On Descartes' Second Meditation
Assignment for Philosophy 100

©2001 Zhan Huan Zhou

In his First Meditation, Rene Descartes brings into question what he knows for certain. He convinces himself that his senses cannot be trusted and that all his experiences may be nothing more than mere dreams. Descartes finally concludes that he may not know anything for certain, not even the fact that he has a physical body. His Second Meditation focuses on finding at least a single truth, or certainty on which he can hold onto. In his quest for this certainty, Descartes rejects "whatever admits of the least doubt, just as if [he] found it to be wholly false." (pg. 338). He even concedes perhaps "that nothing is for certain." (pg. 339). But Descartes is not so easily defeated. He convinces himself that he exists as a thing that thinks, in other words, a ‘thinking thing.’

How does Descartes reach such an unyielding conclusion? He first proves that despite all his uncertainties, he actually exists. His notion that all physical objects do not exist precludes him from having a body to prove his existence. Instead, Descartes argues that due to the very fact that he has these notions proves that ‘I’ exist. "But if I did convince myself of anything, I must have existed." (pg. 339). He argues that even if deceived by and all-power being then he must also exist because "[the deceiver] will never bring it about that, at the time of thinking that I am something, I am in fact nothing." (pg. 339). Thus Descartes concludes that ‘I am’, ‘I exist’ is necessarily true whenever he conceives it in his head.

But what does Descartes mean by ‘I’? It certainly cannot be a body since he believes all physical objects to be mere illusions. Without the body, there can be no such things as nutrition, location motion or sensation. The only immovable attribute he can find that does not require his physical body is his consciousness or experience. He goes far to say that "maybe, if I wholly ceased from experiencing, I should at once wholly cease to be." Furthermore, he says that "‘I am’ precisely taken refers only to a conscious being; that is a mind, a soul, an intellect, a reason." (pg. 340). It is this consciousness that allows him see what is necessarily true. He argues that physical objects and attributes are not really perceived by the senses, but only by intellect and by being understood. Descartes concludes his argument by suggesting that it is easy and obvious to perceive his own mind through intellect and understanding. Thus he proves he knows for certain that he exists a thinking thing that experiences.

There are many different points in Descartes’ arguments. Some are more powerful than others but I believe his construct of an all-powerful deceiver is a pervasive one. He uses the evil spirit argument quite well to prove his own existence. I think where he fails to adequately defend his argument is proving that he is a being of consciousness and thus having the ability to think. For the remainder of this report, I will assume the existence of an evil spirit that deceives him.

He successfully defends that even if an evil spirit were deceiving him, he must undoubtedly exists. I agree with Descartes because if he did not exist, there would be nothing to deceive. So, if there is an evil spirit out to deceive him, he must exist. I agree that he has proven that he is at least a ‘thing’ but not yet of a ‘thinking thing.’

This brings me to the question of what exactly does it mean to think? Descartes firmly believes that he is "a being that doubts, understands, asserts, denies, is willing, is unwilling; further that has sense and imagination." (pg. 341). He asks the following rhetorical questions to build support his argument: "how can any of these things be less of a fact than my existence? Is any of these something distinct from consciousness? Can any of them be called a separate thing from myself?" (pg. 341). What Descartes fails to address is that perhaps the evil spirit tricks him into thinking that he has doubts, that he understands and so forth. What then? Does he still know he exists? Yes. Is he still a being with consciousness? Perhaps. Is he a thinking thing? Definitely not.

We already know that we can defend existence with the presence of the evil spirit as described earlier in this paper. He may or may not be a being of consciousness because he may be deceived of the thoughts that lead him to believe that he is conscious. But one might argue that even if he has been deceived that he is conscious then he is. For this reason, I will continue with the assumption that he is a conscious being. He is most definitely not a thinking thing. To be the thinking thing that he claims at the end of the meditation would imply that he has the ability to perceive by intellect and understanding. However, the evil spirit has deceived him on those matters. He has neither the intellect nor the capacity to understand and thus to perceive. Furthermore, by inverting his argument "that nothing is more easily or manifestly perceptible to me than my own mind" we can suggest that since he cannot perceive his own mind, he cannot exist.

But this raises a contradiction. I have already stated that his existence has been defended in the presence of an evil spirit. So is my last assertion invalid? Indeed it is because I have assumed that the mind and therefore existence can only be perceived through intellect and understanding as Descartes described. However, the mind need not be perceived by intellect nor understanding, it may be perceived due to deception caused by the evil spirit, thereby solving the contradiction. So, Descartes perception that he has intellect and understanding is brought about by the evil spirit therefore he does not think.

What of consciousness? I have assumed for the time being that he is a conscious being. Some may argue that consciousness itself leads to thinking for consciousness cannot be without thinking. But as I alluded to earlier, the reasons for believing he is conscious may be brought about by the evil spirit. By Descartes’ own definition, a conscious being is one who doubts, understands and so on. However, if those doubts and understanding are not his own, but rather caused by an evil spirit, he does not really have those thoughts and feelings. And without those thoughts and feelings, he cannot be a conscious being. If he is not a conscious being, then he obviously cannot be a thinking thing. In short, the evil spirit can deceive Descartes into thinking he has consciousness when in fact he does not therefore he does not think.

So although I agree that Descartes may be able to convince himself that ‘I am’, ‘I exist’, I do not agree that he has adequately shown that he is a thinking thing. I have shown that if the evil spirit deceives Descartes on perceived notion that he doubts, understands and so on, then Descartes has a false impression that he is conscious and therefore has a false impression has the ability to think. In conclusion, if the evil sprit does exist Descartes can prove he exists but not as a thinking thing.

With notes from "Reason at Work," Cahn et al, Third edition, 1996.


©1996-2001 Zhan Huan Zhou. Last updated May-01-2001.

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