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On Descartes's Meditations 1 and 2.
Descartes engages in the most influential navel gazing ever, and you are there! In this second and superior-to-the-first installment of our lil' philosophy discussion, we discuss what Descartes thinks he knows with certainty (hint: it is not you), the Matrix, and burning-at-the-stake.com. Mark and Wes agree to disagree about agreeing that they disagree. Seth had a long day and is very tired. Plus: Some listener feedback; whom is this here podcast aimed at? Why, you, of course!
To increase your enjoyment, download and read this online version of the text or buy a copy.
Here, also, is the Descartes chunk of Philosophy and the Matrix that Seth refers to.
End song: "Axiomatic" by New People from The Easy Thing (2009).
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I just took philosophy 101. I look forward to listening to this.
Wes Alwan says
Thanks Sam — hope you enjoy it.
I just got through listening to the episode. Though I can’t be certain.
It was quite odd. I was just this morning, on my way to work, thinking about the nature of colour, and what it means for something ‘to be red’ and so forth.
Anyway, I have listened to the first couple of episodes now and just wanted to say thanks, I think.
Seth Paskin says
Thanks Geoff, we appreciate that you are enjoying the podcast and care enough to tell us. I should inform you, however, that you are dreaming. Mark is the Evil Demon.
I was sure it was my neighbour’s cat.
What’s the best, or at least, officially recommended PEL translation of the Meditations? Just found the podcast, and your description of the book as good reading has me wanting to check it out, but not sure which (English) translation to check out.
Seth Paskin says
This is the most common version of which I’m aware:
Sorry I can’t make the link more readable – you can get it in paperback or Kindle and it’s not expensive.
enough with the supercasual intro! it’s boring when you try to be interesting. just talk about something besides the podcast.
Mark Linsenmayer says
The scan forward button works nicely, as does the “listen on double speed” feature on iPhones and probably other things.
In light of all the talk about how the radical skepticism and chasing after certainty is unrealistic and intellectually damaging and unnecessary, it’s really interesting to note (and I was surprised to read it myself) that Descartes himself in some sense seems to agree with that practical sentiment. As he writes,
“But it is not sufficient to have made these observations; care must be taken likewise to keep them in remembrance. For those old and customary opinions perpetually recur– long and familiar usage giving them the right of occupying my mind, even almost against my will, and subduing my belief; nor will I lose the habit of deferring to them and confiding in them so long as I shall consider them to be what in truth they are, viz, opinions to some extent doubtful, as I have already shown, but still highly probable, and such as it is much more reasonable to believe than deny.”
Also, Descartes submits that his conclusion that 2+3=5 could be the result of a deception everytime he does the addition. But I don’t see how this kind of fallibility of reasoning can be stopped from being absolutely global. What if Descartes is merely deceived every time he forms the clear and distinct judgment “I think therefore I am”? What is it about this judgment that is infallible in a way that 2+3=5 is not?
David Clark says
If Descartes is being deceived, here… who is being deceived? Someone who exists, no? Being deceived requires being, I think?
I don’t think the cogito earns its keep either, but for a different reason – what if ‘I think’ is said by a fictional character?
As with everything I’ve ever thought, it turns out it’s been figured out by someone else already – here’s a fun tour of the cogito of fictional characters by Nicola Ciprott, from the astonishingly unlikely “Icelandic E-Journal of Nordic and Mediterranean Studies”:
David Clark says
Aaaand, the link didn’t work. Maybe this one will.
I get the argument, I just don’t think that it survives the kind of radical skepticism Descartes applies to statements like “2+3=5” or “a square has four sides”. The same basis for being skeptical about statements like these would seem applicable to *any* statement. For instance, perhaps Descartes’ logical argument about the cogito and its attendant feelings of clarity and definiteness are themselves a deception caused by an evil deceiver, just as he says his analytic/mathematical truths and their attendant feelings of clarity and definiteness could be attributed to such a deception. So I’m not critiquing the cogito as much as I’m critiquing what seems like an incongruity in Descartes’ application of skepticism.
I read the cogito not as a rational argument in itself, rather as an event that happens to take place. It is a clear and distinct certainty that where thoughts occur, there is some form of thinking being involved. The cogito is not only an old and customary opinion, it is also happening to you right now and always, but if that were to unimaginably stop being the case, Descartes would be ready to reject it too.
His other beliefs are not subjected to the same radical skepticism. There is only an incongruity if you are already on board with the cogito, but can’t accept the very next move toward God, which is always involved in his other beliefs that require justification.
