Descartes: Can We Know Anything??
Cartesian skepticism is a radical doubt of the senses. Descartes takes the approach of doubting everything, scrutinizing everything that he can. Crash Course: Philosophy equates it the idea of Descartes noticing one bad apple in his basket of apples, and so instead of removing the bad apple, he turns over the entire basket of apples and inspects each one before placing it back into the basket. He questioned whether he could believe anything. “… how do I know that I myself don’t go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square? Well, you might say, God would not let me be deceived like that … but, I reply, if God’s goodness would stop him from letting me be deceived all the time, you would expect it to stop him from allowing me to be deceived even occasionally; yet clearly I sometimes am deceived.” (Descartes, Meditation 1) Here we can see that Descartes has resolved that if he can be deceived even occasionally, he could be deceived about all things, and thus, the upturning of the basket of apples. He was not the first to do this, Pyrrho, who was said to be so skeptical (at least according to my first intro to philosophy professor) that his students had to stop him from jumping off of cliffs because he wasn’t convinced that doing so would end his life. Doing this is at least as, if not moreso, radical than Descartes skeptical take. However, before attacking Descartes with Pyrrho, I would like to point out that Descartes, in the quote from his first meditation, talks about deception a lot. This makes sense, as he seems to be tricked, by at least the senses from time to time. Deception itself could be a misunderstanding of phenomena. Rather than being deceived about a mirage, it might just be that Descartes doesn’t really know the true nature of a mirage.
Descartes resolves to claim that it is possible (a) God(s) don’t exist. This is a piece of his radical doubt that he is inspecting. He wants to start from a place where God doesn’t exist. My problem with this is that to be deceived requires a deceiver. Descartes answer to this is the malignant demon, which, as far as I see it, considering this demon is essentially all powerful, is (a) God(s) by a different name. In other words, he is, from my point of view, begging the question. I understand that Descartes mentions that “infidels” will consider his meditations as doing so, but I don’t think he was in reference to this portion of the text. The point is that he is positing that (a) God(s) doesn’t exist by positing another God(s) existence. The properties of God and the demon are the same minus one is good and the other is not. This is shown as he says “So I shall suppose that some malicious, powerful, cunning demon has done all he can to deceive me — rather than this being done by God…” (Descartes, meditations 1) As far as I see it, he is replacing God with another.
Some might claim that Descartes is giving credence to some kind of deceiver in order to have a better method from which to be skeptical from. God and a demon are not the same thing. They may consider my assumption of Descartes view as a straw man, in other words. While yes, I do think his method is weaker, I can see why he would use it, his goal in his Meditations, after all, is to prove the existence of God. Using a deceiver that is similar to God, but isn’t God, would be a good place to start. The reason I still think this isn’t very helpful is primarily because we are appealing to a being so similar to God, it may as well be God. That is to say a malignant demon has so many similar properties, being a sort of spirit, a metaphysical being that is beyond the means of our senses. This just makes me think it is a circular argument, or rather, begging the question. Descartes considers there are spirits, to prove the spirit of God. I think the better method of skeptical doubt would have been to stick with his account on dreams. Dreams are not real, we understand and know this. However, Descartes makes a good point that we don’t really know that we are dreaming until we wake up. While in the dream, we perceive it as as real as everything else, so whose to say we don’t wake up “right now?” This, I think, means that dreams would be a more effective means for skeptical doubt.
Descartes really began rationalism, the idea that truth can be gathered from reason alone. We noted the idea that 2+3=5 regardless of whether I am in a dream or not. At this point, I think Pyrrho’s view would be quite adequate to consider. To be sure, however, I am somewhat of a rationalist myself, but also more in the Kantian, and furthermore, sense of Karl Jaspers. However, Pyrrho has a view that I don’t think is too far fetched against rationalism solely in the Cartesian sense. Pyrrho’s thought is basically that an equally cogent or sound argument can be made for either side of an issue. His solution to this problem was to abstain from judgment which would bring about ataraxia (free from worry). I don’t follow Pyrrho on the ataraxia part, but I do think he has a point to be made against cartesian rationalism. If a sufficiently cogent or sound argument can be made for either side of an issue, then we cannot be sure which side is true. A sufficiently cogent or sound argument can in fact be made for either side of an issue. Therefore, we cannot be sure which side is true. In other words, when all we can use is reason, we are stuck with opposing sides of the coin. Take a look at, for example, ethical arguments, or political arguments. These seemingly have no end. It is because, simply, we have only reason to work with in these areas, and equally cogent or sound arguments can be made for either side. The answer, I think, is found in Karl Jaspers “companions-in-thought” view (we essentially come to a consensus of our own personal understanding through the use of other thinkers) as well as Kant’s phenomenal and noumenal worlds.
One other, more rather, side note I want to make is that I, personally, am more of an eliminativist. Rather, I am a version of an eliminativist that I call “conceptual dualism.” While eliminativism says that the very idea of ourselves is an illusion. We are just a physical body and our mind isn’t real, it is just a set of processes, I say that the very idea of these processes is the concept by which we give the name “mind” or “soul.” I think all things are concepts in a similar way. This “conceptual dualism” is an answer to Descartes view of denying himself. His cogito “I think. (Thinking things exist.) Therefore, I exist.” Points out this view of thinking as an actual thing. Of course, Descartes was a dualist, who saw his mind as a cohesive whole. Which I will say is intuitive, but I will also say that if we are truly being skeptical of our own existence, we must also analyze how it is possible that the opposite of our intuition could be true. Eliminativism (conceptual dualism) posits a possible answer as to how Descartes intuition could be false. He uses this intuition of his mind as a singular thing from which to build, which makes me want to pause as he sort of seems to glance over the possible ideas of his non existence. I can agree that I cannot doubt that I am doubting, but it would be amiss for a philosopher to not ask “what is doubt?” To which, my answer is a part of the process that culminates into what we call “mind.”
Descartes pulls back from his skepticism in his second meditation however. “…right now … I have a feeling of warmth, whether I want to or not, and that leads me to think that this sensation or idea of heat comes from something other than myself, namely the heat of a fire by which I am sitting.” (Descartes, meditations 2) This is something I found rather intriguing, as well as something that has some potential. This whole time, Descartes is imagining himself as dreaming. However, he also recognizes the difference between having something implant sensation in him rather than his mind (or the demon) playing tricks on him. He does grant that this could still be deception, however. He also ends up working out of it, but I will say that if we use the method that I think is better, that in my dreams, there has never been a sensation of warmth or any other bodily sensation, and if there is, I always, without fail, recognize I am dreaming (in which case I wake up to a completely dead arm.) Ultimately, from this, what I note is that Descartes is questioning whether he was dreaming to start the meditations, but when we do that while dreaming, we recognize we are actually dreaming. This is where I think Descartes’ argument ultimately fails. If we question whether we are dreaming while dreaming, we wake up, or at least I do anyways. However, I can question whether I am dreaming now, and I do not wake up. Therefore, I must not be dreaming.