"The first precept was never to accept a thing as true until I knew it as such without a single doubt."
Le Discours de la Méthode, I
In the First Meditation, Descartes invites us to think skeptically. He entices us with familiar occasions of error, such as how the size of a distant tower can be mistaken. Next, an even more profound reflection on how dreams and reality are indistinguishable provides suitable justification to abandon all that he previously perceived as being truth. (18, 19) By discarding all familiarity and assumptions, Descartes hopes to eliminate all possible errors in locating new foundations of knowledge. An inescapable consequence of doubting senses and prior beliefs is the introduction of the possibility that God is in fact a malicious deceiver, an all-powerful being capable of confounding the senses. (22)
As the Second Meditation begins, Descartes again faces the "inextricable shadows" brought forth by the previous day's thoughts. (24) He continues to disregard anything that "admits the least doubt" -- including all that is perceived by the senses -- since anything that is tainted with doubt might as well be considered totally false. (24) However, once an element of truth is discovered and verified, it can be used as a basis for establishing other elements of truth.
The first element of truth that is known for certain is that nothing can be confidently known. Such a statement has a curious sort of circular nature: how can I know that nothing is certain, if nothing can be known for certain? The answer simply contains itself in the definition. By knowing that there is nothing for certain, Descartes must abandon all that is reported to him by his senses ...
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...stence is connected to thinking, since thinking cannot be accomplished without existing and vice versa. Therefore he is a thinking thing. Finally, Descartes is careful to point out that even though imagination is an ability granted to him by virtue of the fact that he is capable of thinking, it should not be used to further the investigation at hand. Such abstinence is justified because things perceived in the imagination are likened to things perceived in dreams, and are subject to falsity or malicious tampering by an all-powerful deceiver. All of this sets the stage for subsequent meditations in which Descartes will attempt to prove the existence of God and acquit her of malicious intent.
All page references are to Descartes, Rene, "Excerpts from 'Meditations'" from Meditations on First Philosophy, Pp. 52-54; 57-67, © Hachett, 1995.
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