Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What is the Only Thing You Can Know For Certain?

Descartes:  Second Meditation

     Lets very briefly recap the 1st meditation.  Descartes says that if we really think about it, pretty much everything we know can be called into doubt.  Knowledge is typically viewed as what we learn from experience but everything we experience when we (think we) are awake is exactly the same as what we experience when we are dreaming.  So how can we be sure we are not dreaming?  Also, how do we know that all the images we have in our mind aren't being magically placed in us by some uber powerful evil demon or machine whose sole purpose is to deceive us.  We can never get out of our own minds the verify the source of what comes in.  Thus we should conclude that there is nothing we can truly know...Or is is there?  Oh snap! Bring it Descartes!

Argument for Existence and Kind
      Suppose, unbeknownst to me, a thought is implanted in my mind with a mico-chip with nano-sharks with lasers on their heads, what could I know from this?  If unbeknownst to me I'm dreaming about eating all-u-can-eat sushi on cheat day, what could I know from this?  Suppose unbeknownst to me there was the most cunning of deceiver in the wooooooooooooorld implanting all matter of hogwash in my mind, what could I know from this?  Suppose unknownst to me sweet baby Jesus himself  personally implants thoughts in my head, what could I know from this?  From these exact examples, Descartes comes to his famous conclusion that there are only two things that he can know beyond any doubt: First, he exists ("I am").  If he didn't exist he couldn't have any thoughts running through his pointy head--deceptive or otherwise.  Second, he is a thing that thinks ("I am a thinking thing"), i.e., that has thoughts.
      But what is a thing that thinks?  It is a thing that "doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perception".  The last two qualities are of interest because they come up later. 
       From this point the rest of the project of The Meditations is to logically derive the world as we know it from these foundational pieces of knowledge...sort of.  Lets continue...

The World Famous Wax Argument: Hinting at "Substance" and Further Evidence of Existence
    In the world famous wax argument Descartes hints at an argument for a metaphysics has has only 2 types of substances "mind" and body"; and he uses "clear and distinct" perception as a further argument for his own existence.  The arguments are intertwined and they go a little something like this...
     Imagine before you there is a piece of wax, better yet, imagine yourself going to the beehive in your garden to get some.  I say "imagine" a piece of wax because Descartes still isn't in a position to say there are physical things.  He only knows what is in his mind.  
     Notice the qualities the wax has, such as a scent, colour, shape, size.  Is the aggregate of set of these properties what it is for something to be wax?  Possibly.  But wait!  As I bring a flame close to the wax its scent changes; its state changes from solid to liquid; the shape changes, and so on.  Is this no longer wax before me?  Alas I am confused!  I was certain the initial properties which that wax possessed when I first lovingly rolled it between my palms were the set of properties that identified the wax as wax.  Now, my world is shaken, my life in disarray...for is this not still the same wax that I began with?
     Maybe the wax is not defined by the set of those properties which I perceived.  Maybe the wax is something more basic. Here Descartes begins to argue for the notion of "substance".  All things are constituted of a basic substance, in which the properties (i.e. "modes") of an individual thing inhere.  These properties cannot exist apart from this basic form of existence called "substance".  He will elaborate on this later but for now it is sufficient to say that for Descartes to are only 2 kinds of substance, Mind and Body, and the idea that humans magically combine these two substances is the foundation of (Cartesian) Dualism.  
     As a historical note, this also marked a change in the Christian understanding of the notion of "soul".  Prior to Descartes the soul arose out of "body" in humans, that is to say the soul was a consequence of the "humanness" of our physical form.  Consequentially, prior to Descartes, in Christianity the soul could not exist without a body (but now it can! Magic!)
     Lets return to the argument--which at this point shifts its focus back to further demonstrating the certainty Descartes existence as a Mind...So, if we strip away those initial qualities (scent, shape, size, weight, colour, etc...), what are we left with?  Something that is extended, flexible, and changeable.  Flexible and changeable means that it is capable of assuming and changing into more shapes that my imagination can fathom, thus it cannot be the faculty of my imagination that gives me the comprehension of the wax. What does it mean the the wax is extended?  When the wax is warmed from freezing to room temperature it expands.   When it is warmed from room temperature to its melting point, it expands further, and so on.  Once again, my imagination cannot fathom all the wax's degrees of contraction and expansion--i.e., the degree to which it is extended, therefore it cannot be my faculty of imagination but something else that accounts for my comprehension of the wax.
     So what faculty is it that allows us to understand what it is that truly constitutes wax?  It is the mind.  It is the mind that perceives the wax. (Who needs eyeballs when you have a mind?).  The mind allows us to understand that the wax is not simply the sum of its color, immediate shape, smell, texture, and so on.  The mind gives us insight into the qualities that are permanent to the wax regardless of conditions.  From this Descartes concludes that when we try to understand something with our mind we are using a faculty beyond the senses and imagination; that is to say we only truly perceive bodies though understanding them, which only comes through the intellect (i.e. mind).  
     Also, by concentrating his intellect on the wax (whether it was real or not) gives Descartes further evidence that he exists and that he is a thinking thing, because when he perceives the wax in his mind, only something that exists could have this experience, and the fact that he's thinking about the wax is evidence that he thinks...duh! ...or he thinks he thinks...
     A problem that Descartes runs into is that if thoughts are being fed to him maybe all that he can really say is that he is a thing that is aware of thoughts.  There is no real way for him to know if they are his own.  He can counter two ways: 1) He can say hat he can sometime control what he thinks about like if he decides to think about monkeys--he can.  But what if the evil genius knows what Descartes wants to think and feeds him those thoughts.  Now Descartes thinks the thoughts are his but in fact the evil genius created them, and Descartes is only aware of them.  2)  He can say that regardless of the origin of his thoughts it is his mind that is having them.  It wouldn't make sense to say, "I had a thought but it wasn't mine".  I think that we can partially concede 2 but Descartes is might have to compromise too.  I think Descartes will have to relegate his assertion about thoughts to a more passive "I am a thing that has thought" vs. the active "I am a thing that thinks".  It seems to me that implicit in the latter assertion is the notion of the thoughts originating in the mind of the perceiver--but that's just me!
     This idea of Descartes' that we don't simply perceive objects through the senses and/or imagination but also directly through the intellect is kind of wacky, but I think the argument could be made that there are modern day followers of this idea in the direct realist camp.

Shoot! I forgot to put my laundry in the dryer!  Goodnight!

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