Descartes’ skepticism and confusions about self-believe, truth and knowledge are expressed in his First Meditation. He is confused by the nature of his sensory beliefs because most of the times they tend to mislead him. His distrust for his senses does not mean that he distrusts all of them. He only happens to distrust some of them when the conditions for trusting such senses are poor. He will trust his senses when the conditions are such that they are favorable and conducive to be trusted.
The other thing that makes Descartes skeptic about life and self-belief is in the case of dreams. He sees dreams as an opportunity to be easily deceived because it is hard to reconnect what exactly happens when one is dreaming. He cannot tell whether it is true he is dreaming, or he is awake. The things that happen in a dream resemble the realities of life, and this makes it harder for him to believe the things that happen to him in dreams. He further contends that God cannot have created him in such a way as to be easily deceived in dreams. When he is dreaming, he finds himself falsely believing that he is awake because there is no proof that, in fact, he is either awake or dreaming. According to him, there is no way that God could have allowed deceptions to constantly occur to him, and this makes it even more interesting and confusing.
He sees God as the Supreme Being who created man in His own image and; therefore, chances are that the same God cannot allow him to be constantly deceived. To this end, therefore, there is reason to believe that some of the things that happen to him are of significance and that although all of them cannot be trusted, he can trust some of his senses. He would readily mistrust his senses than blame God for the skepticism and lack of self-belief that he has for himself.
The other concern that confuses Descartes even more is that possibly he was not created by God. If that concern is true, then chances are that he is inferior in a way. It is this inferiority that could be placing him at a position of being constantly deceived and misled. He does not say, however, that he was not created by God, these are just some of the concerns that he raises in an attempt to understand why he is constantly misled by his senses to the extent that he cannot trust them anymore. The only way he can explain this constant deception is by attributing it either to his senses or to a demon that keeps misleading him and deceiving him. This is because if he was created by God, there is no way that he could me an inferior being to be misled every time yet he was created in the image of God. This demon or evil spirit, therefore, must be so close to him that it knows all his movements and keeps track of all that he does so that it distorts his senses and ultimately leads him astray.
This, however, is not the solution to his self-criticism and skepticism. These are just thoughts he expresses towards the end of the first meditation. In this first meditation, therefore, he sees a malevolent and a malignant spirit that is out to lead him astray and make him not to trust his senses anymore. Unlike in the second meditation whereby he seeks some satisfactory answers to the thoughts he had in the first meditation, the first meditation shows confusions, attributes and self-criticism of a person who does not exactly understand the realities of life. The meditation tells of a man who blames his lack of self-trust and self-believes on everything; God, senses, spirit and dreams.
Then comes his dreams; there is a lot of significance in this dream. First of all, the fact that he cannot tell whether he is dreaming or not shows that it is not easy for a person who is in a bad situation to know it. They will feel as if they are doing the right thing. That is what Descartes wants us to believe. The same thing happens when people are in good situations. He wants us to trust him when he says that even when he dreams he is not sure whether, in fact, he is dreaming, or he is awake. In this line of though, he suggests that people who are in good situations may find it hard to know whether or not they are in that good situation. Take the example of a person who is blind, such people may find it very difficult to know when they are in a bad situation or a good situation because they cannot see the surroundings unless they are told by other people. Another example would be when a person is drunk. Such a person tends to make people believe that they are doing well when the people can see for themselves that the drunken person is not more sob. Is this the line of thought that Descartes want us to pursue? It is tricky to predetermine what was going through his mind when he was submitting these meditations.
Descartes’ confusions are centered on dreams and senses. He seems to place a lot of importance in his dream. He wonders if he can trust his dreams, then what will be the importance of trusting in his senses too. He is of the opinion that he cannot trust what his body senses are telling him about the environment unless he knows exactly what is happening, just like he cannot trust his dreams. This is even more confusing because it leads us to connect the external world and the internal self of a person. What comes out clearly from this meditation is that for a person to trust what is happening all over the world, say catastrophes, disasters or even good happenings, they have to convince themselves that they are not dreaming. That way, they will be able to trust their senses about what is happening in the external world. Moreover, Descartes’ meditation leads us to understand that a person cannot trust what is happening out there based solely on their senses (Descartes). Their senses may deceive them that all is well out there yet the opposite is in fact true. Alternatively, their senses may convince them that all is not well when, in fact, there is no problem out there. He is, therefore, leading us to the point of disregarding the linkage between the outside and our senses. He prefers that what concerns our senses remain to be our internal self and should, therefore, not predict what happens out there.
Descartes, christened as the father of modern philosophy, had one intention when he was putting his “Meditations” in writing. He wanted to discredit the Scholastic’s reliance on sensation as the sole source of knowledge by placing doubts on this perspective. He also wanted to replace their perspective of explaining science by use of final causal model with the mechanistic model, which, according to him, was more modern. He, therefore, thought of doing this in the form of placing doubts, skepticism, self-criticism and dreams. By acknowledging the fact that he exists and also acknowledging the existence of God, Descartes sets a firm foundation of epistemology that he is so certain about. This later certainty is ironic, if not hyperbolic, to the former doubts and fear of deception by some malicious spirits.
The aim of these doubts is to clear the air of any misconceived opinions of the scholastics that, he thought, could obscure or prevent people from knowing the truth. The goal of his doubts, dreams and criticisms, is to come up with a solution that cannot be doubted, blamed on the devil, or a malicious dream of deception, unlike his senses which he believes are prone to deception, manipulation and could, therefore, easily mislead the people.
After considering his senses, believes and dreams false in the first meditation, Descartes proceeds to explain his certainties in the second meditation where he now says that he believes, he knows, and he exists. In this regard, he acknowledges the fact that he is a living being and the deceptions, dreams of life self-criticisms and skepticism only reveal who he is. In a nutshell, these things can as well happen on him because he exists, after all. His intention in this meditation is to impute sense on the old Aristotelian concepts of man as a rational being, but the concept did not explain who a rational being was. He, therefore, sees himself as a person who can be deceived, because he is living and existing, a thinker can question the existence or non-existence of things, a person who can clearly understand such existence and at the same time a person who has senses to perceive the existence of things.
Descartes does not stop at that. He further proceeds to explain the connection between intellectual perception and volition on one hand and imagination and sensation on the other hand. He sees the former category as what presents the true nature of the mind and what should lead a person in making critical decisions. For the later, he sees them as dependent on the body and, therefore, a weaker department of the human body. He advises that a rational person as proposed by the likes of Aristotle should be guided by the former and not the later. It is at this point that he puts in clear terms what he means by a person being misled by his senses and dreams. He is of the opinion that for a person not to be misled, they should be guided by their intellect and volition rather than their imaginations. In his second meditation, he considers himself as led by intellect and volition and not by imaginations and senses. That is why he says that he exists and, therefore, knows who he is.
Finally, he acknowledges the fact that only God Himself is a “substance” because he does not depend on anything else to exist. As for ideas, imaginations, sensations and dreams, they cannot fit in the category of “substances” as they depend on the mind to exist. Descartes’ work has made use of a lot of symbolism, hyperbole, irony and sarcasm. Only the keen mind can pick the substance of his writing.
Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy. FIRST MEDITATION: On what can be called into doubt . 1639.