Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Point of Doubting

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Descartes begins his Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy by pointing out his purpose. He states that his purpose is, “not to teach the method that everyone ought to follow in order to conduct his reason well, but merely to show how I have tried to conduct my own”(p). Being an educated man, he began to wonder how much good his education was really doing. He felt that, “there is often not so much perfection in works composed of many pieces and made by the hands of various master craftsmen as there is in those works on which but a single individual has worked” (p7). When a person is getting an education, what they are really doing is gathering the knowledge that other people have and taking it as fact. Descartes began to wonder how he could be sure that what these men were teaching was really truth, so he decided to find out for himself.

The first rule that Descartes set for himself to follow while he was on the path of discovering which things were real truth and which were false was to, “never accept anything as true that I did not plainly know to be such” (p11). This is how he began to follow his method of doubt. The greatest utility of this method, according to Descartes, lies in, “freeing us of all prejudices, in preparing the easiest way for us to withdraw the mind from the senses, and finally, in making it impossible for us to doubt any further those things that we later discover to be true” (p1). By doubting everything, he was able to bring everything back down to its original foundation and begin establishing truths that could be proven.

Much of what we believe to be true is based on our senses. What we can see and feel is what we usually tend to believe is real. This would be a good way to figure things out, but our senses can sometimes be deceptive and that would lead us to believe that something false was in fact something real. Descartes shows this by talking about dreams. He says, “How often does my evening slumber persuade me of such ordinary things as these that I am here, clothed in my dressing gown, seated next to the fireplace�when in fact I am lying undressed in bed!” (p60) This example shows how our senses could convince us of something that isn’t real. As Descartes says, “there are no definitive signs by which to distinguish being awake from being asleep” (p60). This is an example that shows how we should look for concrete evidence and build from there before we accept something as truth. Eventually we’re told that, “it is proved that all that we clearly and distinctly perceive is true” (p55).

There are some ideas that aren’t easily expressed in written format nevertheless formal written format. It is always a good thing to be able to support your ideas with quotes from the text, but oftentimes it gets to be too easy to forget the point you’re trying to make because you are concentrating so hard on the quotes. That is what just happened in this essay. I’m going to take a step away from the formalities now and try to explain what it is that I gathered from this work. Pretty much everything that I’ve gathered is supported by quotes that I’ve already used.

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Descartes doubted everything that he had once taken as fact. He wanted to get rid of all preconceived notions and ideas about the things he knew, because he realized that there could be mistakes in his facts. Information that had been coming to him could be faulty for reasons like the fact that the people that had been teaching him may have mixed their own opinions in with facts and therefore not really passed on what would be complete truth, and the fact that our senses can often deceive us. He wanted to get down to the most basic foundation and build from there. He was learning things on his own in a unique way.

By doubting things and going back to find out for himself, he was learning how to show proof and reason for those things. He was fond of comparing the process to geometry and how when you’re working on a geometry problem you show your step-by-step proof as you go. By being able to do this with things that people already had an idea of would make it much easier to show the proof for God, which many people don’t have an idea of. It would have been extremely hard, if not impossible, to try to start by explaining something so complex as God. I personally feel that this was the whole purpose of the project. He doubted for the purpose of learning how to distinguish the true from false and show hard evidence for it knowing that he would be using this same kind of process to try to prove that God really does exist. To me this can be shown by the fact that the whole purpose of Descartes’ writing was to demonstrate the purpose of God.

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