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Descartes Wax Example

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Descartes main and objective purpose in life is to find absolute truth or to know for certain that nothing is true. Descartes two-sided paradox leads him to question and doubt almost everything in order to find the ultimate end of happiness and pleasure. Among many doubts, Descartes looks to understand the senses of the body in the extension to the physical world. Through examining the five senses of sight, taste, scent, touch, and sound, and the imagination Descartes tries to find absolute truth or complete doubt in knowledge. Descartes perplexity of sensations and imaginations, ultimately leads him to discover that the senses and the imagination cannot be the only driving force to know an object, but it is the inspection of the mind in which it judges it to be certain.

Descartes begins his argument by affirming that the mind is an entity that senses things in the physical world. In order for the mind to perceive and sense there must be a subject and an object that is being observed. For example the eye sees a picture of a dog, the subject is the eye and the object it perceives is the dog. "I understand all that is capable of being bounded by some shape, of being enclosed in a place, and of filling up a space in such a way as to exclude any other body from it." (p19; 26). In order for the eye to see, there is an extension in space that we are able to perceive. The object to be perceived and a separate perceiver are the coexisting relationship between the object and the subject. With this said there could also be doubts of what is being sensed. Someone with distorted mental capabilities, or someone who maybe asleep would sense something different through the use of their imagination. They would not actually perceive the object through their senses, but only in their imagination. "I seemed to have sensed in my dreams many things that later realized I did not sense." (p19; 27).

Descartes continues to argue that all that is perceived through sight, taste, scent, touch, and sound, are all sensations. For certainty, he continues to argue that one cannot deny that the mind and body senses and imagines. Descartes main objective is that all sensations become thoughts whether or not they are physically perceived through sight, taste, scent, touch, or sound. For example, while dreaming the body believes it senses the smell of a cake baking. Although it is not physically perceived in the world, the sensation becomes a though and makes the mind believe it is being perceived. "Therefore it is not dependent upon any of those things that I stimulate in my imagination." (p20; 28).

In relation to perceiving an object, how does one go about knowing the true element or essence of something? How does someone know an object with certainty and possess no doubt of that object? Descartes tries to explore this idea of knowing something by using the five senses in examining a piece of wax. Descartes identifies that the piece of wax he is observing through his five senses occupies characteristics that he can perceive and sense. His sight tells him that the wax holds a certain shape, his scent smells some sort of flowery aroma, his touch maintains a solid and hard feel, his hearing enables some sort of vibration to emit, and his taste recognizes a honey flavor.

In an experiment to test his knowledge of objects, Descartes raises the temperature of the wax by using fire, which causes the wax to melt and take on a new form. In observing the newly formed wax, Descartes then identifies with his senses how the wax has changed. The wax now has changed color and expanded into a pool of liquid; the scent increases in the air; it is hot and wet to the touch; the pool secretes a silent sound; and the honey taste has lost flavor. All of the elements that the senses now perceive have completely changed from the original piece of wax. Not a single similar native feature has remained the same meaning that it has now been modified into a new object. "For whatever came under the senses of taste, smell, sight, touch or hearing has now changed; and yet the wax remains." (p21; 30).

Descartes main focus now is to determine whether or not the newly formed object is still the same wax. Descartes refutes that no one denies that the pool of liquid is the same as the original wax, however his new aim is to understand how does one know it is the same.



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