In Descartes’ First Meditation, Descartes’ overall intention is to present the idea that our perceptions and sensations are flawed and should not be trusted entirely. His purpose is to create the greatest possible doubt of our senses. To convey this thought, Descartes has three main arguments in the First Meditation: The dream argument, the deceiving God argument, and the evil demon “or evil genius”. Descartes’ dream argument argues that there is no definite transition from a dream to reality, and since dreams are so close to reality, one can never really determine whether they are dreaming or not.
To reinforce that argument, Descartes presents the deceiving God argument. He says that since God is all powerful, then he has the power to deceive us about reality or our dreams. But again, Descartes feels this argument is missing something, which is why he concludes with the evil genius argument. The evil genius argument’s purpose is to tie all these arguments together and strengthen Descartes’ entire argument.
The evil genius argument goes like this: God is omnipotent and supremely good, which means God cannot be the one who deceives humans, rather, a separate entity — an “evil genius, [who is] supremely powerful and clever, who has directed his entire effort at deceiving me” (Descartes 492). By deceiving, I mean tricking humans that their sensations and perceptions are real, when they are indeed not real. To overcome this evil genius, Descartes says he will regard all external things as “hoaxes of my dreams, with which he (the evil genius) lays snares for my credulity” (Descartes 492).
In this analysis, I will further discuss Descartes’ arguments in the First Meditation, the purpose of the evil genius argument, how Descartes attempts to overcome the power of this great deceiver, and ultimately why his attempt is unsuccessful. In Descartes’ First Meditation, Descartes has three main arguments. The first argument is the dream argument, which argues that it is possible to be dreaming at any moment and that our perceptions and sensations are false.
Descartes first presents this idea with the statement “How often does my evening slumber persuade me of such ordinary things as these: that I am here, clothed in my dressing gown, seated next to the fireplace — when in fact I am lying undressed in bed! ” (Descartes 490). By using an experience of his own, Descartes shows how dreams can be asymptotic to reality. Descartes implies that he often sits next to his fireplace, clothed in his dressing gown, so his dream that he is doing so is very believable.
In conclusion, one cannot distinguish between a dream and reality because the gradient between them is so finitely small at times. To expand on his first argument, Descartes’ deceiving God argument states that our deceptions are caused by an all powerful God. Humans are capable of being deceived because we are imperfect, unlike God, who is essential flawless. If we can agree on the definition of God, an all powerful and omnipotent being who created us, then we can argue that he has the power to deceive even our most reliable senses.
Descartes expresses his compounding doubts as “How do I know that he did not bring it about that there is no earth at all, no heavens, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, and yet bringing it about that all these things appear to me to exist precisely as they do now? ” (Descartes 491). This excerpt from Descartes follows his theme of the First Meditation: that nearly everything can be doubted. In the next meditation, Descartes concludes that the only thing that is certain is that people think. Everything else is subject to doubt.
Although the deceiving God argument is fairly sound, Descartes finds there is one crucial flaw. If God is flawless and a symbol for the utmost good, then some would say that humans would never be deceived, but this is obviously not true. A perfect God would not deceive people, for that is bad. This is why Descartes concludes with the evil genius argument. Descartes proposes that rather than God deceiving us, it is a separate entity (an evil genius) that wishes to falsify our perceptions and senses. By creating this new party, Descartes makes his argument consistent.
The prior arguments Descartes presents would not be sufficient without this last argument. God does not intend to take advantage of people, but this equally omnipotent deceiver does. Consequently, Descartes devices a method to overcome this tricky devil. Towards the end of the First Meditation, Descartes realizes what he must do. He realizes that one must “raze everything to the ground and begin again from the original foundations… to establish anything firm and lasting in the sciences”, an understandable technique to use to have an unbiased mind.
What he means by this is to throw out composite ideas (ideas that are constructed from prior ideas) and to start from the basic and innate ideas (such as colors, shapes, mathematics, and quantities). He realizes that some things in this world are “indubitable”, and will always be the same, whether dreaming or awake. As Descartes puts in “For whether I am awake or asleep, two plus three make five, and a square does not have more than four sides. It does not seem possible that such obvious truths should be subject to the suspicion of being false”.
If he builds from definite ideas, then there is no way that this deceiver can trick him into fake perceptions. To have mind without prejudice and deception is to apply yourself earnestly and unreservedly to the “general demolition of your opinions” (Descartes 490). In addition to this attempt, Descartes divulges some crucial information about finding the truth. He admits that “it is not within my power to know anything true, (but) it certainly is within my power to take care resolutely to withhold my assent to what is false, lest this deceiver, however powerful, however clever he may be, have any effect on me. (Descartes 492). This basically summarizes how Descartes plans to stand resolute to the deception. Is his attempt to overcome this evil genius successful? Well according to Descartes, right after he outlines his procedure to overcome the evil genius, he immediately admits that he will fail. In his attempt to overcome the evil genius, his own laziness overcomes himself! Can we blame Descartes for “[falling] back of [his] own accord into [his] old opinions” (Descartes 492)? It is understandable in my eyes, after all, starting from scratch is “arduous”.
You would have to be a madman to completely neglect all of the things you have learned and inferred in your lifetime. Certain ideas have been imprinted upon us at a very early age, and when that happens, we cannot shake these ideas for possibly our whole life. It would be unreasonable for one to expect another to shake their ingrained thoughts. For example, your mother told you that drinking water and eating fruits is good when you were little. Do you expect someone to “drop” that perception? No, it would be very difficult.
So, from my experiences, and Descartes writings, I do not think the attempt to overcome the evil genius was successful. In addition, people are happier under these illusions for the most part. Whether the misconception is in reality or in a dream, people don’t necessarily want the truth. This increases the difficulty to ignore the evil genius. Descartes puts it as “I am not unlike a prisoner who enjoyed an imaginary freedom during his sleep, but, when he later begins to suspect that he is dreaming, fears being awakened and nonchalantly conspires with these pleasant illusions. (Descartes 492). In this excerpt, Descartes compares himself (and possibly most people) to a prisoner, who would be more content in a dream than in real life. That statement essentially summarizes why some people choose to not overcome their misconceptions, for ignorance is bliss. In conclusion, Descartes manages in the First meditation to expose the unreliability of the senses, and while doing so, doubts many senses that are taken for granted.
The dream argument, the deceiving God argument, and the evil genius argument all attribute to his overall skepticism of human senses. The evil genius argument is the most important argument of all of these arguments because it binds them together. His idea of a separate, powerful, body other than God is crucial for these arguments to be valid. He tries to overcome this evil genius, but since many sensations and opinions are embedded in us, it is futile to overcome this brooding deception.