So my first reading assignment for History of Modern Philosophy is Rene Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy, which makes sense because that particular text is probably Descartes’s most famous and Descartes is know as the Father of Modern Philosophy. Seems like a logical starting point. Seeing as how I haven’t read this book in nearly ten years, and seeing as how my worldview was significantly different back then (I was a Taoist as opposed to an agnostic atheist), it’s sort of like reading these meditations for the first time, albeit with a greater level of knowledge of what they contain than if I had just stumble upon them on the Interwebs. Anyway, I tend to like to write about things I read, especially philosophical jazz; it helps me organize my thoughts and work through them. I figured, therefore, that I might as well make my musings public. One of these days I plan on earning a Ph.D. in Philosophy and will have to publish philosophical treatises eventually, so I might as well get some practice. So, here goes with the first of the philosophical musing-types.
(N.B.: Seeing as how this first assignment is only the first two Meditations, I will restrict my comments to those sections.)
In essence, I believe that the starting point of these meditations is incredibly apt. Being a skeptic, I’m all about challenging beliefs, especially if one thinks one holds a false belief. So, leave it to one of the greatest philosophers of all time to think of the best place to start.
Being an atheist, the section I was most struck with was the musing on God, deception, and the nature of existence. In case you haven’t read it, Descartes is playing with the idea that perhaps the physical world doesn’t exist and sense perception is all an illusion (a form of idealism) simply as a thought experiment, presumably to argue for his brand of rationalism. He notes that one might argue and say that God would not deceive us like this, and he points out that God deceives us at least some of the time in the form of faulty sense perception, so what’s to say that God isn’t deceiving us 24/7? Essentially, if God is all-powerful, why couldn’t he create a world in which only the mental was real? Although I think idealism has its merits, I think it’s more of a fun thought experiment than a reasonable philosophy due to the fact that it’s not testable. (I know that Descartes wasn’t actually advocating for idealism and was simply using it as a rhetorical device.) Anyway, the notion of a deceptive God really pleases me as an atheist, although Descartes’s use of the word “deceive” is based on his apparent skepticism of free will and belief that God controls people’s thoughts (to me this sounds similar to some forms of occasionalism). In Descartes’s view, if one’s sense perceptions are mistaken, one is being deceived by God. Not many people actually believe that God is putting thoughts in their heads 24/7 (although it does seem like most Christians believe that God puts thoughts in their heads some of the time), but the belief does still exist, and I guess those people can take solace in the fact that they’re in good delusional company (although it must be noted that Descartes lived in the 17th century and science then wasn’t quite what it is now). Also, if you actually think that God is doing your thinking for you, doesn’t that make concepts like sin and repentance a little superfluous? I mean, this would essentially make you an aspect of God’s mind, so unless God has a crazy case of D.I.D. I don’t see the point of judging one’s own mind and condemning to hell.
(N.B.: I’m familiar with thought skepticism, which is a related area of philosophical thinking, but I don’t feel like going there.)
As for Descartes’s argument for proof that he exists, I have no real problem with it, but I would wonder why he didn’t decide to pretend he was a character in another person’s dream as opposed to being constantly deceived by a malicious demon. I like the dream thing better mainly because I have this argument at least once a week. I have lots of lucid dreams, and a lot of the time I end up getting in arguments with characters in these dreams about whether or not the dream is a dream or real. I’ve never been able to think of a logical way to prove to a figment of my imagination that it’s really just a representation of an aspect of myself, so I mostly just end up forcing myself to wake up just to prove a point. (Presumably this is an empty victory, unless the character in the dream goes on existing in my subconscious, which is doubtful.) Anyway the point I am trying to make is that Descartes’s reasoning holds if he is being deceived by a demon, but it would have to change at least a little bit if we are to alter his stipulations a bit and pretend we are just characters in someone else’s dream. Either that, or our definition of “to exist” would have to be altered in some way (I suppose that people, places, and things in dreams can be said to exist in a sense, but in order to argue that we’d have to have a pretty liberal definition of “exist”). I’m really too lazy to figure out a way to prove that I exist right now, though, and I tend to think that Descartes lays good groundwork, so I accept it given his conditions (the we can’t be certain of anything and we are possibly being deceived by a malicious demon). I have issue with his proof of an immortal soul, but I’ll get to that in another poster. Right now I want to watch Alien Raiders. Peace out, y’all!