Friday, July 7, 2017

Descartes / Meditation 4 - Short Summary

In the fourth mediation of René Descartes' "Mediations on the First Philosophy" (titled: "on truth and falsity")  Descartes investigates how it is that we can make mistakes. This should be understood in relation to mediation 1 in which he doubted everything he knows and gave strong evidence to not being able to trust our knowledge since we are always in possible error. Mediation 2+3 reconstructed our assurance of reality but in now remains to be understood how is it that we make mistakes. Since God is perfect (as suggested in mediation 3), he cannot be deceiving me (as suggested in meditation 1). For the same reason, he could not have given me some faculty of making mistakes (such as misjudging or misapprehension). Similarly, nor could have he given me imperfect faculties for detecting the truth. Finally, for Descartes it must be in God’s power to have made me such that I never erred. Yet it is obvious that I do make mistakes. How is this? For Descartes in meditation 4 it is because of a difference between the understanding and the will. When I consider, I exercise my will, for I must choose what I am to judge and want to do it and then my understanding, in making the judgement. So long as I use my understanding correctly, I will never make mistakes, for God has given me a faculty of clear and distinct perception (this is partly why Descartes is credited with fathering science). Mistakes arise when my will extends beyond my understanding: when I make a judgement without subjecting what I am judging to my understanding. This is what occurs when we jump to conclusions, trust appearances, and choose without thinking of the consequences, for example. Should we say that God’s error lies in giving me such a will? No, for God has given us free will, which is a sign of his benevolence, and free will does not come in degrees, so it is not as if he could have given us two faculties, the understanding and the will, whose limits exactly coincide.

After devoting meditation 4 to explaining why we make mistakes and how we can avoid them, Descartes' meditation 5 takes us to our relationship with the material world (also questioned in meditation 1), where we meet God again. 

back to: A summary by chapter of Descartes' Meditations 
See also: essential summary of Rene Descartes' Meditations
Descartes' arguments for the existence of God in Meditations


Suggested reading on Renè Descartes: