In his first meditation, Descartes attempts to question everything that he knows in order to find a single, certain truth that he can base all of his beliefs on. He starts by considering the fact that he has often been deceived by his senses, and so he cannot trust them completely. This leads him to the conclusion that anything that he thinks he knows could be false.
He then turns to the idea of God, and argues that even if God does exist, it is possible for Him to deceive us. Therefore, Descartes cannot be certain of anything except for the fact that he exists – Cogito Ergo Sum (“I think, therefore I am”). From here, Descartes goes on to build up his knowledge by using a series of logical arguments. He concludes that the physical world exists, but he is still not certain of the existence of other minds.
In his first meditation, Descartes embarks on a mission to verify that every one of his ideas is correct. In order to acquire any genuine knowledge, he believes he must rid himself of all false information. Descartes decides to question everything he previously regarded as true. He will rebuild his own knowledge using only things with which he is completely sure.
Descartes realizes that he can never be certain of anything unless he first knows that he exists. He reasons that even if an evil demon were to deceive him about everything else, it could not deceive him about his own existence. Descartes concludes that he must exist because he is thinking. He further concludes that his thoughts must have a cause, and that cause is himself.
From here, Descartes builds on his knowledge of his own existence. He reasons that since he exists, his body must also exist. However, he realizes that he cannot trust his senses completely, as they have often deceived him in the past. He decides to focus instead on things that are unquestionably true, such as mathematical truths.
“But my latest thinking now convinces me that I should withhold my consent just as carefully from opinions that are not completely certain and indubitable as I would from those that are patently false,” (18). Descartes refuses to accept anything he can doubt. His reasoning is because, in his opinion, the only way to discover whether or not something exists is to guard against everything possible being doubted.
If he were to accept things that are doubtful, he would be prone to deception. Descartes’ first step in trying to achieve absolute certainty is to get rid of all his beliefs which could possibly be false. He does this by breaking everything down into its simplest parts and looking at it from every angle possible. Once he has done this, he is left with only one unshakeable belief: that he exists. He cannot doubt his own existence, because if he did then he would have to exist in order to do the doubting. Therefore, Descartes’ first piece of certain knowledge is the fact that he exists.
From here, Descartes goes on to try and prove the existence of God. He does this by saying that the fact that he exists is proof enough that God exists, because he cannot explain his own existence without invoking the existence of a perfect being.
Once he has established the existence of God, he can then be certain that God would not allow him to be deceived about things which seem to be true. This means that the things which Descartes sees as being true must actually be true, and so he can start to build up his knowledge from there.
Overall, Descartes’ Meditation is an attempt to find something which cannot be doubted in order to gain a foothold on certain knowledge. He does this by looking at everything from every angle possible and breaking it down into its simplest parts. In the end, he is left with only one belief which cannot be shaken: that he exists. From here, he goes on to prove the existence of God and thereby gain a certain understanding of the world around him.
The text is occasionally confusing, yet Descartes employs a strategy in his quest for knowledge. He begins by describing everything he might question. The sensory deception argument is presented. In his life, Descartes has accepted things as true because they were learnt through his senses. Because he claims that the senses may deceive, he rejects information obtained via them in this contemplation.
Descartes turns to mathematics for certainty. He argues that mathematical knowledge is certain and beyond doubt. However, he realizes that even in mathematics there is room for error. In order to account for this, Descartes postulates that there must be a God who would not allow him to be deceived.
Thus, Descartes’ only certain knowledge is that he exists because he thinks and is not being deceived by a malicious demon. everything else is doubtful. This becomes the starting point for his search for knowledge. From here, he begins to build up other certainties based on the first one. For example, he knows that his body exists because he is thinking about it.
Descartes meditation can be seen as a response to the skepticism of his time. He is trying to find a way to acquire certain knowledge in the face of doubt. Descartes claims that the only way to attain such knowledge is through reason and not through the senses. This is where he parts ways with empiricism. Empiricists, like Locke, would argue that we acquire knowledge through our senses. For Descartes, this is not enough because our senses can deceive us. Thus, he turns to reason as the foundation for knowledge.
However, some of Descartes’s beliefs are based on senses. For example, he simply describes what he is wearing and doing at the time he is creating this reflection. He employs his senses to create this account, and he claims that if he were insane, he would have to doubt what he was saying.
Descartes is not only interested in doubting the things that could possibly be false, but he is also interested in discovering what is true. In order to find out what is truly real, Descartes believes that he needs to start from the very beginning and build up his knowledge from there. The only thing that he can be certain of at the moment is that he exists, because he is thinking about it. This leads him to his famous statement, “Cogito, ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am.”
From this statement, Descartes concludes that his mind must be completely different from his body. The mind is a thinking thing, while the body is just an extended object. This means that the mind can exist without the body, but the body cannot exist without the mind.
Descartes then asks the question of whether there is anything else in the world that is real. He knows that he exists, but he is not sure about anything else. In order to find out, he needs to figure out a way to distinguish between what is true and what is false.
The only way to do this, Descartes believes, is through reason. He needs to use his reason to figure out what is true and what is false. However, he realizes that there are some things that seem to be true but are actually false. For example, even though it seems like the sun is larger than the earth, reason tells us that this is not actually the case.
In order to figure out what is truly true, Descartes needs to find a way to distinguish between what is true and what is false. He decides to do this by looking at what he has previously believed to be true and seeing if there is anything that could possibly lead him to doubt it.
For example, he has always believed that the sun exists. But, upon further reflection, he realizes that there could be something that is causing him to have this belief even though the sun does not actually exist. Maybe he is just dreaming and the sun does not really exist outside of his dream. Or maybe there is some evil demon who is deceiving him and making him believe in things that are not actually true.
Because of this, Descartes decides to doubt everything that he has ever believed to be true. He is no longer certain of anything except for the fact that he exists. But even this is doubtful, since he could just be dreaming.
The only way to find out what is truly true is to keep on doubting until he reaches a point where there is nothing left to doubt. Only then will he be able to know for sure what is true and what is false.