In his first meditation, Descartes sets out with amazing clarity and persistence to clear
himself of every false idea that he has acquired previous to this, and determine what he truly knows.
To rid him of these rotten apples he has developed a method of doubt with a goal to construct
a set of beliefs on foundations which are indubitable.
On these foundations, Descartes applies three levels of skepticism, which in turn, generate three
levels at which our thoughts may be deceived by error. Descartes states quite explicitly in the
synopsis, that we can doubt all things which are material as long as we have no foundations for the
sciences other than those which we have had up till now(synopsis:12). This skepticism also implies
that doubt can free us from prejudices, enabling the mind to escape the deception of the senses, and
possibly discover a truth which is beyond doubt.
The first and main deception in Descartes opinion has evolved from sense perception
What ever I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired either from the senses or through
the sense. 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(1:18).
At the root of our beliefs, Descartes argues, lie the experiences we gain from our senses,
because these are sometimes mistaken, as in the case of mirages or objects which appear small in the distance,
and because of this he will now forfeit all of his most reliable information . More importantly it may be to
follow in the steps of Plato and require knowledge that is certain and absolute ( Prado 1992 ).
This argument consists of four main premises:
1. All that he has accepted as true up to this point, he has acquired by the senses or Cartesian Doubt 3
through the senses;
2. but on occasion these senses have been deceptive.
3. It is wise not to trust anything that has been deceiving in the past
4. Therefore, it is possible to be mistaken about everything.
In premise one his beliefs are derived from the senses, such as he sees that he has a
paper in his hand and concludes that it is a paper,
and what is meant by through the senses, is that his beliefs may have been based on others
sense experience. All Descartes requires
for the second premise is the possibility that he may have been deceived, for if he cannot
decide which is wrong, than he must not have
any knowledge. This leads to the third premise where it seems at least reasonable to
assume, that if one has been deceived previously, there is no
absolute assurance that it is presently correct. Therefore, there is a chance of being deceived about everything.
But many critics will argue that several of these false percepts can be corrected by means
of alternative senses, such as
he bent stick in water example. Although our sight may be tricked into thinking that the
mirage exists, by using the sense of touch we can correct
this falseness, and uncover what truly exists. Descartes does retreat, and assess the
damage from his first level by saying, there are many other
beliefs about which doubt is quite impossible, even though they are derived from the
senses-for example, that I am here, sitting by the fire, wearing a winter
dressing gown.. (1:18). Here even he objects to the validity of his argument, even if
he could be deceived about anything he perceives, this does not mean
that he is deceived about everything. Just because his senses are unreliable at times is
not proof enough that everything in the world is false (Williams 1991).
In addition to being delusional, Descartes believes we can be tricked by madness or
insanity. Since those who are insane may interpret things detached
from reality by means of their senses, how could it be denied that these hands or this
whole body are mine? Unless perhaps I were to liken myself to madmen,
whose brains are so damaged by
the persistent vapours of melancholia (1:19 ), they in fact believe these percepts to
be true. Though Descartes does go on to say such people are insane, and
I would be thought equally mad if I took anything from them as a model for myself, and
continues by likening the dreams he has to the experiences a madman faces when awake.
From here Descartes makes a stronger argument for calling into question his common sense
beliefs, the possibility that he might be dreaming, that every emotion and
every sense perception appears to him only in a dream. Since there is always a possibility
that we may in fact be dreaming, this hypothesis is done to provoke his faith in reality
and the senses, to get the absolute certainty of how things may appear or feel (Prado
1992). His view on this is taken from the fact that when dreaming,
the same types of mental states and feelings are present as when we are awake, How often,
asleep at night , I am convinced of just such a familiar event-that
I am here in my dressing-gown, sitting by the fire- when in fact I am lying undressed in
bed (1:19). Since there is no absolute way in determining the waking state from the
dreaming state, when it comes to sense experience, we are no better off awake than asleep.
Therefore our judgment must be suspended even when we are sure that our state is that of
waking because we
clearly have no reason to believe that effects resemble their causes in the waking state,
since they clearly do not in the dreaming state (Prado, 1992).
The only way we can avoid the suspension of judgement is only if we have a standard to
determine where the truth exists (Williams 1986).
To use the conflict of the stick being bent in
water, what sense is it that we should believe, when we have no tool to decipher the
truth? Thus, the suspension of truth works for the doubt of
he senses as well. The reason why doubting the senses is not enough to base an entirely
new set of ideas, is due to the fact that it does not call into question all of ones
common sense beliefs, for the representations found in dreams are derived from real
objects, although possibly arranged in a different way.
The thoughts and feelings of a dream are real, they are the same thoughts and feelings
that occur every day in the waking state. To be afraid during a dream is the same feeling
experienced if . It is due to the similarities in feelings and thought between dreaming
and waking, that Descartes is able to find ground for doubt, there are never any sure
signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep (1:19).
