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I plan on examining Rene Descartes’ “Meditations on First Philosophy” in a series of posts; interestingly, the subtitle of Descartes’ work is “In which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated”. The treatise was first published in 1641 in Latin as a series of six Meditations, and subsequently translated into French. However, I will be using John Cottingham’s English translation, available online here, in what follows.

In this post, I’ll focus on his First Meditation, subtitled “What Can Be Called Into Doubt”. I plan on discussing the text in detail, clarifying concepts and critically examining some of Descartes’ arguments.

As an aside, Descartes is widely considered to be the father of modern Western philosophy, and this particular work continues to exert much influence in contemporary philosophical discussions. Specifically, within the area of epistemology, his “method of doubt” is an approach that continues to inform skeptical approaches to knowledge, while in the area of metaphysics, his doctrine of “Cartesian dualism” (which essentially states that material and immaterial things, like bodies and souls, respectively, are distinct and separate) continues to frame discussions around the soul, consciousness, and other aspects of the philosophy of mind (among other things).

First Meditation – What can be called into doubt

Descartes begins this work by remarking that:

“Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last”.

Descartes’ first sentence is revealing. Descartes was a foundationalist, and as such, believed that it was essential to secure a foundation of beliefs that were certain upon which his remaining beliefs could rest. In other words, he believed that knowledge could only be built on (foundational) beliefs that were apodictically true (i.e. certain); otherwise, those remaining beliefs could not be taken to be (necessarily) true since they would rest on shaky or uncertain foundations. The approach that Descartes uses to establish these secure foundations is through a process of dialectic: he begins by positing a hypothetical set of beliefs that could potentially be certain, then proceeds to show, through counter-examples and thought experiments, that the posited beliefs could be doubted (and therefore, could not serve as beliefs that were certain). He then updates those doubtful beliefs to new beliefs that are potentially more certain by informing himself of the reasons for rejecting the old beliefs, only to show in similar fashion that those new beliefs could be doubted as well via new counter-examples and thought experiments. This process goes on until, it is hoped, he arrives at “an Archimedean point” – a belief that could not be doubted and that could serve as a foundation for his edifice of knowledge. It is critical to appreciate that throughout this process, Descartes adheres to the principle of “withholding assent” to beliefs that he could doubt; as such, if he could doubt them, then these beliefs were not certain, and therefore should not serve as his foundations. Indeed, he explicitly states this in the following paragraph:

“But to accomplish this, it will not be necessary for me to show that all my opinions are false, which is something I could perhaps never manage. Reason now leads me to think that I should hold back my assent from opinions which are not completely certain and indubitable just as carefully as I do from those which are patently false. So, for the purpose of rejecting all my opinions, it will be enough if I find in each of them at least some reason for doubt”.

The argument from the senses

Descartes begins his exercise by identifying the senses as his most widely used method of obtaining (what he believes up to this point are) true beliefs, only to quickly dismiss it as inadequate:

“Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired either from the senses or through the senses. But from time to time I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once”.

The formal argument for the dismissal of the senses

P1: The senses deceive us sometimes

P2: It is prudent never to always trust those (things) that have sometimes deceived us

C: It is prudent never to always trust our senses

Descartes then proceeds dialectically. He acknowledges that you cannot always trust your senses, but surely, he thinks, this does not imply that you could never trust your senses:

“Yet although the senses occasionally deceive us with respect to objects which are very small or in the distance, there are many other beliefs about which doubt is quite impossible, even though they are derived from the senses – for example, that I am here, sitting by the fire, wearing a winter dressing-gown, holding this piece of paper in my hands, and so on. Again, how could it be denied that these hands or this whole body are mine?”

