French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) expresses his thoughts through a character called the meditator. He concludes in a series of meditations, that from his youth he has believed many false ideas. He becomes determined to rid himself of all assumptions and rebuild every thought on a new foundation of certainty. The Meditator retires himself in seclusion and isolation, free from worries and cares in order to rethink and rebuild all he once thought was certain for the purpose of proving absolute certainty once again. This is what became known as the method of doubt. The method of doubt may be perceived in two ways; not primarily to prove that there is an absolute certainty, but proving absolute certainty as the vessel to prove the existence of God. In his letter of dedication to the Faculty of Theology of Paris, Descartes wrote, “all which can be known of God may be made manifest by reasons obtained from no other source than the inspection of our own minds . . . God may be more easily and certainly known than the things of the world.”If men are to believe in God, then men must be able to believe in him without the slightest doubt, which means to believe in God with absolute certainty.

The sensory perceptions have proved to be of great practical importance throughout the existence of mankind. They are used every day to negotiate life’s most important decisions, and have been relied on from the greatest of scientific accomplishments, to misjudgments resulting in death. The flaws of sense perception reveal that mankind is a fallible creature. If the objective of Descartes is to determine absolute certainty, then perfection is necessitated. Without a faculty of human perfection the senses will serve inadequate because they cannot be relied on. Descartes decides the best approach to define which choices of his life has been true or false is to rid himself of every empirical belief, instead of examining every assumption of his life one by one. Once every empirical belief is doubted he can proceed to determine what may be absolutely certain.

The table below is from the Oregon State University Education Portal. It depicts Descarte method of doubt. The table illustrates five columns with four rows exemplifying what can and cannot be doubted from three of Descartes’s skeptical hypothesis, and what faculty and sciences they are ascribed to. Below the table will be a further analysis of each skeptical hypothesis.

Skeptical Hypothesis What Can Be Doubted What Cannot be doubted Faculty Science
The Senses Deceive us at a distance The size of the sun and stars, the shape of towers and the color of mountains Things observed close at hand, e.g. that I am now seated in a room etc. The senses Astronomy
The Dream Hypothesis That I am seated in this room, that I am clothed, that I have hands, eyes or a body at all Truths of mathematics, eg. 2+2 = 4, squares have four sides etc. The imagination Physiology, physics, medicine etc.
The Evil Genius hypothesis 2 + 2 = 4, squares have four sides, etc. That I exist etc. Reason Mathematics, i.e. arithmetic, geometry etc.

 

The first faculty examined by is Meditator are the senses. Descartes writes, “The senses occasionally mislead us respecting minute objects, and such as are so far removed from us as to be beyond the reach of close observation.” The size of the sun and stars are light years away, but it is impossible to fathom the distance by mere sight perception alone. The Meditator realizes that at close hand certain physical indications cannot be doubted; such as himself sitting by the fire with his comfortable clothing and writing material.

What is interesting is that, although perhaps he may not be able to doubt that at close distance he is a physical body sitting by the fire in the sense that a human understands his anatomy, he asserts a lack of certainty in the respect that he may not be able to certainly differentiate his mind with the mind of someone who is insane, or has a brain disorder: “I should certainly be not less insane than they, were I to regulate my procedure according to examples so extravagant.” For example a man with a brain disorder may perceive himself as a godlike creature with his own species to rule with as much certainty as, I, myself am sitting here typing this essay as a philosophy student. Nevertheless, although nearby substances may be certain to the senses, they may be doubted by mean of reason and imagination.

The second faculty examined by the Meditator is the imagination. Following from the same thought of being a physical body sitting by the fire; the Meditator asserts he is a man with a general sleeping practice of the average man. He reflects that many times he has had dreams of himself being in equal or a similar state by the fire as being awake: “How often have I dreamed that I was in these familiar circumstances, that I was dressed, and occupied this place by the fire, when I was lying undressed in bed?” Furthermore, the Meditator expresses that; regardless of how extravagant a dream may be, the man with a brain disorder may believe what we perceive extravagant in a dream to be a reality for him while awake. In addition he recalls several times when a dream is not distinct from being awake making his wake state comparable to a dream state.

