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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  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.

    • kolea said, on August 18, 2015 at 7:55 pm

      I can agree that refuting skepticism was a goal in Descartes writing, but you state that his argument does not support skepticism to the degree that he claims. Although this may be true or entirely untrue, I do not believe your approach to be sufficient and I believe that your argument does not resolve the issue of skepticism which you introduced. I understand that your goal is not to disprove him but to merely point out flaws in his logic and I respect that, but I will explain to the best of my ability why I think your argument is weak. In your first argument I agreed on the statement that “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.” This is logical and I agree. We must first understand what deception is and what is being deceived. In this case the senses are being deceived as the mind perceives that the senses can be deceived. This logic gives reason to believe that the mind is separate from the things of corporeal nature which Descartes expounds upon, thus the conclusion using your own logic does not much differ from Descartes. You continue your argument saying that one would need to know the concept of optical illusion to understand and know that heat mirages that occur on roads are deceptions and through that knowledge of optical illusion you can understand that what you see is not really there. The major component you used in this argument is knowledge of optical illusions which makes no sense why you would bring this into the equation given that Descartes blatantly describes stripping his mind of any previous knowledge and prejudices to the best of his ability. Things such as optical illusions which is a concept derived from inductive reasoning, does not play a profound role in refuting Descartes arguments which are for the most part derived from deductive reason. Descartes is using doubt to uncover what he cannot doubt. You are suggesting one must use prior knowledge to understand that the senses are being or not being deceived. Your logic leads to suggest that we must first have knowledge to know deception which is obviously a circle. This example does not provide a good case for your argument. How can you argue that Descartes is not supporting the amount of skepticism in which he claims when your own argument carries less doubt and skepticism then Descartes argument? This approach requires more faith in prior knowledge to develop more knowledge on the subject matter where as Descartes attempts to discard all prior knowledge and starting from scratch rebirth undeniable truth. I have other issues with your other arguments as well but I believe I have typed enough for now. Please do not take this as aggressive scrutiny, but as an act of passionate desire to uncover wisdom and truth. As a fellow thinker I like to debate and meditate on others opinions to further and better my own.

  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”!

  7. ulasc said, on April 30, 2014 at 10:49 am

    Late reply (2014), but ehm, where is the proof that we can trust our senses? I can’t find it in your article… Which proofs for me that Descartes’ argument is right…

  8. ulasc said, on April 30, 2014 at 10:52 am

    Hmmm I can’t edit my post: Something else is missing. The writer of the article points out that you can know you are dreaming because you do things like flying in dreams.. that doesn’t make any sense, because while you dream that, you don’t know that you are dreaming, because while dreaming it, it feels normal to fly, just like normal life feels normal while “awake”.

  9. literarique said, on April 2, 2015 at 2:40 am

    In the light of above arguments, one can’t really say how real is this ‘reality’ as well. Just as dream state seems real to the dreamer until he makes a shift from one state to another, so does the awaking state seems real unless it would disappear through some other awakening experience.

  10. Luke Miner said, on August 13, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    Interesting post. In paragraph 2 you said that in order to justify his claim that the senses are unreliable, he must be able to recognize the error. I follow you there. Then, however, you argue that Descartes must be able to “see through the deception” in order to make his argument that his senses were unreliable. I take you to mean that Descartes must know what is “really there” in order to argue that he is deceived.

    Why must this be the case? To me, it seems that if my eyes and ears provide data that are mutually exclusive, I know that my senses are deceiving me even though my eyes, or my ears, or neither could be right. If sense data contradict, we know we are deceived right?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 14, 2015 at 10:32 am

      Yes, to make the case that he is being deceived, he must be aware that he has been deceived. To use an analogy, for me to be aware that someone is lying to me about a fact, I would need some awareness of the truth (unless, of course, I just had a power to know that someone is lying).

      True, if there is a contradiction between two senses (for example, I see a pile of gold, but when I try to touch it my hands pass through it), then it would be reasonable to infer that one is being deceived. But, the error could just be a failure of judgment-I could be seeing a hologram (so my eyes are not deceived-there is an image there) and naturally I would not be able to touch it.

      • Luke Miner said, on August 17, 2015 at 10:56 am

        Then Descartes is consistent to argue that his senses are deceiving him even though he doesn’t really know what is “really there”. All he must know is that his eyes tell him one thing and his ears tell him another. He need not know which is correct or if both eyes and ears are wrong.

