Meditations on First Philosophy

by

René Descartes

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The Meditator Character Analysis

The Meditator is Descartes’s alter ego and the narrator of Meditations. At the beginning of the book, the Meditator points out that he used to take many beliefs for granted before realizing that they were not true. He decides to set aside six days of solitary contemplation—corresponding with the book’s six chapters—to “demolish everything completely and start right again from the foundations” of knowledge. Over the course of the book, he concludes that his own existence is certain, offers a complex proof for the existence of God, shows that his clear and distinct perceptions are accurate, and concludes that physical objects are real, which means that the body and soul are distinct. While the Meditator’s conclusions faithfully reflect Descartes’s beliefs, Descartes did not actually form all of them in just six days’ meditation. All the same, meticulously planning out the Meditator’s thought process allows Descartes to present the ideas in a logical order. Indeed, by presenting years of philosophical research through the Meditator’s brief intellectual journey, Descartes gives his readers a lesson in his scientific method and an opportunity to test out his arguments for themselves by stepping into the Meditator’s shoes. It’s worth noting that the Meditator is never specifically gendered in Meditations—this guide uses male pronouns to refer to the Meditator, but any personal pronouns would suffice.

The Meditator Quotes in Meditations on First Philosophy

The Meditations on First Philosophy quotes below are all either spoken by The Meditator or refer to The Meditator. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
).
Preface to the Reader Quotes

I would not urge anyone to read this book except those who are able and willing to meditate seriously with me, and to withdraw their minds from the senses and from all preconceived opinions. Such readers, as I well know, are few and far between.

Related Characters: René Descartes (speaker), The Meditator
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:
Synopsis Quotes

The great benefit of these arguments is not, in my view, that they prove what they establish—namely that there really is a world, and that human beings have bodies and so on—since no sane person has ever seriously doubted these things. The point is that in considering these arguments we come to realize that they are not as solid or as transparent as the arguments which lead us to knowledge of our own minds and of God, so that the latter are the most certain and evident of all possible objects of knowledge for the human intellect. Indeed, this is the one thing that I set myself to prove in these Meditations. And for that reason I will not now go over the various other issues in the book which are dealt with as they come up.

Related Characters: René Descartes (speaker), The Meditator, God
Page Number: 12-13
Explanation and Analysis:
First Meditation Quotes

Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them. I realized that it was necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker)
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

How could it be denied that these hands or this whole body are mine? Unless perhaps I were to liken myself to madmen, whose brains are so damaged by the persistent vapours of melancholia that they firmly maintain they are kings when they are paupers, or say they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass. But such people are insane, and I would be thought equally mad if I took anything from them as a model for myself.

A brilliant piece of reasoning!

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker)
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

These are as it were the real colours from which we form all the images of things, whether true or false, that occur in our thought.

This class appears to include corporeal nature in general, and its extension; the shape of extended things; the quantity, or size and number of these things; the place in which they may exist, the time through which they may endure, and so on.

So a reasonable conclusion from this might be that physics, astronomy, medicine, and all other disciplines which depend on the study of composite things, are doubtful; while arithmetic, geometry and other subjects of this kind, which deal only with the simplest and most general things, regardless of whether they really exist in nature or not, contain something certain and indubitable.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

I will suppose therefore that […] some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things. I shall stubbornly and firmly persist in this meditation; and, even if it is not in my power to know any truth, I shall at least do what is in my power, that is, resolutely guard against assenting to any falsehoods, so that the deceiver, however powerful and cunning he may be, will be unable to impose on me in the slightest degree.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), The Evil Demon
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:
Second Meditation Quotes

So serious are the doubts into which I have been thrown as a result of yesterday’s meditation that I can neither put them out of my mind nor see any way of resolving them. It feels as if I have fallen unexpectedly into a deep whirlpool which tumbles me around so that I can neither stand on the bottom nor swim up to the top.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), René Descartes, The Evil Demon
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

