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This paper focuses on the seventeenth century philosopher Rene' Descartes' six Meditations. In his
writings, he attempts to quantify his existence, the existence of the world around him, and that of an all-
knowing and powerful being, God. Each of the Meditations is briefly reviewed, and key points are
explained. The concepts and conclusions that Descartes reaches are applied to the age-old question, Does
According to Rene' Descartes (1596 - 1650), man is a thinking thing, a conscious being who truthfully
exists because he is certain that it is so. All that man perceives is internally present and not external to him
or his mind. Can one perceive or confirm the existence of an idea or object that is external to him, namely .
. . God?
In order to understand Descartes' argument and its sometimes radical ideas, one must have at least a general
idea of his motives in undertaking the argument. The seventeenth century was a time of great scientific
progress, and the blossoming scientific community was concerned with setting up a consistent standard to
define what constituted science. Their science was based on conjunction and empirical affirmation, ideally
without any preconceived notions to taint the results (Dicker, 1993). Descartes, however, believed that the
senses were unreliable and that science based solely on information gained from the senses was uncertain.
He was concerned with finding a point of certainty on which to base scientific thought. Eventually he
settled on mathematics as a basis for science, because he believed mathematics and geometry were based
on some inherent truths. He believed that it was through mathematics that we were able to make sense of
our world, and that the ability to th!
ink mathematically was an innate ability of all human beings (Rorty, 1986). This theory becomes
important in Descartes' Meditations because he is forced to explain where the mathematical ideas that he
believed we were born with came from.
The basis of Descartes' entire argument is that the senses cannot be trusted, and his objective is to reach a
point of certainty, one undeniable truth that fixes our existence. He said it best in his own words; "I will . . .
apply myself earnestly and openly to the general destruction of my former opinions" (Gueroult, 1984). By
opinions he meant all the facts and beliefs about the world which he had previously held as truths. Any
point, which had even the slightest hint of doubt, was discarded and considered false. Descartes decided
that he would consider all things until he found that either nothing is certain, which is itself a point of
certainty, or he reached the one undeniable truth he was searching for. In order to accomplish this
certainty, in the first Meditation he asks the reader to assume that they are asleep and that all their sensory
information is the product of dreams. More significantly, Descartes implies that all consciousness could
actually be a dream sta!
te, thus proving that the senses can be doubted (Williams, 1986). The dream argument has its problems,
however. One is that images in dreams can be described as "painted images". But a dream image is only a
portrait of a real-life person, place or thing. If we are dreaming then it is implied that at some point we
were conscious and able to perceive these things. If we are able to perceive these things then we must
admit that we have senses and that our senses are, at least partly, true. This was exactly what Descartes
was trying to disprove, and it was one reason he abandoned the dream argument.
The second problem with this argument is that it points to mathematics as a point of certainty. "Whether I
be awake or asleep, two plus three equals five and a square does not have more than four sides: nor does it
seem possible that such obvious truths can fall under the suspicions of falsity" (Gueroult, 1984). Even
when we are dreaming, the laws of mathematics and geometry hold true, but they cannot be Descartes'
points of certainty for a simple reason; these abilities that Descartes believed were innate, still had to come
from somewhere. If they are in our heads when we are born, someone had to put them there. Descartes'
question is who, and
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Epistemology, Ren Descartes, Thought, Rationalists, Meditations on First Philosophy, Cogito ergo sum, The World, Reason, Certainty, Existence of God, Cartesian doubt, Cartesian circle
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