        I don’t understand your distinction between deception of the senses and failure of judgement. What do you mean by “sensation”? Do you take sensations to be simple reds, blues, softs, hards, highs, and lows, or do you take them to be combinations of these sensations (like the percepts of the empiricists) and thus judgement is a component of sensation.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 17, 2015 at 1:24 pm

          The rough idea that a sensation is just what it is and error enters in only when one makes a judgment about it. For example, if I feel a sensation of cold, I cannot be wrong about that. But if I claim that I am experiencing cold for real, I could be wrong because that is a judgment about is causing the sensation.

          • Luke Miner said, on August 17, 2015 at 1:51 pm

            You said: “If I feel a sensation of cold, I cannot be wrong about that”. I’m not sure what you mean. What is it that you can’t be wrong about? Because of your next sentence, I don’t think you saying you can’t be wrong in your opinion that you felt it. How can you be right or wrong about anything but a “judgement”?

            • WTP said, on August 17, 2015 at 3:39 pm

              How can you be right or wrong about anything but a “judgement”?

              Let me help you out here Luke, you’re new and it pains me to watch people struggle…Trying to get a defnitive answer to a discrete cogitation from Mike is like trying to nail jello to a wall. What we have here is a combination of sollypsism and nihillism, with a dollop of sophistry and narcissm thrown in for good measure. Note the masthead, “A Philosopher’s View of the World…assuming it exists”. See, there’s always an out. It’s built in to the domain…assuming it exists. My advice?

              …Not that I’m one to follow my own advice…

            • Luke Miner said, on August 17, 2015 at 6:22 pm

              WTP. Interesting. I take it you aren’t a real fan of Professor LaBossiere. I’m surprised he let your comment through moderation 🙂 I’m hoping he provides a better answer to my question than you predict. Precision is definitely required. We’ll wait and see.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 18, 2015 at 1:25 pm

              I believe in free expression, so I only delete comments when they are truly horrific. I’ve only had to ban one person-he crossed over from merely being hateful to claiming that certain women needed to be raped.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 18, 2015 at 1:19 pm

              There is some debate in philosophy and cognitive science whether or not a person can be in error about what he feels. One view is that a person cannot be mistaken in regards to feelings-that is, when I feel cold, I know I feel cold and cannot be wrong about how it feels to me. Other claim I can get it wrong-that is, I can be in error about these sorts of mental states. I can clearly be wrong about the cause of the feeling-the stock example is something so hot (or cold) that it feels cold (or hot).

            • Luke Miner said, on August 25, 2015 at 11:28 am

              Whether or not you can be wrong about what your feel, a statement about what you feel is a judgement. Correct?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 25, 2015 at 6:12 pm

              Making a statement about how I feel could be untrue-I could lie about what I am feeling.

            • Luke Miner said, on August 27, 2015 at 10:58 am

              In order to lie about my feelings, wouldn’t I have to make a prior judgement about what my feelings actually are?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 27, 2015 at 5:50 pm

              Presumably yes. I guess it would play out like this:

              1. I experience the Feeling of cold.
              2. I judge that I am feeling cold.
              3. I say “I am not cold.”
              4. WTP accuses me of being a liar.
              5. WTP is right.

            • Luke Miner said, on August 31, 2015 at 2:35 pm

              Then it is difficult to see how your criticism holds up. Since Descartes can deduce contradictory conclusions from sense data, he can conclude that his senses are deceived and so can you (aside from the reification in that statement which seems to me to be more problematic than people realize). Correct?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 31, 2015 at 5:29 pm

              Can you give an example of such a contradiction?

            • Luke Miner said, on September 1, 2015 at 1:23 pm

              It is difficult to give an example, because sensation has not been well-defined in this conversation. Defining sensation is a daunting task of which I have not yet seen a satisfactory completion. This is, in my view, a particular embarrassment to the empiricism and existentialism which characterizes most modern philosophers with whom I am acquainted.

              Before proceeding with an example, I should also point out that my ability to provide such an example is not relevant to my criticism of your argument. I criticized your argument because it assumed that Descartes must know the truth in order to know he was deceived by the senses. I think we agree now that this is false.

              That said, I think that Descartes, by sensation, meant something like: reasoning based on what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. If this be permitted, one contradiction would occur when a fishing pole is cast into the water. Our eyes tell us that the fishing line takes on sharp bend in its direction where it enters the water. However, our hands tell us that its trajectory remains the same when we feel it above and below the water. Another contradiction occurs when feel a piece of carpet and a piece of steel. Our hands tell us the steel is colder than the carpet, but our eyes view the thermometer which tells us they are the same temperature.

