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Concise Summary of Descartes’ Reasoning in “Meditations on First Philosophy”

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  1. Introduction
  2. Descartes meditations
    1. His first meditation
    2. The second meditation
    3. Descartes' third meditation
    4. The fourth meditation
  3. The idea of a good God
  4. The essence of material things
  5. Discussion of the cartesian synthesis of theology and physics
    1. Descartes' meditations on the first philosophy
    2. Writing a rational theology
    3. The God of Descartes
  6. Conclusion

Descartes' Meditation One sets out his purpose of creating a new scientific paradigm to be based on a foundation built above the wreckage of his former opinions. He sought a reason to doubt the entire canon of his opinions so that he might begin ?to establish anything firm and lasting in the sciences (A&W, p. 27a).? He finds that his opinions might all be doubted based on their origin either from or through sense perceptions that are prone to deception. He cites as evidence the seeming reality of dreams, based as they are on sense perceptions of what we believe to be ?real' things. In his first meditation, Descartes argues that because the components of dreams are no different in nature from those of waking life, we cannot trust our waking perceptions anymore than those experienced in sleep. Thoughts are constructed from images of corporeal things, which are bodies that extend in space. In the search for a firm science, Descartes uses this argument to cast doubt upon the physical sciences. However, mathematics studies truths which are independent of extension and so could form the basis of a lasting science; the ideas of arithmetic are true in life or dream, and thus cannot be doubted. The existence of a good God, by contrast, is something that, at this stage of the meditations, must be doubted along with all other long-standing opinions misinformed by the senses. Descartes thus assumes the existence of ?an evil genius (A&W, p. 29b)? whose intention it is to deceive man away from knowledge. The existence of such a god leads Descartes to suppose all of reality to be no more real than the ?hoaxes' of his dreams.

[...] Human finiteness limits our use of faculties that are perfect in God. The implication for Descartes' overhaul of the sciences is that our will should be tempered by the limits of our understanding. Only ideas that are clear and distinct, those discerned by mathematics (which deals not with bodies but with essence), should be used as the basis of intellectual judgement. With the idea of a good God squared with the deception of the senses, Descartes' conclusion about the clarity and distinctness of true ideas leads to the Fifth Meditation's concern with the essence of material things. [...]


[...] Imagination suggests the existence of a material body because, unlike in pure intellection, it depends on the body to perceive the sense that inspires the image. The faculties of imagination and sensation are distinct only as modes of the substance of self; they require a self in which to inhere and be faculties of. The faculty of sensing is passive only, in that sensations are adventitiously received from an external source. The passivity of sensation thus requires an active faculty from which sensory ideas derive. [...]

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