Truth suffers from too much analysis

Descartes and Skepticism

Posted by allzermalmer on March 4, 2012

This blog will be based on Renee Descartes and his writing of his Meditations on First Philosophy. I will be quoting some portions of his Meditations, which deals with some skeptical arguments or conclusions.

Descartes comes up with a certain quote to show how we can be lead to skepticism. He states, “Once the foundations of a building are undermined, anything built on them collapses of its own accord.” Now he tries to present three types of arguments, in the First Meditation, that would be good enough to collapse the foundation upon which we build up our knowledge.

Argument from Illusion

“Whatever I have up till now accepted as most rue I have acquired either from the senses or through the senses. But from time to time I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.”

One thing to take notice of is when he says “either from the senses or through the senses”. Now the portion that says “from the senses” I take to be obvious, but it is the second part of “through the senses” that could be a little tougher. Now when I watch the news on TV, I have the sensory information of someone sitting behind a desk, and I hear words. These words are taken through the senses, and it could be something like “The Boston Celtics beat the New York Knicks in overtime”. That is information through the senses. Or, take the example of someone you know who went to another country and told you what they experienced in another country. That is information through your senses, even though you never experienced it with your own senses.

Argument from Dream

“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! yet at the moment my eyes are certainly wide awake when I look at this piece of paper; I shake my head and it is not asleep; as I stretch out and feel my hand I do so deliberately, and I know what I am doing. All this would not happen with such distinctness to someone asleep. Indeed! As if I did not remember other occasions when I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep! As I think about this more carefully, I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep. The result is that I being to feel dazed, and this very feeling only reinforces the notion that I may be asleep.”

Argument from Evil-Demon

“And yet firmly rooted in my mind is the long-standing belief that there is an omnipotent God who made me the kind of creature that I am. How do I know that he has not brought it about that there is no earth, no sky, no extended thing, no shape, no size, no place, while at the same time ensuring that all these things appear to me to exit just as they do now? Moreover, since I sometimes consider that others go astray in cases where they think they have the most perfect knowledge, may I not similarly go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square, or in some even simpler matter, if that is imaginable?…I will suppose therefore that not God, who is supremely good and the source of truth, but rather some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me. I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things…I am like a prisoner who is enjoying an imaginary 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.”

Now after he has gone through these three skeptical arguments, he comes to a certain conclusion, even based on that of the evil-demon.

“But I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No: if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and let him device me as much as he can, he will never bring ti about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.”

Descartes points out that even if there is an evil-demon, or it’s all a dream, or it’s all an illusion, it is still something that is being deceived. This can’t be doubted that something is being doubted. To be deceived is for something to be deceived.

“I am a thing that thinks: that is, a thing that doubts, affirms, denies, understands a few things, is ignorant of many things, is willing, is unwilling, and also which imagines and has sensory perceptions; for as I have noted before, even though the objects of my sensory experience and imagination may have no existence outside of me, nonetheless the modes of thinking which I refer to as cases of sensory perceptions and imagination, in so far as they are simply modes of thinking, do exist with in me- of that I am certain…I am certain that I am a thinking thing.”

Now I need to point out one thing, which was that Descartes was one of the first philosophers, and other modern philosophers like John Locke and George Berkeley were to follow, would use the word “Idea” to mean his sense-perceptions.

“Yet I previously accepted as wholly certain and evident many things which I afterwards realized were doubtful. What were these? The earth, sky, stars, and everything else that I apprehended with the senses. But what was it about them that I perceived clearly? Just that the ideas (i.e. sense-perception), or thoughts, of such things appeared before my mind. Yet even now I am not denying that these ideas occur within me. But there was something else which I used to assert, and which through habitual belief I thought I perceived clearly, although I did not in fact do so. this was that there were things outside of me which were the sources of my ideas (i.e. sense-perceptions) and which resembled them in all respects. Here was my mistake; or at any rate, if my judgement was true, it was not because of any knowledge I possessed.”

“Thus the only remaining thoughts where I must be on my guard against making a mistake are judgements. And the chief and most common mistake which is to be found here consists in my judging that the ideas which are in me resemble, or conform to, things located outside of me. Of course, if I considered just the ideas themselves simply as modes of my thought, without referring them to anything else, they could scarcely give me any material for error…But the chief question this point concerns the ideas which I take to be derived from things existing outside me: what is my reason for thinking that they resemble these things? Nature has apparently taught me to think this…When I say ‘Nature taught me to think this’, all I men is that a spontaneous impulse leads me to believe it, not that its truth has been revealed to me…”

“although these ideas(i.e. sense-perception) do not depend on my will, it does not follow that they must come from things located outside of me…there may be some other faculty not yet fully known to me, which produces these ideas without any assistance form external things; this is, after all, just how I have always thought ideas (i.e. sense-perception) are produced in me when I am dreaming. And finally, even if these ideas did come from things other than myself, it would not follow that they must resemble those things. Indeed, I think I have often discovered a great disparity between an object and its idea (i.e. sense-perception) in many cases. For example, there are two different ideas of the sun which I find within me. One of them , which is acquired as it were from the senses and which is a prime example of an idea which I reckon to come from an external source, makes the sun appear very small. the other idea is based on astronomical reasoning, that is, it is derived from certain notions which are innate to me (or else it is constructed by me in some other way), and this idea shows the sun to be several times larger than the earth….All these considers are enough to establish that its not reliable judgement but merely some blind impulse that has made me believe up till now that thee exists things distinct from myself which transmit to me ideas or images of themselves through the sense organs or in some other way.”

Problem of Other Minds

“if I look out of the window and see men crossing the square, as I just happen to have done, I normally say that I see the men themselves, just as I say that I see the wax. Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons? I judge that they are men.”

All these quotes came from Descartes book, which I gave a link to, and are based on Meditation one, two, and three.

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