Learning Goal: I’m working on a criminal justice discussion question and need an explanation and answer to help me learn.

Descartes’s Meditations 1 and 2

Meditation One: Descartes’s Arguments for Universal Doubt

The overall plan of the Meditations is to prove that the immortal soul is real, and that God really exists. How can Descartes prove these things, using only philosophy? Philosophy is notorious for endless arguments that poke holes in every argument.

So, Descartes starts with doubt instead. Descartes explains skepticism. His skepticism is based on this definition of knowledge:

The Cartesian criterion for knowledge:

A person can know something – call it ‘P’ – only if there is no conceivable way that P could be incorrect. If there is some conceivable way that a person could be mistaken about P, then this person must admit that P is doubtful, and P can’t (yet) be known.

Stages of skepticism

A. doubt the senses and experience
B. use dreaming as an example
C. God could deceive us
D. If God wouldn’t, an “Evil Genius” could deceive us about anything
E. If we could be deceived about anything, then we must doubt everything.

The Details for A, B, C, D, E

A. Doubt the Senses and Experience

  1. I am often mistaken about things that I hear, see, taste, touch, smell, etc.
  2. I could be mistaken about anything that I am sensing, right now, for all I know.
  3. There isn’t anything in my experience that I receive with perfect clarity and truth, as far as I can tell.
  4. Comparing what I sense now with what I remember doesn’t help, because anything in my memory could be slightly (or greatly) warped and mistaken.

B. Use Dreaming as an Example

1. I often have experiences while I am dreaming that closely resemble experiences I have while awake.

2. Sometimes I can’t even tell when I am dreaming, because a dream is so realistic.

3. What I am experiencing right now could actually be a dream, as far I can tell.

4. There is no guaranteed way to distinguish dreaming experience from waking experience.

5. So, I have to doubt whether I am really awake, right now, so all my experience is deceptive.

C. God Could Deceive Us

  1. An all-powerful God would be able to influence our minds to get us to believe all sorts of things which are not actually true.
  2. God could even make us believe false mathematical ideas, which we think we know perfectly.
  3. So, it is possible that we are wrong even about our mathematical knowledge.
  4. Since science is based on evidence and math, science could be quite wrong, too, for all we can tell.

D. If God wouldn’t, an “Evil Genius” could deceive us about everything we think we know


2. 3.

It would be great if we could know that God exists, but that requires either experience or reasoning, which are both fallible (could be mistaken), so we don’t know God exists.

For all we know, other powerful beings could be influencing us.

Descartes imagines that there exists a powerful evil demon – the Evil Genius – who likes to deceive our minds.

  1. Unless I can know that no evil genius is controlling my mind, I can’t know anything.
  2. Since I can’t prove that there is no evil genius, I have to be skeptical about everything.

E. If we could be deceived about anything we know, then we have doubt everything.

  1. No matter what I contemplate about what seems to be real and true, there are valid ways to conceive how it could be mistaken.
  2. I can’t know if science gets anything right, or even if there is a real world around me.
  3. I can’t know if anything mathematical is really true.
  4. I can’t even be sure that I have a body, since my senses do not give me knowledge.

FINAL CONCLUSION OF SKEPTICISM: I must doubt everything that I might think I could know.

Meditation Two: Descartes’s Arguments for the Existence of the Mind

Descartes begins from Skepticism:

I must doubt everything that I might think I could know.

He then constructs arguments to prove that there actually are a few things that can be known. Descartes attempts to prove this most important truth:

I know that I exist as a Mind.

Descartes offers his Argument for the Mind’s Existence (the “Cogito” Argument – “cogito” is a Latin word for “I think”)

Stage One:

  1. Because of the arguments for universal skepticism, I am doubting everything.
  2. I am thinking, “I am doubting everything.” Let this thought be labeled as D.
  3. I thinking D. Could I be wrong that I am thinking D?
  4. Is there any possible way that I could be wrong about D? In other words, is there any conceivable way that I am wrong about how I am doubting everything?
  5. Suppose that Evil Deceiver is controlling my mind to make me only think that I am doubting everything – I am actually wrong about D.
  6. If the Evil Deceiver is fooling me, then I must doubt D.
  7. I am doubting D. But D means “I am doubting everything.” If I am doubting D, then I am still doubting something – D! So no matter what is going on, no matter how much the Evil Deceiver succeeds in fooling my mind, D is always true.
  8. There is no conceivable way for D to be wrong. By Descartes’s criteria for knowledge, D is therefore knowledge. I can know D.

