Is There Really a Separation Between the Mind and the World? Critiquing Descartes "Meditations" - A Few Personal Thoughts
In this post I am simply offering a few personal thoughts on my reading of Descartes' Meditations. I find Rationalism very interesting as a philosophy, but unfortunately doomed to failure by a few errors in its foundations. Here are my thoughts:
The Distinction Between the Subjective and Objective
The heart of the problem with Descartes' philosophy seems to be that he posits too much of a separation. or barrier, between the objective and subjective, or the world and the conscious self. This is not to deny that there is a real distinction that these terms express, namely, that the "objective" represents actions that take place in the world as though viewed from a 3rd person's perspective (i.e. as simply actions), and that the "subjective" represents experience or consciousness for me in a 1st person perspective (And everything that it caused in my conscious experience by it). The problem, though, is when consciousness and the world are thought to be two distinct realities from one another, as though consciousness is not part of the being of the world. Imagine a box outside of, and next to, a larger box. They are distinct from one another. Now imagine a box within a larger box, as part of one another. That is how I perceive Descartes' false premise. He is philosophizing under the assumption that the mind and the world are two distinct realities from one another; and therefore how would it even be possible to transcend the mind to the world, or vice verse? The barrier is too great, and thus doubt fills every belief he has.
On the other hand, conceiving the two as part of the same reality, interpenetrating one another, this problem goes away. Like the two sides of a coin that will never touch one another, yet are united through the metal of the coin of which they are both a part. So consciousness and the word have their distinctions, but are melded together, and interpenetrated, because they are both part of being. They are united as part of one another. And if this is the case, then while subjectivity may hinder the full reception of the world as it is completely in itself, it doesn't hinder it altogether. The world penetrates and informs the mind.
We Must Trust Them to Doubt ThemThis brings me to my second point, that since the content of the mind is provided by our experience of the world (or for Descartes we can at least say that matter is the occasion of the mind recognizing innate concepts) then Descartes is forced affirm the content of experience in his doubting of experience. In other words, he has to trust his senses to doubt them. For example, for the mind to think "I doubt that this cat exists," I must understand the ideas that make up the concepts "I," "doubt," "that," etc.. So in doubting reality one is dependent on reality which provided the content of one's mind. In reality, if a skeptic were consistent then they would have to doubt even the meaning of the concepts they are using to doubt reality. For example, "Do I really know what "I" means then? What "doubt" means then?" This then would lead to absurdity as all meaning would be put into doubt resulting in consciousness itself being put into doubt. The content of our consciousness is dependent, in one way or another, on the senses and experience.
The Natural Faith of the Senses
My third point then goes to the reasoning that Descartes used to doubt the senses, namely, that they make errors from time to time. Descartes sees the strict demonstrations of mathematics as being more undoubtable than the senses, for 2 + 2 most always = 5. He uses the example of mistaking a person's identity from far away, and then realizing that it was the wrong person. Or that the sun appears to be quite small, but upon rational calculations it is actually very big. The mistake that I think Descartes' engages in here is that he is attributing the error to his senses rather than the judgment he makes about what his senses tell him. His eye sight provided the information they provided, for example that there was a shadowy human figure walking toward him, but they did not make him make the judgment that it was person X instead of person Y, that was his mind. If he was unsure about who the person was, he could have said that his senses did not make it clear enough for his mind to make a judgment, not that it was a mistake of his senses.
And so our senses are known to us spontaneously, without reasoning. They are what they are and provided the information they provide. It is up the mental act of judgment to declare the meaning of that information. If that is the case then, one does not need to put doubt in regards their senses, but in regards to the judgments about that information. The fact that we know sense data spontaneously or immediately, without reasoning, is actually a perfection in that it doesn't take a logical equation for us to realize that we must walk out of the room by the door and not the wall. Yet this does mean that there is always an act of natural faith with regards to our sense experience of the world, but this faith is also corroborated in our continual successful living out of this trust and faith in our senses. To do otherwise would be to fall again to a reduction to absurdity, though in a practical sense this time.
Practical Impossibility of Living Skepticism
To deny the natural faith of one's senses would necessarily mean inaction. Aristotle actually addresses this in his Metaphysics. Every action we take is based on that natural faith that our senses tell us about reality. To move, breathe, walk, talk, eat, drive, etc. are all based on this natural faith. To logically live as a skeptic would be to reject all action based on the natural faith of the senses, and to remain as a vegetable in the corner, not breathing or moving, for as soon as one moves they trust their senses.
A Life Line to God
Now, Descartes does get around some of these logical consequences of positing this impenetrable barrier between consciousness and the world by appealing to God as his lifeline. He comes up with an argument for God's existence given the starting assumptions of his new Rationalism. Accepting that God is real, then, allows him to say that God guarantees the content of his experience. Though this natural barrier is there God wouldn't allow him to be tricked like that. This idea can also be seen in the Idealists who follow Descartes, for example Bishop Berkeley. If I am bound up in my consciousness with no way out on my own, then I rely on God to provide that way out and back to reality. The real problem comes in when those who follow him end up cutting that argument and lifeline to God, leaving no way out of the mind, and a descent into pure skepticism or solipsism about reality.