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Abre Los Ojos: The Problem of the Criterion

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The problem of the criterion refers to a state where we ask ourselves: What do we know? How are we to determine true knowledge from false knowledge? What methods do we use to determine the truthfulness of knowledge? How do we know these methods are true or false? In a nutshell, the problem of the criterion tries to pin down the root of knowledge. Let’s say we have a set of beliefs and we want to differentiate between good beliefs and bad beliefs.

The next step then becomes what method we are going to use to determine whether the beliefs are good or bad. Before we go any further we again ask ourselves, “What is a good method and what is a bad method?” If you think this is the end of the line then you are wrong because we can still ask ourselves what a good method is and what a bad method is to determine a good method. I think we can see where this is going. This can lead to a loop like scenario where each question leads to another with seemingly no end. In the film Abre Los Ojos, Cesar, the main protagonist, is faced with a decision at the end. He is to decide whether he would like to wake up or stay in the dream world. After watching the film, it is really not easy to discern what is real and what is not. In this case, is Cesar dreaming or is he awake? If he is dreaming, does Cesar wake up in the real world or is the world he wakes up to an extension of his dream? How can he determine whether he is waking up into the real world or into another dream? As you can see, this takes us back to the problem of the criterion.

Chisholm describes three different responses to the problem, namely: skeptism, particularism and methodism. In regards to Cesar’s situation, skepticism will not aid him in determining whether he is dreaming or not. This is because he will ask himself what he knows about his current situation. Is he dreaming or is he not? How can he tell that he is dreaming? He cannot answer the first question until he has answered the second one. And he can’t answer the second question until he has answered the first one. He is therefore left without an answer to both.

Particularism postulates that one has an answer to the first question and uses it as a basis to figure out the second question. Applying it to Cesar, he will claim to have the answer to the question, “Am I dreaming?”. If he can determine if he is dreaming then he can figure out how he knows he is dreaming. Cesar may actually be able to determine if he is dreaming. This is possible in two situations. The first situation is the bar scene when Cesar meets the guy from TV. In the subsequent conversation, he is told that he may be dreaming. He denies this but then the whole room goes quiet when he says they be quiet and everyone’s eyes are on him as he runs out in disbelief. The second situation is the shootout scene. Antonio, his psychiatrist, gets between Cesar and the police just when the shots ring out but then stands up uninjured and with everyone else disappearing. Cesar himself now accepts that he may actually be dreaming.

Methodism works the other way round. The assertion is that one has the answer to the second question and from there figure the answer to the first. Cesar starts off by declaring that he has the answer to the second question, “How do I know I am dreaming?”. If he knows how to detect if he is dreaming then he can answer the first question. From the movie we can deduce that Cesar is not in control of himself. He is erratic and hallucinates. From his behavior he can not possibly determine if he is dreaming.

Amongst the three responses, Chisholm favors particularism. He surmises that we should trust the inherent knowledge that we have. He says that you do not have to apply any test or criterion to find out whether you know such a thing as that this is a hand. He contends that there are hallucinations and illusions but that doesn’t mean that our senses are deceiving us right now. To me, an objection to this is that we can’t trust our senses. Time and again our senses have let us down. Chisholm himself points this out when he agrees that hallucinations and illusions can interfere with our senses. Though he brushes them off, I still think we can not base our beliefs on senses that are only true some of the time but not all the time. The basis of knowledge is to acquire truth and not half-truths. Therefore, with the basis of determining absolute truth, Chisholm’s choice of particularism fails in that regard.

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