Stage Two. I can know that I am doubting everything. Now what?

  1. I know that I am doubting.
  2. Doubting is a kind of thinking.
  3. Therefore, I know that I am thinking.
  1. There is plenty of thinking going on.
  2. Something is doing all this thinking – there must be a thing that thinks.
  3. What is a thinking thing? We call that kind of thing a Mind.
  4. A Mind exists. Whose mind?
  5. This thinking Mind is simply Descartes’s own mind, of course.
  6. Therefore, Descartes concludes, “I am a Mind” and “I know that I am a Mind.”

After Stage One and Stage Two, Descartes concludes:

I know that I am a Mind.

Next, Descartes wants to prove that the Mind is always better known than any physical body.

The Argument that the Mind is far better known than the Body:

1. It is possible that all knowledge of external bodies, including my own human body, could be mistaken or illusory. The argument that my Mind exists didn’t help with bodies around me. I have to keep doubting them.

2. Physical bodies around me, such as my body, are known much more distinctly through the mind than by any bodily means, such as the senses.

Premise 1 is true. Why is premise 2 true?

Descartes’s argument for 2 based on the Wax Example.

Descartes picks a piece of wax he has on his writing table (300 years ago, people kept beeswax around for candles or to seal envelopes closed).

  1. All the properties of the piece of wax that we perceive with the senses (the “secondary” properties”) change as the wax melts: its color, smell, and so on.
  2. All of the properties of the piece of wax that we expect a body to keep when we aren’t sensing it can also change as the wax melts: the shape, the size, and so on.
  1. Yet the wax is still “the same” wax after it has melted into a puddle. Our intelligence understands this, despite the changing information from the senses.
  2. Therefore, whatever we can understand about the wax mostly depends on our intelligence and reasoning, not just the senses or imagination.
  3. Whatever can be best understood about physical bodies really depends on the Mind’s thinking, which we already know very well.
  4. Therefore, our own Mind is much more clearly and distinctly known to us than anything that is a physical body.

Descartes’s conclusion by the end of Meditation Two is that (1) My Mind is known, and (2) anything bodily is only known through the Mind, and the Mind is always known better than anything bodily is known.

Descartes’s Meditations 3 and 4
Meditation Three: Descartes’s Arguments that God is Real

Descartes proves that God exists and that God is not a deceiver. In later Meditations, the way that God can be trusted will be used to establish other things that we can know about the world.

After Meditation Two, here is what we know:
I know that I exist as a thinking thing. I am a Mind.

I must doubt my senses, and my intuitions about math, because something powerful may be deceiving me.

If there really is a God, this God is Good, and wouldn’t be deceiving me about everything.

Therefore, in order to know anything beyond my Mind, I need to see if I can know that God exists.


God is the most perfect being. (Yes, this vague, but it is a place to start. At least anyone could agree with this definition, regardless of whether one agrees that God really exists.)

An Argument for God

  1. I am thinking about the idea of God = the most perfect being.
  2. How did this idea get into my head?
  3. This idea came from inside me, or from outside of me.
  4. Inside me, I have information from my senses, my imagination, my mathintuitions, and my reasonings from evidence, imagination, and math.
  5. My inner information is fallible: I haven’t proven that I can truly know any ofit (that’s the whole problem we are stuck with so far).
  1. Also, a perfect being is infinite, but my senses, my intuitions, etc. don’t have the property of being infinite. I have never seen anything infinitely large, or imagined anything with infinite duration, etc.
  2. A perfect idea must have a perfect source. Anything less than perfect cannot create something perfect.
  3. This idea of God had to come from outside of me.
  4. People tell me about gods, but they are imperfect, fallible, and unreliable justlike me.
  5. Who else could communicate with me? Maybe angels, the Evil Deceiver, orGod (if any of these things actually exist).

11. Angels are messengers from God, so we need to prove God exists first.
12. That leave the Evil Deceiver – but he would never tell us the truth about God

(because he is imperfect and evil, after all).
13. Well, that finally leaves God. Only a perfect God is left to explain how a

perfect idea of God got into my Mind.

Conclusion: It is not possible that we could be wrong that a perfect being really exists. We know God exists.

A Counter-Argument to Descartes’s argument for God

Every deep philosophical argument has at least one good counter-argument. Here is one example.