              If these be allowed to be called “sensations”, then we are right to conclude that our senses deceive. I do not use this definition of sensation, so please don’t ask me to defend it. I believe sensation, as some post-moderns and empiricists have defined it, produces no actual information and is therefore unfalsifiable, at best, and is vague and meaningless, at worst.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 1, 2015 at 1:51 pm

              As you said, the moderns tended to be a bit vague with their concepts of ideas, sensation and such. Berkeley seemed to actually cheat with his definition of idea, but that is another matter.

              I think the original argument, though obviously not decisive or even particularly powerful, still has merit. For Descartes to claim his senses deceive (that is, he got things wrong) he would need to be aware of the error. Plato has a relevant discussion about sensory deception in the Republic-he notes that a person is aware of the deceits of the senses by using reasoning, and thus sorts out these deceits as deceits (or illusions, if that is preferable).

              As you note, a person can infer that the senses are inconsistent in what they report. In the examples you give, the person is aware of the error: the pole appears bent, but does not feel bent. The person infers the pole is not bent and that the visual appearance is an illusion. If the person did not believe that reality did not match the appearance, then there would be no inference of error: she would just think that poles feel unbent when in water, but look bent. In the example of the steel and carpet, the thermometer informs the person of the error-he needs to believe the thermometer is right to infer that his sensory experience is in error.

              But, if your point is that the person need not know (in the strict epistemic sense) what is real in order to infer deceit, you are right. Even if the person with the carpet and steel was in the Matrix, he could still infer his senses were in error, even though he knows nothing about his real situation.

            • Luke Miner said, on September 1, 2015 at 2:19 pm

              I think we are agreed then. You said that your argument is “…obviously not decisive or even particularly powerful…”. Arguments either follow or they don’t. Whether they are weak, strong, revitalizing, fuzzy, fluffy, dangerously-cheesy, rounded, invigorating, illuminating, stupendous, frickin-awesome or hecka-sweet, they all are either fallacious or sound. Yet I agree there is “some merit”, as you say, to non-sequitirs.

              Do you think there is a criteria for distinguishing a deceptive sensation from a truthful one? In the fishing example, the sense of sight was thought to be the deceiver when the sense of touch apparently exposed the deception. In the next example, the opposite was the case, touch was the deceiver and sight set things right. Some use this to argue that reason is the objective criteria for deciding these matters. Do you agree? Or do you propose some other criteria or rather think there is none?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 1, 2015 at 4:49 pm

              In the abstract, I agree with the ancient skeptics-the skeptic is unbreakable. I’ve got an essay in my What Don’t You Know? book arguing that.

              In practice, I go with Locke: what matters in practical terms is avoiding pain, etc. So, while I cannot be certain if the fire is real, I will not stick my head in it to test whether it is real or not. Crudely put, I do not know if the fire is real, but I am pretty sure it will hurt my face.

            • Luke Miner said, on September 1, 2015 at 5:43 pm

              You said that you can’t be certain if fire is real. How can you say that you are pretty sure fire will hurt your face? Doesn’t that assume fire is real?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 2, 2015 at 9:10 am

              Not at all. The fire could be unreal, yet I could still feel pain. To use an example, imagine an incredibly vivid dream about fire-the Fire is just in my mind (not real) yet if I dream of putting my dream face in the dream fire, it could cause me pain.

            • Luke Miner said, on September 2, 2015 at 12:00 pm

              What do you mean by real that allows you to exclude your dream from being real? Is it not a real dream and is the fire not a real part of a real dream?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 2, 2015 at 12:34 pm

              It depends on what you mean by “real.” A fake Big Foot track is a real fake Big Foot track. A counterfeit $20 is a real counterfeit and a CGI monster is a real CGI monster. A dream is a real dream and a dream fire is a real dream fire. But, the track is not a real BF track, the $20 is not a real bill, and the monster is not a real monster. Likewise, the dream fire is not a real fire.

            • Luke Miner said, on September 2, 2015 at 1:27 pm

              It would seem, from what you just said at first, that it would follow that, since a counterfeit bill is a real counterfeit bill, therefore, it is a type of real bill. It just has no value for those who know what type of real bill it is (i.e. those who understand the qualifier “counterfeit”). A real blue ball is still a real ball. And, likewise, a real CGI monster is a real monster. It is just of such a type (CGI) that it isn’t scary to those who know it is CGI. And so, the dream fire is real dream fire and is, therefore, real fire, but it is of such a type that it doesn’t appear in our waking states. But that all depends on how you define real.