As to the body, however, I had no doubts about it, but thought I knew its nature distinctly. If I had tried to describe the mental conception I had of it, I would have expressed it as follows: by a body I understand whatever has a determinable shape and a definable location and can occupy a space in such a way as to exclude any other body; it can be perceived by touch, sight, hearing, taste or smell, and can be moved in various ways, not by itself but by whatever else comes into contact with it. For, according to my judgement, the power of self-movement, like the power of sensation or of thought, was quite foreign to the nature of a body; indeed, it was a source of wonder to me that certain bodies were found to contain faculties of this kind.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), René Descartes
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Thinking? At last I have discovered it—thought; this alone is inseparable from me. I am, I exist—that is certain. But for how long? For as long as I am thinking. For it could be that were I totally to cease from thinking, I should totally cease to exist. At present I am not admitting anything except what is necessarily true. I am, then, in the strict sense only a thing that thinks; that is, I am a mind, or intelligence, or intellect, or reason—words whose meaning I have been ignorant of until now. But for all that I am a thing which is real and which truly exists. But what kind of a thing? As I have just said—a thinking thing.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), René Descartes
Page Number: 22-23
Explanation and Analysis:

But what then am I? A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), René Descartes, God
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

[The wax] has not yet quite lost the taste of the honey; […] its colour, shape and size are plain to see; it is hard, cold and can be handled without difficulty; if you rap it with your knuckle it makes a sound. In short, it has everything which appears necessary to enable a body to be known as distinctly as possible. But even as I speak, I put the wax by the fire, and look: the residual taste is eliminated, the smell goes away, the colour changes, the shape is lost, the size increases; it becomes liquid and hot; you can hardly touch it, and if you strike it, it no longer makes a sound.

[…]

What exactly is it that I am now imagining? Let us concentrate, take away everything which does not belong to the wax, and see what is left: merely something extended, flexible and changeable.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), René Descartes
Related Symbols: The Wax
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:
Third Meditation Quotes

I am certain that I am a thinking thing. Do I not therefore also know what is required for my being certain about anything? In this first item of knowledge there is simply a clear and distinct perception of what I am asserting; this would not be enough to make me certain of the truth of the matter if it could ever turn out that something which I perceived with such clarity and distinctness was false. So I now seem to be able to lay it down as a general rule that whatever I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), René Descartes, God
Page Number: 28-29
Explanation and Analysis:

When I say “Nature taught me to think this,” all I mean is that a spontaneous impulse leads me to believe it, not that its truth has been revealed to me by some natural light. There is a big difference here. Whatever is revealed to me by the natural light—for example that from the fact that I am doubting it follows that I exist, and so on—cannot in any way be open to doubt. This is because there cannot be another faculty both as trustworthy as the natural light and also capable of showing me that such things are not true. But as for my natural impulses, I have often judged in the past that they were pushing me in the wrong direction when it was a question of choosing the good, and I do not see why I should place any greater confidence in them in other matters.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), God
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

Undoubtedly, the ideas which represent substances to me amount to something more and, so to speak, contain within themselves more objective reality than the ideas which merely represent modes or accidents. Again, the idea that gives me my understanding of a supreme God, eternal, infinite, immutable [sic], omniscient, omnipotent and the creator of all things that exist apart from him, certainly has in it more objective reality than the ideas that represent finite substances.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), God, René Descartes
Page Number: 32-33
Explanation and Analysis:

It is manifest by the natural light that there must be at least as much reality [sic] in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause. For where, I ask, could the effect get its reality from, if not from the cause?

