on descartes’ meditations Part 1: Introduction to the meditations

A Note on This Topic: Philosophy is fun, and it ultimately encourages us to challenge ourselves, think creatively and be open-minded. As a result, we can build a better understanding and higher tolerance for one and another. In reading any philosophical works, you are bound to find a ton of gaps and have a million questions. This is the beauty of philosophy! Keep thinking and do question everything. Man conceived all of our ideas of the world, so why can’t we contribute as well?

 
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You may not recognise his face, but you may recognise his most famous line, “I Think, Therefore I am.” René Descartes is a 17th Century French philosopher, mathematician and scientist. Many philosophers at the time were also mathematicians, and they founded the scientific tools and methods for the way in which we interact with our environment on a daily basis. Descartes was a trail blazer with a strong belief that nothing we know is certain, and he had the drive to veer away from his predecessors and build on his own philosophy. As a result, Descartes became a key player in the Scientific Revolution, and has made groundbreaking contributions to the way we use reason and logic today.

Descartes is one of the easier philosophers to understand (unlike our good friend Immanuel Kant), yet his writing can still be difficult to decipher. Hidden in his works are a variety of goldmines and incredibly modern ideas that attempt to answer the common questions, ‘What are we?’, ‘How can we better understand our own mind?’, and thus, ‘How we should act and how we should behave?’. With the trends in self-care and meditation, and the constant drive to achieve some kind of self actualisation, we can indeed learn a lot from Descartes. His work also touches on tolerance as a result of self discovery, a practice that society could really benefit from in the current political climate.

As a quick side note, I will try my best to avoid Descartes’ discussions of God and religion. I feel that having a faith of any kind contributes positively to the individual and society — as long as we all stay open-minded — and as a result, religion is far too personal of a topic to tackle. This is probably all you will ever hear from me on the topic of religion.

Before I begin, I must stipulate one definition crossover. We often define the ‘mind’ and the ‘soul’ as two different entities. However, Descartes uses these words interchangeably in order to describe the metaphysical (theoretical and intangible) part of our selves that contributes to how we think and feel. So, if you see the words ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ throughout this article (or any of Descartes’ works for that matter), just remember that we are talking about the same thing.

I first heard about Descartes in my studies of psychology and the emotions. We are taught that what causes us to physically function are the paths of neurons that connect the brain to different parts of the body. However, when we look into how we think and decisions that may rely on the ‘mind’, our answers become much vaguer.

Descartes often challenged questions of the soul, bringing contemporary (and controversial for the time period) ideas on the mind to the forefront. A famous father of the ‘body-mind’ problem, Descartes claims that our mind is indeed separate from our body. As a result, he asserts that we have the ability to think without our bodies and therefore, our physical senses. Why is this important? Well, if we can understand where our mind comes from, we can better understand not only how to use it, but how to use it towards a personal and societal advantage, forming a higher level of tolerance and empathy for those around us.

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In this series of articles, my goal is to discuss Descartes’ Meditations in simpler terms, drawing out those ideas that are relevant to today’s social and political climate. This specific work is broken up into six meditations, however throughout this series I will only touch on the first, second and sixth, which are relevant to this discussion.

So, what will we learn from Descartes’ First Meditations on Philosophy?

Firstly, the difference between humans and all other living organisms is that we are both rational and intuitive beings. Why is this?

Descartes states that humans are able to (and should) follow our intuition. Our intuition is essentially a ‘gut-feeling’ from the mind – a metaphysical inkling that perhaps has had more interaction with ‘the bigger picture’ than we think. This can also explain why some people are more intuitive than others (think psychics – we all have some sort of psychic ability, and our strength of our ability is determined by our ability to decipher and follow our intuition). This intuition is a mystery that Descartes strove to understand, and is one that we still haven’t solved today.

In terms of rationality, Descartes explores why we are able to make a choice between two things through logic and reason. For example, how are we able to process that an object in a shop does not belong to us, and we should not steal it? Or, what part of our mind helps us determine that perhaps we should choose the salad over the take-out meal because it will be better for our health?

Descartes not only theorises why we are rational and intuitive beings, but with this he asks, ‘Where does our ability to reason come from?’, ‘Why do we feel like our intuition has access to something outside of us?’, and ‘Is our reason and intuition related?’.

Coming up next: On Descartes’ Meditations Part 2: First Meditation