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Free «Descartes' Meditations of First Philosophy» Essay Sample

Introduction

Despite all the attempts of philosophers to prove either the existence of God and the soul or, instead, the falsehood of such assertions, there is still no united approach to these issues. Religious people believe in God and the immortality of their souls mainly without waiting for somebody to give them logical reasons for faith, whereas atheists are inclined to refute all possible arguments that aim at proving God’s existence. Thus, it can be said that humankind has not yet succeeded in discovering the truth about the Universe.

However, it is not a reason to give up any attempts to find a logical explanation, and the same questions still disturb the minds of scholars as well as ordinary people. It is natural that new attempts to discover the truth base on the achievements of earlier philosophers, whose works present a rich collection of both arguments and counterarguments. Descartes’ works are in the row of the studies that present one of the most famous and the most discussed argumentation in favor of the believers. A treatise Meditations on First Philosophy written by René Descartes in 1641 deals with the issues of the existence of God and the soul and distinction between mind and body. Descartes started with a single assertion that he found truthful – namely, that he is a thinking thing – and concluded that God exists and the soul is immortal. His arguments lie solely on logic, which makes them rather convincing.

Descartes’ goals and methods

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In the preface to Meditations Descartes gives reasons for this intention to prove God’s and soul’s existence. He argues that these two issues should be demonstrated by philosophy rather than theology. According to Descartes, many irreligious people refuse to believe in God and soul “for no other reason than their claim that up until now no one has been able to demonstrate these two things” (Descartes 2), so he aimed at collecting the best reasons and presenting them in clear and exact manner.

To prove his assertions, Descartes used a method of systematic doubt, i.e. he assumed that everything he believed in earlier was incorrect, and tried to find a single basic true position upon which he later based all his further reflections. In the First Meditation, he assumes that the world was created not by God but by some malicious deceiver who imposed false ideas upon his mind. On this ground, he doubts everything he knows and tries to find at least one idea that is undoubtedly true.

Proofs of the existence of God and the soul

Starting point of Descartes’ argumentation

Descartes reasonably suggests that though he can doubt every thing in the world, he cannot doubt that he is doubting; thus, he exists (Descartes 18). Indeed, something inexistent cannot doubt, and the idea of his existence cannot be lies imposed by the malicious deceiver since if he would not exist there would be nobody to deceive. Thus, Descartes deduces his famous formula “I think therefore I exist” (Descartes 18). It seems to be very clear, logical, and hard to refute. Thus, he bases his reflections on a solid ground that gives additional weight to his arguments.

Developing this idea further, in the Second Meditation Descartes defines himself as a thinking thing (19), since the process of thinking is the only true quality of him that cannot be doubted. He concludes that thinking is the only thing that cannot be taken away from him, thus thinking is real. To support his idea, he gives an example of wax that is cold, solid, can be touched, and that becomes hot, liquid, and can hardly be touched if it is brought to fire (Descartes 23). Therefore, this wax is not a complex of its properties but an idea of wax. Thus, the things are perceived not with the help of senses but primarily by intellect; and nothing can be perceived as easily as the intellect itself. Therefore, it is existent.

Distinction between minds and bodies

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Descartes goes further and distinguishes his body from his mind. In his preface to the Meditations Descartes indicated that he makes no distinction between the mind and the soul (5), which makes his arguments concerning mind even more interesting to us and directly relating to the subject of this paper. In the Second Meditation, he describes the body as something movable, flexible, and extended; something that occupies some space (Descartes 21). On the contrary, mind (or soul) does not take any space; it is a thinking thing. Therefore, bodies and minds are two different things. From this statement it can be easily concluded that minds (or souls) can exist without bodies, which we will discuss in detail later.

Proofs of the existence of God

In the Third Meditation Descartes proves that God exists. He starts with the assertion that ideas cannot be false in itself, but it is a mistake to view ideas of things as copies of things. He examines the origin of ideas. Nothing can emerge from nothing, and it leads him to the conclusion that the idea of perfection cannot emerge from an imperfect being. God is perfect and infinite, but these are not the qualities of mine, therefore, I could not create the idea of perfection and infinity by myself. Thus, it is obvious that it originates from God. Descartes thus proves that the idea of God is inborn; it is not derived from senses but was inspired by God (Descartes 34).

