A Philosopher's Blog

Short Criticism of Descartes’ 1st Meditation

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2009
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Though Descartes makes a powerful case, I believe that his arguments do not actually support skepticism to the degree that he claims. Each of his skeptical arguments will be considered and replied to in turn.

First, while Descartes is correct in his claim that the senses deceive us in some cases, his general skepticism about the senses is not warranted. That this is so is shown by the following argument. In order to make his case, Descartes presents a variety of examples in which he has found that his senses deceived him. To be justified in claiming that the senses deceive, a person would need to be able to recognize when an error has taken place. In other words, the person would need to be able to distinguish between being mistaken and being correct. For example, to know that the ‘heat mirages’ that occur on paved roads are ‘deceptions’, one would need to know that they are optical illusions and hence what is seen is not what is actually there. But, in knowing this, one is able to see through the deception and thus avoid being deceived. Ironically, it must be concluded that in presenting examples of how the senses deceive, one is also presenting examples of how we are able to ‘see through’ deceptions-thus undercutting the very claim that is being argued for. Ironically, in arguing that he has been deceived by his senses, Descartes also argues that we can see through such deceptions.

Of course, I do not claim that we are never deceived-just that we can penetrate such deceptions. Given this fact, we can trust our senses as long as we are suitably cautious. To use an analogy: trusting the senses is like relying on a safety rope while climbing. They do fail occasionally, but as long as we are suitably careful we can be reasonably safe. To doubt our senses because they occasionally fail us would be like refusing to use safety ropes while climbing because they sometimes fail.  Thus, Descartes’ argument does not justify the degree of skepticism alleged.

Second, while movies like Total Recall and The Matrix make Descartes’ dream argument seem plausible, his argument can be countered. While Descartes claims that there is no way to be certain that one is not asleep, he is mistaken. Based on my own experience, the state I call “dreaming” differs from the state I regard as being awake in many ways. One main difference is that the ‘dream’ world lacks the continuity of the ‘waking’ world. In the ‘waking’ world things remain mostly the same from day to day. If I go to ‘sleep’ and wake up, the next day my truck will still be a basic Tacoma pickup. But, I might have a ‘dream’ in which I have a Hummer 3 and another in which I have a Porsche. Yet, unlike my trusty Tacoma, the Hummer and Porsche will not be readily available for my drive to work or the supermarket.

A second difference is that the ‘dream’ world and the ‘waking’ world appear to have completely different rules or laws. In the ‘dream’ world, people can fly, the dead can walk, cartoons and TV characters can come to life, politicians can tell the truth, and even stranger things can happen that simply do not occur in the ‘waking’ world. In stark contrast, these things do not happen in the ‘waking’ world.

While there are many other differences, these two standards show that even though I might not be able to know the true natures of these two worlds, I have good grounds for believing that the ‘waking’ world is fundamentally different from the ‘dream’ world. Given this ability to distinguish ‘waking’ from ‘dreaming’, it must be concluded that Descartes’ argument fails to warrant the degree of skepticism he claims. I might not know if there is an external world, but I can discern the difference between the world of dreams and the ‘waking’ world.

Third, while Descartes’ evil demon is a formidable opponent, it can be defused by carefully considering the topic of possibility. Perhaps it is possible there is an evil demon whose sole mission in existence is to deceive me. However, to claim that there is such a being (or even that it is possible that such a being exists) is to make a very ‘heavy’ claim. As with houses, a ‘heavy’ claim requires strong support. Without such support, there seems to be little reason to accept even the possibility of such a being.

While Descartes is clearly considering even the most remote possibilities in his method of doubt, all he offers is the claim that such a being could exist.  However, this is hardly a solid basis upon which to build the degree of doubt required by Descartes. Ironically, his skepticism undercuts itself-to the degree that I am in a state of doubt, I will also have doubt about the possibility that there could even be such a deceiver. As such, my doubt about the possibility of such a being serves to undermine the greater doubt that is supposed to be generated by this being. In order for the evil demon to generate such a degree of doubt it must be possible for it to exist. However, Descartes does not provide enough support for his claim of its possibility. This shows that Descartes’ evil demon argument fails to warrant the degree of doubt he claims.

Given the above arguments, it seems most reasonable to conclude that while Descartes’ arguments are powerful and well reasoned, they are not powerful enough to create the desired degree of doubt.

