Philosophy 302, Dr. Wright


See the reading questions on the Sixth Meditation below. First, however, it is important to note some central points in the Fourth and the Fifth Mediations.


Some important points  in the Fourth and Fifth Meditations:


1. In the Fourth Meditation, Descartes stresses that I, not God, am the cause of the errors I make. This is because judging, for Descartes, is an act of free will. In this Meditation, Descartes stresses the distinction between our will and our understanding. Our will is in a sense unlimited (and so is the image of God in us) whereas our understanding is limited. What we must do in order to avoid error, according to Descartes, is never to affirm any proposition (an act of will) until it is clearly and distinctly understood. He stresses that I can always suspend my belief in (doubt) a proposition in the absence of clear and distinct perception.

Meditation 4 can be seen as an elaboration of Descartes first rule of method, enunciated in the Second Discourse on page 29: “…Include nothing more in my judgments than what [presents] itself to my mind so clearly and so distinctly that I [have] no occasion to call it into doubt.”  For Descartes, I ought to doubt whatever is not clear and distinct.


2. In the second new paragraph of the Fourth Meditation on page 100, Descartes stresses that there is much about God that I do not know because “my own nature is very weak and limited, whereas the nature of God is immense, incomprehensible and infinite.” This leads him to make a very important claim, which can be easily missed as one is reading through the Fourth Meditation. It is a fundamental claim about how to do science, and is a good example of the way the Meditations, in spite of its stress on the mind and God, relates back to Descartes’ science. He tells us that because I can understand so little about God’s nature “the customary search for final causes [is] totally useless in physics” and we are incapable of “investigating the impenetrable purposes of God.” In this passage he is rejecting the core of Aristotelian and Scholastic science, namely the search for final causes (compare Principles of Philosophy  I, 27 on page 169).


3. Now turn to the Fifth Meditation on page 105 and look at the title. In this Meditation, Descartes tells us about the nature or essence of material substance (he leaves the question of the existence of material substance to the next Meditation), and then develops another proof for the existence of God, a version of what is called the Ontological argument.

            He begins by stressing that there are ideas in him which “I distinctly imagine” from which I deduce the properties of material things. He means the ideas related to “extension of the quantity … in length, breadth and depth.” Since “extension” is the essence of matter, geometry gives us necessary truths about its nature. “When, for example, I imagine a triangle, even if no such figure exists… anywhere outside my thought, there is a determinate nature, or essence, or form of the triangle which is immutable and eternal, and not invented by me or dependent on my mind. This is clear from the fact that various properties can be demonstrated of the triangle, for example that its three angles are equal to two right angles, that its greatest side subtends its greatest angle, and the like” (Descartes, p. 106).


4. He then goes on (bottom paragraph on page 106ff.) to give something like a geometrical proof of the existence of God. This is different from the earlier proof in Meditation 3 in which an inference is made from the idea of God to its cause; in the Fifth Meditation proof it is argued in a purely a priori way that idea of God implies God’s existence. Because there is a self-contradiction involved in denying that God exists (a perfect being would be less than perfect if such a being did not exist) God must necessarily exist.


Reading questions: Sixth Meditation, Descartes, pp. 110-22


1. The Goals of this Meditation: Two of the goals are stated in the title of the Sixth Meditation, while the third, though not mentioned in the title, in fact takes up more than half of the Meditation. The third goal is to explain the union of mind and body, a task which Descartes takes up after he has completed his other two tasks. What are the other two goals mentioned in the title?


2. Descartes begins the sixth Meditation by making a distinction between two powers of the mind on page 111, i.e. between imagination and pure understanding. This is a distinction which he already alluded to in the discussion of the wax in Meditation 2.


a) Explain how (on page 111 in the first new paragraph) he distinguishes between what I imagine and what I understand without imagination.

b) Which faculty does Descartes consider to be part of his essential nature? Does he provide any argument for this conclusion?

c) What is his speculation about the difference between imagination and pure understanding on the bottom of page 111-top of page 112?


3. The real distinction between mind and body: On pages 114-115 he provides a proof for what he calls “the real distinction between the mind and the body.” He can now argue for this distinction in a way that he could not in Meditation 2 because he has made discoveries in the intervening Meditations.


a) Explain in your own words four key premises of Descartes’ argument for the real distinction of the mind and the body in the paragraph beginning on the bottom of page 114?


b) Go back to page 73-74, the Synopsis of the Second Meditation, and consider the connection between this distinction and the claim that the mind or soul (these were equivalent terms for Descartes) is immortal. How does he think he can argue from the claim that there is a real distinction between the mind and the body to the conclusion that the soul/mind is immortal?


4. The Proof of the Existence of Material Things: Having explained the distinction of the mind and the body, Descartes turns on pages 115-16 to his proof that material things exist. His proof arises from a consideration of the mental power of sensation. Write out what you consider to be the two most important steps in his argument.


5. The Mind-Body Union:

 a) What is it that convinces Descartes that he is closely conjoined and intermingled with his body (bottom paragraph on page 116)?

b) How would he experience his body if he were just a pure intellect, disconnected from his body?

c) How does he contrast the ideas he uses in a) from the ideas he would use if b) were the case?


6. What I am ‘taught by nature’ On pages 116-118 Descartes lists a number of things he thinks are “taught by nature” and those which are not.

a) What are the two different ways in which nature teaches me things, according to Descartes?

b) Make two lists, one of what is taught to us by human nature[1] and the other of what we mistakenly think is taught to us by human nature.

c) Why does Descartes think he can now accept things which are taught to us by human nature, while he rejected such matters (those taught by a “spontaneous impulse”) on the bottom of page 89?


7. What, according to Descartes, is the “proper purpose” of sense perceptions? (middle of page 118; compare page 121, middle paragraph)


8. On the top of page 120, Descartes has another argument to prove the distinction of the mind and body. What is it?


9. In the middle paragraph on page 120 Descartes explains how he thinks the mind and body are conjoined.


a) What is his claim here?

b) What on pages 121 (bottom 4 lines) does he say about the relation of brain events to sensations?


10. How does Descartes think he can get rid of his “principal source of doubt” about the senses in the final paragraph on page 122?





[1] i.e. the mind-body union