Notes and Review - Meditations on First Philosophy (Descartes)

Descartes has a gift for reasoning that I will not attempt to summarize in the few paragraphs of this review. Descartes’ essay is worth reading if you have ever wondered about the philosophy behind his saying “I think, therefore I am.” It is worth reading if you have a few hours to yourself and you want to think. It is challenging, and some of the philosophy went over my head. Despite that, I got a basic understanding of what he was trying to do. He attempts to reason from scratch to prove the existence of the “soul” and of “God,” for he believes that if he is able to prove their existence, then even the most irreligious person would follow his reasoning and become religious. I was not completely convinced by his logic in this regard, with regard to his proof of God’s existence. But I was convinced about the reasoning behind his quote connecting doubting, thinking and existence1. In this review, I have explained both Descartes’ lines of reasoning and the doubts that arose within me when I followed these lines “without prejudice”2.

Descartes’ Reasoning

Doubt and Denial

First off, Descartes tells us to do something apparently elementary: Deny anything that might have even a shadow of doubt associated with it.

For e.g., Is your body your own? Let’s go down this rabbit hole just as Descartes tells us to:

  1. When you’re asleep, you might dream yourself to be inhabiting another body
  2. When you’re dreaming, the dream appears as real to you as reality does when you’re awake
  3. Your mind thinks that your body is your own
  4. Your mind thinks that the body you inhabit when you dream is also your own
  5. Another mind could think that your body is its own when that mind is dreaming
  6. Hence, your body might belong to another mind!

There! That’s a shadow of doubt. So, deny the original question:

Q: Is your body your own?

A: No; for there is some doubt whether my mind is the only thing that owns it.

This sounds ridiculous; but according to Descartes, this is how philosophy should be done. We must start with nothing and reason to something.

My Mind Exists. I Exist.

With the above example, it is clear that your body is not your own. What about your mind? Here, Descartes makes his first major claim. Your mind is your own as it produces thoughts. A thought can exist separate from the mind that produced it. And thus, that is what I am: I am a thinking thing, with a mind of my own, that I use to produce thoughts.

I know what I am. But what about my existence? For it is quite obvious, that I could be something but not exist. (E.g.: I know what a building with 1000 floors is. But that building does not exist. So, I should prove the existence of that building separately.)

So, do I exist? Yes! Rejoice! I know that I exist because it was I who thought and judged my existence. To produce a thought, there must be a thinking thing that produced it and that thinking thing is me.

God Exists

Let us accept the following axioms3:

  1. A thing that is not perfect can’t produce a thing that is perfect
  2. Something cannot come into being from nothing

Now, look into yourself, and follow the following line of reasoning:

  1. I have the idea of God: a perfect, infinite being
  2. I am not perfect
  3. I am finite
  4. Thus, my mind, a thinking thing, can’t produce the thought of a perfect and infinite being for it is neither perfect nor infinite
  5. Hence, this thought must have been placed into my mind by a being that is perfect and infinite
  6. I choose to call this being God
  7. God Exists!

Well, there you have it. That’s the line Descartes takes to prove his hypothesis.

My Doubts

As I said in the introduction, I was not convinced by the author’s reasoning. Here are some of the doubts that entered my head as I read this essay.

The Nature of Thoughts

Let me go back to something that a reader might question:

To produce a thought, there must be a thinking thing that produced it and that thinking thing is me.

Elsewhere, Descartes says the following:

Something cannot come into being from nothing.

I said before that Descartes wants to start from scratch. And yet, when I made the above statement to explain Descartes’ reasoning and when Descartes said something similar, I am accepting that to be true. Where did this “thought” come from? Or, more simply,

Who produced the thought “a thought can’t exist until a thinking thing produces it” in my mind?

This is the axiom3 that Descartes relies on.

God’s Existence Hinges On A Definition

In the above reasoning the whole argument hinges on the fact that the thought inside us about God is that He is perfect and infinite.

What if the thought inside us is that “God exists, but has flaws”? Well, you see where this is going.

There is a cheeky way out of this conundrum: Simply accept Descartes’ definition of God. This is a reasonable way to understand philosophy.

To prove the existence of something, one must begin with a definition of that thing. And if we are to follow Descartes’ reasoning, then we should accept his definition too.

Omissions from this review

I have omitted some of the things from this essay that I found to be very unconvincing.

God Exists, Approach 2

In Chapter 5, Descartes considers the question about whether God exists once again and “proves” this using another approach. But the second approach contradicts some assumptions I made to understand the original approach. I can’t bring myself to reject the assumptions I made for the first proof and engage with the second proof, which asks me to assume the opposite thing. A thing and the opposite of that thing can’t both be true at the same time, and hence, only the proof that involves one of those things can be accepted.