Basing on the arguments provided in the previous meditations, Descartes elaborates further the idea of distinctions between body and soul in the Sixth Meditation. This last meditation combines all his arguments and formulates clearly his position on the existence of God and immortality of the soul. Again, he underlines that ideas mainly originate from other things, since the ideas perceived by senses are more vivid and clear than the ideas derived from memories or imagined. Therefore, they originate not from the mind but from external things. Then Descartes contrasts the idea of self as of a thinking and not extended thing to the idea of body as of an extended but not thinking thing. It means that self is distinct from the body and can exist without it (Descartes 51).

Proofs of the existence of the soul

Descartes also provides another basic distinction between minds and bodies. According to him, bodies can be divided whereas minds are always indivisible (Descartes 56). Mind cannot experience a direct impact of all parts of the body simultaneously; a certain part of the body sends signals to the brain, and the brain in its turn influences the mind. Thus, minds and bodies are different things, and in case of the destruction of body, the mind will not necessarily be destructed. This proves the immortality of the soul.

 
 
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Therefore, for the Sixth Meditation Descartes combines the ideas presented in Meditations II and III. He takes the idea that minds and bodies are distinct from the Second Meditation, and the idea of the omnipotent God and the origin of ideas from the Third Meditation. On this ground, he supposes that since the idea of distinction between bodies and minds is clear, God could make these things distinct. Thus, they are distinct in fact.

Criticisms of Descartes’ argumentation

However, many questions arise from these statements. It is not clear how such distinct things as minds and bodies relate to each other. However, Descartes addressed this question and answered with a concept of two-way causal interaction. Minds affect bodies in action, and bodies affect minds in perception. To clarify his idea, Descartes provides an example of a foot that aches and send signals to the brain. Brains, in its turn, produce a feeling that is transformed to the perception of ache in minds. In return, brain takes effort to eliminate the cause of ache and gives corresponding commands to the body (Descartes 57). Thus, mind causes some actions from the side of the body, and body causes a certain perception by the mind.

Despite all the logic of Descartes’ arguments, some of his assertions may cause a critique. The statement that the idea of God is inborn seems to be the most disputable. If it were so, then the idea of God would be the same for every individual. However, from our experience we know that it is not so. There can be as many understandings of God as the number of perceptive minds, let alone the people who do not believe in the existence of God at all.

However, this counterargument can be refuted by Descartes’ reservation concerning the limitations of our minds. According to him, God is not a deceiver and we cannot be deceived in our perceptions by God but we can be deceived by our own minds that are not perfect and may distort the real picture of the world. Examining the example of a man ill with dropsy, Descartes states that it is our nature and not God who deceives us in some cases (Descartes 56).

Another counterargument is even more serious. Descartes basically proved that the soul is immortal on the basis that it is totally distinct from the body. However, one does not directly follows from the other. It means that the death of body does not necessarily mean the death of the soul, but it does not mean that the soul will necessarily stay alive after the death of the body. It gives hope but not a strong proof. However, the assertion that the soul dies with the body is not logical. Descartes proved that God is omnibenevolent and perfect. Thus, if he created the mind independent of body, it should have some sense; and it is meaningless if the soul dies with the body. If God created me as a thinking thing that does not depend on the body, it is reasonable to assume that he created my soul immortal for it to exist when the body dies.

Conclusion

Thus, Descartes’ theory seems to be well elaborated and convincing. The method of systematic doubt allows to cast aside the false assertions from the very beginning in order to avoid subjectivity and the distortion of reality. The first statement that Descartes makes claiming its true character has become one of the most popular quotations – namely, I think means I exist. The undoubted certainty of this position provides a strong basis for all further argumentation. Descartes undoubtedly had a logical mindset; his arguments consequently flow one from another, and no new statement is made until the previous one is proved. It can be said that Descartes successfully achieved the goal announced in preface to prove the existence of God and immortality of the soul with the help of logical reasoning. Though some of the points made by Descartes can be argued, and they were indeed argued by the philosophers, there is no doubt that his works made a significant impact on the development of human thought. Descartes’ method of systematic doubt and dualism concerning mind and body can be considered as the most important contributions of this French thinker in philosophy.

   

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