Hey y’all, I thought I’d do my best to lure in the non-philosophy types in an attempt to help you get your Descartes on. I’m doing a course on 17th Century philosophy and the first guy we’re studying is Descartes. A couple little facts on the fah-zhah of modern philosophy: 1. He was primarily interested in the limits of scientific knowledge (he was a scientist) and 2. while lying sick in bed he devised the xy axis/quadrant system. Apparently he came up with the idea because he wanted to mathematically locate a fly that was on the ceiling–he was bored (Descartes, that is!). Third, although there are several conspiracy theories about his death, the most accepted account is that he died of pneumonia because the queen of Sweden made him get up super early every morning to tutor her (he was accustomed to working in bed until noon–I’m following in his footsteps!). Lastly, but unbeknownst to many, his famous “Meditations” were the origin of “The Matrix” and “Inception”.
The structure of Descartes meditations is to begin with the most skeptical position possible and try rebuild our (scientific) knowledge from only what we can know for certain. In doing my rereading I found it interesting that Descartes makes it clear that his project is specific to scientific knowledge (I don’t think I noticed this when I read it in undergrad). A couple of philoso-facts/philoso-terms. Descartes was a rationalist which is to say that he thought that we can only acquire “true” knowledge of the external world through internal reflection (to discover fundamental truths) and application of the rules of logic. In essence, since our senses are untrustworthy, we should instead rely on introspection and reason. Second, Descartes was a foundationalist–in other words he believed that the structure of all we know is built up from foundational premises or truths. All knowledge beyond the foundational is derived through rules of logic.
The main theme of the first meditation is to employ skepticism to all we know to demonstrate how little we can actually be sure of. The arguments go a little something like this:
Arg 1 and Method: As an adult he realized that some of the things that he had believed to be true as a child were in fact false and the edifice of knowledge that had been built upon these believes was subsequently weakened or destroyed. How can we be sure that there still aren’t more undiscovered false beliefs upon which we rely? Descartes decides it’s time to reevaluate everything he knows. Of course it would be impossible and tiresome to go through piecemeal each belief we hold; instead he decides to examine the foundational beliefs upon which they are all supported.
Arg 2A, The (World) Famous “Dream Argument” (can you find the seed of the blockbuster movies?): Most of what we believe is knowledge that is derived from the senses. The senses are known to deceive, so perhaps I should question all beliefs that are acquired through experience. Of course one would be to maaaaad! maaaaad! I tell you! to actually question that the hands and arms I see with mine own two eyes are not mine own hands and arms…or would they? Isn’t the experience of having hands and arms as we type away on facebook exactly the same as if we were dreaming of typing witty retorts and profile updates? We have all experienced dreams that while they were happening were indistinguishable from reality. And yet, I did not make those witty facebook retorts, and I did not make those witty profile updates. Perhaps I have no hands and arms at all, but in their stead I have long purple tentacles with suction cups….muahahahah! Or for another totally random example, (just making this up off the top of my head) perhaps it’s my job to enter peoples dreams and plant ideas in their minds so they think it’s their idea. Then one day I start dreaming inside dreams…like 4 deep! And my wife gets confused and thinks she’s in a dream but she’s not. Then I don’t know if I’m in a dream that’s in another dream or in reality either. Then I spin some top thing and it starts to wobble…
Ok, settle down. Perhaps we don’t know whether I have hands or tentacles but we can still reason that there are certain simple universal qualities that exist. Representations of reality are all based on reality, no matter how distorted they are. Nothing is imagined/dreamed that doesn’t exist in some sense. So, regardless of whether my purple tentacles and round suction cups are from a dream or for realz we can all agree that the color purple exists, and things of corporeal nature have the universal qualities of extension and shape. So too with quantity and size, duration of existence, and the existence of the space that a body occupies. Perhaps knowledge that deals with universals is a stable foundation upon which to build. For example, whether I am dreaming or not, 2+3=5, and a square has 4 sides.
Note for the following section: Descartes was a strong Catholic and owning to this and the time in history at which he lived, the notion of no creator god (regardless of temperament) was inconceivable.
He argues, how do I know that god, who created me, maybe didn’t actually create a world, space, time, shape, yet made all these things appear to me as in a dream? Maybe these universal qualities of things don’t actually exist in a physical sense, maybe they are all ideas with which god fills my silly little head. Another problem with ascertaining the certainty of knowledge he notes is that sometimes people make mistakes. Sometimes people make arithmatic errors and say the 2+3=6. How do I know that I am not making mistakes too? Maybe there’s a short circuit in my brain that makes me think squares have 5 sides.
Some might reply that god is supremely good and so would not deceive us; but the fact that he created us in a way such that we are sometimes deceived indicates that we should not hold this belief to be self evident (I think at this point in history Descartes was taking a big risk even postulating this hypothetical argument. Then he comes back to rescue himself for the stake). “Perhaps there may be some who would prefer to deny the existence of so powerful a god […] let us grant that everything said about god is a fiction. According to their supposition, then, I have arrived at my present state by fate or chance or a continuous chain of events […] the less likely they make my original cause, the more likely it is I am so imperfect as to be deceived all the time.”
Basically, the less power and goodness we ascribe to a creator god, the greater will be our imperfections and the stronger will be Descartes argument for the unreliability of sensory information. Of course Descartes didn’t realize that indeed we did “arrive at [our] present state by a continuous chain of event” but, as I’m learning, neither do a lot of Americans…God not withstanding, I think we can acknowledge Descartes point that sensory information is unreliable.
Arg 2B: The (World) Famous “Evil Demon Argument” (Fun Activity! Find the seed of the blockbuster movies! Yay!) Lets pretend that everything you perceive is false. That a “malicious demon of the utmost cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive [you]”. Er’thing you see, the sky, the compooter, my purple tentacles, and my herculean muscles, and chiseled features are all “delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare [your] judgment”.
If this were the case, how could you distinguish the demon’s manipulation of what you perceive from reality? In the dream argument your “only” problem is to distinguish between a dream and reality. Now, Descartes kicks it up a notch. Pow! Not only are you not in control of what you perceive but the entity putting the perceptions in the “theatre of your mind” is deliberately trying to fool you into believing that what you see is reality. Maybe the demon makes what you perceive so pleasurable that you don’t even want to contemplate whether it’s real and then he uses you as a battery to power his world. But then some people figure it out and give you the choice of a blue or red pill (that’s on page 17). Sound like a few movies you might have watched? Hmmm? Hmmmmmmmmmm? Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm?
Ok, so it’s 3am so I promised myself some sleep. I’ll do the 2nd Meditations next, that of the famous “I think, therefore I am”.