              I’m not disagreeing with you, I’m just trying to understand exactly what you mean by “real”. Do you mean to say that the real is the material, the conceptual, the perceptual, or some combination, or neither?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 3, 2015 at 2:44 pm

              “What is real” is a good question. Not surprisingly, different philosophers give different answers. There are also numerous complexities. For example, there could be different ways of things being real and different sorts of realities.

              But, to keep it focused, I’ll stick to Descartes’ Meditations. One general problem Descartes considers here is the problem of the external world. That is, how does he know that his ideas that seem to be about/of external (to his mind) corporeal (extended and spatial) objects correspond to any such external corporeal objects? For Descartes, a real external object would be composed of material substance, would exist in space and time, and would have all the associated qualities (extended, etc.).

              For Descartes, his mind is also real-but the mind does not exist as corporeal substance. Rather, it is a non-spatial, non-extended thinking substance.

              Berkeley took real to be rather different. For him, “to be is to be perceived” and he argues, at great length, against the existence of matter. As might be guessed, he runs into some serious problems trying to distinguish real objects from dream objects, hallucinations and so on. As a distinguishing quality, he relies on vividness and also seems to use the idea of interpersonal perception.

              In everyday life, I use the usual meaning of “real”-that is, not fake, not a hallucination, etc. Philosophically, it gets more complicated.

            • Luke Miner said, on September 3, 2015 at 5:59 pm

              The reason we got off on these questions about “reality” was that I asked you what criteria you have to distinguish a deceptive sensation from an accurate one. You answered that the avoidance of pain was what practically mattered, which, to me, doesn’t answer the question. However, I chose to focus on your next statement which was that you can’t know that fire is real but you are pretty sure it will hurt your face. With our discussion of reality before me, I still don’t see how you can have an unreal “it” which hurts your face. If my face actually hurts while I’m dreaming, something real is doing the hurting, even if it is the real dream which causes me to feel pain. But what about the answer to my original question? Did you mean, by all this, to propose a criteria for distinguishing deceptive sensations from accurate ones?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 3, 2015 at 6:15 pm

              In regards to the fire issue, the “common sense” view of a real fire is a fire that exists outside of my mind, is composed of energy derived from extended, physical matter. If I think that my material body has been damaged by a fire in the external world, but I am dreaming or in the Matrix, then I am in error. If I judge that I am feeling pain when I am feeling pain, then I presumably cannot be wrong. If I judge that I am feeling heat, but I am actually being exposed to a cold object in the external world, I would be in error. In this case, I would rely on a thermometer or some other measure to expose my error. Now, if I am dreaming of fire-pain, yet it is caused somehow by dream-cold, then I would presumably lack a way to determine my error, unless I had a dream-thermometer.

              But, in short, I really have no way to be certain (that is, no possibility of error) in regards to anything because there seems to be no standard of certainty (as per the usual skeptical regress argument).

              In regards to dream fire being real, in one sense it is real-if by real you mean that there is a causal process involving something that causes the effect. Perhaps the dream-fire is, at that moment, the firing of certain neurons in my brain that causes the pain neurons to fire in response. In that case, the fire is in my brain and is real, albeit not real fire in the usual sense of something the right sort of chemical process. Unless, of course, by brain is actually on fire. If I believe that the dream-fire is an external fire, I would be in error and hence deceived in that judgment. If I judge that it is as if I am experiencing fire, then I would not be in error.

              I just have the usual standards for sorting out deceptions-that is, consistency, consulting other observers, applying critical methods such as measurements and reasoning.

            • Luke Miner said, on September 3, 2015 at 7:24 pm

              You made two statements which puzzled me. Neither statement surprised me, but I don’t understand how they can be taken together although I recognize that many others, not just yourself, take them together. You said: “I really have no way to be certain in regards to anything because there seems to be no standard of certainty.” This statement, as I took it, did not apply only to sensation but to all things. But, at the end, you said: “I just have the usual standards for sorting out deceptions-that is, consistency, consulting other observers, applying critical methods such as measurements and reasoning.” I frequently read and hear philosophers assent to both these, but I don’t understand how they can reconcile them. If you can be certain of nothing, how can you be certain of the standards (consistency, consulting others…) you use? And why use standards for sorting out deceptions if “there seems to be no standard of certainty”?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 4, 2015 at 6:57 am

              To be consistent, I have to hold that I cannot be certain of the standards. However, as Hume pointed out, even the most powerful arguments for skepticism fade when philosophers go out into the “real” world. Hume, correctly, points out that this is absurd and is a matter of psychology rather than logic.