Descartes relies on his claim that “I have a perfect idea of a perfect God.”

He has to make this precise claim.

If he only said, “I have a less-than-perfect idea of a perfect God” then nothing perfect is required to explain how he got that idea. His idea of God would be vague, fuzzy, or pretty empty, or just left to his own imagination to fill in. He could be just contemplating the idea of God taught to him by his Catholic teachers. But then we’d

see where his idea of God came from – other people who might not really know any better than he.

Or, if he said, “I have a perfect idea of a God” then he leaves out the perfect aspect to God. Leaving that out, we could agree that he has a perfect idea of whatever God he feels like thinking about. Anyone could do this. A Catholic thinks about the Catholic God. A Protestant thinks about the Protestant God. A Jew, a Hindu, etc etc thinks about just their own religion’s specific God. Do all those different Gods really exist? Presumably not, unless polytheism turns out to be right. But we aren’t trying to prove polytheism. Can Descartes prove that his God exists if he only says, “I have a perfect idea of a God”? NO – we’d be able to point to his religious upbringing to explain how his idea of that God got into his mind. Indeed, we might say, “Each person who has an idea of a God simply learned it from one’s religion.” This is no way to prove that an actually existing God is required to explain all these religions. In fact, the way that there so many different religions, and so many different gods, suggests that there is no God behind them all.

So, Descartes MUST only start from the claim, “I have a perfect idea of a perfect God.”

We must ask now: by what right does Descartes make this claim? How does Descartes, or any of us, really KNOW that we have a PERFECT idea of a PERFECT god? None of us can sure of this, not even Descartes. We are only human, after all. Of course, if you first assume that there is a God, then it could make sense that this God would communicate with us. But we philosophers can’t just assume that God exists in the first place. Can it be proven? Apparently not.

Meditation Four: Descartes explains Error

Descartes thinks that he has proven that a perfect God really exists. So we continue on, letting him take God for granted, to see what else he can prove using God. But remember: nothing Descartes claims in the rest of the Meditations is valid without God’s existence.

Descartes knows that God exists, and God is perfect, so God is Good. God is not a deceiver. On the other hand, God created my Mind. I know God created my Mind because nothing else could have done this.

I also know that I am often in error. In a way, this is God’s fault, because God created limited human Minds. However, God would not give my Mind an intelligence that is broken and flawed. My Intellect (my intelligent ability to reason etc) works fine, but it has limited information to work with.

Descartes must explain how it is possible that I can err even though I am created by a Good God.

First, no error is found in the intellect when it works by itself. Left to itself, the intellect understands the pure mental realms of mathematics (and geometry and logic). The intellect can know math geometry, and logic perfectly without error (once the Mind is educated correctly about what those things are – babies aren’t born knowing math and so on). Descartes agree with Plato about how we know these realms of the pure intellect.

But we also want to learn about the world around us. That is much harder. Our tools are the evidence from the senses, our imagination, and our reasoning. If we only used these three mental powers, we would enjoy limited but fairly good factsabout the world. But humans also try to believe much more. (We can’t live on simple bare facts alone!) That is where we drift into error.

There is an additional feature of the human Mind – our Will.

For Descartes: “Error consists in the will, in its judgments, going beyond what the intellect clearly and distinctly perceives to be the case.”

Our Will was made by God to be Free – we can voluntarily decide to believe what we want to believe, even when little solid evidence supports it.

God cannot be faulted for giving us Free Will – humanity needs free will to be morally responsible creatures and not machines.

How do we avoid error? Try to withhold judgment – don’t believe either way, until more reliable information arrives. This is what scientific method requires.

Descartes’s Meditations 5 and 6
Meditation Five: Everything We Know Ultimately depends on God

Let’s list everything that exists that depends on God, according to Descartes.

  1. My Mind
  2. The Intellect within my Mind
  3. My knowledge that I exist as a Mind (from intellectual philosophy)
  4. My proof that a perfect God exists (from intellectual philosophy)
  5. The natural world that this God created
  6. My body
  7. My senses, imagination, Free Will, etc.
  8. My ability to intelligently learn about the world around me.
  9. My confidence that my reasonings about the world (so long as I don’t let myWill stray into error) are fairly reliable.
  10. My ability to use science to intellectually discover what nature is like

Descartes admires science – he is a scientist himself! But he has shown that all intellectual reasoning about the world depends on knowing that God exists.

