Salem State College Method of Doubt Discussion ANSWER: What is “The Method of Doubt? (also called Methodological Skepticism) used by Descartes? Does it lead to anything CERTAIN?
– at least 4 paragraphs and 500 words
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Cartesian Doubt: In seeking an absolutely certain starting point, Descartes proposed to use the tool of extreme doubt. He would ask of a belief: Is there any possibility that this belief can be doubted? Is there anything that would make this belief the least bit dubious? If the answer is yes, then the belief was to be eliminated, for it is not absolutely certain. (Of course, Descartes did not propose that we should stop believing a proposition if it failed the Cartesian doubt test. Failing the test indicates only that the proposition is not known with absolute certainty. It might be justified later if founded on certainty). This is called:
Methodological Skepticism: Doubting ALL beliefs in an effort to discover if ANYTHING can be certain. It is based on the premise that Certainty, by definition, is the absence of doubt. It is a clever way to try to defect regular skepticism that maintains that certain knowledge is impossible.
A Labor Saving Device: Not every belief can be subjected to the acid test of Cartesian doubt since we simply believe too many things. If you reflect for a moment on the vast body of beliefs that you have about ordinary things, then you will quickly see that if you tried to subject each of them to Cartesian doubt the project would take more than a lifetime to complete. To circumvent this practical problem, Descartes proposed a clever labor saving device. Rather than look at his beliefs individually, he would group them together on the basis of the sort of justification or support that they had. Thus, for example, your belief that I am wearing a blue necktie and your belief that the student next to you has taken off his shoes, though different beliefs, are based on the same sort of justification. They are both supported by the evidence of your vision. Now Descartes labor saving device works like this: If a given type of justification has ever led us to a false or mistaken conclusion, then all beliefs supported by this type of justification are subject to doubt. If this sort of justification has ever gone wrong, if it has ever led us to mistakes or errors, then we can never be certain that it will not mislead us again. Thus, to continue our example, if it can be shown that the evidence of our vision has ever led us to error, then all beliefs which are based on vision are subject to doubt. None of them are absolutely certain! Since vision has misled us in one case, then we can always ask whether it might not be misleading us in the case we are now considering. And this question is enough to generate Cartesian doubt concerning our belief in the case at hand. Of course he quickly discovers that ALL information from ANY of our senses is subject to doubt.
II. The Quest for Certainty: Equipped with the method of Cartesian doubt and the labor saving device just described, Descartes set out on his quest to clear the path to certainly. The first job was to eliminate lots of potential candidatesto show that many classes of beliefs were not absolutely certain and thus could not serve as the foundation for the rest of knowledge.
The Argument from IllusionThe Senses Under Attack: The first victims in Descartes attack on our beliefs are all those beliefs whose justification rely on the evidence of the five senses. Included among these, of course, are most of our everyday beliefs about the things going on around us. These beliefs are founded on the data provided by our senses. And, Descartes argues, none of these beliefs are certain. The argument itself is straightforward. Our senses have deceived us in the past, thus we cannot be certain of any belief that is founded on the evidence of the senses. The premise of the argument, that our senses have deceived us in the past, needs little defense. We have all had the experience of thinking that we saw or heard something and then discovering that we were mistaken. Some examples are optical illusions; smelling your favorite dinner in the over when you arrive at your Grand Parents house (but there is nothing cooking); hearing strange sounds when home alone late while frightened.
One example Descartes uses is being on a boat on a lovely lake in France with your sweetheart on a sunny day. The oar looks BENT while in the water. But you reach your hands in the water and it feels straight! This is an example of your REASON correcting your SENSES, which is in part, why he is a Rationalist.
By the way, he made a footnote to prove his hypothesis that the illusion of the bent oar is due to the refraction of light. Of course, he would later do just that and be the first one to figure out the mathematical and physics based proof and explanation of the refraction of light (that we now take for granted in the 21st century).