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), René Descartes, God
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

It is clear to me, by the natural light, that the ideas in me are like pictures, or [sic] images which can easily fall short of the perfection of the things from which they are taken, but which cannot contain anything greater or more perfect.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), René Descartes
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

So there remains only the idea of God; and I must consider whether there is anything in the idea which could not have originated in myself. By the word “God” I understand a substance that is infinite, eternal, immutable [sic], independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful, and which created both myself and everything else (if anything else there be) that exists. All these attributes are such that, the more carefully I concentrate on them, the less possible it seems that they could have originated from me alone. So from what has been said it must be concluded that God necessarily exists.
It is true that I have the idea of substance in me in virtue of the fact that I am a substance; but this would not account for my having the idea of an infinite substance, when I am finite, unless this idea proceeded from some substance which really was infinite.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), God
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

It is enough that I understand the infinite, and that I judge that all the attributes which I clearly perceive and know to imply some perfection—and perhaps countless others of which I am ignorant—are present in God either formally or eminently. This is enough to make the idea that I have of God the truest and most clear and distinct of all my ideas.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), God, René Descartes
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

But before examining this point more carefully and investigating other truths which may be derived from it, I should like to pause here and spend some time in the contemplation of God; to reflect on his attributes, and to gaze with wonder and adoration on the beauty of this immense light, so far as the eye of my darkened intellect can bear it. For just as we believe through faith that the supreme happiness of the next life consists solely in the contemplation of the divine majesty, so experience tells us that this same contemplation, albeit much less perfect, enables us to know the greatest joy of which we are capable in this life.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), God, René Descartes
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:
Fourth Meditation Quotes

I realize that I am […] something intermediate between God and nothingness, or between supreme being and non-being: my nature is such that in so far as I was created by the supreme being, there is nothing in me to enable me to go wrong or lead me astray; but in so far as I participate in nothingness or non-being, that is, in so far as I am not myself the supreme being and am lacking in countless respects, it is no wonder that I make mistakes. I understand, then, that error as such is not something real which depends on God, but merely a defect. Hence my going wrong does not require me to have a faculty specially bestowed on me by God; it simply happens as a result of the fact that the faculty of true judgement which I have from God is in my case not infinite.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), God
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

So what then is the source of my mistakes? It must be simply this: the scope of the will is wider than that of the intellect; but instead of restricting it within the same limits, I extend its use to matters which I do not understand. Since the will is indifferent in such cases, it easily turns aside from what is true and good, and this is the source of my error and sin.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), God
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

If, however, I simply refrain from making a judgement in cases where I do not perceive the truth with sufficient clarity and distinctness, then it is clear that I am behaving correctly and avoiding error. But if in such cases I either affirm or deny, then I am not using my free will correctly. If I go for the alternative which is false, then obviously I shall be in error; if I take the other side, then it is by pure chance that I arrive at the truth, and I shall still be at fault since it is clear by the natural light that the perception of the intellect should always precede the determination of the will. In this incorrect use of free will may be found the privation which constitutes the essence of error.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), René Descartes
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

Today I have learned not only what precautions to take to avoid ever going wrong, but also what to do to arrive at the truth. For I shall unquestionably reach the truth, if only I give sufficient attention to all the things which I perfectly understand, and separate these from all the other cases where my apprehension is more confused and obscure. And this is just what I shall take good care to do from now on.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), René Descartes
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:
Fifth Meditation Quotes

But if the mere fact that I can produce from my thought the idea of something entails that everything which I clearly and distinctly perceive to belong to that thing really does belong to it, is not this a possible basis for another argument to prove the existence of God? Certainly, the idea of God, or a supremely perfect being, is one which I find within me just as surely as the idea of any shape or number. And my understanding that it belongs to his nature that he always exists is no less clear and distinct than is the case when I prove of any shape or number that some property belongs to its nature.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), God, René Descartes
Page Number: 51-52
Explanation and Analysis:

For what is more self-evident than the fact that the supreme being exists, or that God, to whose essence alone existence belongs, exists?