In other words, Descartes is saying that just because some beliefs obtained through the senses could be doubted (regarding objects that are very small or in the distance) does not imply that all beliefs derived from the senses could be doubted (e.g. that he is here, sitting by the fire etc). As an example, imagine walking in the desert and seeing what appears to be an oasis in the distance, only to realize, as you got closer, that this was merely a mirage; as such, you would have been deceived by your senses. However, would you then necessarily conclude, on that basis, that your senses were deceiving you when you looked at your hands? Would you dismiss the notion that you had hands merely because you used your senses to arrive at that conclusion? If you are convinced by this argument, then you believe the following updated conclusion to be true:

C’: Although it is prudent never to always trust our senses (because they can sometimes deceive), it is foolish to always dismiss our senses (because some beliefs obtained through our senses cannot be doubted)

The argument from insanity

Descartes’ next move is to counter the updated conclusion C’ (that some beliefs obtained from our senses cannot be doubted) by invoking the argument from insanity:

“Unless perhaps I were to liken myself to madmen, whose brains are so damaged by the persistent vapours of melancholia that they firmly maintain they are kings when they are paupers, or say they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass”.

Here Descartes is essentially arguing that even supposed transparent truths such as “he is here, sitting by the fire, that his hands are his etc” could be doubted if he were insane. Indeed, if we think of people afflicted with schizophrenia, they often see things that we would consider delusions but that they firmly believe are “real”. As such, if Descartes was truly insane, then his beliefs that he is sitting here, by the fire etc, could be seen to be the delusions of a mad-man, thus casting doubt on his claim that transparent truths such as these (and that are obtained through the senses) could not be doubted.

The formal argument from insanity

P1: It is possible that I am insane

P2: If I am insane, then under all circumstances, I have reason to doubt that I can distinguish through my senses between what is “real” and what is not

C: Under all circumstances, I have reason to doubt that I can distinguish through my senses between what is “real” and what is not

What’s interesting about the argument from insanity is that for the argument to not be vacuous (I explain what I mean by that term below), P2 seems to presume that a meaningful distinction between what is “real” vs. what is not can be acquired through the senses if we were not insane; as such, if we were insane, that meaningful distinction could no longer be acquired though the senses. So P2 seems to be presuming the truth of P2’:

P2’: If I am not insane, then under at least some circumstances, I can distinguish through my senses between what is “real” and what is not

I say that it presumes the truth of P2’ because if it didn’t, then whether I was insane or not would be irrelevant to whether my senses could be used to distinguish between what is “real” vs. not. Indeed, the argument from insanity would become vacuous since in both cases, my senses could not be used to determine the difference between what was real and what was not (in at least some circumstances). Note that if P2’ was false, this wouldn’t falsify Descartes’ argument from insanity (i.e. P2 could still be true if P2’ was false); it would simply render it vacuous, or meaningless, as an argument. Our reaction would be yes, but so what (in the sense that we could not use our senses to distinguish between what was real vs. not even if we were not insane). As such, in order for this argument to have any force, we must pre-suppose that P2’ is true. But is P2’ true?

Descartes doesn’t address the above point. He does, however, dismiss the argument from insanity when he states:

“But such people are insane and I would be thought equally mad if I took anything from them as a model for myself”

I’m not quite sure what Descartes means by this. Is he invoking public ridicule as his reason for dismissing the argument? Alternatively, is he dismissing the argument because it would take seriously the notion that he was not rational (by presuming he was insane), and therefore put in jeopardy his entire philosophical exercise?

The dreaming argument

Regardless of his reasons for dismissing the insanity argument, Descartes continues with his philosophical endeavor by presuming that he is not insane (i.e. he rejects P1 above). He then makes yet another argument to cast doubt on the senses being purveyors of certainty – the dreaming argument.

The formal dreaming argument:

P1: There are no sure ways of distinguishing between dream experience vs. waking experience (so I could be dreaming right now while I experience something)

P2: Unless I know that I am not dreaming, then under all circumstances, I have reason to doubt that I can distinguish between what is “real” and what is not

C: Under all circumstances, I have reason to doubt that I can distinguish between what is “real” and what is not

Rejection of P1?

