The 17th Century was an era between The Renaissance and The Enlightenment exposed with highly significant advancements, especially within the field of mathematics and physics, creating the new modern scientific realm. This realm demolished many of the theories brought about by prior Philosophers i.e Aristotle and increased the developments of scholarly epistemology, which, in turn, caused an explosion in skepticism. Rene Descartes, a renowned philosopher, believed that there were truths in which one cannot simply doubt and tried to defeat and attack scepticism by introducing a new methodical system called “The Cartesian Method of Doubt”. This essay is going to look in depth into Descartes Method of Doubt and analysis which was written in The Meditations and how this method improved Aristotle’s foundationalist principles to create a balanced idea of Foundationalism. Furthermore, show how Descartes “Method of Doubt” supports Cogito ergo sum as the foundations of epistemology. At the beginning of the meditations Descartes realises how many false preconceptions he believed in, it was this, which was his reasoning for clearing his mind, freeing himself of any other ideas and doubting upon every structure that his beliefs were founded upon.
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The Method of Doubt is a concept composed by Descartes where one deploys a skeptical hypotheses to all ones firmly held beliefs which are “not completely certain and indubitable”. Descartes soon realises that everything he knows; all prior knowledge must be brought into doubt as nothing can be proved to be entirely certain. His procedure is classified as omnibus dubitandum est. He needs to establish what is certain, and what cannot be doubted and begin a process of rebuilding from the foundations to find certain and priori knowledge- this method can be seen as a powerful tool used against Aristotelian philosophy. Descartes attempts this by diminishing all of his previous opinions, moving from the external realm to his own self-examination. By using this method Descartes presupposes that it takes place in the mind through intuition and deduction, and that this is the most efficient way to question one’s doubts.
There are several different stages to Descartes Method of Doubt, the first stage analyses how the senses are a source of illusion which can be deceptive, and rejecting the notion of sensual perceptions conveying that they will always give one accurate information of their surroundings. Inaccuracy is shown in regard to mirages, optical and other illusions, for example, when putting half a stick in water, the way humans optics work, we are lead to believe that the stick is bent at the point it enters the water. However this is not the case, it is a case of angle refraction. “When light passes from one transparent medium to another, it bends according to Snell’s law which states: Ni * Sin(Ai) = Nr * Sin(Ar).”  The first Meditation is riddled with uncertainty and tests the basic principles of intellect and reasoning.
The Madness Argument; the mediator seems to disregard the sceptical hypothesis of madness: “Such people are insane, and I would be thought equally mad if I modelled myself on them” He moves so briskly from the madness argument into dreams, as dreams can be seen as more universal and most, if not all human beings have dreams “dreams are a kind of madness for the sane”. Whereas “madness” is firstly, more subjective and one who is deemed insane is unaware of the distortion of their senses and cannot comprehend the distinction between reality and non reality, thus losing the act of reasoning effectively (rationality). This argument can be criticised for its weakness as with this process there is no explicit formulation.
The Dream Argument is a theory elucidating that the act of dreaming shows illusions that are similar, if not the same to reality. How does one differentiate between illusion and reality? Descartes gives the explanation of when he is sitting by a fire in a dressing gown and is holding a piece of paper, the question that is raised is how does he know whether he is dreaming or awake? “…there is never any reliable way of distinguishing being awake or asleep”. Our senses can be very deceptive when trying to distinguish between illusions and reality. Therefore any state dependant on our senses should be questioned undermining the empiricists view. Dreaming may be an appropriate example to illustrate that something cannot arise from nothing. When dreaming, the mind can produce what appears to be original ideas or objects, there is always some basis drawn from reality, some sort of “general kinds”. Specific objects such as eyes, heads, hands and the body are categorised into “general kinds” these must “be real and not imaginary” these immediately present things are reliable and exist in reality- He bases this hypothesis on a comparison of dreams to paintings. We can understand that even when we perceive something (i.e. in a dream) that may not have a true basis in reality, we may be aware of this falsity and therefore do not rely on this perception. This means that we are able to rely on our senses enough to know when they are not giving us a true observation of the external world. However we are unable to synthesise colour, extension, shape, mass, size and time (Descartes’ Simples). What fundamentally cannot be doubted and is the same, whether awake or dreaming according to Descartes, are the truths of mathematics/geometry he uses the example of two plus three will be equal to five regardless.
“What happens in sleep seems not at all as clear and distinct…” Descartes dream argument is a very strong argument. There are only minute selection of points which could be interpreted as slightly weak. Dreams are not normally logical, there is normally no concept of time whilst dreaming as events don’t occur in a sequence, but a mish-mash, like a stream of consciousness opposed to the repetition, and the ordinary continuity of occurrences in everyday life.