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), God
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

Now, however, I have perceived that God exists, and at the same time I have understood that everything else depends on him, and that he is no deceiver; and I have drawn the conclusion that everything which I clearly and distinctly perceive is of necessity true. Accordingly, even if I am no longer attending to the arguments which led me to judge that this is true, as long as I remember that I clearly and distinctly perceived it, there are no counter-arguments which can be adduced to make me doubt it, but on the contrary I have true and certain knowledge of it. And I have knowledge not just of this matter, but of all matters which I remember ever having demonstrated, in geometry and so on.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), God
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

Thus I see plainly that the certainty and truth of all knowledge depends uniquely on my awareness of the true God, to such an extent that I was incapable of perfect knowledge about anything else until I became aware of him. And now it is possible for me to achieve full and certain knowledge of countless matters, both concerning God himself and other things whose nature is intellectual, and also concerning the whole of that corporeal nature which is the subject-matter of pure mathematics.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), God
Page Number: 55-56
Explanation and Analysis:
Sixth Meditation Quotes

The difference between this mode of thinking and pure understanding may simply be this: when the mind understands, it in some way turns towards itself and inspects one of the ideas which are within it; but when it imagines, it turns towards the body and looks at something in the body which conforms to an idea understood by the mind or perceived by the senses.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker)
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

I know that everything which I clearly and distinctly understand is capable of being created by God so as to correspond exactly with my understanding of it. Hence the fact that I can clearly and distinctly understand one thing apart from another is enough to make me certain that the two things are distinct, since they are capable of being separated, at least by God. […] It is true that I may have […] a body that is very closely joined to me. But nevertheless, on the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am simply a thinking, non-extended thing; and on the other hand I have a distinct idea of body, in so far as this is simply an extended, non-thinking thing. And accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), God, René Descartes
Page Number: 61-62
Explanation and Analysis:

Indeed, there is no doubt that everything that I am taught by nature contains some truth. For if nature is considered in its general aspect, then I understand by the term nothing other than God himself, or the ordered system of created things established by God. And by my own nature in particular I understand nothing other than the totality of things bestowed on me by God.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), God
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

In these cases and many others I see that I have been in the habit of misusing the order of nature. For the proper purpose of the sensory perceptions given me by nature is simply to inform the mind of what is beneficial or harmful for the composite of which the mind is a part; and to this extent they are sufficiently clear and distinct. But I misuse them by treating them as reliable touchstones for immediate judgements about the essential nature of the bodies located outside us; yet this is an area where they provide only very obscure information.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker)
Page Number: 65-66
Explanation and Analysis:

My final observation is that any given movement occurring in the part of the brain that immediately affects the mind produces just one corresponding sensation; and hence the best system that could be devised is that it should produce the one sensation which, of all possible sensations, is most especially and most frequently conducive to the preservation of the healthy man. And experience shows that the sensations which nature has given us are all of this kind; and so there is absolutely nothing to be found in them that does not bear witness to the power and goodness of God.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), God, René Descartes
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

Accordingly, I should not have any further fears about the falsity of what my senses tell me every day; on the contrary, the exaggerated doubts of the last few days should be dismissed as laughable. This applies especially to the principal reason for doubt, namely my inability to distinguish between being asleep and being awake. […] But since the pressure of things to be done does not always allow us to stop and make such a meticulous check, it must be admitted that in this human life we are often liable to make mistakes about particular things, and we must acknowledge the weakness of our nature.

Related Characters: The Meditator (speaker), René Descartes
Page Number: 70-71
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Meditator Character Timeline in Meditations on First Philosophy

