Descartes asserted that whatever we recognize “clearly and distinctly” is true. Explain the criticism that this formulation fails to meet its own standard. Do you agree that Descartes’s rationalism is based on subjective states rather than on reasons understood “clearly and distinctly”? Discuss.
What is the Evil Genius, and what is its significance to the Cartesian Genesis? Explain.
Give Descartes’s argument for the existence of God in your own words, then analyze it. Is it convincing? Why or why not?
What is the mind-body problem? How does Descartes deal with it? Is he successful? Why or why not?
Discuss Descartes’s ideas regarding a priori and a posteriori knowledge. From where do these types of knowledge derive? Provide examples of each in your own words.
Use Descartes’s distinction between memorizing ideas and understanding them to examine your own education. Describe the distinction between learning to love psychology or literature and becoming a historian of psychology or literature in Descartes’s terms. Speculate on ways this distinction might be used to reform education. (page 257)
Comment on the preceding passage. Do you agree with Descartes? Why? Is common sense the same thing as good sense? Analyze the notion of common sense. Do you really think there is such a thing? What is your evidence either way? (page 260)
A common criticism of Descartes’s standard of truth is that he failed to apply it to itself. Do we know with clarity and distinctness that only what we know with clarity and distinctness is true? Can we know it? Not if, as critics claim, Descartes’s standard is itself unclear and ambiguous. Do you have a clear and distinct idea of Descartes’s criterion? How can we tell when an inability to perceive something clearly and distinctly is the fault of the individual or of the quality of the idea? Discuss carefully. (page 262)
Is Descartes correct? What about seemingly sincere, rational, and intelligent people who say they do not, perhaps cannot, see the truth of this idea about innate ideas? Compare Descartes’s problem here with Plato’s problem of accounting for ignorance of the Forms. Do you think Forms are innate ideas? Are innate ideas Forms? (See Chapter 5) (page 263)
How carefully have you examined your own fundamental beliefs? What–if anything–is wrong with trusting beliefs handed down by others? Why not rely on the testing of others, trusting their conclusions? Discuss. Also comment on the tendency to believe something if it could possibly be correct. What is the relationships between possible and plausible, and what might it have to do with this entire issue? Explain. (page 264)
How do we know the difference between a dream or hallucination and reality? Seriously consider how a confused person might verify that he or she is or is not dreaming. (page 265)
Before reading any further, stop for a moment and play with Descartes’s idea of an evil genius. Try to get into the spirit of doubting as much as you can. Do not be limited by what you actually doubt; this is an intellectual exercise, not a personal confession. See if you can extend the range of what might on the remotest possibility be false or other than what you think it is. Can you be absolutely sure that there is no evil genius? (page 266)
When I was a student I felt compelled to challenge anything presented to me as being irrefutable. As soon as I heard about the cogito I assumed I would be able to refute it, to show that is was not necessarily true. That proved easier said than done. Try for yourself; it is interesting, and it is the only way to grasp Descartes’s point. Discuss your efforts. (page 268)
Some philosophers doubt that we really do have a clear and distinct (precise) idea of God. Reflect on the idea of God. Is it clear and distinct? Do you have a clear and distinct idea of perfection–in beings or automobiles or marriages or anything? Does Descartes’s argument? (page 272)
How plausible is this “official doctrine”? On Descartes’s own terms, how “clearly and distinctly” do we understand the relationship of the mind to the body? How can a completely nonphysical thing interact with a completely physical thing? To ask Mark Twain’s insightful question, How come the mind gets drunk when the body does the drinking? Why does my mind react to what happens to my body with such intensity if it’s not part of my body? (page 276)
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