But Descartes most famous passage pertaining the Argument from Illusion is the Analogy of the Piece of Wax. To make this point. Descartes first considers all the sensible properties of a ball of wax such as its shape, texture, size, color, and smell. He then points out that all these properties change as the wax is moved closer to a fire. The only properties that necessarily remain are extension, changeability and movability, all of which have deceived our senses but are corrected by our Reason.
Let us begin by considering the commonest matters, those which we believe to be the most distinctly comprehended, to wit, the bodies which we touch and see; not indeed bodies in general, for these general ideas are usually a little more confused, but let us consider one body in particular. Let us take, for example, this piece of wax: it has been taken quite freshly from the hive, and it has not yet lost the sweetness of the honey which it contains; it still retains somewhat of the odor of the flowers from which it has been culled; its color, its figure, its size are all apparent; it is hard, cold, easily handled, and if you strike it with the finger, it will emit a sound. Finally, all the things which are requisite to cause us distinctly to recognize a body, are met with in it. But notice that while I speak and approach the fire what remained of the taste is exhaled, the smell evaporates, the color alters, the figure is destroyed, the size increases, it becomes liquid, it heats, scarcely can one handle it, and when one strikes it, no sound is emitted. Does the same wax remain after this change? We must confess that it remains; none would judge otherwise. What then did I know so distinctly in this piece of wax? It could certainly be nothing of all that the senses brought to my notice, since all these things which fall under taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing, are found to be changed, and yet the same wax remains .Perhaps it was what I now think, viz. that this wax was not that sweetness of honey, nor that agreeable scent of flowers, nor that particular whiteness, nor that figure, nor that sound, but simply a body which a little while before appeared to me as perceptible under these forms, and which is now perceptible under others. But what, precisely, is it that I imagine when I form such conceptions? Let us attentively consider this, and, abstracting from all that does not belong to the wax, let us see what remains. Certainly nothing remains excepting a certain extended thing which is flexible and movable These properties are however not directly perceived through the senses or imagination (the wax can be extended and moved in more ways than can be imagined). Instead to grasp the essence of the wax, it must be done through pure reason. We must then grant that I could not even understand through the imagination what this piece of wax is, and that it is my mind alone which perceives it.
?René Descartes, 1911 edition of The Philosophical Works of Descartes (Cambridge University Press), translated by Elizabeth S. Haldane
The Dream Argument – A Second Assault on the Senses: The argument from illusion serves to show that many of our beliefs about the world around us are less than certain. But it might be thought that the argument from illusion is not adequate to expose all such beliefs to doubt. After all, it might be argued, my senses deceive me only under very special and unusual circumstances. When I am looking at something very far away, or when I am very tired and confused, or when I am drunk or have taken a drug of some sort, or when I am the subject of a psychological experimentin these circumstances my senses may deceive me and lead me to a false conclusion. But what about those cases when there are no special or peculiar circumstances? What about the cases where I have not been drugged and where I simply hold my hand in front of my face and see my five fingers? Surely my senses cannot be deceiving me in this case. To combat this line of attack, Descartes uses a second argument to show that none of our beliefs concerning the world are absolutely certain. The argument is this: We have often dreamed that we were in places we were not. We have seen familiar objects and faces clearly. Yet those objects were nowhere near us. When Descartes dreams that he in his study, he is actually in bed. Thus even beliefs based on the clearest perceptions have sometimes been mistaken when the clear perception occurred during a dream. But we are never absolutely certain that we are not dreaming at any given moment. Thus we can never be absolutely certain of any of our beliefs based on even the clearest perception. Indeed, the concept of a nightmare is meaningless if we were always certain whether we are awake or asleep. Descartes will later attempt to trace our beliefs of Dreaming vs. Being Awake via chains of justification so we can know if we are awake or dreaming. But, for now, we must confess that are NOT certain. An ancient Chinese Philosopher put it this way: I had a dream that I was a butterfly. But now I am not sure if I am a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man!