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11 Responses

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  1. steven andresen said, on September 22, 2010 at 1:54 am

    Descartes provides a partial description of his skeptical argument.

    There’s an unstated part of his argument that makes what he says explicitly successful

    The unstated part has to do with how he thinks of a correct argument.

    A correct argument is a theoretical achievement, one that is the result of listening to his inner logician.

    His inner logician says that there are many correct arguments, and one of them has the form:

    if p, then q. P is the case, therefore q.

    So, a full statement of Descartes’ ‘dream argument’ includes the form of his argument, which he left unstated, and the evidence or support he gives in his Meditations for his claims.

    One claim he makes is that he is in his study writing. The support he gives for this claim includes all the sense data that he describes. He sees the fire. He feels the heat. He hears the flames. He smells the wood smoke. He feels the chair under his buttocks. And so on.

    If he has all these pieces of data from his senses, then, he claims, he is in his study writing.

    However, he has a further thought. He also knows that, from his point of view, he can seem to be in his study writing, because he is in his bed dreaming that he sees a fire, dreams that he feels heat, dreams that he smells burning wood, and so on.

    He wonders whether he can tell the difference between being in his study and dreaming he is in his study. The puzzlement becomes serious because, he says, he can’t tell the difference between sense data of smelling wood, hearing crackling, feeling heat, and so on, and experiencing the same sense data only dreaming it all.

    You have here made the point that when Descartes talks about his experiences of being ‘decieved’ by his senses he mistakenly concludes that it all adds up to his being unable to tell when he is decieved. He is mistaken because in each case that he could ever bring up, there are ways that we can and do determine whether we have been decieved.

    In effect, Descartes does not pay attention to the details of the examples he brings up. He relies too much on generalities.

    I don’t think the strength of his argument depends on what he does with examples. The strength resides instead on the fact that he thinks of his claims about experience as logical arguments.

    The fact about logical arguments that has been insufficiently considered is that, as they are not about controversies or issues, you cannot compare any one with any other.

    You can’t know if you are awake sitting writing or asleep dreaming you are sitting writing, not because there’s something about the experience of sitting or dreaming you don’t know about, but because your claim about what you are doing cannot be compared. He can’t compare one experience with another, and so can’t compare the evidence for one with the evidence for the other.

    In the same way, for Descartes, I can’t know there are other minds because I cannot compare my experiences with your experiences.

    The ‘dream argument’ is not the argument for radical scepticism. It’s only telling us we have a big problem.

  2. Laura said, on May 5, 2011 at 4:59 am

    Descartes is trying to DISPROVE skepticism, not support it! skepticism is the theory that it is impossible to have knowledge, because we cannot know anything for certain.
    He is using the skeptics’ own game, by doubting everything, to argue that there are some things which CANNOT be doubted.

    As a foundationalist, Descartes believes that there are foundational beliefs, i.e. axioms, or indubitable truths which cannot be doubted, and other beliefs, which, if are arrived at using the foundational beliefs and sound reasoning, may be considered knowledge.

    His point is that we can doubt our sensory perception and reasoning (emphasis on the word DOUBT, not that they are actually incorrect – just the possibility that they are), but we cannot doubt that we are thinking, and thus must exist. I think therefore I am. And as such, while we can doubt that “I am typing on the computer”, we CANNOT doubt that “It SEEMS that I am typing on the computer” – we can believe that we have beliefs.

    You make a point that you are able to tell the difference between a dream and reality. This is true. But you can only tell this difference once you are awake! Descartes is suggesting that our “reality” is all simply a dream – our “waking” moments, where there are laws of nature etc, may ALL be a dream, because in dreams we are not only unaware that we are dreaming, but that all the things that happen in them – “flying people” and “live cartoons” seem completely normal! How do we know that gravity is not just a figment of our imagination?

    The very point Descartes is making is that there are simply some things which cannot be doubted. Yes, he uses a method of doubt to achieve this, but he is TRYING TO DISPROVE SCEPTICISM, not support it. I’m afraid your argument simply does not make sense.

  3. Michael LaBossiere said, on May 5, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    I’m well aware that he is trying to establish a foundation that cannot be doubted. Part of his project is positive (find what cannot be doubted), but part is also negative (undermine the empiricist’s position regarding the senses as the foundation of knowledge). In order to complete his project, he needs to establish the needed degree of doubt regarding the senses and then rebuild on rationalist grounds.

