Descartes Question: Is Descartes successful in overcoming his doubts about the senses?

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). 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. “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
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Descartes proposed that as we can sometimes be mistaken due to misinterpretations by our senses therefore we can never be certain of our empirical beliefs. Because our senses are more often right than wrong, we may infer that what we perceive by the senses is usually true, although we cannot prove that that will always be the case. However, by the end of Descartes’ First Meditation he had decided that he could not be certain of anything ( it was in his Discourse on the Method that Descartes arrived at his most famous claim “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.” Descartes Descartes decided that God, being perfectly good, would not deceive him through his sense faculties – God had after all provided him with his sense faculties for a purpose. Nigel Warburton sheds more doubt on the dream argument: “…it is usually easy to distinguish dreams from reality because dreams are full of weird ideas.” – Nigel Warburton 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
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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 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
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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 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: Statements of identity for instance, 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. Also, statements asserting a subclass within a class, e.g. “All black cats are cats.” 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. Stipulations too, e.g. “A proposition is either true or false,” “It will either rain or not rain” and statements making implicit meanings explicit, e.g.“A positive integer is either even or uneven.”

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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, and although he used scepticism in his quest for certainty, he was no sceptic. Descartes rejected his sceptical arguments on the basis of the Divine Guarantee – that God would not deceive him to such an extent and so his senses could be trusted. However, as his argument relies on the Divine Guarantee that his clear and distinct ideas must be true we can say Descartes was not successful in overcoming the doubts surrounding our senses, although he believed he was. “We can be sure that God exists, only because we clearly and evidently perceive that he does; therefore, prior to being certain that God exists, we need to be certain that whatever we clearly and evidently perceive is true." – Antoine Arnauld who recognised the circularity of Descartes’ argument for the Divine Guarantee in his Fourth Set of Objections.

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