What sceptical problem is Descartes considering

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One of the main branches of philosophy is epistemology, that is knowledge, what it is, how much we can know and how we can ascertain truth. Scepticism questions whether it is possible to know anything and challenges our ability to obtain reliable knowledge. Generally speaking this is founded upon the argument that empirical data, although appearing to generate knowledge, only provides a series of sense impressions of the external world. Descartes prescribed to this view, but also ‘saw scepticism as a disease of epidemic magnitude’1.

Descartes adopted scepticism only as a means to an end in the sense of using it to produce a clear and definitive concept of knowledge and truth. A substantial part of his sceptical problem is to find an indubitable starting point for knowledge that is logically certain. In Discourse on Method II, Descartes states his firm belief that he would succeed much better in the conduct of life if he swept all his existing opinions away and adopted new ones based solely on reason.

He argues, both in Discourse on Method and in his First Meditation, that people’s opinions, including his own, are coloured by conflicting influences, falsehoods accepted as true in childhood and custom and example rather than firm knowledge. The only way Descartes sees to remove all these impediments to firm knowledge is to systematically reject all his previous beliefs where there is ‘at least some reason for doubt’ until he arrives at something that cannot be doubted. This, broadly speaking, is the sceptical problem Descartes is considering.

It may be confirmed by the method of hyperbolical doubt he uses. Hyperbolic doubt is such doubt that is meant to be insulated from life and cut off from action2. It follows that it involves maintaining beliefs but not knowing them. Descartes’ method of hyperbolic doubt, or principles of philosophy, was that in order to ascertain the truth of things it is necessary once in one’s life to put all things into doubt insofar as that is possible. It is useful to regard as false those things which one can doubt.

We should not use this doubt for the conduct of our actions. We shall see this method throughout Descartes analysis of his sceptical problem of ‘what can be called into doubt’ in First Meditation. 3 Descartes believes his sceptical problem is confounded by his senses. He states in the First Meditation: ‘from time to time I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us’. His argument runs along the lines that my senses have sometimes deceived me therefore they may always deceive me.

An example is given of a stick in water, which appears bent due to refraction, but is actually straight. A problem lurks in this analysis. If my senses may always deceive me then it is not possible for me to know that the stick is actually straight. The only way I can know the stick is straight and I have been deceived, is to know the stick is straight is non-deceptive. Therefore to claim my sense may always deceive me is not true. However, Cottingham argues ‘this type of objection scarcely touches Descartes for his reasoning does not require the premise that the senses are always deceptive’. Nevertheless, Descartes argues relying on sense is not enough to correct a deception in any case, because it does not rely on reason. It is quite conceivable that my senses may have deceived me in both cases. However, it does not necessarily matter whether one or the other case is true, what matters is that it is possible to doubt. Descartes concedes that such doubts would be absurd in many situations: no amount of evidence on the supposed unreliability of my sense-organs could lead me to doubt that I am now sitting by the fire holding a piece of paper in my hands.

Nevertheless, through doubting the existence of any certain marks that distinguish being awake from being asleep, he proceeds to argue all sense-experiences can be doubted. If it is possible a person is dreaming when they assume they are awake, then, as every so-called real situation could conceivably be dreamt, every physical thing is open to doubt. For example, I could be dreaming I am at my desk writing this essay equally vividly as if I am actually writing it. Similarly, dreams can produce creations that are entirely imaginary.

They do not necessarily have to be based on anything, for example a hand or face that is perceived as real, so there is no firm knowledge to suggest the hand or face is real. A similar problem applies to this concept as that of the senses. To say I know I have been deceived by my dreams on some occasions presupposes that I have the distinction between dreaming and waking. The deception therefore cannot obliterate the distinction. This however, is merely describing different cogitations of what is perceived as real when it is assumed we are awake.

It does not indicate we have any way of telling when we are dreaming or not; our dreams could still be reality. Norman Malcolm argues we can tell if someone is asleep because ‘if a person is in any state of consciousness then it follows that he is not sound asleep’. 5 Modern science has, to some extent, disproved this. People can have lucid dreams, sleepwalk and dream that they are dreaming or that they are awake. In any case Descartes’ main sceptical problem is not to establish whether I am really awake; it is to show there is enough doubt that the knowledge of material things is questionable.

Descartes finds a problem in doubting those subjects that do not deal with composite things. He says ‘whether I am awake or not, two and three added together are five and a square has no more than four sides’. However, he argues that, because God has deceived him a few times, it is impossible to say he is not deceiving him all the time, for example when he thinks a square has four sides. Alternatively, if a God does not exist, Descartes argues we are so imperfect that it is possible to doubt all our judgements: ‘Is it not possible that I could be made to go wrong every time I add two and three or count the sides of a square? . It is conceivable to doubt whether 2+3=5, for ‘5’ does not mean 2+3 and, in any case it is possible for 2+3 to not equal 5. If two litres of alcohol were added to three litres of water, you would not have five litres because due to chemical reactions. If this concept can be false in one such situation, then it is possible to doubt it in all others. Similarly, Descartes argues that if it is possible to count the number of sides of a square incorrectly then it is possible we are counting them incorrectly all the time.

However, geometry is composed of almost certain necessary truths. True, a square could conceivably have been called a triangle and still have four sides, but we have defined a square as a shape that has four sides. It is a necessary truth and an abstract concept; it exists because we have formulated and defined it. Thus, it appears impossible to go wrong when we count the number of sides of a square as four, so long as we exist. Descartes’ conclusion to his First Meditation is that it is ultimately possible to doubt everything.

He says he will ‘imagine there is a malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning who has deployed all his energies to deceive me’. However, if he is imagining this such that the sensory data the demon produces to deceive him is identical to that of the real world, then it is highly questionable whether they are actually illusions. Nevertheless, subjectively, this sense data could be a dream, a deception or reality. Because it is possible to doubt everything, what is happening here and now may just be a ‘fleeting chimera, with no basis in any stable and enduring reality’. He intends to use the demon as an imaginary device that helps him reject all his habitual opinions- all of which can be doubted- so to enable him to address the sceptical problem accurately. Descartes’ sceptical problem is an extremely complex one. He is pursuing a quest to establish the foundations of philosophy in terms of definitive knowledge and truth. His sceptical problem is only sceptical as a means to an end. Hence he uses a method of hyperbolic doubt. As Cottingham says, ‘only by pushing doubt to its limits can we discover what is incapable of being doubted’.

Descartes does this through the analysis in First Meditation. Once it is discovered what cannot be doubted then we have the foundation from which to build definitive knowledge. Central to this sceptical problem is Descartes’ idea of leading the mind away from the senses. It is less about establishing there is a world or knowing I am really awake or if reality is in fact a dream. Instead the sceptical problem is more about showing how definitive knowledge can be obtained independently of what Descartes views as the unreliable source of the senses.

He argues the senses alone only provide data for judgement. Hence Descartes begins considering what can be doubted by observing ‘the senses deceive from time to time, and it is prudent never to trust wholly those who have deceived us even once’. If definitive knowledge may be obtained independently of the senses, then it will be possible for truth to be accessible to all. It would also explain the sciences are not a set of separate disciplines, but are as one. Descartes’ sceptical problem is a means to find ‘true knowledge that is ‘clear and certain rather than murky and full of doubt’.

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