“Does Descartes succeed in his quest for certainty?


René Descartes (1596-1650) was a French philosopher who was very significant in questioning the philosophical opinions, which had stood somewhat still since the times of Aristotle and even Plato. He was educated at the Jesuit college of La Flèche in Anjou from 1604-12, studying classics, logic, mathematics and the traditional Aristotelian philosophy (it should be noted that Descartes was devoutly Christian throughout his life although he did a great deal of sceptic thinking on all accounts). From his school days Descartes was in poor health and was allowed to remain in bed until 11am (he continued this custom until his death). He was only happy with learning mathematics at school, with other subjects he disliked how many things were unknown to him. Descartes graduated in Law from the University of Poitiers in 1616 and decided to enlist in military school. Descartes travelled greatly between 1620-28 when he decided to settle down in Holland. Descartes wrote his first extensive discourse on Physics (“Le Monde”) while in Holland but upon hearing news of Galileo’s house arrest he decided to hold back publishing. “Le Monde” was published soon after Descartes’ death. Descartes was the first philosopher to consider the relation of the mind to the body as a problem. He also believed that a person’s identity is primarily not bodily, but of the mind – the “Ego cogito” – and that pain is spiritual, not material (unlike Thomas Aquinas, for instance.) Descartes’ “Meditations on First Philosophy” was published in 1641, the first meditation being that of the things that we may doubt. In order for Descartes to find what he could be certain of he decided to use a method of extreme scepticism, although it must be noted that Descartes’ main aim was to overcome scepticism – he used extreme scepticism to do this but was not a sceptic. He would discontinue to consider a group of ideas when he found a single means by which they could be considered uncertain. His intention was not to case doubt on individual belief but on the sources of belief – to do the former would be a near impossible task. Descartes first doubt is the disagreement of the learned, that is that one cannot trust the authorities (religious authorities, Aristotle’s long standing philosophical beliefs) for knowledge. His second doubt is the deceit of the senses. Descartes attempted to show that all empirical beliefs are unreliable because the senses can be deceived.

