Descartes’ First Meditation

by admin Feb 1, 2006 5 Comments

Filed under: Meditation

Benedict Eastaugh from the 9rules philosophy community is running a reading group on selected philosophical excerpts. Descartes’ Meditation is the first reading assignment, this is the first time I have come across this, and here are my thoughts:

I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.
Chuang Tzu

Descartes’ dilemma can be anyones dilemma, when they start to doubt their own assumptions, perceptions of the truth, and their beliefs. But what fascinated me was not the content of his dilemma, but rather the process of Descartes’ thought and his logic: a very methodical, a very logical, a very dependant, and a very western form of thought process. But what’s ironic is that, it is dependent on the very assumptions he is trying to get away from.

“I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation,”

His thought process is a stark contrast to eastern thought, by that I mean the Indian school of thought. The process there is to see the truth, via a mind free of thought. The problem with thought is that it is fueled by prior knowledge, through the medium of memory. Descartes starts out with the right idea, of starting with a clean slate, “To-day, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares”, but then he stumbles into the same well, his well of thought, which is a dependant one. Kant’s refutaion of material idealism is a great argument against Descartes’ rationalism.

What comes to mind is the story of the man with the 7 second memory, he has no new thoughts, no dreams, does not know when he woke up or went to sleep, and life is like being dead. Think about it, imagine yourself as the man with the 7 second memory, what you begin to see is that, if thought is the fire, then memory is what fuels it. There can be no thought without memory of prior knowledge. A clean slate is not possible, unless you lose the ability to remember, we are born with a certain level of memory, and we are conditioned by what we remember, and our thoughts are a result of that. Descartes’ process of thought sheds light on this, and that leads to an almost paradoxical ending to his dilemma.

But this undertaking is arduous, and a certain indolence insensibly leads me back to my ordinary course of life; and just as the captive, who, perchance, was enjoying in his dreams an imaginary liberty, when he begins to suspect that it is but a vision, dreads awakening, and conspires with the agreeable illusions that the deception may be prolonged; so I, of my own accord, fall back into the train of my former beliefs, and fear to arouse myself from my slumber, lest the time of laborious wakefulness that would succeed this quiet rest, in place of bringing any light of day, should prove inadequate to dispel the darkness that will arise from the difficulties that have now been raised

Descartes’ thought process also points out the flaws of philosophical thought in the search of truth–you can get stuck in localities of thought for ever–like figuring out 2 plus 3 is 5 can be false, or proving you are in a dream or not. And the biggest flaw–it is based on prior knowledge, memory, and perceptions. These qualities being very dynamic and subjective, as is evident in Descartes’ Meditation, the use of philosophical thought process in seeking truth can never be conclusive. The debate will go on, even if we started out with a clean slate. Maybe the problem is not the content of thought, but the very nature of thought itself!


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    Feb 1, 2006 | 3:08 pm

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  • Aaron Blohowiak

    Feb 1, 2006 | 8:50 pm

    You argue that to maintain a “clean slate” — to be free from the programming of previous experience — we must lose the ability to remember. Merely because memories are the fire behind many thoughts does not imply that they are the fire behind all thoughts or that people are unable to have memories without being compelled by them.

  • KarmaDude

    Feb 1, 2006 | 9:50 pm

    Memories are not the fire behind a subset of thought, it is the foundation of all thought. Memory is not just words, it’s the universal set of all your perceptions upto the present. Think about it, even to formulate a question, “why is that? “, you require memory. Memory is a fundamental requirement for thought, it is a necessary attribute for survival.

    Everything about you is a memory, from the workings of your heart, to that revolutionary thought. If it’s not preserved in your gene, then it’s entangled in the intertwines of your neural network. Some you are born with, others you acquire through channels of perception, and this repository in turn fuels thought.

    And a clean slate, you can never achieve that as long as you have the ablility to remember, and even before that, you are born with a foundation of memory that’s passed down to you. The only way to a clean slate is perpetual amnesia, and there in lies the paradox, because with a clean slate–with no ability to remember–you are incapable of formulating thought!

    Kant said it best

    “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind”

  • Aaron Blohowiak

    Feb 2, 2006 | 8:37 pm

    One can be free from memory (which I am only concerned with the applicable neural implications of the word) and still have thought.

    Do children, whose brains are not yet capable of creating memories of any meaningful durration incapable of thought? I suggest not! Nor are those whose memory centers have been removed, damaged, or otherwise incapacitated. Such states may arguably be reached by a willful and skillful application of intent (baby mind in some interpretations of Zen.)

    I propose that thought can exist without being based on memory in the traditional sense of the word.

    To base thought on memory is to remain forever in love with Maya.

  • KarmaDude

    Feb 2, 2006 | 10:41 pm

    Yes, you can be free from memory and still have thought; only problem is, that thought will be empty. With no memory of any smell, any feeling, any taste, any sound, any words, any emotions, what would that first thought be made of, since the well from which you can draw it is dry.

    A child’s brain being incapable of creating memories, is a terrible assumption to make. First of, you are born with a base foundation of memory, a child comes with necessary memory for survival, and is capable of creating memory, its survival depends on that ability. I would recommend that you read up a little on that.

    Regarding people with damaged or incapacitated memory, I would be wrong in making assumptions on the state of their memory. Instead, we can learn from people with extreme conditions of amnesia, and get an understanding of the relationship between memory and thought. That is why I used the example of the man with the 7 second memory, again he is not someone with a mind free of all memory, he just does not have any new memory since he lost his ability to remember things beyond 7 seconds.

    There is no Maya is basing thought on memory, that is the only way!

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