Just a clarification…as far as I know, the meditations is not an argument. At least, it is an ambiguous question whether or not to call it an argument with no clear consensus in professional circles. Perhaps this is easily overlooked because philosophy is so strongly associated with argumentation, and because Descarte makes clear applications of logic in his meditations. Some believe that the meditations may be an enthymeme, an informal argument with an implied premise, but this too is unclear…
Seth Paskin says
That seems a rather dry point. If Descartes really thought it was a throwaway speculation he wouldn’t have spent so much time in the Letter of Dedication covering his ass.
Merima Dz says
Thank you for your activities!! I’m so happy that in the world there are really a lot of people who are still passionate about true and ultimate questions which can always be revived, we should really have some more methodological doubth in our lives! Greetings from Podgorica, Montenegro!
This has genuinely rekindled my love of philosophy all over again! Thankyou!
I just wanna make add that mby 1/10 of the world population has already considered the notion that all this might be an illusion, being that view the one expressed in the end of the bhagavad gita.
thanks for sharing your thoughts guys !
Thank you so much for this Podcast. I listen to it on my way to work and it just lights up my whole day!
Keep on the good work
Greetings from Montreal!
Just wanted to recommend another free source for the text. I found it after trying the ubiquitous John Vietch translation of Descartes’ Meditations (which I found fairly awful). The translation from http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/ was much clearer to me, in particular the presentation of segments of the text as dialogue. I found this interesting as Seth had commented in the podcast that he could imagine parts of the text as dialogues.
This website has versions of some the other texts from your podcast that might be useful to listeners.
So glad I found this show. I only took philosophy 101 in college but I am a philosopher at heart. Looking forward to rest of the shows. Thanks!
Admitted intramural philosopher – love your podcasts. You guys recently sustained me through an excruciating 35 mile bike tour, where I stared at my wife’s rear wheel for 4 hours. Granted, maybe vodka and biking are dangerous bedfellows, but adding philosophy to the mix – downright immoral. Suffice it to say, I’m actually looking forward to another bike ride in the future.
I seem to agree more with Wes and Seth, rather than Mark, on the pragmatic value of Descartes questioning of what we can know is real. If we take a look at the really momentous changes in human thought throughout history – the earth being round for example, quantum mechanics, the theory of evolution – it had to challenge a previous notion so fundamentally accepted as truth – it may as well be likened to debating with Mark, whether his keys are in fact on top of the table.
It’s not the actual truth of whether everything is an illusion or not the actual value of Descarte’s questioning, but perhaps just the exercise and willingness to question everything has value in science and human society –even if it is just for the pragmatic result of sailing around the world.
Kris Vang says
Please give me some resources on understanding what you said regarding infinity, modern propositional logic, and Frege.
Mark Linsenmayer says
How about our episodes here on Frege, Wittgenstein (the Tractatus) and Russell?
Bruce E says
I know I’m WAY late to this party, but I’ve recently started listening to your podcasts starting from the very beginning, and this morning I’m only up to the first part of Hobbes Episode 3.
On the off chance you still attend to these older posts and may read and respond to this, I’d like to make some observations you may find either useful or stupid.
First, I really (so far at least) enjoy the tone, the goals, and the level of content of these podcasts and am looking forward to making you a part of my daily commute and run/walk exercise rhythm.
Second, there was something one of you (Seth, I think) hit on in the first Plato’s Apology episode regarding the importance of engaging other people in this process of self-examination we want to call philosophy. I think this is perhaps the most-important line in the sand one can draw. It brings into focus that tension between truth and “mere” rhetoric, between idealism and “mere” pragmatism, between ethics and “mere” politics.
I think, in the context of Descartes first two meditations, it would have been best if you continued with this idea, perhaps made it a primary “theme” of The Partially Examined Life project you’ve got going here, and focused a bit more on the tension that one of you (Seth again, I think) saw between the “introduction to the reader” section and the rest of the treatise. The idea is this — Descartes’ programme of methodological doubt does not actually treat belief and doubt as the psychological and emotional phenomenon that is the common-sense intuition that people associate with words like belief, doubt, certainty, and conviction.
In the emotional/psychological sense, Descartes betrays a pragmatic belief (assumption?) in the introduction: someone else exists (a reader who is not himself). In the Meditations, however, he starts by establishing the existence of himself, and then to God, and then to a non-deceitful God, and then finally to a justification of trust in our senses — and this trust is supposed to be the foundation of science. He never grounds a belief in the existence of other people.
However, like the self-examination Socrates says is necessary to make life worth living, science is not a solipsistic endeavor. The foundations of science, in fact, are ethical rather than ideological. Scientific method and the repeatability of experiments is predicated on the idea that doubt derived from wondering if the senses are reliable or if it is illusion is mitigated by checking with others to see if their senses tell them the same thing.
