense experience of the thing, so too we exist independent of any sense experience, and we know of our existence by our thought.

Meditation three is on the existence of God. Descartes argues that for a thing to exist there must be something that preceded it, i.e., something cannot come from nothing. That if I have an idea that idea must have a formal reality that corresponds to its objective reality. Since I have an idea of God, that idea has an infinite objective reality. Since I am not infinite, I cannot be the cause of this idea, therefore it must come from God.

This seems to be another version of Anselm’s ontological argument, which we talked about a while back. The problem with saying that something exists because it exists in the mind, is the very simple one that I can imagine things that don’t exist. I can imagine a flying horse, which doesn’t exist, by imagining wings and sticking them on an equally imagined horse, but flying horses don’t exist. We could be hardwired by evolution to believe in God.

He also argues from causation that since I exist, I must have been created. If I created myself, I would have made myself perfect. At some point in the process there is an infinite regress, which is not tolerable, therefore there must be a first cause, which is God.

Lets suppose though that I did create myself, it could be that I am simply incapable of doing a better job. What if the agency is blind, stumbling, seeking to perfect itself, as Shaw and some of the other creative evolutionists thought? Then Descartes argument goes out the window.

Next up is Pascal’s Pensee’s