    My contention here is that it can be argued that his arguments do not establish the degree of doubt he claims that they establish. As such, I am not claiming that he is not trying to ultimately disprove skepticism. Rather, I am merely criticizing the arguments he presents as part of his method.

    • David said, on October 19, 2013 at 1:35 am

      What she is trying to say when she says he is a foundationalist is that clear and distinct perceptions are implied by human beings because they are thinking things. If the purpose of the Metaphysical Meditations was intended to assert human consciousness as a possibility beyond judgement, memory, understanding, free will, knowledge and imagination then the evil demon would actually exist. In this sense this is why he writes of the idea by virtue of being a metaphysician who otherwise does not allow unexamined truths to settle in his mind, and why it´s such a great argument. He is not providing those examples as evidence for an objective reality which in turn provides the reader with the ornaments of a truly justified belief i.e., like watching the Matrix, because he is actually doing metaphysics. He describes the process of reasoning as it encounters the plausible error in judgement which occurs within human consciousness as it exists immanently alongside imagination and understanding and finds necessary truths that guarantee the fundamentals of his thought.

      This is a big difference between him and the empirical philosophers like Locke, Hobbes, Hume, Berklee who came after him. For Descartes the big problem was to establish the innateness of reason along with all the other faculties belonging to human consciousness; this was of no importance to the empiricists as they only sought to whittle down those things for the sake of explaining with greater precision what did and didn´t make part of the ideas describing a methodological enquiry into human science. He never made claims about the limitations of objective evidence in the same sense as they did. You can´t criticize him directly for that.

  4. Anonymous said, on March 31, 2012 at 6:46 am

    150.9 12

  5. Teddy said, on September 26, 2012 at 10:11 am

    There are no degrees of doubt Descartes is trying to establish. In this methodology of Cartesian doubt, it suffices to only doubt a proposition, which constitutes grounds to withhold assent on the basis of the uncertainty that the doubt brings. Whether the Dreaming Argument illustrates 9 units of doubt, and whether there are stronger arguments that will illustrate more units of doubt is irrelevant. The Dreaming Argument raises doubt and that’s important. On that basis alone, we ought to remain skeptical of knowledge via the senses.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 26, 2012 at 11:30 am

      While he does aim at an ultimate level of doubt, he reaches it via a series of steps. Each step results in a broader form of skepticism. This seems worth noting, although he does aim to establish his “ultimate” level of doubt.

      • Anonymous said, on September 26, 2012 at 3:43 pm

        I do not think he seeks to establish any ultimate level of doubt. the doubt is only a proxy to get to indubitable truths. Remember the epistemic relevance is not so much that the proposition is true, but whether or not it can be known with certainty. The first doubt raises concerns over the certainty of a postereori knowledge while the evil demon argument casts skeptical doubt on a priori knowledge. None of these doubt mechanisms is ever illustrated as the ultimate form of doubt. You are right in that they are presented as stages, but i think you mistakenly place emphasis on the doubt itself as opposed to what it reveals.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 27, 2012 at 5:57 am

          On one hand, you are right. He begins the First Meditation by making it clear his goal is to achieve certainty. On the other hand, within the First Meditation he does aim at reaching an ultimate level of doubt-that is, a point at which there can be no further doubt.

          In the case of the evil genius, he does reach his ultimate doubt-that is, his skepticism hits its highest (or lowest) point with that tricky fellow.

          I wouldn’t say that I am mistaken in placing emphasis on the doubt-after all, this bit is about the first Meditation which is about doubt. I, perhaps, should have been clearer to note this meditation is the start of his philosophical quest for certainty and that his doubt is methodological rather than the final goal of his project.

  6. Anonymous said, on December 9, 2012 at 6:03 am

    Putting aside Descartes’ claims for the moment, I would like to politely point out that you[re wrong on all three counts. The fact that we have a distinction between real and illusory experience in no way implies that we can correctly make (or even ever have correctly made) the distinction in any specific situation. Second, sometimes I dream lucidly, but most of the times I have no idea that I am dreaming. On rarer occasions, I even wake up in my dreams–or at least I believe that’s what has happened! Moreover, the sense of continuity is inextricably tied to memory, and we of course have no way of knowing whether our memories are true or false. Lastly, there is no criterion (that I know of anyway) that could establish that the existence of the demon is either more or less probable than my own perceived “real” existence. It’s 50/50 for all we “know”!


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