PHIL 4: Introduction to Philosophy
7 June 2008
Flawed Conceptions of Human Perception in Descartes’ MeditationsDescartes’ effects on the course of Western philosophy are still noticeable today. Even though his Meditations are lacking by modern-day logical standards, they were very different for their time. In Descartes’ work, human perception is held as very valid and infallible. However, the arguments for this position are too circular, vague, and riddled with assumptions to be true.
Descartes was a pioneering French mathematician who wrote the Meditations in order to deconstruct his lifelong philosophical assumptions and use reason to arrive at philosophical conclusions about the nature of reality. In the first part of the Meditations, he supposes that there is an evil genius who had been fooling him into believing that everything which was not true was really true. Descartes tries to think of something that is irrefutable and comes to the conclusion that it is impossible for himself not to exist as a thinking mind. He then begins to look for causes for everything in his mind. He realizes that some of his ideas come from within his mind and self-analysis and others come from the physical senses, even if those senses are only imagining things. When confronted with the idea of God as an "infinite substance, eternal, immutable, independent, omniscient, omnipotent" (101) being, he sees this ideas as innate, and concludes that he must have the concept of God because God put it there, much like Plato's theory of forms. Assuming that God cannot be a deceiver, Descartes reasons that his faculty of perception - what he calls the "light of nature" - is granted by God, and therefore "every clear and distinct conception is without doubt something real and positive, and thus cannot derive its origin from nothingness, but must have God for its author [...] and consequently we must conclude that such a conception or such a judgment is true" (117-8). Notably, this type of perception only applies to matters of philosophical truth. Now that Descartes' perceptions are validated by logic, he once again proves the existence of God by arguing that since he conceives of a God whose essence (being perfect) contains the concept of existence, God must exist. He then ends by inductively proving the existence of the material world by pointing out that he has a clear perception of the material world and this cannot be a deception, since God does not deceive. Satisfied with his conclusions, Descartes relaxes his logical faculties.
Descartes' method of doubt and his basic arguments are logically flawed. In the very beginning, he takes a binary view of his own views in the evil demon argument, which draws an either-or mode of thinking in saying that all of his beliefs are either all right or all wrong. By trying to prove by counterexample that all of his current ideas are correct, Descartes is setting himself up for failure, so that a radical examination of his own ideas can only lead to either their being completely true or their being completely false. This fuzzy logic continues into his third meditation, in which he establishes what was later called the Cartesian circle. The Cartesian circle is where Descartes proves the existence of God with the argument from perfection, then uses the existence of God and God's undeceptive nature to prove that his own perceptions are valid and true. The argument from perfection begins with the premise that his own idea of God is valid in that it is “very clear and distinct and contains more objective reality than does any other” (102) and is not a delusion. However, at this point in his text he has not proved the validity of his own perceptions yet. Only after establishing the existence of a perfect God does he inductively validate his own perceptions, and herein lies the flaw. This is called the Cartesian circle because it is an example of circular reasoning. There is no conclusive connection between his perceptions and reality.
Descartes' arguments are also problematic because of the vagueness of the terms he uses. Descartes lived in a time long before the field of psychology, so his understanding of human thought processes is not as scientific as it is now. In the third meditation, he says that there are two different categories of thought: images of substances and judgments. Images merely visualize some physical or material object, while judgments add an action to the image, such as wishing, fearing, or denying. This is the beginning of his argument from perfection. He first finds that his mental images of the world around him are similar to those real objects because the "light of nature" (95) teaches him so. But what is this "light of nature"? Descartes is very vague on this point: "there is no way in which this could be doubted, because I have no other faculty or power to distinguish the true from the false which could teach me that what this light of nature shows me as true is not so, and in which I could trust as much as in the light of nature itself" (95). Thus, the "light of nature" is Descartes' way of saying that he cannot imagine something to not be true, and it seems very true, therefore it must be true. He does this later in his proof when he states that "it is obvious, according to the light of nature, that there must be at least as much reality in the total efficient causes as in its effect, for whence can the effect derive its reality, if not from its cause?" (97). This position that ideas have causes and that those causes have more reality and truth in them than the effects is central to the argument from perfection, so pointing out flaws in this argument would knock down the rest of this argument. Later, he uses another poorly defined phraseAnd later, when he is providing counterarguments, Descartes states that "the light of nature makes us see clearly that conservation and creation differ only in regard to our manner of thinking and not in reality" (105). This is a highly debatable point, yet Descartes leaves it unexamined. He never defines what the "light of nature is" in terms of thought processes. Is it pure logic? Is it a deep spiritual feeling? Surely a philosophical proposition in such a radical analysis of reality as Descartes' must be proved by a more rational standard than simply not being able to imagine the contrary being true. In using this vague statement to provide some key foundations in his argument, Descartes is failing his original goal of objectivity and certainty in his conclusions.
Descartes also makes some oddly unexamined assumptions about his "clear and distinct" concept of God, its origins, and the nature of this God. For example, he argues that the idea of God must be innate, since he cannot understand it in terms of self-analysis and certainly cannot in terms of the senses or physical reality. He concludes that the idea must have been placed in his mind by God when he was created. But Descartes fails to consider that this idea could have been implanted by his culture. After all, he lived in France in the 1600s, so he was surrounded by Christianity. If he lived in a completely atheistic society, then his idea of God would have been original, but in his context it was not. And even though he believes that human reason and the "light of nature" are God-given and therefore valid, he provides no method by which to discern if any given idea of his is of this superior kind or simply an inclination of the sort that leads him "to the bad no less than to the good" (95). Perhaps his idea of God is based on wishful thinking or a need for emotional comfort. How can he objectively know if it is without submitting his revelations from the “light of nature” to rigorous logical scrutiny?
Descartes must have been quite inventive to reason his way from cogito to a full belief system. It’s quite possible that nobody could have done what Descartes did any better than he did it. Still, his philosophy is too contained within the mind and befuddled with murky logic to be credible. Because of the hierarchical and progressive nature of his philosophical system, one domino knocks down all the later findings. In this manner, my refutation of his opinions on human perception removes the foundation for his belief in God and the existence of material reality.