Doubt and Skepticism in Descartes Meditations

Doubt is one of the underlying themes of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. In the Meditations, Descartes discusses what can be called into doubt and provides reasoning for the false things he believes to have thought in his lifetime. Descartes’ first meditation deals with general skepticism, the theory that certain knowledge is impossible, and discusses that all things can be called into doubt. Descartes’ second meditation deals with the existence of the self and the Nature of the Human Mind, exploring the idea that the mind is more known than the body. Descartes’ third meditation deals with the concept of God and contingent existence. Descartes’ fourth meditation concerns the Truth and Falsehoods. Descartes’ fifth and sixth meditations concerns the existence of material things and the difference between the mind and body. Throughout his meditations, Descartes focuses on the relationships between beliefs, truth, knowledge, and modern skepticism. Skepticism here is the claim that we do not know anything or at least not very much much less than we take ourselves to know. A skeptical hypothesis is a scenario in which skepticism is true about the person in that scenario. In this paper, I will discuss the connection between doubt and reality in Descartes’ Meditations and consider the purpose of the “evil demon hypothesis as a way to build his argument that reality should be questioned.

The first meditation argues that we should doubt reality and it begins to ask us how we would really know that things are what they are if we were to have no prior knowledge or facts about them. Descartes thinks that most of what we believe to be true has come to us through our senses, but if our senses have deceived us once before, then it would not be smart of us to trust them fully. It also argues if it is productive to doubt reality and mentions if our foundations for our beliefs were false, then all of our beliefs could be false too. Descartes also reasons his four bulldozers, or causes, of doubt: that he cannot trust his senses, that he could be crazy, that he could be dreaming, or that a malicious demon could be fooling him. According to his dream argument in the Meditations on First Philosophy, he states that since we cannot distinguish being awake from dreaming or prove that we indeed are awake, then we cannot trust our senses. The dream argument is meant to suggest the possibility of universal dreaming and that one’s senses are not always reliable. Descartes’ main propositions for the dream hypothesis are: that when dreaming, we cannot tell that we are not awake, dreaming and waking feel the same from the inside, and that dreaming and waking are indistinguishable. Descartes expresses that since some things we sense may be incorrect, then all of our senses may be incorrect. Therefore, is it possible that our senses are deceiving us? Furthermore, can we really gain knowledge from our senses or just from pure reason?

Descartes brings in the idea of the “evil demon, which resembles beliefs who makes things appear to him, even if they are not true. Even though he is not sure on the existence of this demon, he thinks it could be a possibility. Descartes’ reasoning on why he cannot rule out the possibility of the demon is as follows: we know things only if we can rule out the possibility of it being false. If we are being deceived by an evil demon, then all things we believe are false. Therefore, in order to know things we need to rule out the possibility of the evil demon. Since we cannot rule out the demon, we lack knowledge. Unlike the dream argument, the evil demon argument discredits both the senses and the possibility of universal dreaming. However, a good way of connecting the two arguments is this: if we know something, it is because our senses have not deceived us but when we sleep our senses deceive us and we cannot know whether we are asleep or awake, therefore we cannot know anything.

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