Descartes’s Justification of the Method of Doubt
Meditations on First Philosophy is one of the most prominent writings of René Descartes, a French philosopher of the modern history who made a contribution to the development of rationalism as a worldview as well as to scientific paradigm in European culture. In his treatise, Descartes demonstrates the idea that the doubt and the method are the foundations of the cognition process and the underlying principles of science and its axioms, which enable human beings to acquire genuine truths about basic essences - world, God, and humans themselves. This paper aims at explaining Descartes’ argument in Meditations on First Philosophy and justify his implicit idea that a method actually refers to the method of doubt and at the same the method of approval of the doubtless knowledge.
Descartes composes the whole writing as a dialogue with the self. The dialectical form of the Meditations enables the author to approach to the question of the fundament of human’s knowledge, its axioms, and the method of inquiry in a complex way. In addition, such extensive attention to possible controversial aspects of the problem becomes a valid basis for the definition of the humans’ essence as cogito, presentation of the kind of ontological argument of God’s existence, justification of the existence of external phenomena, and thus, closing of the circle of doubt that results in the approval of tangible properties existence.
First, Descartes argues that doubt is the origin of any inquiry and is inescapable for those who endeavor to seek the truth, namely philosophers. The original doubt occurs in relation to perception and its results because it is almost impossible to draw a line between dream and reality. No one can prove the existence of God and His virtuousness. Therefore, such primary doubt appears as universal. At the same time, the only precise things that a human being can consider are forms of the phenomena which are changeable and definite in space. Consequently, every speculation begins with the problematization of everything due to its non-obviousness. Doubt, in turn, is a heuristic instrument of cognition which induces people to seek knowledge and its ultimate foundations.
Second, a fruitful role of this method of hesitation results in the fact that doubts lead to the consideration of the doubtless of the spiritual essence that is the bearer of these doubts and conducts a mental activity. The philosopher in the analyzed writing emphasizes that there is a direct correlation between the statement of personal existence and the method of doubts that approves it. We can conclude that to exist, according Descartes’ presupposition, means to have a particular attitude towards undeniable phenomena in the world, self, and body. Moreover, it is the revelation of a gap between a prudent mind and an object of doubts.
However, the existence of a person as the result of the application of doubting procedure is not the background of the valid knowledge about the world because confidence in an individual being is limited due to the possible wrong impressions and perceptions of the objective reality. According to Broughton (ix), “the scope of our knowledge, then, appears to be tiny: each of us knows only his own existence and can attribute to himself only his states of consciousness.” That means that if to finish the flow of Descares’ speculations after the second meditation, the gist of the method of doubt and its heuristic potential will not be evident. The assertion about the existence of the individual mind does not justify the causes of the person and the world, which is God.
Furthermore, the significance of the scientific method also becomes plain in the context of the third part of the analyzed treatise where Descartes broadens his approach demonstrating the plausibility of God’s existence as the guarantor of the evidence of humans’ existence. Thus, the idea of God is absolutely plain and apparent; its presence is necessary as it brings everything in the world to live, percept, and cognize.
It seems to be probable that the philosopher puts this idea in place as a foundation that justifies the possibility of the scientific knowledge which begins with a primary questioning and doubt. God as an infinite cause is an additional basement for humans’ existence due to its imperfection and finiteness. Therefore, the God does not require anything to strengthen its role and existence. God’s ultimacy corresponds to the task of the method – to proceed from the primitive original axioms that are evident and do not require any justification. Thus, the definite existence of God is the key to the demonstration of the correlation between the doubt and the method.
At the same time, the doubt is an eternal tendency of the mind due to the dialectics of mental and corporal substances. A human being as an imperfect creature that unites both origins in the self that cannot be the source of genuine knowledge, and thus, people are able to percept and speculate but often with mistakes due to vague ideas or false manner of their discussion. In such context, the idea of God’s existence and God’s independence from any higher-order causes is a solution for the problem of humans’ inability to possess divine wisdom and always valid knowledge. According to Descartes,
when recurring to myself, experience shows me that I am nevertheless subject to an infinitude of errors, as to which, when we come to investigate them more closely, I notice that not only is there a real and positive idea of God or of a Being of supreme perfection present to my mind, but also, so to speak, a certain negative idea of nothing, that is, of that which is infinitely removed from any kind of perfection.
Thus, a person itself is a source of doubts and has to balance between the extremes of nothingness and wisdom. Thus, the scientific method is always the middle between the God and nothingness, the Supreme Being and non-existence, which being the source of doubts and uncertainty, is at the same time useful as an additional foundation of the definition of phenomena.
The philosopher successfully demonstrates the independent existence of two substances – thinking and extended, which at the same time are interrelated. The extended thing is the independent one, which a person can reach with the help of geometry and mechanics. Inside of individual’s thinking, the self constructs the things, which exist in the external world but are the gist of the inner processes with the help of mathematical science. This is the only way to the valid knowledge.
Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the philosopher stresses the idea that human beings have to construct their reasoning as methodic and as such that starts from the absolute and unchangeable primary origins, that is from the idea of God. Furthermore, the cognition comes to the division of the whole reasoning into evident and axiomatic facts of the second order and builds a particular order of interrelations of these facts with the help of judgments. After that, a thinking person turns to the entire review of all possible speculations, arguments, and discussions; finally, there appears a necessity to draw conclusions. Such speculative circle of thoughts comes to the negation of the original object of doubts: people have to acknowledge the existence of phenomena due to the presence of the absolute cause – God which is powerful in the humans’ ideas and via human beings is omnipotent in the assertions.
Descartes compose his Meditations on the basis of logic deducing every further speculation from the previous one and approving the things, which the philosopher considers the object of doubt at the beginning of the treatise. The doubt, in turn, is the philosophical support of the method of logical and objective deducing of the doubtless truths and assertions that are self-evident. Consequently, a strict methodic demonstration is a necessary inner principle of Descartes’ reasoning.
To summarize, in the Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes explicitly justifies the concepts of method and doubt as two crucial notions of science, and any inquiry that leads to the valid knowledge about the self, the God, and the objective world as three substances which are eventually doubtless for human beings. The doubt evokes the demand in the strict method that sets a sum of axioms, which due to verification through doubt, help a thinker to acquire knowledge of the fundamental facts. Therefore, the role of the doubt is double: at first sight, it is destructive because it does not let a person make assertions about anything. However, at the same time, it is the source of the application of the scientific method that leads to the doubtless knowledge and revelation of the strong premises of any speculation. Therefore, the methodology of doubt is an instrument of the transformation of the consciousness on the way to its openness to the world and God based on the understanding of their substances and interrelations.