Could we not attack P1? Can we really say that there is no way to distinguish between dream experience and waking experience? Doesn’t the mere positing of the categories of “dream experience” vs. “waking experience” imply that we have, experientially-speaking, a conception of their difference (for amongst other things, why label two experiences that are the same differently)? Perhaps. But haven’t we all experienced “waking up in our dreams”, only to realize later when we “really wake up” that we were dreaming that we were awake? If so, then it must be acknowledged that the “dreaming experience” is experientially different in some sense to the “waking-up-in-our-dream-experience”, and yet, we were still dreaming in both. Now presumably, the “waking-up-in-our-dream-experience” is different than the “waking experience”. But could it not be possible that the “waking experience” was really just a second-order “waking-up-in-our-dream-experience” (i.e. an experience where we begin by dreaming that we are awake, only to realize that that experience was merely us dreaming that we were awake, only for us to be really dreaming all along). Indeed, could it not be possible that there really isn’t a “waking experience” at all, but only a series of higher-order “waking-up-in-our-dream-experiences” every time we think we are “really awake”? In other words, can we ever be sure that we “really wake up” at all? As such, the fact that we may have, experientially speaking, a conception of the differences between these experiences doesn’t negate the possibility that we could still be dreaming in all of these experiences. As a side note, I think something like this happens in the movie “Inception”, but it’s been a while since I watched it, and I remember it being so convoluted at the time that I can’t be sure at this point.

On a different note, it’s worth thinking about whether this argument pre-supposes the meaningfulness of an objective conception of reality, given that it seems to require a distinction between what is “really” happening vs. what we are experiencing. Indeed, when it is argued that the “waking experience” could really be a higher-order “waking-up-in-our-dream-experience”, and therefore that we are still “really” dreaming, the word “really” implies some non-subjective reality that actually exists objectively (i.e. the objective reality that we are dreaming). If we were to reject the conception of objective reality, then could we not argue against this line of thinking, since the idea of what was “really happening” would become nonsensical (i.e. reality would just be what we experienced)? Perhaps that is too high a price to pay, and I won’t pursue this any further, although I may return to the Dreaming Argument in a later post.

Rejection of P2: appeal to the Painter’s Analogy

At any rate, Descartes seems to attack P2. He acknowledges, for the sake of argument, that he is dreaming, and that

“[…] these particulars – that my eyes are open, that I am moving my head and stretching out my hands – are not true”.

Nevertheless, he claims that:

“[…] it must surely be admitted that the visions which come in sleep are like paintings, which must have been fashioned in the likeness of things that are real, and hence that at least these general kinds of things – eyes, head, hands and the body as a whole – are things which are not imaginary but are real and exist. For even when painters try to create sirens and satyrs with the most extraordinary bodies, they cannot give them natures which are new in all respects; they simply jumble up the limbs of different animals.”

Descartes is arguing by analogy here. Indeed, he analogizes paintings with dreams to make the point that although the paintings, in some sense, are not “real”, their inspiration or the different elements of the paintings are based on something “real”. As such, he would argue, by analogy, that although our dreams are not “real” in some sense, the elements of our dreams are based on something real, for where else would those elements have come from? He then ups the ante even further, by strengthening the requirements around the kind-of-elements that could be deemed to be real when he states:

“Or if perhaps they manage to think up something so new that nothing remotely similar has ever been seen before – something which is therefore completely fictitious and unreal – at least the colours used in the composition must be real. By similar reasoning, although these general kinds of things – eyes, head, hands and so on – could be imaginary, it must at least be admitted that certain other even simpler and more universal things are real. These are as it were the real colours from which we form all the images of things, whether true or false, that occur in our thought”.

Descartes seems to be making the argument that those things that are more “primary” or “general” in nature cannot be doubted to be real (such as the colours of the painting), whereas other less general things (such as eyes, heads etc) can be doubted to be real. What things does Descartes consider to be “primary”?  He answers:

“[…] the shape of extended things; the quantity, or size and number of these things; the place in which they may exist, the time through which they may endure, and so on”.