The timeline below shows where the character The Meditator appears in Meditations on First Philosophy. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
First Meditation
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
Intellectual Discipline Theme Icon
Descartes’s narrator (the Meditator) notes that, as a child, he absorbed lots of ideas that later turned out to... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
Intellectual Discipline Theme Icon
First, the Meditator will refuse to believe any idea he can’t be completely certain of—meaning anything that he... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
Mind and Body Theme Icon
Thus, the Meditator can’t be sure that he’s really awake at all. Nor can he know that his... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
God and the World Theme Icon
Intellectual Discipline Theme Icon
Yet the Meditator also believes in an all-powerful God; couldn’t God make it so that even basic math... (full context)
Second Meditation
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
Intellectual Discipline Theme Icon
After the First Meditation, the Meditator feels totally confused, as though he has “fallen unexpectedly into a deep whirlpool” and can’t... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
Mind and Body Theme Icon
But what kind of thing is the Meditator? He used to think of himself as a human being with a body and a... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
Intellectual Discipline Theme Icon
The Meditator finds it bizarre that things he perceives by the (untrustworthy) senses seem so much realer... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
Mind and Body Theme Icon
The Meditator considers a piece of beeswax: it appears to have a shape, smell, color, and size,... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
Mind and Body Theme Icon
...of the wax’s nature, while reason gives a “clear and distinct” one. Similarly, when the Meditator sees men crossing through a square, he really just sees coats and hats, and then... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
Mind and Body Theme Icon
Intellectual Discipline Theme Icon
...perceives the world in a more perfect way than the senses do. And when the Meditator understands something like the wax, he knows that it’s him doing the understanding, so he... (full context)
Third Meditation
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
God and the World Theme Icon
The Meditator resolves to stop trusting his senses and imagination. Instead, using reason alone, he will ask... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
The Meditator argues that he can’t doubt the existence of his own ideas and emotions—even when they’re... (full context)
God and the World Theme Icon
Mind and Body Theme Icon
The Meditator concludes that the original cause of any idea must have at least as much formal... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
God and the World Theme Icon
Mind and Body Theme Icon
Intellectual Discipline Theme Icon
The Meditator starts looking for an idea more perfect than himself. Ideas about things like hot and... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
God and the World Theme Icon
Mind and Body Theme Icon
...idea of God—the all-knowing, all-powerful, eternal, infinite substance that created everything—is more perfect than the Meditator’s mind. So it could only come from one source: God. As a finite substance, the... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
God and the World Theme Icon
Next, the Meditator asks whether he could exist without God. If he created himself, he would have chosen... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
God and the World Theme Icon
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Finally, the Meditator asks where his idea of God came from. He concludes that he couldn’t imagine it... (full context)
Fourth Meditation
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
God and the World Theme Icon
Intellectual Discipline Theme Icon
After three days of meditation, the Meditator knows with absolute certainty that he’s a thinking thing and that God exists. Since God... (full context)
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God and the World Theme Icon
Mind and Body Theme Icon
The Meditator notices that he makes judgment errors due to a combination of his lack of knowledge... (full context)
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God and the World Theme Icon
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This analysis explains how the Meditator has built his philosophy: he has resolved not to accept or reject ideas until he... (full context)
Fifth Meditation
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
The Meditator explains that the next pressing issue is to figure out whether he can prove the... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
God and the World Theme Icon
In fact, this line of thinking leads the Meditator to another proof for God’s existence. The idea of “a supremely perfect being” is just... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
God and the World Theme Icon
...existence as part of its essence, there couldn’t be multiple supremely perfect Gods, and the Meditator clearly and distinctly perceives many other attributes of God, like the fact that He exists... (full context)
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God’s existence is also the foundation of all other certain knowledge. The Meditator notes that sometimes he reaches clear and distinct conclusions through proofs, but then forgets the... (full context)
Sixth Meditation
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
Mind and Body Theme Icon
The Meditator’s final task is to show that physical objects really exist. So far, his clear and... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
Mind and Body Theme Icon
...reliability of the senses is a good place to start. Once upon a time, the Meditator perceived that he had body parts, like limbs and a head, which interacted with other... (full context)
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But later in life, the Meditator started to doubt his senses. For instance, he noticed that buildings and statues sometimes looked... (full context)
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But now, knowledge of God has taught the Meditator to trust in his clear and distinct perceptions. For instance, if he clearly and distinctly... (full context)
Knowledge, Doubt, and Science Theme Icon
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...and the human senses produce perceptions involuntarily. So what creates them? Either external substances, the Meditator answers, or God. But it can’t be God, because if God made these ideas and... (full context)
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Next, the Meditator asks how God prevents humanity from deceiving itself. He offers a few observations. First, all... (full context)
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Fourth, the Meditator says, each movement in the brain produces a corresponding feeling in the mind, and all... (full context)
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Finally, the Meditator concludes that he can also dismiss his doubt about being asleep. His memory is linking... (full context)