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“I realised 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.” – René Descartes, First Meditation on First Philosophy However, by the end of Descartes’ First Meditation he had decided that he could not be certain of anything, except arguably “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes third doubt is his “Dream Argument.” He asks the reader to look at the case of being in a dreaming state to convey his idea that the human senses can be very easily deceived – dreams seem like reality when one is experiencing them. Descartes believed the senses worked in the same way in a dreaming state as in reality and therefore concluded it is impossible for one to tell when one is in a dreaming state or in reality. He follows on however to somewhat contradict this point saying “since God made us and provided us with senses they cannot be totally unreliable.” Nigel Warburton sheds more doubt on the dream argument saying “…it is usually easy to distinguish dreams from reality because dreams are full of weird ideas.” Descartes concludes the First Meditation by saying that we can by no means be certain that what we interpret from the senses is real. “How often, asleep at night, am I convinced of just such familiar events-that I am here in my dressing gown, sitting by the fire-when in fact I am lying undressed in bed!” – René Descartes, First Meditation on First Philosophy This argument does not conclude that we can be certain of nothing, as mathematical propositions (a dreaming state would have the same mathematical truths, a square could never have more or less than four sides for instance) and a possible external world of some kind (what we see in our dreams must be like things which are real, otherwise we would not be able to fathom such images) remain undefeated. It is also arguable that the Dream Argument is self-refuting – “when in fact I am lying undressed in bed” could seem to be said by Descartes in certainty but after being deceived once is it ever possible to say something in certainty? This in turn begs the question “can one ask oneself to imagine one is dreaming unless one is certainly conscious?” – a point notably argued by Norman Malcolm. Descartes continues on to
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look at further potential uncertainties. He supposes that instead of a God being supremely good and the source of truth, there is some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning that has employed all of his energies in order to deceive. This is questioned later in the meditation however, when Descartes states that an evil demon would not be allowed to interfere with one’s cognitive process by God – Descartes being a firm believer in the Christian, all powerful God. However, what Descartes is trying to say is that whatever an all powerful deity may be, being as it is all powerful, it could deceive us to any extent. This is an illustration to show that nothing can be absolutely certain, and by no means indicates that Descartes believed in such a powerful demon or deity deceiving us – just that such deceit is possible. Descartes believed it is within one’s power to deter influence by such a demon but on the other hand, says: “I am like a prisoner who is enjoying an imaginery freedom while asleep; as he begins to suspect that he is asleep, he dreads being woken up, and goes along with the pleasant illusion as long as he can…for fear that my peaceful sleep may be followed by hard labour when I wake.” – René Descartes, First Meditation on First Philosophy This analogy with the prisoner is similar to that of Plato’s Cave. It is controversial however, in that it indicates we may all be aware of reality but simply choose to not “live in it.” This is known as the “Demon Argument” and is a much sturdier argument than the Dream Argument. The argument ties in the Descartes’ belief in Dualism, in which the mind could easily be possessed by an evil demon (the link between the mental and the physical in the brain.) However, Dualism seems greatly flawed – importantly, what could such a link in the brain consist of? With the Demon Argument Descartes decided he had brought uncertainty to mathematical propositions and a possible external world. He argues that a demon could have arranged the earth, the sky, and extended things to appear to exist as they do, but in truth they are portrayed falsely. Also, he points out that we could be deceived just as easily about mathematical truths, although they seem so certain and irrefutable. It would seem with this conclusion to the First Meditation that Descartes had failed in his quest for certainty. However, to make such an assumption would be unwise, as even the Demon Argument is penetrable, and Descartes’ chosen tactic of skepticism can also be
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criticised. Friedrich Hegel wrote that skepticism is self defeating as to complete the skeptic outlook one must commit suicide. So, on the one hand there was a tendency to lose all confidence in our ability to know anything at all but on the other hand, the atmosphere of uncertainty allowed people to entertain weird and wonderful theories. Descartes tried to avoid these two paths however, and aimed to confound the sceptic whilst avoiding the fanciful. With this accomplished he could then go on to build a new philosophical and scientific system to replace that of Aristotle. Philosophers have often contrasted the knowledge of the world acquired through the senses with the knowledge acquired through reasoning. Leibniz, for example, spoke of vérités de fait and vérités de raison; and Hume distinguished “experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence” from “abstract reasoning concerning quantity and number.” Some statements seem to quite certainly be true: 1. Statements of identity, e.g. “The Princess is the daughter of the Queen,” “Seven plus five equals twelve” – Kant would have classed this statement as synthetic not analytic. He would have said that when one thinks of “7 + 5” one does not actually have “12” in one’s mind and that one therefore adds something to the subject. 2. Statements asserting a subclass within a class, e.g. “All black cats are cats.” 3. Definitions, e.g. “There are one hundred centimetres in one metre.” Descartes would say that his Demon Argument defeats this argument - mathematical propositions would fit in here. 4. Stipulations, e.g. “A proposition is either true or false,” “It will either rain or not rain” 5. Statements making implicit meanings explicit, “A positive integer is either even or uneven.” These groups of course overlap but are analytic propositions and therefore to deny their truth would be self contradictory. One has to understand that for these propositions to be defined as analytic the words within them have to have established meanings and uses. Someone could claim, for instance, that the number three is actually the same as the symbol (for four) “4.” However, this would seem very illogical and absurd as it is veering away from fixity of meaning in communication to
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the most extreme degree. If one was to question the meaning of every word at every encounter chaos would result and communication would be impossible. Thankfully, we do have such fixity of the meaning of words and communication is possible. Analytic propositions, then, are certain and immune from revision on the base of empirical evidence. Ayer declares that it is grammar that rules out saying that something is red and green at the same time. But this explanation could seem inadequate. Language and grammar could be considered simply just too changeable, trivial, superficial, parochial, and imprecise. Also, that they fix only the outer limits of approved usage. Descartes hoped for a perfect language – he looks for “clear and distinct” answers to many questions – but was by no means the only philosopher to seek metaphysical simplicity by analysis. Socrates, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, and Wittgenstein – a diverse collection – among others have all used a deep, analytical approach. Could society even attain the perfection of formal languages such as in “Principia Mathematica”? It seems not, but then again it is questionable whether or not such perfection would ever be necessary. It seems that language is complex and words understood to a high degree such that one can communicate anything one has knowledge of without a problem. Wittgenstein said: “Our language can be seen as an ancient city; a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.” Language is not logic. There is no invariance in language; grammar has no essence; syntax and morphology differ from language to language. Nothing in language “corresponds with the world” or reflects “the grain of reality.” Languages can be translated only roughly. None is ideal. There is no clear standard for perfection or adequacy, as there is for a chess set with a pawn missing. To conclude, Descartes did not succeed in his quest for certainty; he found he could be certain of nothing. His “Demon Argument” was the final argument required to cast doubt on anything and everything we may believe in. Descartes still held firm beliefs,
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and although he used scepticism in his quest for certainty, he was no sceptic. However, he uncovered a new belief: Nothing, no matter how certain it may seem, can be considered as a certainty.

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