This leads Descartes to the tentative conclusion that although disciplines such as physics, medicine and other subjects that depend on the study of composite things could be doubted, truths deriving from more “general” subjects such as arithmetic and geometry could not be doubted, because:

“[…] whether I am awake or asleep, two and three added together are five, and a square has no more than four sides. It seems impossible that such transparent truths should incur any suspicion of being false”.

The Omnipotent God argument

Given Descartes’ religious background, the idea of an omnipotent God pervades his thinking. As such, Descartes questions how we would know that this omnipotent God had not brought about the appearance of an external world as well as the concepts of shape, size, and the more general things presumed to exist in the previous section – and presumably everything that could be believed – when in reality, none of these things “truly existed”?:

“How do I know that he has not brought it about that there is no earth, no sky, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, while at the same time ensuring that all these things appear to me to exist just as they do now?”

The formal Omnipotent God Argument

P1: An omnipotent being (God) exists

P2: An omnipotent being could have brought about the appearance of everything, when in reality, nothing truly exists

C1: I have reason to doubt that anything truly exists

Attempt at rejecting C1 by rejecting P2: the appeal to God’s Goodness

Descartes proceeds to reject C1 by arguing that P2 could not be true since God is supremely good, and therefore would not have created him in a way where he was always deceived about everything since that would be inconsistent with his goodness. The argument is as follows:

P3: God’s nature is supremely good

P4: A supremely good nature is inconsistent with me being created in such a way that I am totally deceived (i.e. deceived about everything)

C2: God’s supremely good nature is inconsistent with me being created in such a way that I am totally deceived

As soon as Descartes makes the above argument, he moves to counter that by showing that it would not, after all, be inconsistent with God’s supremely good nature for him to be deceived about everything (i.e. he rejects P4), given that he is sometimes deceived:

“But perhaps God would not have allowed me to be deceived in this way, since he is said to be supremely good. But if it were inconsistent with his goodness to have created me such that I am deceived all the time, it would seem equally foreign to his goodness to allow me to be deceived even occasionally; yet this last assertion cannot be made”.

P5: If God’s supremely good nature is inconsistent with me being totally deceived, then God’s supremely good nature is also inconsistent with me being sometimes deceived

P6: I cannot deny that I am sometimes deceived

C3 (P3+P6): Therefore, given that God is supremely good, it cannot be inconsistent with God’s supremely good nature that I am sometimes deceived

C4 (C3+P5): Therefore, it is not inconsistent with God’s supremely good nature for me to be totally deceived

Conclusion C4 follows by assuming the truth of C3 (which follows from P3 and P6) and P5. Indeed, P5 has the form of “if A then B”, where A is “God’s supremely good nature is inconsistent with me being totally deceived”, and B is “God’s supremely good nature is also inconsistent with me being sometimes deceived”. Given C3, then B must be false, which implies that A must be false as well (otherwise, A must be true, which implies that B must be true, which is a contradiction; in formal logic, this kind of argument is called Modus Tollens: not B, therefore not A). In fact P5 can be re-phrased as P5’:

P5’: If it is not inconsistent with God’s supremely good nature for me to be sometimes deceived, then it is not inconsistent with God’s supremely good nature for me to be totally deceived

Again, C3 and P5’ would lead to C4, as above.

