Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Descartes argument for scepticism in the 1st Meditation

To: James L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Descartes' argument for scepticism in the 1st Meditation
Date: 14 October 2005 11:00

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your email of 3 October, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'In his First Meditation, how does Descartes attempt to show there is reason to doubt everything one believes?'

In your email you said, 'I thought it best not to include extraneous commentary since the question seemed to be asking just for a reproduction of the argument.'

Two points to make here. If any comments are 'extraneous' to the question being asked, then they should not be included. You are absolutely right about this. You must answer the question, the whole question and nothing but. However, in order to do this, it is sometimes necessary to get behind the question, or question the question. Sometimes it is not obvious exactly what the question is asking, or what would or would not be relevant to an answer. But whatever you write, must be part of an answer to *that* question, and not some other question.

If you don't like he question, if you think that the question assumes something which you think is false, the by all means say what you think *should* have been the question. That's fine, as long as you don't forget - and show the reader that you are fully aware - why you are doing this.

However - and this is the second point - when you are asked to give a philosopher's argument, the chances are that more work will be involved than simply giving a precis of the passage in which the argument occurs.

A little phrase or remark which the casual reader's eyes might easily skip over might prove to be a crucial premise. Or it might be necessary to say something along the lines of, 'X doesn't actually say this, but in order for the argument to go through an extra step is needed, to the effect that...'.

What the question does *not* ask for is a thorough critique of the argument. That would be a topic for a different essay (In this case, 'Does Descartes succeed in giving reason to doubt everything one believes?') You don't have to make a judgement on this. However, it may be necessary (given what I said in the previous paragraph) to comment on the plausibility of any given step, as part of your effort to understand exactly what the author is saying and his reasons for saying it.

Looking at your essay, there is a massive omission at the end which makes me wonder whether I have received the complete essay. (The version I have ends 'So, whether it is deceiving senses, the possibility of delusion, the possibility of dreaming, or an omnipotent deity which has created us as creatures liable to be deceived some or all of the time, Descartes comes to the conclusion that we have reason to be sceptical of all our beliefs.')

Having considered the God case, Descartes then asks the reader to imagine an 'evil demon'. 'I shall suppose, therefore, that there is. not a true God who is the sovereign source of truth, but some evil demon, no less cunning and deceiving than powerful, who has used all his artifice to deceive me.' The consequence of this assumption is that it would be possible to have all the experiences that I have now, in a world where there are no material objects - where there is no such thing as space - where all that exists is my experiences and the evil demon. That is Descartes' final answer to the question whether there is reason to doubt everything one believes.

It would be relevant to point out that even the evil demon hypothesis does not give me reason to doubt that I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about Descartes First Meditation, during the time that I have been undergoing the 'experience' of writing this email to you. Surely, if there is an evil demon, he could have created me just one second ago with the false memory of having written all this. But that is not a possibility that Descartes considers. This has important consequences later on, when Descartes considers the indubitability of the proposition, 'I exist'.

Other things missed out:

Although you talk about foundations, you didn't fully make the point that Descartes aim is to knock away the foundations of our ordinary beliefs. An extra sentence or two is needed here to explain Descartes' vision of how our beliefs are structured. He is setting out to question the most basic assumptions that lie behind our ordinary beliefs. The possibility that these assumptions are false would be sufficient 'reason to doubt everything one believes'.

Why does Descartes move from considering objects at a distance to the experience of sitting by a fire? There is something he doesn't say here but implies, that in the case of objects at a distance there is such a thing as 'moving closer to get a better look'. This is the thought that he is responding to in moving on to the fire example.

Just a couple of sentences later, there is a very important assumption that Descartes is not prepared to consider the possibility that he might be mad. Why not? Forget the evil demon. Wouldn't that be the ultimate, trumping decision which gave 'reason to doubt everything one believes'? If I don't know whether I am mad or insane, there is no evidence I can call upon to resolve this doubt. Surely deserving of a comment.

Again, when Descartes moves on to consider the possibility that he is dreaming, the familiar (to us) Matrix scenario doesn't get a look in. The difference between the Matrix scenario and the evil demon is that in the latter, we are not raising the possibility that space and material objects do not exist but only questioning the evidence from sense perception that the world is the way we think it is. But Descartes never considers this. Instead, he moves straight on to the question of where our 'ideas' of the building blocks of our experiences - colours and shapes etc - come from.

All the best,