This than leads to the eternal skeptical question : How can I tell whether at this moment
I am awake or asleep? (Malcolm, 1967). If we take any series of thoughts, emotions or
feelings, it is possible that the same series can occur while dreaming or awake. Thus, we
can never be absolutely clear on whether what we are experiencing at that exact moment in
time is a dream, or that of a waking state. Though Prado (1992) insists that Descartes
states in the sixth meditation, that temporal coherence allows us to decipher between the
waking and dreaming states. The aim here then would be to prove that there is nothing in
the waking state to confirm the accuracy of sense
experience. The fact that at any given moment our current state could change drastically
and render the previous state an illusion, may be enough to support his skeptical nature
on thus, his
Cartesian Doubt 6
second level of doubt (Williams 1991).
As long as Descartes second level of doubt is accepted, we are able to continue on to his
third level of doubt, or what is known as hyperbolical doubt. Descartes considers our
beliefs within dreams when he says that some beliefs remain indubitable while others are
by imagination. Such things as the laws of physics can be broken within dreams, where
other concepts such as arithmetic or geometry remain unchanged:
physics, astronomy, medicine and all other disciplines which depend on the study of
composite things, are doubtful; while arithmetic, geometry ans other subjects of this
kind, which deal only with the simplest and most general things, regardless of whether
they really exist in nature or not, contain something certain and indubitable. (1:20)
He decides that certain things which are accepted universally, such as mathematics, are
irrefutable. The dream hypothesis is not enough to doubt such things as mathematics, as we
may be dreaming that there appears a square in front of us, but we cannot doubt our
reason, such that
it has four sides, or that there is only one square that we see and not two or three.
He moves on to discuss the origins of our beliefs, and the role of an omnipotent God.
He believes that there is a God, due to the fact that this idea of God is firmly rooted in
his mind, and he also believes that this omnipotent God would not deceive him since he is
supremely good. He examines the assumption that God is perfect and omnipotent, and
therefore the source for all of our thoughts and ideas. Since Descartes is abandoning all
old beliefs, this would suggest that God tried to deceive him. He wonders why such a
perfect God would deceive him, and figures it must be doubtful.
Cartesian Doubt 7
Now Descartes imagines that God is not the one who is deceiving him, but none other
than a malevolent demon, who with deceitful power, implants false beliefs, 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
(1:22). When determining what is open to doubt, Descartes' evil demon hypothesis
conveniently creates a being who is omnipotent and who uses the power solely to deceive.
What Descartes achieves is making problematic a host of ideas he entertains as products of
reason , opposed to products of the senses, which the dream hypothesis takes care of
(Prado 1992). Although L.G. Miller (1992) suggests that the propositions of mathematics
survive the perception and dream arguments, but only to be unsettled by the deceiver God
hypothesis, Could not an all-powerful demon make me believe those propositions are true
when, as a matter of fact, they are not? The deceiver God does not succeed if the person
accepts that the reality he lives in is true. However, with the rise of skepticism and
questioning the veracity of whether the world we live in is accurate or not, perhaps the
demon has won after all.
Descartes then leaves the first meditation in a state of confusion. He knows at least how
things seem to appear to him, even if he has no idea how they really are I am like a
prisoner who is enjoying an imaginary freedom while asleep, he dreads being woken up, and
goes along with the pleasant as long as he can(1:23[15).
Descartes clearly refocused metaphysical thinking into the physical world, by turning it
toward the natural world. His basic structure has four uses of doubt, firstly to free us
from preconceived opinions or prejudice, the second is to lead the mind away from the
Cartesian Doubt 8
third use of doubt makes it impossible to have any further doubts about those things which
alter such an extensive doubt and are discovered to be true, while the fourth is to
provide us with an
understanding of what certainty is.
Descartes methodological doubt can be defined as foundationalism, which is the belief that
knowledge is formed on different levels, much like an inverted pyramid. Such that, complex
beliefs come first, then beneath that are simpler beliefs and beneath them are the
simplest beliefs. Foundationalism requires not only this hierarchy effect, but also that
nothing is accepted as knowledge until we know upon what it is based (Prado 1992).
In summary of what the three main arguments undermine, the argument from the illusion or
deceptiveness of the senses undermines ordinary sense perception. Undermining ordinary
sense perception and scientific observation as well as the more theoretical parts of the
physical sciences and hence these sciences as a whole is the dream hypothesis, while the
deceiver God hypothesis undermines the pure mathematical sciences such as arithmetic and
Descartes' metaphysical doubt emphasizes purging the old falsehoods and buildings up again
from the bedrock of the indubitable of our existence as thinkers. Whether or not the
extensiveness of such skepticism used by Descartes is necessary, remains open for doubt.
But for one to gain any knowledge what so ever, they must be capable of doubting at some
point or another, rather than accepting all that they may hear. It would be extremely
credulous and naive to never doubt or question it is only natural to doubt and challenge
that which one does not believe, and to a certain extent, being the natural extent, it is
useful and necessary, When Descartes begins to doubt in an epistemological mode, he cannot
stop short of doubting whether
Cartesian Doubt 9
he himself exists as a doubter (Prado 1992).
. Perhaps, when the poet Charles Bukowski said the more crap you believe, the better off
you are, he realized that such an extensive doubt can be harmful to the majority of
people, because they are in fact better off believing in their senses, their God, and
their ability to determine whether they are sleeping or awake. It is possible that it may
be beneficial to live and die being deceived, and be ignorant to that deception, than to
live and die searching for truth where truth may not be found, for the true determinant to
whether such an extensive skepticism is beneficial or necessary depends on the individual.