Note that P5 (or P5’) is necessary to arrive to C4. But is there any necessary logical reason for P5 (or P5’) to be true? In other words, if God’s supremely good nature is inconsistent with me being totally deceived, does that necessarily imply that his nature is also inconsistent with me being deceived only sometimes? Isn’t it possible to imagine an omnipotent supremely good God who also has a sense of humor and who deceives his creations sometimes for fun, but who is still compassionate enough, given his Goodness, to not always deceive them? Alternatively, couldn’t this omnipotent supremely good God deceive his creations only sometimes in order to “protect them” or because occasional deception is in their interests, but refuse to completely deceive them because that would be harmful? Consider the analogy of “white lies”: don’t we sometimes engage in “white lying” because telling the truth at that moment is more costly than beneficial; and yet, we still insist that always lying is harmful? As such, one could argue that P5 (or P5’) need not be true, and therefore reject that premise. If so, then we would re-affirm C2 (that God’s supremely good nature would be inconsistent with him totally deceiving us), and by extension, be successful in rejecting P2.

Attempt at rejecting C1 by rejecting P1

Be that as it may, Descartes believes that that the rejection of P2 is not tenable, and considers next the rejection of P1:

“Perhaps there may be some who would prefer to deny the existence of so powerful a God rather than believe that everything else is uncertain”

Having shown that the existence of an omnipotent God, despite his supremely good-nature, could lead to being totally deceived (assuming one buys into P5), he considers the possibility that some would rather deny the existence of this God (in order to avoid this scenario of being totally deceived); for presumably, if this God did not exist, then there is at least a possibility of finding something that cannot be doubted.

Although the rejection of P1 would clearly falsify C1 in the Omnipotent God argument, Descartes claims that the rejection of P1 would affirm C1 (that we could doubt everything) through a different argument. Apparently, the rejection of an omnipotent God would ablate the possibility of ever guaranteeing that he is “well-enough put together” to avoid being in constant error:

“The less powerful they make my original cause, the more likely it is that I am so imperfect as to be deceived all the time”.

His “original cause” here is God. Descartes seems to implicitly connect his creator’s omnipotence to his own imperfections, and imperfections to deception. He seems to be saying that the less powerful his creator, the more likely he is of being imperfect, and therefore the more susceptible to deceit he is. The argument is as follows:

P7: The less omnipotent God is, the more imperfect I am

P8: The more imperfect I am, the more susceptible to deceit I am

P9: An omnipotent being (God) does not exist (i.e. not P1)

C5: I am susceptible to deceit (and the less omnipotent God is, the more susceptible to deceit I am)

Descartes’ argument above is intended to show that even if P1 is rejected, C1 must still necessarily be the case. As such, Descartes arrives at a dilemma, given that whether an omnipotent God exists or not, he must admit that all of his former beliefs are in doubt. However, is this argument convincing? The above argument implies that if God was completely impotent (this would presumably be the case if God didn’t exist at all), then we would be completely imperfect such that we would be totally susceptible to deceit. And yet, many people do not believe in God, and although none of them would claim to be perfect, none of them would also claim to be completely imperfect (and neither would we claim that they were completely imperfect). As such, though they may fall prey to deceit sometimes as a result of some imperfections, surely they are not always being deceived. For who would have the power to do that, if an omnipotent being such as God did not exist?


By the end of the First Meditation, Descartes is convinced that he has reason to doubt everything. However, being convinced of something and remembering to adhere to that something in practice are two different things. As such, in order for Descartes not to fall prey to habit and lapse back into beliefs he has shown he could doubt, he creates an ingenious mechanism – the malicious Demon – to remind himself of the conclusion that he has reason to doubt everything. This demon is malicious in the sense that he is constantly trying to deceive Descartes, and thus, forces him to withhold assent to any of his beliefs lest he fall prey to demonic deceit.

The formal Malicious Demon argument

P1: I have beliefs

P2: A malicious demon could be systematically making me believe only things that are false

C: All my beliefs could therefore be false (therefore, I have reason to doubt all my beliefs)

The malicious demon will make a further appearance in the Second Meditation as Descartes’ foil. There, Descartes claims to finally find his “Archimedean point” – I think, therefore I am (although not stated in this exact way) – that not even a malicious demon could cause him to doubt. I plan on exploring the Second Meditation, and Descartes’s Archimedean point, in a subsequent post.