Home > Book Review, Philosophy, Skepticism > Lecture Series: Pt 3 – Descartes’ Fourth, Fifth And Sixth Meditations.

Lecture Series: Pt 3 – Descartes’ Fourth, Fifth And Sixth Meditations.

Fourth meditation: Truth and falsity

In this meditation Descartes seeks to confirm his conclusions in the third meditations, with a discussion on truth, he reasons that the idea within him of God, not only confirms his existence as a thinking thing, but also confirms that there must be a referent, outside his mind,  in reality called God. In every case of trickery or deception, even if we assume it requires power to do so, this power could not come from God (as he is benevolent). Moreover Descartes power of reasoning, of judgement, comes from God, and God would not wish to deceive him (nor could he). This does lead Descartes to think however, if all that Descartes is comes from God, how could he possibly have any faulty reasoning? To solve this dilemma Descartes reasons that when looking at God, and seeing an example of perfection, he then looks at himself to see an example of imperfection, and this answers the question. Only in a being such as Descartes who is imperfect could faulty reasoning occur, not in, or from God, but as a result of a defect in Descartes. Still unsatisfied however Descartes reasons that this answer is not wholly sufficient, for the same question still applies – if Descartes is created by the perfection that is God, then why would God create his creation, imperfect? How could he? After all, “however more skilled the craftsman, the more perfect the work produced by him” as Descartes says (p.38)

To answer this dilemma Descartes asks himself if it is indeed better that he should make mistakes than that he should not? He reasons that there is no cause for surprise that he cannot comprehend God’s reasons for not distilling in him the means to under God’s purposes, for God is immense and powerful and is able to comprehend many causes beyond Descartes comprehension. Descartes also begs we take a look at the universe as a whole, so that we might see the complete perfection, instead of merely looking at one example of supposed ‘imperfection’. Ultimately Descartes reasons that he can not think of any reason to prove that God ought to have given him greater faculties of knowledge than he did, no matter how skilled God may be at creation it is not necessary that he create Descartes with all the perfections present in himself.

What then is the cause of Descartes mistake in reasoning? The answer? “The scope of the will is wider than that of the intellect” (p. 40), but instead of restricting it to its limits Descartes use his will to stretch it into matters to which he does not understand, and since the will cares not for truth or falsity, that becomes the source of his error. This privation of the will comes from Descartes, who operates said will, not from God, who does not operates Descartes will.

Fifth mediation: The essence of material things and the existence of God considered a second time

In this meditation Descartes turns his attention back to the existence of God, by discussing essences. Beginning with the Platonic example of a triangle – Descartes explains that even if a triangle never existed outside his thoughts, there would still be a ‘determinate’ nature, or ‘essence’ of the triangle which is immutable and eternal, which is not invented by him or dependent on him. We can discover this truth about the triangle from the objective fact that we know triangles must necessarily contain three angles, two right angles etc. Since these are properties independent of Descartes, that he must recognize whether he wants to or not, demonstrate that they could not be invented by him.  Similarly it is the same with God, whose nature of eternal existence, is the same as a number or shape, ,when he demonstrates it has some necessary category that belongs to its nature.

Descartes admits that this argument may be sophistry, since he has seen the distinction between essence and existence in everything else, hence God’s essence could quite easily be separated from his existence – and ergo, thought of as not existing. Descartes counters that God’s existence can no more be separated from his essence than the essence of a triangle (e.g its three sides) could be separated from its existence, therefore we see it is impossible, according to Descartes that God, the supremely perfect being, could not exist, which would be an example of imperfection.

Again Descartes questions this conclusion, stating it still does not follow, simply because Descartes cannot think of God not existing, that he must then exist, for his thought

does not impose any necessity on things; and just as I may imagine a winged horse, even though no horse has wings, so I may be able to attach existence to God even though no God exists.  (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 46, 1985)

Descartes has already slipped in the controversial part of the argument when he claims existence to be a predicate (contra Kant) above, Descartes considers existence to be a perfection over non-existence, since God is a supremely perfect being, existence would be included in that description. It is not necessary for Descartes to think this, but he finds it to be true when does, much like the triangle, when he thinks of it, he must include the list of attribute to it that are associated with a triangle.

Sixth meditation: The existence of material things, and the real distinction between the mind and the body

Here Descartes seems to run us through much of his thinking thus far, summing up if you will, Descartes is now feeling like he has used his method of systematic doubt to come to truths about metaphysics:

I am beginning to achieve a better knowledge of myself and the author of my being, although I do not think I should heedlessly accept everything I seem to have acquired from the senses, neither do I think  that everything should be called into doubt.(Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans John Cottingham, pg. 54, 1985)

It is here that Descartes begins to differentiate his mind, from that of his body, he states that he can confer that his essence is that of a thinking thing, that this thinking part of him is a non-extended thing, but he also realises he has a body that is distinctly his, which is an extended, non-thinking thing. Hence it seems to Descartes that he is a separate thing from his body, and can exist without it.

Descartes must explain however the modes of thinking that involve the body, such as imagination and sense perception, he does this by partly explaining that those faculties could not exist without him (an intellectual, thinking thing), although he could exist without them. Why you may ask? He explains that there is an intellectual component which is essential to their essence, which require a thinking thing. Descartes continues stating that there are other perceptions too which requires explanation, tactile perceptions that can only work when relying upon extended things, Descartes explains this away by stating that these faculties must exist in an extended substance, not an intellectual one, as the conception of them includes extension, and no intellectual act at all.

