Criticism of Descartes’s First Meditation
Descartes begins by affirming that he, as a consciously thinking entity, does not have the ability to certainly differentiate between the two commonly known states of sleep and wake. Therefore, he concludes, in order to search for the most basic truths, he should assume that nothing but his thoughts are as they seem. This is where he loses himself. Descartes attacks the sense of sight particularly aggressively, maintaining that nothing of it can be trusted. However, this belief in and of itself negates his initial assumption that only his thought certainly exists. Let us imagine for a second that only one’s thought does exist. Descartes’s conclusion after that point is that everything bit of one’s sight must be subject to disbelief. However, in the case that only one’s thought does exist one’s eyes certainly do not exist, and certainly neither does any of the rest of his body or what we perceive as sensory organs. Therefore, there must be a link between the mind and the sight in Descartes’s scenario of heightened suspicion. From here, it becomes obvious that one cannot throw a net of doubt over all sight but leave thought untouched; we see now that the sight must stem from the thought. This may at first seem discountable because of our many prejudices about sight and thought, but I believe we can still reach the conclusion that the two are inextricably bound together in Descartes’s scenario.
Descartes himself turns to math when he tries to show a superiority in thought over “disciplines that are dependent upon the consideration of composite things that are doubtful,” such as “physics, astronomy, and medicine.” Descartes reasons that no matter how the world around him might seem or be, in his head two plus three will always make five, or, in other words, a certainty can always be gained through his thought but not through his sight. Allow me to argue now, however, that the same sense of uncertainty (or uncertainty) can be assigned to both thought and that which we perceive as sight. Without eyes (which most certainly do not exist) our sight must be an extension of our thought. The initial argument against this generally goes, “We make mistakes in chemistry and other observed sciences often, and they are not perfect; but the math inside of our heads is perfect.” Let us dissemble this gross interpretation. Let us first look at what math really is and not as some higher power than ourselves (at least in Descartes’s scenario). Math is an idea; it is a belief in the mind that doing things with certain numbers (another idea) will yield certain results. Chemistry is the same, but people will often point to the tempting belief that often times it seems like chemistry is incorrect, whereas math is never incorrect. But is this really true? Have I ever incorrectly done math in my head? Certainly I have. I argue that when, in my head, I attempt to multiply 263 by 129 and attain the answer 57, I have performed an action that is equivalent to any sort of untruth that one could imagine in what we perceive as the world of senses. Here we now see that there is a limit to thought and that untruths in the sensory have parallel ones in the world of thought.
In summary, I have two main points. First, in the event that only thought can be trusted, sensory perceptions become linked to thought; they do not become labeled false; they become labeled imagination, along with math and anything else that might have originally resided in the mind. Second, there is a direct correlation between examination of the real world and examination of thought. Both can experience missteps, and we can imagine for both a perfect scenario.
Descartes believes that when he assumes nothing his sight is necessarily shuffled into a pile labeled ‘untrustworthy.’ I, however, believe that when he assumes nothing, his sight is shuffled into the same pile in which his thought resides, regardless of where that may be.