The Nature Of The Human Mindby Rene Descartes
Yesterday’s meditation raised serious doubts which I am unable to resolve.
I feel like I suddenly dropped into a deep whirlpool that tumbles me around that I canot stand on the bottom nor swim to the top.
However, I force my way up and try once more to carry out the project that I started yesterday.
I will set aside anything that is doubtful, and treating it as false. I will do this until I:
- find something certain, or
- become certain that there is no certainty.
Archimedes said that if he had one firm and immovable point, he could lift the world with a long lever. I too hope for great things if I find just one little thing that is solid and certain.
Everything I see is fictitious. My memory tells me nothing but lies. I have no senses. Body, shape, extension, movement and place are illusions. So what remains true? Perhaps the one fact that nothing is certain!
Still, how do I know that there a something that is not doubtful?
God gives me the thoughts I am now having. But I might myself be the author of these thoughts. But it follows that I am, at least, something.
This is very confusing because I have just said that:
- I have no senses and no body
- I am so bound up with a body and senses that one would think that I cannot exist without them.
Thus, there is nothing in the world – no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Yet I exist.
The Deceiver and ‘I’
But a supremely powerful and cunning deceiver deceives me all the time!
But he can never make me nothing while I think I am something.
So after thoroughly thinking the matter through I conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, must be true whenever I assert it or think it.
But what is this ‘I’ that must exist?
To know this ‘I’, I will eliminate from those beliefs anything that is uncertain. This will leave me with only beliefs about myself that are certain and unshakeable.
‘I’ was a man. But what is a man? Is it ‘a rational animal’? No.
Body Versus Soul
My first belief was that I had a body.
The next belief was that:
- I ate and drank
- I moved about
- I engaged in sense-perception and thinking
I thought that these things were done by the soul which I think is thin and filmy – like a wind or fire or ether – permeating my more solid parts.
I was more sure about the body which is whatever has a definite shape and position, and can occupy a ·region of· space in such a way as to keep every other body out of it. It can be perceived by touch, sight, hearing, taste or smell, and can be moved in various ways.
A body cannot move by itself. It can move only through being moved by other things that bump into it.
Suppose there is a supremely powerful and malicious deceiver tricks me in every way he can. Now what am I? Can I now claim to have any of the features of a body?
I find that they are all open to doubt.
What are the features of the soul? Nutrition or movement? Since now I am pretending that I do not have a body, these are mere fictions. Sense-perception?
One needs a body in order to perceive. When dreaming I have perceived through the senses many things that I later realized I had not perceived in that way. Thinking? At last I have discovered it – thought! This is the one thing that can’t be separated from me.
I am, I exist – that is certain.
I exist as long as I am thinking. But perhaps no longer than that; for it might be that if I stopped thinking I would stop existing. I have to treat that possibility as though it were actual, because my present policy is to reject everything that isn’t necessarily true.
Strictly speaking then, I am simply a thing that thinks – a mind, or intelligence, or intellect, or reason. Still, I am a real, existing thinking thing.
What else am I?
I am not a thin vapour that permeates the limbs – a wind, fire, air, breath, etc.
I know that I exist. But what is this ‘I’ that I know?
My knowledge of it cannot depend on things of whose existence I am still unaware. So it cannot depend on anything that I invent in my imagination.
The word ‘invent’ shows what is wrong with relying on my imagination in this matter.
If I used imagination to show that I was something or other, that would be mere invention, mere story-telling. Imagining is simply contemplating the shape or image of a bodily thing. That makes imagination suspect. I know that I exist. I know that everything relating to the nature of body – including imagination – could be mere dreams.
So it would be silly for me to say ‘I will use my imagination to get a clearer understanding of what I am’. This is as silly as saying ‘I am now awake and see some truth. But I shall deliberately fall asleep so as to see even more, and more truly, in my dreams’!
If my mind is to get a clear understanding of its own nature, it should not look at the imagination for it.
Well, what am I?
I know ‘I’ from my activities. But my activities are all aspects of my thinking, and are all inseparable from myself.
Lastly, it is also this same ‘I’ who senses, or is aware of bodily things seemingly through the senses.
My reality might be a dream.