The meditation begins with Descartes talking about how he came to realize that so many ideas are untrue that he was taught as a young child. He also recalls that as he ages, he has developed other beliefs based upon the foundation of the earlier beliefs. He wants to know the truth and his first thought is that in order to do so, he has to unlearn everything he has ever known and then relearn after careful examination. The shear amount of time and effort that this method of finding truth is almost incomprehensible. So he does what a lot of people do when there is a task in front of them so long and tedious – he procrastinated. So much so to a point where he thinks it would be irresponsible to spend the rest of his life attempting to go about it this way. Descartes is troubled by this, he wants to free himself of caring about his opinions and just live in peaceful solitude but he know in order to accomplish this goal he must make the effort to rid himself of his false beliefs.
The light bulb then goes off for him and he realizes he does not necessarily need to undergo an extreme tedious process of proving or disproving all of his beliefs individually. If Descartes were able to figure out what are the foundational beliefs gained from his youth for which he has built upon all of the other beliefs he has today, he could have a shortlist to examine which would make the process more efficient. Descartes thinks of the one thing that all of his foundational beliefs have in common which is he received these beliefs by way of his senses- sense of touch, smell, seeing, feeling, and hearing. From there he notes that human senses have the ability to deceive us and he also goes on to rationalize that if deceived, it would not be prudent to ever trust that source of deception again – even of only deceived one time.
So that is it! Descartes has found his reason for doubting everything he has ever held to be true therefore disqualifying it! But not so fast. One would also have to consider that even though the senses can deceive us, it is usually about small and distant thing. Plus our senses provide things that we cannot doubt provided by the senses. He illustrates to himself how he knows he is sitting in front of the fire, dressed in his nightclothes, and holding the paper he writes the book on, so how could he possibly draw doubt to that? If he did, he would be called crazy – people would ask how could a person out that his hands are not his hands and he would be disregarded as insane for calling doubt to his own existence.
Descartes then goes on to think about and illustrate how when he dreams, he experiences things just like he is awake. He disqualifies the assertion that he would be crazy for doubting he exists by comparing the idea to his dreams. He has dreamed of himself before where he was in front of the fire in his nightclothes just as in that very moment and it seemed so real in the dream – just as real as the real thing – but he was actually sleeping in his bed. This line of thought became a circle for him as he further questions how does he know he is not dreaming at the very moment he knows he is awake having these thoughts – he was deceived before, so it could be so now.
The meditation starts to become a bit fuzzy for me when Descartes starts talking about the disciplines. The dream explanation was not working out for him so he tried a new thought by contrasting his thoughts on beliefs to a painting. A painting is fictitious as a whole but the parts that make up the painting, like the colors and individual shapes, are real. He then goes on to talk about God and comes to question how God, who is the creator of all and who is supremely good, could allow for him to be deceived – even once. This is where we are introduced to the evil genius which is what I feel Descartes is illustrating a devil character. The evil genius is supremely powerful and uses his power for the sole purpose of deceiving humans.
To this, Descartes concludes that there is no way for him to absolutely know what is true but what he can absolutely do is to make sure he does not accept anything that is false and for which he has doubt. He realizes the difficulty in this and again goes back to his desire from the opening to not have a care about any of it and have an ignorance is bliss type of stance.
I fins interesting and agree with Descartes’ evaluation of the senses. We are deceived all the time and I have found myself doubting if anything is real at all. I can also relate with his feeling of going down a rabbit hole and just wanting it to stop when you start to think about these types of things. Finally, I can identify with his new fight of trying to determine if he even wants to try and figure these things out in the first place but comes back to the pursuit for true knowledge.