Descartes and the non-corpeal entities

Descartes notion of the “clear and distinct idea” is to find out what precisely defines things into kinds, to which there is no overlap. Wax is still wax whether it’s blue or green, melted or solid. From this step, Descartes discarded the senses and suggested that clear and distinct ideas are not physical things. He later used this line of reasoning along with some others to prove the existence of God in the same work; “Meditations”, for short.

Already we know that the clear and distinct idea of wax has nothing to do with a precise color. Descartes takes it a step further and assumes that it’s non-corpeal, which is a leap of reasoning!! Obviously it’s going to be a physical thing in order to be wax — even if the wax is a clear candle with a white wick running through it… effectively “colorless”, that doesn’t make it a non-corpeal object! That doesn’t make “waxness” non-corpeal by default. The only tenative conclusion from this idea is that the SPECIFIC color does not matter to the clear and distinct idea of waxness.

His argument for the non-corpeal existent uses a skip in reasoning, and it is this skip in reasoning that has effectively supported the defense of non-corpeal existents since – at least as a ‘valid’ argument for it.

I don’t see how this argument makes the distinction though, between:

Color not specifically defining the clear and distinct idea of wax (the concept)


Color and it’s subsequent sense being discarded entirely (which is what Descartes does).

We basically have black, white, clear, metalic/reflective, the color wheel and all combinations of these. For Descartes to suggest that waxness cannot be determined by color, seems to me a trick of sorts…

There is no argument that waxness is defined by having a color, it’s just that specific coloration doesn’t in and of itself define the clear and distinct idea of waxness.

Descartes idea of eliminating the senses one by one to arrive at the conclusion of non-corpeal entities as being necessary in order to explain our observations seems like a leap of reasoning to me.


Scientifically…you have to get to “atoms” to make the argument that “things” are the “same.” i.e., until you know about hydrogen and oxygen, you’ll never be able to be sure that water equals ice equals steam. There might be some additional element that enters in or goes out with the change in temperature. But since atoms are unchangeable (well, kinda!) then at that level, you have the fixed building blocks that can be rearranged to mix and match “substances.”

Philosophically…I dunno… It sorta reminds me of the “fallacy of drawing the line” vs. “fallacy of not drawing the line” paradox. Plato played with this: if a man loses his foot, he’s still a man. If he loses both legs and both arms, he’s still a man. If he loses all his limbs, organs, faculties, etc., he’s still a man. So exactly what is that last item (the guberniculum?) which, when removed, eliminates him once and for all from consideration as human?


I agree that this Platonic problem is very similar. I’m not satisfied that Descartes didn’t skip a step in his resolution of this problem. Not being much of a believer in telekinesis or solipsism, I myself have a difficult time defining my own body even while I’m living – and more fundamentally, I have a hard time defining life itself - as the constituent parts, such as replication, metabolic system, movement to resources etc… can be just as easily described about rocks or mountains or galaxies.

What interests me so much in the step that I believe Descartes skipped in arriving at his conclusion is that it relates to another topic I abandoned earlier about the self refuting nature of modern uncertainty; which I find also to be very similarly derived to this problem.

In classical uncertainty you have a situation where uncertainty is thought of as “lacking the knowledge out there to be had”. With modern uncertainty, it has become “Proof that no amount of knowledge can allow for certainty”.

When Descartes uses these ideas that you cannot distinguish something by what color it is, he plays this trick of sorts and basically takes the position that the property of waxness cannot be a physical thing – then like magic he turns around and states something along the lines of-- well, there MUST be mental things that cannot be empirically verified, and that these mental things are actually what defines a kind. These are concepts. And the body of these concepts is a non-local entity called “mind”. It’s similar to a proof of uncertainty! In order to do so, Descartes throws out the “baby with the bathwater”.

I’ll certainly agree with his observation that type of color does not describe the clear and distinct idea of waxness. I do not agree with the conclusion that color itself does not describe the clear and distinct idea of waxness! I also don’t see where he made the argument to suggest that this additional step of simply throwing out the senses necessarily follows from that observation. As a general principle, I consider that an entity needs at least two senses to triangulate the interactivity of some resource or object. This wasn’t addressed by Descartes, but certainly waxness still exists for the blind and deaf. But he goes all out and discards EVERY single sense, and by doing so, he repeatedly mentions that he’s trying to do us a favor, that he’s being as rational about this as can be.

Also, I think it goes without saying, that Descartes argument for non local mind has been the shrine of rational argument for the proof of Gods existence, or at least proof that it’s likely. Interestingly enough, the major proponent of uncertainty in the sciences is QM - which has the entire point/wave duality. I find this interesting, because it is the cartesian coordinate system that highlighted this entire area of conceptualization as a physical science. It’s as if Descartes shadow hovers over this entire acceptance of uncertainty; or that we can derive proofs of uncertainty to where we also have proof that there is an answer. This allows an out for many people with regards to what they believe is true.

In the instance of the argumnt for God, it can at least be shown that Descartes reaasoning appears to have skipped over a step without addressing it. Now, with respect to the way this duality manifests mathematically, I simply don’t speak mathematics well enough to easily grasp where the skipped step in reasoning is, even though, through other arguments, I can convincingly present that it HAS to be there somewhere.

These “kinds” are not the physical thing of wax itself, which can be manipulated by the physical body, but the metaphysical “essence” of wax which can be known by the metaphysical mind. The relationship between a physical object and its metaphysical essence is not necessarily mutually indispensable since eg. I can think of wax (ie. interact with the essence of wax) without there being any wax there at all.

Of course, one can say that only wax exists, not its essence, but then one must ask whether a thought about wax exists. Plainly it does, since I just had one right then! And if the word “wax”, and thoughts about wax, and knowledge of its nature, and descriptions of its material properties all exist, then surely there is more to wax than the mere atoms sitting there on the table? What better to call that abstract element than “essence” or “kind”?

There is one way out of the maze, though. (Actually there are two, but the other one involves denying that the atoms are “real”). One need not simply say that thoughts, words and knowledge do not exist (ie. eliminativism). Rather one can appeal to physicalism, which holds that the piece of wax, the word “wax”, the thought about wax and the mind doing the thinking are all essentially physical by nature (even though they might not seem so at first), and nothing metaphysical actually exists except as a (physical) thought.

Of course you’re all making the assumption that universals such as “wax-ness”, or in Plato’s argument, “man-ness” actually have any real existence. Is there any good reason to make this assumption?

I’d have thought that the “idea” of a thing is a pure abstraction derived from memories of properties of similar particular things and has only as such an associative existence.