Only philosophy can prove that God exists. Therefore, science (along with all theology) depends on philosophy.

This is one of Descartes’s primary objectives: to show why philosophy alone is capable of proving what theology only promises: there is one God and all human knowledge requires philosophy to back it up.

Both science and theology are in the same position: they are both ultimately dependent on philosophy.

Meditation Six: The Dualism of Mind and Body

Descartes returns to his overall philosophy that all reality is divided into Minds and Bodies. This philosophy is called Dualism. ‘Duo’ = Two. Dualism says that there are two kinds of realities which have nothing in common with each other. You can say “Mind and Body” or “Mind and Matter” etc.

Minds have these features: they think, they sense, they imagine, they will, and so on. Minds are filled with ideas. Descartes is a mind. You are a Mind. God is a Mind.

Bodies have these features: they exist outside of minds; they have the properties that science says they have: mass, motion, size, and shape.

Proof of Dualism: there is no feature that gets listed on both the Mind list and the Body list.

Descartes gives an argument for the difference between Mind and Body.

  1. I know that I exist as a thinking Mind, but I am never certain of the existence of my body. (Thanks to God, I can have a body, but my understanding of my body is always less than perfect knowledge.)
  2. So far as I can tell, I am a thinking Mind, and perhaps nothing else.
  3. My Mind is distinct from my body.
  4. My Mind is something that thinks (by definition) and my Mind does not have a size, shape, mass, or motion.
  5. Bodies have a size, shape, mass, and motion.


My Mind is not the same as my body, or any physical body.

Descartes gives an argument for the Existence of the External World

The “external world” is anything that is a physical body and exists outside of a mind. Examples of things in the external world:

  •  The pen I am holding
  •  My hand
  •  My nose
  •  Mydog
  •  Cleveland
  •  Mount Everest
  •  Electrons, Protons, and Neutrons
  •  The Milky Way GalaxyWell, you get the idea. If it isn’t a Mind or in a Mind, then it is a physical thing in the external world.Descartes has an argument to show that the external world and things in it are real. A dualist like Descartes has to prove this, because there are two kinds of reality: Minds (which he has already proven are real) and Bodies. Each kind of reality has to proven separately.

Here is Descartes’s argument:

  1. In my Mind I have ideas about physical things around me that make them seem quite real.
  2. These ideas require an explanation for why they have gotten into my mind.
  3. These ideas of external bodies cannot come from my intellect alone (only math etc come from the intellect working by itself).
  4. These ideas cannot come from my imagination, since I can tell when imagined ideas are created by me.
  5. These ideas come to me against my Will – I sense objects whether I want to or not.
  6. Nothing inside me is responsible for causing ideas of bodies to enter my mind, so something outside me is responsible.
  7. The Evil Deceiver would gladly fool us completely about whether there really is an external world, but God is real and would prevent this.
  8. God would not deceive us about an external world.
  9. Therefore, the simple explanation must be the true one: there really is an external world of physical bodies that cause my senses to deliver ideas into my mind.

WARNING: Descartes has proven that there is an external physical world that activates our senses. However, it also remains true that God did not build our bodies to deliver perfect information about the world. We can still willfully make mistakes about the world.

Four Kinds of Reality



Evil Genius


MIND: Intellect, Reasoning


COSMOS: The physical world of bodies – bodies have size,

shape, mass, & motion


BODY: what animal bodies are like Imagination

Senses Memory Will

Descartes on the Mind-Body Relationship

We really do have bodies. Why? Why aren’t we just disembodied Minds, like ghosts, floating around? Well, God simply thought it best to make us human: Mind and Body connected together.

Descartes’s Dualism has remained a powerfully persuasive view of what is like to be human.

Mind is not the same as Brain, because nothing mental can be the same as something physical.

Mind is affected by the brain, which explains how we learn about the external world.

Mind can in turn influence the brain, which explains how our minds can control our bodies.

Because Mind is not the same as brain, it is possible that the brain can stop working but the Mind does not also have to stop.

DUALISM: Mind probably is IMMORTAL and survives the death of the Body.

The Assignment:

Write a 200 word Observation by telling us about something that you find people believing about the world just because they really, really want to believe it. Maybe they are right, maybe they are wrong – the philosophical question is this: Do they really have enough information to back up that belief? Tell us about something that you hear people saying about the world but you realize how they couldn’t really justify it.

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