The seventeenth century was a difficult time, what with the Enlightenment and all. People were looking for new solutions to age-old problems, and they had no qualms about throwing old beliefs into doubt. René Descartes thought that if you are going to start doubting, you might as well do something useful with it.
This review contains spoilers. But if nothing that is real exists, do these spoilers exist?
In Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes discards all of his preconceived beliefs, and starts to build a new foundation of only those truths he can discern through pure reason. It’s a big job, and Descartes does it with the gentle manner of a aged, retired philosopher. The book is divided into six separate “meditations,” each building upon the previous entry.
- I start with the notion that nothing I perceive with my senses, or believe with my mind, is real.
- I think, therefore, I am. I wouldn’t be thinking these thoughts if I didn’t exist. Even if a malevolent being is deceiving me by creating an artificial reality for me, I still exist as one who can be deceived.
- Every effect must have a cause that is at least as real as the effect. Because I exist, something at least as real as me must have brought me about. Also, I can imagine things that are beyond what I am capable of producing on my own, things that would be considered “perfection.” These must also have a real, perfect cause. For these reasons, a perfect being beyond me—God—must exist. Also, I am not God, since I would not have these doubts or limits if I were God. This God is, by nature, not a deceiver, since perfection does not deceive.
- Perfection excludes errors. Therefore, any errors I experience must be due to a lack of judgment on my part, where the limits of my will exceed the limits of my understanding.
- Because I cannot, by reason, conceive of a reality without God, God must therefore exist. As an extension, reality must also exist.
- Mathematical truths, such as quantities or the idea of a triangle, exist apart from my ability to imagine them. I cannot picture a 1,000-sided object in my mind alone, but the idea of it exists despite my limitations. Physical objects may or may not exist, but because God is not a deceiver, and because he created my senses to give the experience of position and motion in myself and in objects, such things must exist.
That’s as real as it gets for Descartes. Even as a Christian, I struggled with his second meditation, the one that says God must exist because our ideas about perfection demand it. His explanation, however, is more rigorous and detailed than my summary, proof that the cause is at least as great as the effect.
If you find yourself in a moment of existential angst, I highly recommend a read through Meditations on First Philosophy. Read, and exist!
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.