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Descartes Essay

2471 words - 10 pages

Descartes and Rationalism
René Descartes, 1596-1650 (Latin Renatus Cartesius, hence the term Cartesian)

Descartes’ Project Descartes was a contemporary of Galileo and Kepler. He was born about 50 years after the publication of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus. Thus he lived right at the beginning of the scientific revolution, as the medieval world view was beginning to collapse. Descartes was a mathematician and physicist, as well as a philosopher. He was the first to offer a system of mechanics that applied both to terrestrial and heavenly bodies. His system was based on a set of laws governing the motions of particles, including various types of collisions. These laws, though unsuccessful, ...view middle of the document...

Of course this isn’t easy, as one does not simply choose what to believe. On cannot help believing that things are basically as they seem to be. To help him doubt even things that seem obviously true, Descartes meditated on various possible “sceptical scenarios”. These are situations that cannot be ruled out, i.e. they could be one’s actual situation, yet if they are true then just about all one’s beliefs are false. These are well known. First Descartes considered that, when asleep and dreaming, everything seems just as real and true as when he is awake. So perhaps he is dreaming at this very moment, in which case he may not be sitting in a chair, writing, and so on. To make his doubting even deeper and more radical, Descartes considered the possibility that God is evil (the “evil demon”) and has the aim of deceiving Descartes as much as

possible. All of his sense experience, everything he sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes could be a sophisticated illusion. The demon feeds the fictitious sensory inputs directly to his conscious mind. Even his sense of motion and positions of his limbs could be part of the illusion. (Descartes should have been on the credits of The Matrix! You can also see connections with Berkeley’s later idealism here.) On this scenario, which cannot be ruled out, almost everything he believes is false. An important insight of Descartes, concerning the demon scenario, is that one’s physical body might be an illusion. This extended, geometrical object, with arms, legs, hair, and so on, might not exist. One’s real body might be quite different; perhaps one is really four-legged, feathered, or completely bald? Or perhaps one has no physical body at all! Isn’t it possible that one’s self is a purely thinking “substance” (object) with no geometrical properties like volume and shape? One might be a disembodied soul, receiving fictitious sense experiences from the demon. I cannot be sure, therefore, that I have a physical body. Is there anything I can be sure of? Is there any limit to the method of doubt? Is there any belief that is immune from all possible doubt? Perhaps my conscious mind is also an illusion? Perhaps the demon has deceived me into believing that I exist as a thinking being? Is this conceivable? Descartes finds that he’s not able to even to conceive of this as a possibility. If there’s a deception, then someone must be deceived. Thus the person deceived must exist, and so no one can be fooled into thinking they exist, when really they don’t. Can I be fooled into thinking I’m conscious, when really I’m unconscious? Can I believe that I have conscious experiences, when really I do not? Again, the answer is surely not. Even though my mental images might not be caused by real objects, I cannot doubt that I am aware of mental images. I may not really see a tree, but I certainly seem to see a tree. I cannot be deceived into thinking that I am conscious. In other words, Descartes reasoned that, since I am conscious,...

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