Briefly, the author says that God exists because I understand him as clearly and distinctly as I understand that a Triangle exists.

I have 2 objections to this line.

Firstly, to justify Descartes’ original line of reasoning, I started with the idea that I don’t understand anything and don’t accept any thing’s existence unless proven. So, in that frame of mind, I can’t really start from the idea that a Triangle exists.

Secondly, I don’t think that I understand God “clearly and distinctly.” In fact, it is most unclear to me what God would look like or is capable of, unlike a Triangle which I understand much better: I know that it has three sides, I know that the sum of two sides is more than the third, I know that the sum of all angles will be 180 degrees, and so on.

So, this approach was even less appealing to me than the first one.

Errors in Judgment

This was another place where there were too many circular reasoning steps to justify including it in the review. He starts with the question,

Why do I commit errors in judgment, when I accept that God, who is perfect and infinite, created me?

To this, he has a simple solution: I am incomplete and imperfect. So, I simply can’t understand the answer to my question even if it were presented to me. So, I should just not bother.

After giving this answer, he goes on to provide some suggestions for how we might avoid errors in judgment and these are positively insane:

  1. Refrain from making a judgment about anything that is not clearly and precisely understood by the intellect
  2. Withhold judgment on anything whose truth is unknown

That is no way to live!

Proving that God is Perfect and Infinite

Descartes makes (what I can only decode as) a halfhearted attempt to prove that God is perfect and infinite. He says that while it is possible for me, a finite being, to be created by someone who is only marginally more finite than me, it is not the truth.

Because there are so many things on Earth and there is the Earth itself and so on. So, everyone and everything’s cause of existence is necessarily infinite.

If you are not convinced by that argument, neither was I.

Another thing he says to prove it is, “the idea of God [as a perfect and infinite being] is innate within me.” Clearly, this statement is even less useful than the previous one. A child that hasn’t been initiated into the ways of religion and common thoughts about God does not have this idea innate within them; it is society and the child’s observation of society that gives rise to this idea inside her.

Dreams vs. Reality, resolved

In Chapter 6 of the book, Descartes tries to resolve the split between dreaming and reality. However, I did not understand this meditation at all. He pieces together several arguments from his previous meditations and proves it somehow.


What about thinking? Here I make my discovery: thought exists; it alone cannot be separated from me. I am; I exist—this is certain. But for how long? For as long as I am thinking; for perhaps it could also come to pass that if I were to cease all thinking I would then utterly cease to exist. At this time I admit nothing that is not necessarily true. I am therefore precisely nothing but a thinking thing; that is, a mind, or intellect, or understanding, or reason—words of whose meanings I was previously ignorant. Yet I am a true thing and am truly existing; but what kind of thing? I have said it already: a thinking thing.

But what then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, and that also imagines and senses.

Finally, as to my parents, even if everything that I ever believed about them were true, still it is certainly not they who preserve me; nor is it they who in any way brought me into being, insofar as I am a thinking thing. Rather, they merely placed certain dispositions in the matter which I judged to contain me, that is, a mind, which now is the only thing I take myself to be. And thus there can be no difficulty here concerning my parents. Indeed I have no choice but to conclude that the mere fact of my existing and of there being in me an idea of a most perfect being, that is, God, demonstrates most evidently that God too exists.

I perceive that the power of willing, which I got from God, is not, taken by itself, the cause of my errors, for it is most ample as well as perfect in its kind. Nor is my power of understanding the cause of my errors. For since I got my power of understanding from God, whatever I understand I doubtless understand rightly, and it is impossible for me to be deceived in this. What then is the source of my errors? They are owing simply to the fact that, since the will extends further than the intellect, I do not contain the will within the same boundaries; rather, I also extend it to things I do not understand. Because the will is indifferent in regard to such matters, it easily turns away from the true and the good; and in this way I am deceived and I sin

However, as far as God is concerned, if I were not overwhelmed by prejudices and if the images of sensible things were not besieging my thought from all directions, I would certainly acknowledge nothing sooner or more easily than him. For what, in and of itself, is more manifest than that a supreme being exists, that is, that God, to whose essence alone existence belongs, exists?

  1. The full quote is “I doubt, therefore I think; I think, therefore I am.” 

  2. Descartes counsels the reader early in the essay that they should read ahead only if they are willing to put their prejudices aside and meditate with him on the subject at hand. He also says “Discerning men are few and far between,” which was probably the only light, humorous line in all of the 77 pages. 

  3. I am using “axiom” here in its dictionary sense. Namely, “a statement accepted as true as the basis for argument or inference.”  2