Descartes states there is a passive faculty in him that detects via the senses, a faculty for “receiving and recognizing the ideas of sensible objects” (p. 55) meaning: there is a faculty in him which perceives physical objects. Descartes states however that this faculty could not be used by him as it is not perceived by the intellect, and it affects him against his will, meaning he has not control over it, hence this faculty must belong to another substance, either in him, or external to him. To Descartes this substance must contain “either formally or eminently all the reality which exists objectively.” (p. 55), moreover it must either be a body that contains such, or it is God and since God is not a deceiver it is clear to Descartes that he does not either directly, or indirectly (through some creature) transmit the contents of this faculty to Descartes, as God has not given Descartes a faculty to understand this, hence it would seem the source of this faculty comes from corporeal things. From this Descartes concludes that corporeal things exist, in some form. This is how Descartes gets from his mind, the thinking thing, to the world of the senses.

Now that has been established, Descartes moves back to the mind, he states that nature teaches him that hunger, pain, thirst etc means that he is not merely present in his body, but that he is closely joined to it, nay, intermingled with it, so that the body and mind form a ‘unit’. Descartes reasons that if this were not so he, who is a thinking thing, would not feel pain when the body is injured, but would perceive the damage purely by the intellect, without sensation. Descartes mentions that there is a great difference between the mind and body though, with the body being divisible and the mind not so. It does seem that the mind is unified with the body until we look deeper and see that if a foot or arm is taken from the body, nothing is taken from the mind. To Descartes the mind is not immediately affected by all parts of the body, only the brain, or even one small part of the brain, Descartes reasons that the brain communicates to the mind, via a common sense, that for every time this part of the brain is in a given state, it relates those same signals to the mind. To demonstrate this Descartes talks of a pain in the foot, which travels up the nerves of the body to their attachments in the brain, Descartes language is very mechanical, as if it is a lever in the foot that is triggered that pulls a chord in the brain which sends a signal to the mind, that the body feels a sensation of pain. Descartes argues this is a perfect representation of God’s goodness, that he would construct a system, such as pain, and the system of nerves that run from the foot to the brain to the mind, so as to motivate a man to self-preservation. After all, it could have been simply an intellectual awareness, one that a man might ignore, or some other less effective awareness mechanism. But what of cases where this process does not work correctly? As in the case of ‘dropsy’ where a man is compelled to drink by a thirst, but when he does so, causes the man injury, to Descartes, as he stated earlier, a man is a thinking thing as well as an extended thing, and it is likely that his will can take him outside the perfection God has laid down for him.

This reasoning compels Descartes to trust the senses of his body, as they generally report the well-being of such, or rather, ‘more frequently than not’. His body is also, by the fact that it has multiple senses, has a redundancy system that he can use to confirm the report of any given sense, as well as his intellect , this put together allows him to drop his systematic doubt, from the earlier meditations as ‘almost laughable’. Moreover he can now distinguish between waking and dream states, as there is a vast difference between the two, for example his dreams are never linked to memory, with his other waking experiences, if while he is awake someone were to appear to him, then disappear, as often occurs in sleep, he could judge this was a vision created by the brain, or a ghost, but not a real man. It is when Descartes can see the entire causal process of where things come from and go to and that he can connect both to his memory and perceptions that he can differentiate. If after checking with his senses and intellect he can rest comfortably knowing that he has revealed the truth of the situation, since God is not a deceiver, he can completely trust he is without error.


This concludes both my series of blogs on Descartes’ meditations and our lecture series of him, as I come to learn, or rather scratch the surface of this amazing philosopher I understand more wholly that this meager blog series, is more akin to a strawman reading of Descartes rather than an analysis of him. Nowhere have I mentioned his new theory of ideas (and subsequently explained the use of the terms ‘objective’, ‘formal’, ’eminent’ and ‘material’) in any meaningful detail or his causal adequacy principle, I have barely scratched the surface of the mind/body discussion, or of Descartes attempts to separate essences from existence, I haven’t elaborated on his arguments for the existence of God very clearly, nor have I discussed how his arguments find their grounding in God, as a means of shedding the idea of his deceiving demon. As you can see from what I’ve put in, as compared to what I’ve missed, this was an incredibly gifted man, one whom I’m afraid to write any serious essay on (for those interested, I will be posting my essay on this blog).

The question of my essay will be ‘critically analysis Descartes 2 arguments for the existence of God’ – this essay will have to begin by discussing his causal adequacy principle in some sense, and his new theory of ideas, perhaps in the introduction and opening statements, so as to prepare the way that leads to his arguments for the existence of God. What you must understand about Descartes, if I have not elaborated, is this is a man who came from the medieval tradition of scholastic thought, and through his method of doubt, turned all his preconceived notions on their head, to come to his own kind of truth, an audacious undertaking, but what’s scarier, is it actually, kind of worked! So to discuss his arguments for the existence of God, requires that I explain the backdrop and worldview Descartes was using to explain them, otherwise they will be pieces of a puzzle, pulled out and displayed without the rest of the pieces. Not only this, but as my lecturer has stated, Descartes was immensely smarter than him (both of which are immensely smarter than me), there is little hope in deconstructing Descartes too much at my level, so it might be interesting to see simply how he almost succeeds, to merely comment on the work itself, perhaps offering criticisms and objections where possible, but this is not some apologist whose writings are easily contextualized and reviewed, this is a genius who wrote several hundred years ago, who used his own terms, and own worldview.

We have a minimum of 3,000 words to do this, or rather the limit has been set at 3,000, I’m assuming I can go over, as I’m clearly going to need to. Any criticisms or thoughts on this work thus far, would be greatly appreciated.


Descartes R., (1985). Meditations of First Philosophy trans John Cottingham,. Cambridge. Pp. 38, 40, 46, 54, 55.

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  1. April 4, 2012 at 10:18 pm

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