(Updated January 23, 2016)
If we take Descartes at his word, he is expecting something fairly uncommon from us. He is not simply telling us a story about what he did in a stove-heated room. He also isn’t merely laying out a set of factual propositions, drawing out conclusions from these starting points, and expecting us to follow his argument and either agree with his conclusions or point out the flaws in his logic. He asks his reader to do something else entirely.
It is something that not everyone is going to be up for, according to Descartes. There are any number of reasons why any particular reader might not be willing or able to follow along in the exercise. There is also no reason to assume that one time through the exercise will be all that is required to get the most out of it.
I want you to read through Meditation One in its entirety, then reflect a bit on what it really means to meditate. Why do people meditate? What do they claim to get out of the practice? What do you think about the practice and the claims of those who swear by it? Where do the beliefs you have about meditation stem from? Are beliefs of that kind generally reliable? Why or why not?
After you have done that, make some time to free yourself (as much as possible) from distractions. Try to ‘clear your mind’ of all the things that are ‘running through it’ without you focusing on them or intentionally calling them forth. Let go (as much as you can) of everything that is ‘tied up with’ your various beliefs and commitments–if you feel something, focus on feeling it, rather than on responding to the feeling; if a thought comes into your head, focus on the thought itself, rather than on where it came from or what it might otherwise prompt you to do. If you can get to a relatively relaxed and steady state, start to use the ‘tricks’ Descartes suggests for calling certain basic assumptions into question:
- What I have believed about bodies, I have learned through the senses… but don’t the senses sometimes deceive me?
- Ahh, yes, sometimes, but I can discover the deception through the senses… oh, wait… don’t I have ‘sensing-like’ experiences even when I am asleep?
- Okay, so if I cannot be certain about the distinction between dreaming and being awake, what’s left?
- Maybe the ‘things’ I represent don’t really exist in the way I represent them, but what does that leave?
- Even if all my claims about the existence of particular bodies are doubtful, surely there are other claims that are true (like ‘bodies are extended’, ‘2 + 2 = 4’, and ‘triangles have three sides’)
- But, what if I have been set up in such a way that I always get it wrong–even about the things that appear to be relatively simple, clear, and distinctly grasped?
- Or what if there is some evil being who makes me get it wrong?
- What am I left with then?
After devoting at least 30 minutes to trying to do the above, take some time to write down some thoughts about your experience. How hard was it to get started? What obstacles did you find yourself dealing with? What was it like once you did get relaxed (if you did)? Were you able to really focus and ask, and try to answer, these questions for yourself, in your own voice, from the standpoint at which you had arrived?
Be only as candid with me in your reflections as you feel comfortable, but please share something. Submit your short reflections to the Dropbox on ANGEL before Friday 1/29 at midnight, for credit equivalent to one quiz grade.