Meditation Six Study Questions

  1. In Meditation Six, Descartes reaches the conclusion that “I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it” (AT 78). What considerations convince him of this? (AT 78)
  2. In Meditation Six, Descartes reaches the conclusion that corporeal things exist. What considerations convince him of this? (AT 79-80)
  3. Descartes says that “I and the body constitute one single thing” (AT 81). What does this mean, and what convinces him of it? (AT 81)
  4. At the conclusion of Meditation Six, Descartes claims that the difficulty in distinguishing being asleep from being awake should now be rejected (AT 89). What reasons does he give for this rejection? (AT 89-90)

Notes on the Sixth Meditation

As I did with the notes for the Fourth and Fifth Meditations, I’d like to highlight some of the passages from the Sixth Meditation as we complete our survey of Descartes’ Meditations.

[If you wish, you may skip the first eight paragraphs and begin with the paragraph that starts, “First, I know that all the things that I clearly and distinctly understand…” (It’s just below the number 78 in the margin.)]

After some reflections on the imagination and the senses, Descartes presents his argument for the distinction between the soul and the body which he had promised in his Letter of Dedication and on the long title page of the Meditations. Here’s what it looks like in standard form:

  1. Everything that I clearly and distinctly understand can be made be God to be exactly as I understand it.
  2. [Therefore,] If I can clearly and distinctly understand one thing apart from another, then it is distinct from the other.
  3. I have a clear and distinct idea of myself insofar as I am just a thinking and unextended thing.
  4. I have a clear and distinct idea of my body insofar as it is just an extended and unthinking thing.
  5. [Therefore,] I am really distinct from my body and can exist without it.

This is a tidy little argument. Is it a good one? Descartes has been relying on clear and distinct understanding since the Third Meditation, so Line 1 shouldn’t be problematic – unless we’ve found an objection to clear and distinct understanding before. Does Line 2 have to be true if Line 1 is true? Why or why not? Line 3 was already established in the Second Meditation. Does Line 4 seem equally true? Why or why not?

A little further into the next paragraph, Descartes presents his considerations for the conclusion that corporeal things exist. ‘Corporeal’ comes from the Latin ‘corpus’, which means “body”. So corporeal things are things that have bodies – the kinds of things the dream argument (from the First Meditation) puts in doubt. We’ve come far enough now that Descartes has the tools to respond to that doubt.

He starts by noting that he has a passive faculty of sensing. Such a faculty can only be used if there also exists a faculty for producing the ideas that are sensed. This productive faculty must either be (1) in the thinker (such as Descartes himself), (2) in a body, or (3) in God (or some other creature more “noble” than a body). It can’t be (1) in the thinker, because the ideas of sense are produced without our cooperation and even against our will. (Think of smelling a smell you would rather not smell.) It can’t be (3) in God (or some other more “noble” creature), because we have a great inclination to believe these ideas come from corporeal things, and God would be a deceiver if the ideas came from anywhere else. Since we know (from the end of the Third Meditation) that God is not a deceiver, (3) is ruled out. So, by process of elimination, these ideas must come from corporeal things. So, corporeal things exist. (AT 79-80)

Descartes adds an important qualification here. Bodies may not exist exactly as we sense them, since our sensations are sometimes obscure and confused. (Think back to the examples of mirages and things appearing small when far away.) However, our sensations are accurate to the degree that they are clearly and distinctly understood – a situation that occurs when corporeal things are conceived through their formal mathematical characteristics. (AT 80) Our modern science approaches corporeal bodies in just this way. So, at this point, we have reclaimed the world – at least as it’s shown to us by science.

At this point, Descartes’ has accomplished his main goals: He has demonstrated the existence of God and the distinction between the soul and the body, and he has established the foundations for science. The remainder of the Sixth Meditation explores a related (but secondary) issue: the interaction between the mind and body.

Our experience of our mind and body suggests they are quite intimately related. Descartes mentions examples of sensations, such as pain, hunger, and thirst, which involve the body but are also very present to the mind. These examples show the mind is “most tightly joined” and “comingled” with the body, so that mind and body constitute one single thing. This must be the case, he thinks, because otherwise we would not have a conscious sensation of pain when the body is injured. Instead, we would view the injury by means of the intellect, like a sailor views damage to his ship. (AT 81)

Does Descartes make a compelling case that the mind and body constitute a single thing? If so, it generates a problem: only two pages earlier, Descartes demonstrated that the mind is really distinct from the body and can live without it. How can the body and mind be a single thing if they are so completely distinct?

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