In Descartes’ first meditation from the Meditations, Descartes presents the idea of doubting all of our most fundamentally held beliefs to ensure that they are true. Descartes starts the meditation by reflecting on the number of false beliefs he has believed to be true in his early years. He comes to the conclusion that he has built a faulty foundation with false beliefs he had formerly admitted as true. Descartes resolves to get rid of the false knowledge he had previously acquired and build a new foundation with irrefutable beliefs. Descartes’ goal was to build to build a new strong foundation by doubting everything, until he encounters certain irrefutable beliefs which he cannot doubt. His method in doing so was to put every single belief under intense scrutiny and if it could be doubted, it did not belong in the foundations. This where Descartes begins his radical skepticism.
Descartes comes to the conclusion that most of the knowledge he has come to obtain has come through the senses. Descartes is also aware that anything he has learned through the senses can be doubted as the senses can also be deceptive. He believes it is wise doubt any knowledge that comes from something that has already deceived us before. However, Descartes is also aware that there are certain things that he has learned through senses which he cannot doubt. For example, he cannot doubt that he is seated near his fire place, dressed in his gown and writing the meditations. Or how could he doubt that his hands or body are not his unless he is loony who could easily be deceived. However, Descartes takes his point about doubting our senses even further by examining how we feel when we are dreaming. Descartes argues that when we are dreaming, we are not fully aware if it is reality or just dream. He states that while we are dreaming we can truly believe that we can smell, hear, taste, see and touch in the same way as we would if we were awake. He uses his own example of a dream where he couldn’t distinguish reality from a dream “How often has it happened to me that in the night I dreamt that I found myself in this particular place, that I was dressed and seated near the fire, whilst in reality I was lying undressed in bed!”. At the same time Descartes admits that the images we see in our dreams our only painted representations from our waking experiences. Descartes states that our dreams are based on reality. In the same way an artist may draw a mythical creature, like a unicorn, it is based off it’s real life counterparts a horse and a rhino. “For, as a matter of fact, painters, even when they study with the greatest skill to represent sirens and satyrs…, cannot give them natures which are entirely new, but merely make a certain medley of the members of different animals…” Even if the artist creates something completely new, the colors and shapes that they use are still tied to reality.
Descartes even goes as far as to say that everything he experiences could be the result of an evil demon deceiving him and the world itself being a fabrication created by the demon. He believes that the goodness of God would not lead Him to deceive his creation, however he writes that it is possible that, “some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole energies in deceiving me; I shall consider that the heavens, the earth, colors, figures, sound, and all other external things are naught but the illusions and dreams of which this genius has availed himself in order to lay traps for my credulity; I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses.”
The Cogito Argument is Descartes’ proof of our existence.
The “Watermark Argument” is Descartes’ argument that the idea perfection proves Gods’ existence. Descartes states that there is a thought which we all innately have inside of us. This innate idea that we all have is perfection. However, this idea of perfection could not come from us, as we are imperfect beings and are incapable of producing ideas of perfection on our own. The idea of perfection must come from something that is perfect, so therefore a perfect being must exist (i.e. god). The idea of perfection must be a watermark left behind by our creator. Descartes argues that God left the idea perfection in us as a way of proving that he is our creator. In the same way, someone would put a watermark on a photo or a paper to prove they are the original creator of the content. Only a perfect being like God could the idea of perfection truly originate from.
“It only remains to me to examine into the manner in which I have acquired this idea from God; for I have not received it through the senses, and it is never presented to me unexpectedly … nor is it likewise a fiction of my mind, for it is not in my power to take from or to add anything to it; and consequently the only alternative is that it is innate in me, just as the idea of myself is innate in me.”
“But among these ideas, some appear to me to be innate, some adventitious, and others to be formed or invented by myself; for, as I have the power of understanding what is called a thing, or a truth, or a thought, it appears to me that I hold this power from no other source than my own nature. But if I now hear some sound, if I see the sun, or feel heat, I have hitherto judged that these sensations proceeded from certain things that exist outside of me; and finally, it appears to me that sirens, hippogryphs, and the like, are formed out of my own mind. But again I may possibly persuade myself that all these ideas are of the nature of those which I term adventitious, or else that they are all innate, or all fictitious: for I have not yet clearly discovered their true origin.”
“And finally, though they did proceed from objects different from myself, it is not a necessary consequence that they should resemble these. On the contrary, I have noticed that in many cases there was a great difference between the object and its idea. I find, for example, two completely diverse ideas of the sun in my mind; the one derives its origin from the senses, and should be placed in the category of adventitious ideas; according to this idea the sun seems to be extremely small; but the other is derived from astronomical reasonings, i.e. is elicited from certain notions that are innate in me, or else it is formed by me in some other manner; in accordance with it the sun appears to be several times greater than the earth. These two ideas cannot, indeed, both resemble the same sun, and reason makes me believe that the one which seems to have originated directly from the sun itself, is the one which is most dissimilar to it.”