René Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy is an immensely important collection of philosophical essays or “meditations” that have shaped Western philosophy profoundly. His first meditation provides the reader with an understanding of his method and his reasons for writing the meditations. It introduces his concept of foundationalism – the assertion that all knowledge is based on certain intellectual foundations – and outlines the radical skepticism that have made the essays so vitally important to modern philosophy. The simplest way to understand the first meditation is to divide Descartes’ thoughts and arguments into four sections; the introduction of foundationalism and skepticism, followed by three “waves” of doubt regarding the senses, dreaming, and the Evil Genius hypothesis.
I’ll deal with these in order. Firstly, then, let’s look at Descartes’ ideas regarding intellectual foundations. The easiest way to understand his foundationalism is, perhaps, through the analogy of a building. Imagine a building and the foundations it has been built on. Then, imagine that the foundations are damaged in some way, or that they are structurally weak. Weak foundations obviously mean that the safety of the building itself – the soundness and stability of the building – are at risk. This building can then be compared to a person’s knowledge. The building itself represents all the knowledge which is based on certain foundations or axioms (such as “the senses can be trusted”), with these axioms then representing the building’s foundations. What Descartes argues is that if he can show that any of these foundations are not entirely indubitable, he is justified in doubting any knowledge based on them. This is Cartesian skepticism in a nutshell. If we can doubt the assertions that a particular brand or school of knowledge revolves around, then we must doubt all of that knowledge.
Descartes then goes on to explore the three stages or waves of skepticism mentioned earlier. The first wave involves doubting the senses and empirical knowledge. His arguments here are quite straight-forward; we know that our senses do sometimes fool us. A large object may look small from a distance, for instance, and an amputated limb may start to itch long after it has been removed from the body. This cannot be denied. But if we accept this, and the conclusion that naturally follows (that the senses do not provide us with a firm foundation), then we must reject all knowledge that comes from our senses. Now, there is very little that we do not know through our senses – without senses, there is very little we can learn. Eventually, however, Descartes admits that there is a slight flaw to this doubt. His senses may indeed fool him from time to time, but only when he is incapable of using them properly, as in the aforementioned example where one tries to establish the size of something when looking at it from a distance. If one were to move closer to the object, it would become possible to judge its size with greater accuracy. His senses, therefore, can be trusted to some extent – it’s just a question of using them properly.
He then moves on to a second wave of doubt, involving dreams. How can he be sure that he is not dreaming? He is aware of having dreamt very vividly in the past, and that during those dreams he was unaware of the fact that he was dreaming. So it does seem plausible to say that he could be dreaming even now, without being aware of it. Later on in his meditations, however, he rejects this doubt as well by referring to the anachronistic nature of dreams (that is to say, the fact that his dreams do not follow a logical, linear chronology). In his present state, he can remember going to bed, dreaming, and then waking up, which he can’t generally do when in a dream. Memory is the key here.
This leads him on to his final wave of doubt. It is here that he invokes the famous Evil Genius or Malignant Demon argument, known today as the “brain in a vat” theory. The basic idea here is that it is possible to imagine that there exists a powerful, ill-willed demon who may want to deceive Descartes regarding everything that he perceives around him. He may not have a body, for instance, and there may not be an external world (or, at least, the external world may be very different to the one he is currently experiencing). If this is the case, and his every experience is merely an illusion created by this demon (which might even possess control over his thoughts), then he could even doubt the truth of simple mathematical statements. Maybe 2+3 does not actually equal 5, or perhaps the interior angles of a triangle do not add up to 180 degrees. This is the theory that the Matrix films were based on, albeit a more modern variant, and it is difficult (if not impossible) to disprove it.
After establishing these grounds for skepticism, Descartes makes it clear that he intends to pursue his current train of thought to some sort of conclusion, striving to establish what he can and cannot know absolutely. This concludes his first meditation, and paves the way for the second. It is interesting to note, however, that Descartes does not at any point begin to doubt the validity of the way he structures his thoughts. However, if the Malignant Demon hypothesis is true, it is possible that he is deceived even regarding the basic workings of logic.