By ROCKY BARILLA
It is hard to deny that philosophical ideologies and methods have changed throughout history. The works of particular philosophers and their innovative thoughts, which often clash with those of the public, sometimes trigger these changes. Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy contains many interesting thoughts on mind and knowledge, one being his claim that there is nothing easier for him to understand than his own mind. His ideas conflicted greatly with the ideas held by people in that era, but Descartes attempted to prove his view on the mind even if he expected it to seem unbelievable and far-fetched to the masses. His claims about the mind will further strengthen The Meditations as a whole by supporting his arguments regarding God’s existence and his conception of the levels of reality. In this essay, I will prove that Descartes’ claim (regarding the understanding of his mind) plays an important role in The Meditations, and that although Descartes did not expect people to believe his claim, he attempted to show the truth in it regardless.
Descartes’ argument proving his existence is derived through his doubts. Since he doubted that anything existed in the first place, he proved that his thoughts existed in his mind. He states that he could be deceived by an all powerful “evil deceiver” at any time, but goes on to say, “Then too there is no doubt that I exist, if he is deceiving me. And let him do his best at deception, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I shall think that I am something” (Cahn 492). He may doubt that anything else exists in this world but proves that through his thoughts, he exists. Although this is true, it does not totally prove his argument that the mind is the best thing you can possibly “know” or “understand”. Even Descartes states this: “But I do not yet understand sufficiently what I am-I, who now necessarily exist” (Cahn 493). He knows that he exists, but he also can perceive his body, which is a separate entity from his mind. He can sense and imagine his body, which would support his body’s spatial existence but will not prove that he can understand his body’s physical nature through mere sensory perception or imagination.
Descartes argues that he cannot understand material/spatial objects better than his own mind through an example of the changing shapes and properties of a piece of wax. This “wax argument” is how he tries to show that his claim is true, despite him expecting people to find it implausible. First he establishes that there are three possible mental faculties: Sensory perception, Imagination, and Intellect. Sensation alone is not reliable in determining the essence of the wax, because if it was determined by sense alone, its qualities (color, smell, feel, sound, taste) should be constant. If this wax was melted or formed into a different shape, it would have a different set of sensory qualities that would make it a totally different object. Since it is the same piece of wax with a different set of sensory qualities, sensation alone cannot reveal the true essence of the wax and the essence of the wax will remain even if all sensory qualities are removed. If removed, only the extended geometry of the wax will remain. If imagination alone were to determine the essence of the wax, one would have to imagine every possible shape, size, and geometrical measures of the wax. Since one cannot imagine all of these shapes the wax can take, imagination alone cannot determine the essence of the wax. Descartes’ argument to why only intellect is the only faculty of mind that helps to understand the essence of the wax is shown through process of elimination. Descartes reveals that sensing and imagining material objects do not reveal its true essence as a material object, but only through intellect and the mind can we truly understand the essence of physical objects, which is why nothing could be understood more easily than one’s own mind.
Descartes certainly does not expect his readers to believe this theory of the mind, let alone understand the concept of a body/mind dualism. Through his meditations, Descartes goes against the Aristotelian philosophy that people had been exposed to for more than nineteen hundred years. The reason why he expects his readers to find his claim implausible is the fact that his ideas are so unorthodox that they attempt to prove an uncertainty of all existence, except one’s own mind. The transition from Aristotelian logic to Cartesian principles of duality and existence would be a long and difficult process, especially with the Catholic Church’s power and influence over the people. Descartes states at the end of his second meditation:
For since I now know that even bodies are not, properly speaking, perceived by the senses or by the faculty of imagination, but by the intellect alone, and that they are not perceived through their being touched or seen, but only through their being understood, I manifestly know that nothing can be perceived more easily and more evidently than my own mind. But since the tendency to hang on to long-held beliefs cannot be put aside so quickly, I want to stop here… (Cahn 496)
He believes that the switch from the Aristotelian ideas of attaining knowledge through sensation to ideas that show a distrust in the senses will be so radical a change that he does not expect people to give up their views of truth through their senses. Aristotle states: “Some existing things are natural, while others are due to other causes. Those that are natural are animals and their parts, plants, and the simple bodies, such as earth, fire, air and water; for we say that these things and things of this sort are natural” (Cahn 200). His belief in the causes (such as the material, formal, efficient, and the final) and the natural essence of materials and physical objects all rely on sensory perception and the way one would perceive a material (substance, shape, form, etc.). Besides the ideas of his epoch, the duality of mind and body gives rise to various uncertainties such as what “mind” looks like. If the mind exists, why can no one picture it as a spatial object? How can one understand the natural essence of something one cannot see, hear, taste, smell, or feel? These types of questions about the mind as an image of the senses also relates to the Aristotelian belief that sensory perception and material form constitute natural essence.
Although this idea may have conflicted with Aristotelian concepts of essence and nature, Descartes’ claim that there is nothing better understood than his own mind has contributed an important part in The Meditations, particularly the levels of reality. From his ideas of levels in reality, Descartes tries to prove God’s existence. His ideas of reality can come in two forms, Formal reality (the way that God, thoughts, shapes, objects, etc. would exist, if they do exist) and Objective reality (the existence that things have in our minds and ideas of them in our thoughts). He also develops the Causal Principle, which states two corollaries: (1) Something cannot be a result of nothing and (2) a cause must have at least as much formal reality as it does objective reality. Since Descartes proves that the mind exists and objective reality is that which exists only in an object of thought, he is now able to prove that God exists. Descartes understands his own mind, which holds his thought of an infinite God. Since it is an idea of God, and not an actual finite substance, this is referred to as an Infinite objective reality. Since there must be as much formal reality as objective reality in a cause, Descartes proves that, through his understanding of his mind and its thought of an infinite God, the essence of God exists because God is the cause of Descartes’ mere idea/thought of him. If he did not claim that his mind is the best and easiest thing to understand, he would not be able to rely on his ideas and thoughts as different levels of realities. Without claiming that there is nothing easier to know than one’s own mind, the levels of reality would not be based around the types of existence that things may possess in our ideas and thoughts. Without these levels of reality, Descartes’ arguments in the next few meditations regarding the proof of God’s existence would no t have been supported by as strong an argument. His claim also supports the idea of dualism between mind and body. In his mind, he can understand the essence of the spatial extension of the body, which he can distinguish from an independently existing, non-spatial mind.
Descartes’ claim that there is nothing easier to understand than one’s own mind helps to support the arguments he states in The Meditations, as well as proves the existence of his thought and the uncertainty of the existence of material objects. He is aware that his unorthodox views will not be found plausible to the masses, but yet attempts to prove that his claim is truth. The importance of this claim throughout his work is reflected in his attempt to prove the existence of God and his levels of reality, as well as his attempt to understand the “real distinction” between mind and body. Descartes’ contributions to the innovation of thought and philosophical principles aided greatly in changing the Aristotelian concepts of physics and inspired other scientists/philosophers to expand upon his views.
Cahn, Steven M. Classics of Western Philosophy. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2006.
Rocky Barilla (’11) is a Neuroscience major from Johns Hopkins University.