In this sense, perhaps, the introduction is more-important than the rest of the meditations, because it grounds the fundamental ethical nature of all of scientific and philosophical endeavors pragmatically, perhaps “self-evidently” in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, without subjecting the existence of others to this methodological doubt.
Early on in Hobbes there is a similar issue, where Hobbes grounds this “state of nature” in a solipsistic myth, pretending each individual is isolated by their own self-interest and not only having the right but the responsibility to protect their own self-interests, completely ignoring the reality of how we come into this world — utterly dependent, and defenseless except for the protection of others who place our preservation high enough on their list of priorities (in some cases above their own self-preservation) to keep us alive and to raise us to a state where we are capable of some amount of self-protection.
It’s this idealistic Athenian myth that the individual (e.g. Rand’s Howard Roark) is born fully-formed and independent and able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps that is an exaggeration of Descartes’ methodological doubt where he can only establish his own existence and must predicate the remainder of his epistemology on that existential fact. The convenient forgetfulness of Descartes’ introduction, where the predicate of his own life and the predicate of the treatise itself (the existence of others) is as obvious as it is unstated is used in modern times to justify the likes of Ayn Rand and other solipsistic/idealistic/self-centered mythologies such that his methodological doubt becomes the blunt instrument that nihilists use to justify the worst kinds of global skepticism, and also informs modern religious movements such as “your own personal Jesus” where the Church is no longer needed because I can deal with God all by myself and don’t need anyone else (see, it says so right here in the Bible, that book that I can read because someone taught me to read it but I’ll forget about their role in all this…).
Anyway, good stuff. Hopefully you have the time to respond to this and I might have hit a chord. Looking forward to continuing your podcasts. You may see more comments of mine in here as I catch up.
(Minor point I’d like to close with: the method of reductio ad absurdum in something like geometry is not best-described as “assume the theorem you want to prove is true and use that assumption to create a contradiction.” It is better-described as “assume a very-specific negation of the theorem you want to prove and use that assumption to create a contradiction.” It’s a very specific kind of negation that produces results, and it’s also extremely interesting when that method is used on something like the parallel postulate to derive the non-Euclidean geometries.)
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks, Bruce, welcome to the party! Very good point about D’s introduction. You sound like a great potential Aftershow or Not School participant, so by all means, get a bit more caught up and jump into the current goings on!
Caleb G. says
I just came across this wonderful podcast when googling ‘philosophy podcast’ of all things. Great podcast guys!
Soon, when i get landline internet as opposed to just my mobile, i look forward to becoming a PEL citizen.
I really enjoyed the exchange about identity and would like to add a little food for thought.
‘God’ says “i am who i am”
Greg Gauthier says
What’s beautiful about these podcasts, is that they’re essentially evergreen. This material is as fresh now for me, (because I’m working on a paper on the cogito), as it was when it was recorded in 2009.
THANK YOU, guys, for all your hard work.
Regarding the realistic dream scenario, I have had a few experiences where I could not tell the difference between dream and reality while asleep. In some cases, I even questioned in the moment if it was a dream, but was convinced it was reality. Some memories I’m not even certain whether they actually happened or if they were just from dreams. That’s just my personal experience.
Akshay Kant Mishra says
I really appreciate you all working and making it easy to understand philosophy in such an easy manner. Keep up the great work.
Christopher Morse says
Gentlemen, I love your podcast. I discovered it just a few weeks ago and have been listening to the archives incessantly ever since. You bring an intellegent discussion forward even on volatile topics, and it is appreciated.
So, my question right now is, has any progress been made using Descartes’ meditations to actually build that more sound foundation for empirical science he set out to do?
I’m having trouble finding anything of significant value searching on my own, and posing this question in other online forums invariably devolves into chaos.
There seems to be a great divide between science and philosophy (especially amongst my peers) that I think is unnecessary, and which I think could be resolved with a little effort. So, I have given myself the task of helping accomplish this, but I would rather not reinvent the wheel if I don’t have to.
Christopher Morse says
Not that I expected a response to my random comment to a podcast from so long ago, but I take it to mean that the answer to my question is “no, not really.”
Descartes left a huge gap between “Cogito Ergo Sum” and Empiricism, and as far as I can tell, no one ever bridged it. Fast forward to today, and Elon Musk, reportedly with other wealthy individuals, has assembled a think tank and is financing an actual investigation into the possibility of our living in a simulation (see the link below if you’re not already aware.).
Wealthy eccentric behaviour? I don’t know, but I think it’s a great thing, I wish I was invited to be part of the investigation. Since I wasn’t, I will just make my contribution in the form of a self-published book.
To be clear, no, I don’t think we’re living in a simulation, but it would awesome to get paid to prove or disprove it.