            • Luke Miner said, on September 28, 2015 at 6:47 pm

              Dr. LaBossiere, sorry for getting back so late. There was a mixup with my notification but I appreciate you continuing this conversation with me.

              What I hear you saying is that this is an inconsistency in your view that you simply have to live with. The arguments imply skepticism but you can’t accept skepticism. Do I have this right?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 29, 2015 at 5:14 pm

              Here is my practical view of skepticism: http://www.philpercs.com/2015/09/skepticism-locke-games.html

            • Luke Miner said, on October 1, 2015 at 8:10 pm

              I read your post and commented. Either way, even if you can’t know anything, it seems that, on “practical skepticism”, one would still want to be consistent. It seems especially practical for a philosopher to be consistent. Yet, you use “the usual standards for sorting out deception – that is, consistency…” while maintaining that you “really have no way to be certain in regards to anything because there seems to be no standard of certainty.” Wouldn’t it be more consistent to say that you have no ability at all to sort out deception?

              Yet, on the other hand, there seems to be no reason to be consistent at all on skepticism since there can be no reason for anything on skepticism right? Is this why you maintain the inconsistency?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 2, 2015 at 1:07 pm

              Well, using the game analogy, I can sort out things in the game (like it seemed to be a dragon, but turned out to be an illusion) without knowing if what I am experiencing is really real for real. So, I can sort out deception on the local level (“aha, the tracks appear to meet, but when I walk them, they never do”) yet can never sort out whether I am deceived globally or not (“um, is there really real stuff outside my mind or not…hell, I don’t know”). That, I think, is the best that can be done.

            • Luke Miner said, on October 5, 2015 at 4:36 pm

              In a conversation with Paul Pardi at Seattle Pacific (a postmodernist, manager of philosophynews.com), Paul told me a similar thing; that we cannot know anything outside our own mind. Then I asked him if he could know his own mind or that he even had a mind. He seemed to concede that he could not since one cannot not know any objective truth. It seems to me that you would not be of this opinion because you, at least, seem to be saying that you can have objective knowledge on a “local” level. If I have rightly understood you, how do you get this “local” knowledge?

            • WTP said, on September 2, 2015 at 1:23 pm

              You seem like a decent sort of chap. You went to Stanford and the LSE, yes? VP of some tech company? Or are you some other Luke Miner? Either way, don’t take this the wrong way. I respect and admire what you’re trying to do here. But wall, hammer, nail, jello. Do you feel me yet?

            • Luke Miner said, on September 2, 2015 at 1:29 pm

              WTP, I’m a different chap. Can you view my website, scripturalism.com?

              What, exactly, do you think I’m trying to do?

            • WTP said, on September 2, 2015 at 1:50 pm

              Ahh…I see I made an assumption based on what I perceived as your desire for a definitive answer to a specific question, to wit:

              How can you be right or wrong about anything but a “judgement”?

              followed by:

              Precision is definitely required. We’ll wait and see.

              Which would be in line with the kind of person I perceived in the googled bio of the Luke Miner I thought you might be. No worries and good luck. I’ll try to check your site out later when I have more time.

            • Luke Miner said, on September 2, 2015 at 1:55 pm

              But I do desire definite answers to definite questions, and the conversation has been productive thus far. It is good to talk these issues through with one who knows much more than I.

  11. Kolea said, on August 18, 2015 at 2:51 am

    Descartes never claimed to have achieved true doubt of all knowledge. A careful reader would note that he actually mentions that it is “impossible”. Pure skepticism itself is a circular thought process that only undermines its own argument. if nothing can truly be known then how do we know this statement to be true? Socrates said ” all I know is that I know nothing”. This statement is a paradox he used as a teaching tool to uncover basic and undeniable truth not to achieve the pointless idea of skepticism. Descartes uses this tool and gained much success in his reason. also, all the arguments in this article are specifically addressed by Descartes in his writings. It only requires careful reading and focused thought to see that Descartes puts these arguments to rest through his reasoning and derived conclusions. He clearly addressed in the preface that there would be those who make arguments against him out of their misunderstanding and ignorance. The writer of this article has only proven Descartes more correct.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 18, 2015 at 1:40 pm

      I’m quite familiar with Descartes’ arguments and my criticisms are not based on ignorance or misunderstanding. I don’t think that they are decisive against him. He also obviously thought his skeptical arguments could be countered since his objective was to refute skepticism and find a firm and certain foundation for the sciences.