This dilemma between dream and wake analogous are common to all men. What is not mentioned in The Meditations is the peculiarity of a lucid dream. In a lucid dream one realizes he is dreaming while one is in his sleep state. This is a longstanding phenomenon recognized and written by Aristotle: “often when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream.” Someone may argue that since one is able to recognize a dream from reality, it may undermine Descartes’s theory of dream and wake indistinctness. This may make no difference, and Descartes’s theory may stillpersist, because initially one may not be able to differentiate between sleep and wake state. Furthermore, if one does realize he is dreaming (lucidness), when he wakes from his sleep he realizes he was in a dream and is now awake. Does this overthrow Descartes’s epistemology of being uncertain you are awake or dreaming? I do not believe so, because even when waking from a lucid dream, there still is no way of knowing with absolute certainty, that in his lucid dream he dreamed he woke up but is currently still dreaming? There are many times when people have woken themselves in their dreams while currently still dreaming. Perhaps this may need further development in another research paper.

There are some matters that still subsist in truth even while one is sleeping or dreaming. The equations of arithmetic do not change while one is dreaming and therefore are not subject to doubt. For example the fact that the number one is still one, and any number divided by its self is always one. Any universal truth still endures while any one is sleeping or dreaming.

In the third hypothesis Descartes claims that he has believed in his mind the concept of a powerful God who created him. He wonders if this God has inclined him to perceive all of existence around him only to persuade him that these things do not exist in the way that he firstly perceived them. Descartes writes, “How, then, do I know that he has not arranged that there should be neither earth . . . providing at the same time, however, for [the rise in me of the perceptions of all these objects, and] the persuasion that these do not exist otherwise than as I perceive them.” Furthermore, of all the people he encountered to be certain about a particular knowledge who he disagreed with because of his perceived error, how does he know he is not in error about his own judgment regarding the issue? In addition the simple arithmetic he thought he could not doubt while sleeping is now brought into question by philosophical reasoning as a result of a supreme being such as God deceiving him on all matters.

Descartes assumes that some may believe a God does not exist rather than to believe there is nothing certain. Nevertheless, since all men are fallible beings and are commonly subjects to error, then the level of deception is at the mercy of he who is deceiving. In fact we are susceptible to be deceived as much as it may resemble the power of the deceiving God. But, that there is a deity who exists, for Descartes cannot be negated, and since this origin of deception is realized, and is the source of doubting all existence, then by reason this raises the probability that the Meditator as a physical being may not exist at all. Therefore, by reason he believes there is nothing indubitable.

Adhering to the concept that God is a perfectly holy being and not a being capable of being such a malicious deceiver, Descartes credits the works of deception on the behalf of a “malignant demon, who . . . has employed all his artifice to deceive me.” There is no attributing any of the Meditators ideas to any sacred scripture, but it is an educated guess, since Descartes’s dedication to the Faculty of Theology of Paris, that he may have borrowed the concept of Lucifer from The Bible and ascribed it in his Meditations as the demon. The Meditator has now realized that every attempt to learn anything will become a snare to him from the malignant demon. He considers then all forms of metaphysics including his physical existence to be a mere illusion established by this demon. By rejecting all possibilities of anything certain, anything real, and anything true he settles his mind on becoming a skeptic. Following his newly acquired world view of skepticism he no longer has to worry about finding any source of truth and reality. In this way he is no longer vulnerable to the deception of this malignant demon. But the Meditator realizes this method of living would be to him insensible and ridiculous, and will eventually return to his prior world view.

The Meditator thinks about the deceiving being. As long as The Meditator realizes that the deceiver is trying to deceive him, then he exists as a thinking being. Regardless of deception, as long as he can think, he knows he exists. If The Meditator were to stop thinking then he would cease from existing. That he exists as a thinking being is the only thing he has found to be indubitable. From this foundation The Meditator determines that a perfect God must exist. He believes this perfect God must have placed the concept of God’s perfect existence in his mind, since as a thinking being he is a fallible being, and would not be able to fathom the concept of a perfect God innately.

Works Cited

Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy. To The Very Sage and Illustrious The Dean      and Doctors of the Sacred Faculty of Theology of Paris. http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/descartes/meditations/LoD.html

Descartes, Rene. Meditation One. Of the Things of Which We May Doubt. Sofia Project     Philosophy Archives. Of Doubt and Certainty. www.sofiaomni.org

Kemerling, Garth. The Philosophy Pages. Britannica Internet Guide Selection. Descartes A New Approach. http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/4b.htm#disc. 12, Nov. 2011

Oregon State University. Method of Doubt. http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/philosophers/method-of-doubt.html

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