Reading Questions: Descartes

These are questions designed to help you focus on the most important parts of your assigned reading. The page number upon which you can find the answer is in parentheses. For Descartes, your assigned reading includes all of Meditations I, II, V and selected passages from Meditation VI, viz., from p. 49 ("First of all...") through p. 51 ("..and can exist without it.") and p. 56 ("Now my first observation...") through the end, p. 59.

  1. What task has Descartes procrastinated doing until now? (13)
  2. What is the only sort of beliefs that Descartes thinks is rational to hold? (13-14) What, therefore, does he propose to do about those beliefs he holds which might not be of this sort? (14)
  3. What does Descartes say about beliefs arrived at through the senses? Are they always trustworthy? Are they ever trustworthy? How does the consideration of dreaming complicate matters? (14)
  4. Even if we assume that we are dreaming, what can still be concluded about the existence of "general things"? What does Descartes mean by this? (14-15) From this, what can we conclude about the trustworthiness of, on the one hand, physics, astronomy and medicine, and on the other, arithmetic and geometry? (15)
  5. What possibility does the existence of God raise for whether or not we could be deceived about even the simplest of things? (15) Does it help to assume instead that God does not exist? (16)
  6. What is Descartes "eventually forced to admit" about the things he formerly believed? What do they nevertheless do "almost against [his] will"? What does he then propose to do in order to get at the truth? (16)
  7. What does Descartes imagine to exist instead of God? (16) What does he therefore also assume might be true? (17)
  8. A question for you to answer on your own: Do you think that you know you're not dreaming right now? Why or why not? Do you think it's possible that there could be "an evil genius" who constantly deceives you about the most fundamental of your beliefs? Why or why not? Does this change at all your attitude about who you think of yourself as being and what you are certain of?
  9. What one pronouncement does Descartes finally discover "must be true every time I utter it or conceive it in my mind"? Why does he conclude this? (18)
  10. What does Descartes then go on to conclude about what he is? Is it the same as what he previously thought of himself as being? (18-19)
  11. Given what he does know and what he does not know, what does Descartes conclude about what his existence does and does not depend on? (19-20)
  12. What does Descartes conclude about his senses that "cannot be false"? What does he therefore conclude about the relationship between sensing and thinking? (20)
  13. Why does Descartes conclude that "what there was in the wax that was distinctly grasped" was nothing about it that was perceived by the senses? (21) What instead perceives what the wax is? (22) Why does Descartes conclude this? (21-22) Strictly speaking, does Descartes think it is possible to see the wax itself? (22)
  14. What does Descartes again reiterate must be true when he perceives and thinks about the wax, even if the wax itself does not exist? (23)
  15. After reading Meditation II, does Descartes seem to you to be more of a rationalist or an empiricist? Why?
  16. According to Descartes, even if no triangles existed outside the thought, what could still be said to be true about them? (43) How does this relate back to what was said in the first meditation regarding geometry?
  17. What does Descartes mean by suggesting that existence is part of God's essence? (44) What, generally, is the difference between existence and essence? (Hint: this relates back to previous question.)
  18. Descartes defines God as the "supremely perfect being". What, therefore, is it contradictory to think about God? What does this have to do with the question of whether or not God exists? What, therefore, is inseparable from the idea of God? (44)
  19. What bearing does the existence of God have on whether or not what we clearly and distinctly perceive is true? Why? (46-47) How does this make the certainty of all sciences dependent on the knowledge of God's existence? (47)
  20. Do you think Descartes's argument for the existence of God is convincing? Can you think of any possible objections to it?
  21. What were the experiences that led to Descartes's losing his complete faith in the senses? (50-1)
  22. Why does Descartes now believe that he ought neither to rashly believe everything his senses tell him nor to doubt everything his senses tell him? What things can he believe? (51)
  23. What does this lead him to conclude about whether or not he can exist without his body? Why? (51)
  24. What does Descartes say about whether or not the mind is divisible? What does this lead him to conclude about the relationship between the mind and body? (56)
  25. How are pains caused, according to Descartes? (57) How does this explain how we can sometimes be mistaken about, e.g., the location of pains? (58) In general, how does he see the mind and the brain as being interrelated? (56-58)
  26. Descartes finally at the very end absolves his doubts about whether or not he is dreaming. How does he do this? (58-59)

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