Rene Descartes Meditations in the First Philosophy is a skeptics speculation on certain inalienable truths. Descartes meditations are based on the epistemological theory of rationalism: that is if someone truly knows something then they could not possibly be mistaken. He provides solid arguments for what his six meditations stand for, and how he obtained a clear and distinct perception of”innate” ideas. In Meditations he comes to terms with three certainties: the existence of the mind as the thing that thinks, the body as an extension, and God as the supreme being. He attests that he came to these conclusions by doubting all that had been taught to him in his formal education, and all he received through the senses.
Descartes first uncertainty was noted in Discourse of Method. “I found myself embarrassed with so many doubts and errors that it seemed to me that the effort to instruct myself had no effect other than the increasing discovery of my ignorance” (Baird p. 11). He had difficultly embracing the diverse, and sometimes hypocritical, ideas he encountered in his studies. He developed a skeptical frame of reference; this uncertain point of view aided him in developing Meditations. All that he saw, tasted, touched, smelled and heard was caste into uncertainty. He thought all of his confusion and indeterminate ideas were caused by the senses. According to Descartes, “The senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once(Baird, Forrest E. p. 22). He used the example of perceiving the sun and the moon. When both are looked upon from earth, they appear to be about the same size and distance from our planet. Mathematics, however reveal an enormous difference in their size and distance. This is why he desperately needed to abandon all he had learned and acquired through the senses. Certainty surfaced beyond all that he doubted, and to know these certainties led Descartes to the truth.
To know, according to Descartes, was to have a clear and distinct perception of an idea. One could perceive ideas clearly and distinctly through a process of introspection and reflection. When a person abandoned all that was received through the senses they were then able to deduce the essence of an idea. The essence was the most basic foundation of existence; that is the simplest universal truth. To know was to truly understand the essence of a thing or idea.
The first thing Descartes was able to clearly and distinctly perceive was the idea of the mind. The mind represented the self or the idea of “I”. It did not represent the self as in physical appearances because the mind has no physical attributes. The mind, according to Descartes, is simply the thing that thinks. The essence of the mind is, “A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling and also imagines and has sensory perceptions” (Baird, p. 13).
He also knew with certainty the idea of an extended thing. By extension he means a body or substance that exist in nature, and outside the thinking thing. It was the essence of that which he could describe with mathematical certainty. He emphasizes a distinction between the mind and body. “…in as much as the body is the very nature is always divisible as the mind is utterly indivisible.” (Baird, Forrest E. p. 53)
Descartes clearly and distinctly perceived an idea of a Supreme Being or God, the perfect infinite manifestation of mind. “By the word ‘God’ I understand a substance that is infinite, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful, and which created both myself and everything else that exists” (Baird, Forrest E. p. 34). Descartes has a clear and distinct perception of God and reasons that it must be It that grants him the ability to clearly and distinctly perceive God.
Descartes speculations on certainty may not have satisfied an empiricist’s point of view of experience as an essential element in knowledge, but alas, he was a rationalist. So in Descartes mind one can only know with certainty the Mind as the thinking thing, the Body as the extended thing and God as a supreme being.
Descartes, Rene. Meditations in the First Philosophy. In Baird, Forest E. and Walter Kaufmann, Modern Philosophy, 3rd Edition Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.