Epistemological questions by Descartes

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Epistemological questions concerning intellect and the senses have long been explored by philosophers, most popularly Rene Descartes. Descartes, in his Meditations on First Philosophy, uses systematic doubt to undermine and challenge sense perception. His ideas reconcile science and religion, but also the mind and the body.

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His famous quote I think therefore I am is ultimately revealing of how Descartes proves our existence. When Descartes claims that the star is not much greater than the flame he is conceding that sense perception holds, to a great extent, weight in determining our understandings of the world, but meaning and ideas are created predominantly through the intellect. According to his arguments, we can only be certain that we exist through our minds, our physical world is much more dubious and difficult to comprehend.

Sense perception is limited, therefore the mind must work in conjunction with our senses to create concepts, thoughts, and ideas. Descartes is making a reference to sense perception, even through the star quote, but he claims that our intellect is more useful in actually creating distinctions between certain ideas and concepts. Sense perception would make us believe that a star is not greater than a candle flame because since we perceive it from so far away and a flame can generate heat that we feel more easily, the senses would give reason to believe that the candle flame is greater. However, through intellect and reasoning we are able to understand the differences between stars and candle flames which ultimately allows us to get closer to the truth.

His star metaphor is closely related to his wax argument which states that when an ordinary piece of wax loses its physical qualities after being heated, we still recognize it as that same piece of wax but also somehow we know that it is no longer a candle. As humans, we do not process sensory information the way that a robot or Artificial Intelligence would, instead we predetermine the meaning of things and assign them value or categorize them in our minds. Melted wax is still the same substance as a candle and, yet, we do not see it as such because we seem to qualify things based upon their utility in the world. A robot would process the physical properties and not know how to further distinguish. A flame is not the same as a star, even though they may look similar and perhaps even be composed of the same materials and through the intellect and reasoning we have, we are able to establish that a star is greater a flame, even though from far distances it does not necessarily appear to be greater.

Descartes highlights the human ability to create meaning with a combination of the mind and the body, advocating a dualist perspective. Our interactions with sensory experience are interpreted through our minds and knowledge is produced as we intellectually question the senses.

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