  12. Claire said, on November 10, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    I had to write a paper for class about my views on Descartes and his idea of skepticism. I have copied and pasted it here.

    Descartes and Cartesian Doubt
    Rene Descartes puts forth the idea of Cartesian Doubt in the Mediations of First Philosophy. This is a method of doubting ones beliefs to determine whether or not what beliefs we hold could be certain. Descartes proposes two main ideas for his conclusion. Descartes shows how the real source of scientific knowledge lays in the mind rather than the senses and how science and religion can coexist. I do not agree with Cartesian Doubt because I feel humans are smart enough to be able to perceive waking and dreaming thoughts, I do not think there is something specifically made to deceive humans but I agree with knowledge being based on existence.
    Descartes was a philosopher in the 17th century who was the first to ignore the thought in relation to philosophy during his time and began integrating philosophy with science. Descartes came up with the idea of Cartesian Doubt. One idea of Cartesian Doubt is the idea that knowledge is a true belief that is justified and beliefs are only justified when they can be certain. By definition, certainty is when there is an absolute absence of any, even the slightest, reason for doubt. There have been several hypotheses that either support or deny Cartesian Doubt: we are dreaming, we are deceived by a demon, and are we are brain in a vat, but there is no conclusion to whether these hypotheses are true or false. This leads Descartes to the conclusion that the external world belief cannot be certain to us.
    Descartes begins explaining Cartesian Doubt with the idea of universal doubt. Descartes believed that Science lays in the mind and not on the senses. His idea of doubt came from the senses. Without the senses, you could be sure of the mind. Descartes gives an example of the dream argument to defend this. Descartes says that people often have perceptions much like they do if they would be dreaming and there are no definite signs as the whether the perceptions we have are dreaming experiences or thing we are experiencing awake. This leads to his conclusion of there is always a possibility that we are dreaming right now and all perceptions are false. I disagree with the second premise of this argument because I think there is a way to distinguish between being awake and asleep. Modern science supports whether someone is dreaming or awake. There is concrete evidence for the actions someone may do when they are dreaming. They eyes would be in the REM phase of the sleep cycle and by watching brain waves where only certain parts of the brain would be firing. In dreams we can only determine specific things from the reality we are temporarily escaping and in the real world, we can only remember specific parts of the dreams we have had. There is distinguishable difference between the two.
    Descartes realized there would be a controversy over the notion of dreams. To further defend his case, he proposed the idea of the evil demon argument. It begins with an all-powerful God creating us. God would not deceive us, but this does not mean that he has not created a being that could. If an evil demon exists to deceive us, it gives us reason to doubt what our senses tell us as well as the knowledge we may have gathered with those senses. It is not reasonable to think that everything that we have perceived with our senses is from an evil demon. When humans are asked the question of what day it is or their name, these questions are answered easily and without feeling deceived. I do not think that knowledge is a question of certainty and uncertainty; it is closer to the idea of believing beyond a reasonable doubt. There are things in the world that have not been seen, but humans are led to believe them because there is currently no better explanation. Humans hold these things true beyond a reasonable doubt until something that makes more sense comes along. You can apply the same things to Descartes ideas to try and falsify them.
    The final way that Descartes tries to prove Cartesian Doubt is the argument of his own existence. Descartes also suspects that people are going to ask the question of where knowledge comes from. Descartes fights these questions with the argument that he can be sure of things in his mind based on his existence. Descartes tries to prove this with the idea of things that are perceived from the state of thinking, which includes imagining and sensing or feeling and reasoning, cannot lead to the conclusion that I cannot prove that I exist. He basis this conclusion off the saying “I think therefore I am”. I agree you can base knowledge on existence because we would not have knowledge of anything without the existence of other people. He is showing that the mind and body are two different things and that the mind is more certainly known than the body, the senses with the conclusions he has made.
    I do not agree with Descartes ideas about Cartesian Doubt. His proposition of the argument of dreams is not believable in my opinion because there are ways to tell the difference between being awake and asleep. His proposition about their being a demon that perceives us is not believable because we are not constantly being deceived. We are able to answer simple questions without having any doubt that we could be deceived such as your name or what time it is. I do believe you cab base knowledge on existence. Even though I think Descartes got it right with his ideas of knowledge, I do not think that decisions need to be made based off Cartesian Doubt.

  13. […] I wanted to know what arguments oppose this idea, so I Googled it and came across this post, which outlines three main counter-arguments. I still believe that Descartes’ position on […]

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