Descartes moves onto doubting that the general kinds and even the truths of mathematics could be false and wonders if “… there is no earth, no sky, no size, no place…” and perhaps the all knowing, supremely omniscient and perfect God, nonethless he is at least occasionally deceived. He instead believes this deceit caused by a “malicious, powerful, cunning demon.” Meditation II reiterates negative notion of doubt and how it is clear that experience does not provide certainty. ‘even then, if he [the demon] is deceiving me I undoubtedly exist: let him deceive me all he can. He will never bring it about that I am nothing while I think I am somethingâ€¦I conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, must be true whenever I assert it or think it’ This section is a way of Descartes proving there is certainty with the cogito which is a slightly different notion to cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am). He believes the cogito is the ultimate foundation of knowledge. Descartes finds an inner tie between being conscious and existing and it is this that proves the certainty of his argument for Cogito. This process counters the evil demon argument, if one doubts the process of thinking, it provides a source of self certainty “if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed.”This is now his first concreted principle which is certain in one’s mind and is the foundation of epistemology. Descartes states that the Cogito must be correct due to the certainty of its nature. In his view the argument is perfectly circular, without thinking and know oneself one could not exist, thus the fact that we all do proves the truth of the Cogito. “I think therefore I am”; if I know that I am, I will consequently know what I am. To know that I am and what I am are two simultaneous occurrences, which are implicit in the content of one’s awareness.
Gassendi criticises Descartes first section of the Method of doubt by asking Descartes why he made a “brief statement to the effect that you were regarding your previous knowledge as uncertain so that you could later single out what you found to be true.” Why instead did you consider everything as false, which seems more like adopting a new prejudice than relinquishing an old one? This strategy made it necessary for you to convince yourself by imagining a deceiving God or some evil demon who tricks us, whereas it would surely have been sufficient to cite the darkness of the human mind or the weakness of our nature” Gassendi’s questions are extremely valid, isn’t Descartes just obtaining new prejudices? Surely the thought of a evil demon would just reiterate the fact that everything could be deceitful, even him thinking? Couldn’t the demon of deceived him into thinking that because he is thinking he is exist, this point of the Method of doubt just doesn’t seem to help in giving validity to the cogito, if he had said it was a weakness of our own mind and an external factor the fact of being deceived would of been seen as more plausible.
Many critics have criticised the validity of this “argument” and deemed it as having circular reasoning, being invalid or unsound and not certain. They argue that Descartes himself is self defeative and is presupposing too many things, if he doubted everything then why not doubt the operations of the mind. If Descartes questioned the certitude of mathematics then he should have questioned the argument that he is a thinking thing instead of coming up with that argument so quickly. Two major critics to Descartes Method of doubt and ‘the Cogito’ are Lichtenburg and Williams.
George Lichtenburg on the other hand began with the irreducibility of “I”, He declares that because of the refutation of substantial self in the first meditation, the use of ‘I’ is incoherent and is therefore not a sufficient justification in the cogito present in meditation II. “He is then protesting against translating Cogito as ‘I am thinking’ because until I is recognised as what it is, no more a referring expression than the expletive use of There or It” The use of ‘I’ as a being is a bigger claim then the cogito. The proof of cogito does not prove the existence of one’s self and thus can’t be the foundation of certainty. The fallacy of begging the question can be evident if Descartes “I” means a thinking thing because “Descartes is trying to prove that he exists as a thinking subject, but by stating that ‘I think’ (in the premise), he automatically presumes that he exists as a thinking subject.” Finally Bernard Williams argument against the Cogito. He suggested that when using ‘I think’ it is not conceivable by a third person, as thinking, the experience of consciousness is from an individuals perspective therefore it is not able to prove that one is thinking from a third persons perspective. Kant argues that you cannot prove someone exists purely from them thinking alone, he denies its primacy.
In this essay I have assessed Descartes’ various stages of the ‘method of doubt’ and his argument in support of the ‘I think’ as the foundation of knowledge.
Having studied and analysed a number of his critiques I have been forced to disagree that the Cogito is the foundation of knowledge and found the method of doubt to be inconsistent and inconclusive; this is due to the fact I believe that just because you think, this does not prove necessarily that consequently you exist. After demolishing all faculties of what you believe certain, it is too easy to, especially after you have included factors like an all deceiving demon. . As an argument I find it unsound. There is a syllogistic inference, that seems to be missing an extra premise. For example, I am a thinking thing, I think, therefore I am, would make more sense. Decartes views can be seen as persuasive at the time. as it was written during a period moving away from Aristotles foundationalism, and would have therefore been regarded as a completely new and enticing theory. In spite of my criticisms of the reliability and proof of Descartes Cogito I have found that I am in agreement with his view of sensual perception. In Meditations Descartes puts forward distinct example of the ways in which our senses can deceive us on a daily basis. Consequently I find that I support Descartes method of doubt, however remain unconvinced by his theory of the Cogito.
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