In the first Meditation, we are trying as hard as we can to prevent ourselves from falling back on the comfortable acceptance of our long-held, customary beliefs; e.g., the belief that bodies exist, they cause our perceptions, and our perceptions resemble their causes (as Aristotelians and ‘common sense’ would have it); our belief that we can trust our intellect not to lead us astray in mathematics and logic (as most people would agree, even if they don’t trust Aristotle or ‘common sense’); and our belief that there is a good God who would not have created us in such a way that we get it wrong when we exercise natural faculties like sensibility and the intellect properly (as monotheistic religions tend to claim… even if some also hold that our natural capacities have been corrupted by sin).
We want to make sure that we can be completely certain about the truth of a claim before we will allow ourselves to believe it. Until then, we will struggle to prevent ourselves from giving in to our old habits. To aid in this process, we have assumed (for the sake of the exercise) that maybe there could be an evil genius controlling our thoughts and seeing to it that we get it wrong every time we infer something; even when we do this on the basis of the clearest evidence that we can imagine being provided (whether by the sense or by the intellect).
In the second Meditation, we realize that the worry brought on by the assumption of this strange and abstract–merely metaphysical–possibility does not, indeed, extend to absolutely all the claims we make. ‘I am, I exist’ has to be true every time I think it or utter it. The evidence for the truth of the claim is found, right there, in the very act of claiming it–it is self-evident–so no demon, however, powerful could deceive me about this. I do not infer my own existence from evidence. Instead, I perceive my own existence directly as (i.e., at the same time as) I exist. In my thinking, I have an intuitive grasp of myself. I know that I exist in a way that does not depend on, first, knowing something else and, then, drawing a logically guaranteed inference from that knowledge. The kind of inferential, or discursive, knowledge that I (believe I) have in other areas would not be well-grounded, ultimately, if the regress from what I infer to what I grasp without inference did not terminate in something known intuitively. ‘I am, I exist’ is the first thing in the order of my meditation that I know in this intuitive way.
It is still possible for me to be wrong about all sorts of things I customarily accept as true, but I have reached a kind of bedrock here. So, recognizing that all the thoughts and claims that go beyond this one (e.g., thoughts about what I am, what kind of thing I am, how/if I am related to any other things, etc.) are still questionable, I look to these thoughts themselves in order to see whether they give me any clues. Sure enough, they do. It is possible that none of the other things I think that I think about exist, or really are the way I think they are (maybe I don’t really have a body, and maybe all my ‘memories’ of seeing things and learning about things other than myself are really merely fictions). Everything that requires some kind of inference from what I know intuitively to something else that I don’t directly perceive is still questionable. What is no longer questionable, however, is that I am, and that I am a thing that thinks (doubts, affirms, questions, infers from one thing to another, etc.)
Until this point in my cognitive life, I had used terms like ‘mind’ or ‘intellect’ or ‘rational soul’ to refer to things that think in a general way. My knowledge of what those things were was based on my discursive understanding of different general kinds of things (e.g., minerals, plants, animals) and my inferentially-based knowledge of what was responsible for certain kinds of activities within members of these general kinds (e.g., seeds, in general, grow and turn into mature plants through vegetative processes that are explained by their plant-souls; humans, in general, deliberate about what they ought to do through processes that are explained by their rational souls). When I turn to what it is that I grasp intuitively about myself–‘forgetting’ for a moment what I take myself to know on the basis of past experience and inference, etc.–it is as if I truly grasp for the first time something that I have always ‘known’ about myself. Before this, I believed as others did that I am a thinking being. Now, I know both that I am a thinking being and what it really means to be a thinking being.
In carrying out this activity, I have also come to grasp intuitively that–whatever I might have believed before–I actually have a much better grasp of what it is to be a mind, and of my own existence as a mind, than I do of the existence and characteristics of bodies:
- I was used to thinking of bodies in terms of their sensible qualities (the wax is a bundle of properties that I can know through my senses; e.g., its size, shape, color, odor and taste). If that is what bodies really are, then clearly all I ever know about them comes through inferences that I draw on the basis of my sense perception. If that is right, and it is also right that my perception of these things is mediated through interaction with my sensible body, and that I am aware of what is going on in my body through my mind, then even in sense experience, what I am directly and intuitively aware of is the actions of my mind. They provide the basis on which I infer that something is going on in my body, and that what is going on there is connected with what is happening in other bodies.
- But, it also doesn’t seem right to claim that bodies really are bundles of sensible qualities. At least, my own thinking about the matter does not support the contention that this is what I think bodies really are. If that is really what I thought, I wouldn’t identify the wax as being the same body both before and after I melted it. All the sensible qualities I used to identify it before it melted are gone after I bring it to the flame. The thing I perceive afterwards has a whole different set of sensible qualities. A belief that bodies just are their sensible qualities would require me to claim that there was one body before the heating and that there was an entirely different body after the heating. What I actually think, however, is that the body has remained through the change in its sensible qualities. This means that I have some thought or idea of what a body is that is relatively independent of my thought or idea of the particular sensible qualities a body has at any given point in time. The content of this idea, as it turns out, is just extension in 3-D, and the capacity to undergo changes in size, shape, and position relative to other bodies.
So, two key things become clear in this process of thinking about bodies:
- In thinking about them, I am even more aware of and convinced of my own status as a thinking thing. (Thinking is an essential attribute of mind; particular ideas and desires are accidental)
- In thinking about them, I come to recognize that the intellectual idea of a thing (res) that is characterized by extension, changeability, and movability is really more fundamental with respect to my thinking about what bodies are than are sensory ideas of the particular shapes, colors, textures, and locations that particular bodies have at some particular point in time. (Extension is an essential attribute of bodies; visible and tangible qualities are accidental)
Okay, so what’s next?
Well, in Meditation Three, we recognize that it was the clarity and distinctness with which we perceived our own existence that explained why we were utterly incapable of withholding our assent from the claim ‘I am’. Following this path of intuitive knowledge, we then take it as a general rule that whatever we perceive with equal (or even greater) clarity and distinctness is equally (or even more) intuitively certain. The next step is to try out whether or not there is anything other than ourselves that we can perceive with equal (or greater) clarity and distinctness. Through a long and winding process, the Meditator comes to believe that, yes, there is something other than myself that I perceive at least as, or even more clearly, and distinctly, namely, God.
The questions for Meditation Three are:
- How does the Meditator get there?
- How are we to understand, reconstruct, and evaluate the argumentative process involved for ourselves?
- Does it give us good grounds for assenting to the truth of the claim ‘God exists’ or not?
Meditation Four focuses on what we now grasp as our remaining challenges, if we accept that God exists. The really big question can be formulated as:
- If God exists and does not will that I be deceived, then how it is even possible for me to make mistakes?
The particular formulation of the problem and the particular response the Meditator accepts are both crucial for ‘the way back down’, from intuitively certain starting points to inferences from these that lead us to accept other claims–e.g. claims about the essences of material things, and claims about the existence and properties of these things–with (nearly) equal assurance. The method for rightly conducting our thinking in the sciences will emerge from what we grasp along the way concerning God’s nature/human nature, God’s intellect/human intellect, and God’s will/human wills.