New SAT Reading Practice Test 81: Meditations on First Philosophy

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Below is the beginning excerpt from Meditations on First Philosophy, by René Descartes, 1641, in which he muses about the nature of knowledge.

MEDITATION I.
Of the Things of Which We May Now Doubt
1. SEVERAL years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted,
even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I
afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced
of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I
05had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I
desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences. But as this enterprise
appeared to me to be one of great magnitude, I waited until I had attained an age
so mature as to leave me no hope that at any stage of life more advanced I should be
better able to execute my design. On this account, I have delayed so long that I should
10henceforth consider I was doing wrong were I still to consume in deliberation any of
the time that now remains for action. Today, then, since I have opportunely freed my
mind from all cares [and am happily disturbed by no passions], and since I am in the
secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself
earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.
152. But, to this end, it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these
are false—a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach; but as even now my reason convinces
me that I ought not the less carefully to withhold belief from what is not entirely
certain and indubitable, than from what is manifestly false, it will be sufficient to justify
the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt. Nor for this
20purpose will it be necessary even to deal with each belief individually, which would be
truly an endless labor; but, as the removal from below of the foundation necessarily
involves the downfall of the whole edifice, I will at once approach the criticism of the
principles on which all my former beliefs rested.
3. All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and
25certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these
sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in
that by which we have even once been deceived.
4. But it may be said, perhaps, that, although the senses occasionally mislead us
respecting minute objects, and such as are so far removed from us as to be beyond the
30reach of close observation, there are yet many other of their informations (presentations),
of the truth of which it is manifestly impossible to doubt; as for example, that I
am in this place, seated by the fire, clothed in a winter dressing gown, that I hold in my
hands this piece of paper, with other intimations of the same nature. But how could
I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with
35persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark
bilious vapors as to cause them pertinaciously to assert that they are monarchs when
they are in the greatest poverty; or clothed [in gold] and purple when destitute of any
covering; or that their head is made of clay, their body of glass, or that they are gourds?
I should certainly be not less insane than they, were I to regulate my procedure according
40to examples so extravagant.

1. Descartes' overall attitude towards knowledge as presented in the passage is best described as

  • A. dogmatic.
  • B. credulous.
  • C. skeptical.
  • D. popular.

2. Descartes uses lines 6-11 to express why

  • A. he believes that the foundations for knowledge are error ridden.
  • B. the intellectual project he is tackling is so important.
  • C. his mental and physical health have begun to decline.
  • D. he has chosen this point in time to write this work.

3. As used in line 8, the word "advanced" most closely means

  • A. increasingly complex.
  • B. far along in time.
  • C. with great skill.
  • D. significantly improved.

4. Descartes' minimal threshold for dismissing a knowledge claim is if it is

  • A. completely in error.
  • B. moderately wrong.
  • C. even slightly flawed.
  • D. any claim to knowledge.

5. Which option gives the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?

  • A. Lines 5-6 ("if I . . . sciences")
  • B. Lines 13-14 ("I will . . . opinions")
  • C. Lines 18-19 ("it will . . . doubt")
  • D. Lines 37-38 ("or clothed . . . gourds")

6. Lines 28-33 primarily illustrate Descartes' thinking about

  • A. the pitfalls of human perception.
  • B. the superiority of logical reasoning.
  • C. the importance of proper observational tools.
  • D. the spectrum of sensory certainty.

7. The passage strongly implies that Descartes believes that the structure of knowledge is best described as

  • A. hierarchical.
  • B. disconnected.
  • C. indubitable.
  • D. nonexistent.

8. Which option gives the best evidence for the answer to the previous question?

  • A. Lines 5-6 ("commencing . . . sciences")
  • B. Lines 9-11 ("On this . . . action")
  • C. Lines 19-21 ("Nor for . . . labor")
  • D. Lines 32-33 ("I hold . . . nature")

9. Descartes uses the phrase in lines 35-36, "so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors," to illustrate what he believes to be

  • A. the religious source of demonic possession.
  • B. the physical source of hallucinogenic visions.
  • C. the psychological source of chronic depression.
  • D. the environmental source of mathematical logic.

10. As used in line 40, the word "extravagant" most closely means

  • A. luxurious.
  • B. conservative.
  • C. psychological.
  • D. excessive.