Introduction to Philosophy (Phil 100)
Prof. Michael Rosenthal
November 13th, 2012
An Analysis of Descartes’ First Meditation
In Descartes’ First Meditation, Descartes’ overall intention is to present the idea that our perceptions and sensations are flawed and should not be trusted entirely. His purpose is to create the greatest possible doubt of our senses. To convey this thought, Descartes has three main arguments in the First Meditation: The dream argument, the deceiving God argument, and the evil demon “or evil genius”. Descartes’ dream argument argues that there is no definite transition from a dream to reality, and since dreams are so close to reality, one can never really determine whether they are dreaming or not. To reinforce that argument, Descartes presents the deceiving God argument. He says that since God is all powerful, then he has the power to deceive us about reality or our dreams. But again, Descartes feels this argument is missing something, which is why he concludes with the evil genius argument. The evil genius argument’s purpose is to tie all these arguments together and strengthen Descartes’ entire argument. The evil genius argument goes like this: God is omnipotent and supremely good, which means God cannot be the one who deceives humans, rather, a separate entity -- an "evil genius, [who is] supremely powerful and clever, who has directed his entire effort at deceiving me" (Descartes 492). By deceiving, I mean tricking humans that their sensations and perceptions are real, when they are indeed not real. To overcome this evil genius, Descartes says he will regard all external things as “hoaxes of my dreams, with which he (the evil genius) lays snares for my credulity” (Descartes 492). In this analysis, I will further discuss Descartes’ arguments in the First Meditation, the purpose of the evil genius argument, how Descartes attempts to overcome the power of this great deceiver, and ultimately why his attempt is unsuccessful.
In Descartes' First Meditation, Descartes has three main arguments. The first argument is the dream argument, which argues that it is possible to be dreaming at any moment and that our perceptions and sensations are false. Descartes first presents this idea with the statement "How often does my evening slumber persuade me of such ordinary things as these: that I am here, clothed in my dressing gown, seated next to the fireplace -- when in fact I am lying undressed in bed!" (Descartes 490). By using an experience of his own, Descartes shows how dreams can be asymptotic to reality. Descartes implies that he often sits next to his fireplace, clothed in his dressing gown, so his dream that he is doing so is very believable. In conclusion, one cannot distinguish between a dream and reality because the gradient between them is so finitely small at times.
To expand on his first argument, Descartes' deceiving God argument states that our deceptions are caused by an all powerful God. Humans are capable of being deceived because we are imperfect, unlike God, who is essential flawless. If we can agree on the definition of God, an all powerful and omnipotent being who created us, then we can argue that he has the power to deceive even our most reliable senses. Descartes expresses his compounding doubts as "How do I know that he did not bring it about that there is no earth at all, no heavens, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, and yet bringing it about that all these things appear to me to exist precisely as they do now?" (Descartes 491). This excerpt from Descartes follows his theme of the First Meditation: that nearly everything can be doubted. In the next meditation, Descartes concludes that the only thing that is certain is that people think. Everything else is subject to doubt.
Although the deceiving God argument is fairly sound, Descartes finds there is one crucial flaw. If God is flawless and a symbol for the utmost good, then some...