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The Role of Doubt in Descartes' Philosophy

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In his meditations on First Philosophy, the philosopher Descartes takes it upon himself to break down all his previous assumptions in order to rebuild his knowledge with certain truths. In his first meditation, Descartes establishes three reasons for doubt, including the inability to distinguish between waking and sleeping states. He admits that he was misled by sensations in his sleep in the past, which were later identified as dream illusions. Due to these false perceptions, Descartes reveals that he cannot be sure whether he is awake and perceiving real images or hallucinations in his sleep (Descartes, 114). He also introduces the idea that he is always dreaming, which he disproves promptly by stating that whichever images he sees in his dreams are drawn from reality. Descartes goes on to systematically cast doubt on all his convictions and reconstructs his understanding based on facts which he can recognize as certain. As the Meditations unfold the meditator always wonders whether he is conscious or not. Within Meditation I, he eventually revisits this skepticism in which he concludes that the waking and sleeping states are distinguishable, stumbled upon because of doubt. Atop of this, through casting doubts on the reliability of our senses, Descartes demolishes the base of his previous beliefs by using the Evil Demon Argument as the basis for raising more uncertainty. It is one of the most extreme skepticism’s as its reasons that we must forego all the things that we have ever doubted about. Descartes proposes the idea that there is an all-powerful and deceitful evil demon who utilizes all its power to deceive him. Everything he thinks he knows, the heavens, the earth, colors, figures, sound, and all other external things are false and by him considered to be illusions created by the demon. Because his senses betray him, and his beliefs are developed based on senses, the beliefs are false and must, therefore, be discarded.

To begin, Descartes reintroduces his only reason for doubt throughout the first Mediation that he has not addressed; how can he know that he is not dreaming? Leading into the discussion of this skepticism, Descartes notes that his senses suggest more often than not what is true to him, and less of the time mislead him. Considering this, he suggests that this is rather useful because he can now identify the deceptions and address them likewise. Having regard to the propensity of the senses to suggest reality, Descartes refers to his dreaming doubt as hyperbolic and ridiculous. Along with other doubts. He goes on to state, “… for whether I am awake or dreaming, it remains true that two and three make five, and that a square has but four sides; nor does it seem possible that truths so apparent can ever fall under suspicion of falsity [or incertitude].” (Descartes, 115). The reason for rejecting this doubt is simply that dreams don’t fit in the waking mind. An example introduced by Descartes in order to illustrate this is the idea of characters that seem to appear and disappear in a dream, he would not, however, recognize its abnormality; he would be able to determine it to be a figment of the imagination in a waking state. He can determine this because if some person entered a room in the waking state and then proceeded to leave, Descartes would connect the person’s perception to other aspects of the event, thus making an interconnected memory of the person, which is not evident in dreaming (Descartes 114). After all this Descartes concludes that if the senses, the mind, and the intellect all work to investigate dreams from waking life, then the reality will be known.

Second, waking state is distinct from the dreaming state, because the waking state has a finite sequence of events with more attention to detail. Thought processes within the thinking state can be traced back to the event which gave impetus to a particular thought or concept. Nevertheless, thoughts can simply come up in the dreaming state without an origin. There is always some missing step or error in the dreaming state logic which means that it is a dream. The waking state also provides a linear history of the thoughts and actions which a dream cannot do. In the waking state events that follow from other events, an itinerary of a person’s day can be written down, explaining the person’s actions at each moment of their day. However, when one is sleeping, the itinerary reads sleeping. The itinerary also reads sleeping when arising, from the time the person went to bed to the moment they woke up to write another action. Because of that, linear history is possible, identifying a dream is possible. Because of the time structure and external analysis, a dream’s limitations are apparent, and a dream can be identified as these points become evident.

Moreover, the evil demon argument is of utmost importance in Descartes’ work. The argument tests our cognitive nature; everything we think we know comes to us through the senses, but our senses are not reliable. When our senses are not to be completely trusted, then nothing is certain in the outer world, since all is experienced by our senses. Our cognitive function is essentially defective determining that humans could not trust their experiences (a posteriori) as knowledge. The argument works hand in hand with the dream argument as he came to this conclusion because he could not determine a difference between his dream and non-dream experiences, therefore, because dreams are not reality, his perceptions and impressions of the world may be false. Again, conclusions stemming from the act of doubting. Descartes recognized that the dream argument may not be convincing enough, and so he argues that we believe an all-powerful God, one who created us and even has the power to deceive us on anything, even mathematics. Therefore, it is possible that we live lives of deceit. Yet, Descartes claims, God is all good and would not deceive us; nevertheless, there may be a devil-like evil demon who would (Descartes, 115). That may or may not be a valid statement, however, our world experiences are too vague to be considered facts and so we have no reason to believe one thing over another. Descartes’s evil demon argument suggests that we may be trapped in a vat “plugged in” to a dream-like universe dominated by an evil demon giving false perceptions of real life.

Essentially, the evil demon argument claims we may be living in a dream-like world; at least we have no objective reasons to believe we’re not. There may be no real emotion, no real relationships, no real experiences, no real anything. We may be leading a life of deception and falsehood. Our whole lives are suddenly called into question because if we are living in an illusion-world then everything we believe is merely a sensational experience. Knowledge, however, is not built from this argument as living in a false dream-world would be fundamentally bad even if we didn’t know we weren’t in reality, for three main reasons. First, the most basic scientific beliefs would be wrong. Scientific beliefs such as the scientific method, history’s most effective method of discovery, would lead us to wrong answers; the make-up of our world would be unknown. Second, the interpersonal relationships we’ve spent our whole lives working so hard to develop and maintain would be meaningless because there are no real people in the dream world, just illusions. Genuine relationships would be impossible because nobody is real. And third, in a dream world, we would not be in control of our own lives. Unchangeable limits are placed on us by the deceiver. Some would call this a sort of slavery, like a character in a video game, we would have no personal freedom. Without the power to accurately reason we are stuck without knowledge, forever. We would have no political, social, or personal impact on others.

In conclusion, Descartes adopted a position which resulted in him calling into doubt the dream argument where he believes there is an obvious way to differentiate dreams from waking life. In the case of an extremely vivid, relevant, and detailed dream, however, one can argue that it is impossible to differentiate this dream and reality. However, an olive branch is spread from this argument (The Dream Argument) to the next (The Evil Demon Argument) as he does not believe his initial points are tenacious enough to uphold his beliefs. The Evil Demon Argument is concluded with the understanding that Descartes holds a posteriori opinion that humans could not trust their sentences or constructing true knowledge from their sentences. We could only obtain knowledge of this world through reasoning and deduction, which is a priori. The Evil Demon argument serves as the cornerstone of the Meditation as it proves that we cannot be certain of anything, upon which Descartes further develops more reasons as to why he must distrust his senses.

Works Cited

  • Descartes, Rene. Meditation I

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