The Evil Demon Argument – Sweeping the Decks (almost) Clean: It might be thought that the argument from illusion along with the dream argument are sufficient to show that everything is doubtful, that nothing is certain. But this is not the case. It might be argued that even though we are never certain we are not dreaming, still there are a few facts about the world that we cannot bring ourselves to doubt. Perhaps when we see a certain color or shape in a dream, even though there is no object near us at the time that actually has that color or shape, we still can be certain that there actually are things of that color or shape in the universe. For even though our dream is a mere idea that corresponds to nothing in the mind external world, still where did we get the idea of that color or shape in the first place? Must we not have gotten it from the mind external world? Thus cant we be certain that there are things of that color in the world even though perhaps there are none actually near us at the moment?
Or take an even more extreme case. Suppose we see two apples and three apples being put together in a bag during the dream. Wouldnt there be five apples in the bag? Now it follows from the dream argument that we may be deceived about what we have seen. Perhaps we are really asleep in bed and there are no apples closer than the kitchen. Still, cant we be certain of the bare fact of arithmetic, that 2+3=5? Or, to vary the example, suppose we see a triangle. By the dream argument we can conclude that there may not be a real triangle near us. But still, cant we be certain even in a dream, that a triangle has three sides? Cant we be certain of this even if we grant that we are now dreaming?
Descartes doubts that even these beliefs are certain. He suspects that even the existence of colors in the world can be doubted, that even the fact that a triangle has three sides (an analytic statement) can be doubted. Only absolute certainty can serve as the foundation for knowledge. He wants to be sure he is not deceived to believe with certainty in his favored, analytic and mathematical truths.
Descartes realizes that he loves math and logic. Thus, he might be tempted to use math and logic as the foundation. So Descartes uses hyperbole (exaggeration) to make his point. He asks, Can I imagine a possible world where even analytic truths can be doubted?
Yes! Imagine there is a Being as all-powerful as the traditional Christian God, but a Being as wicked and mischievous as the Christian God is good. If such a demon existed, and if he wanted to deceive you, couldnt he do it? Couldnt he deceive you into thinking that colors and shapes exist in the mind external world when in fact they do not? Indeed, if he is as powerful as the Christian God, couldnt he even deceive you into believing that triangles have three sides, when in fact they do not? Couldnt the demon give you ALL of your perceptions? Clearly, Descartes argues, such an all-powerful evil demon could trick you. Moreover, you do not have any guarantee that such a demon does not exist. You are not CERTAIN there is no such demon. Of course, you dont believe that there is a demon. But that is not the point. The proposition that there is no evil demon fails the test of Cartesian doubt. So, if you cannot be certain that there is no evil demon, then you cannot be certain that he is not deceiving you. Thus you cannot be certain that colors exist in the mind external world, or that triangles have three sides. You might be an un-embodied mind in a vat having all of your perceptions fed to you! Pretty weird, but you must admit that there is room for doubt. Many science fiction stories are based on this possibility (including The Matrix).
Descartes Argument for the Existence of Mind
Whats Left? – The Cogito: It might be thought that with this last argument Descartes has succeeded in destroying the quest for certainty. It might seem that Descartes has shown we can be certain of nothing! But Descartes did not draw this skeptical conclusion. He thought that even if there is an evil demon using all his powers to deceive us, there is still something we can be certain of.
Descartes defended this conclusion in a brief and elegant argument that has fascinated philosophers for centuries. Suppose, he argues, that there is an evil demon (or evil scientist, or a virtual reality) and that he does his best to deceive us. Is there not one belief about which he cannot deceive us: the belief that we exist? Let the demon deceive me all he can, still if he is deceiving me, I must exist. If I did not exist, he would not be able to deceive me. I would not be there to be deceived. A deceiver implies the existence of a deceive-ee, this is me! Thus it is impossible for the demon to deceive me about my own existence. I believe that I exist, and in order to be deceived, I must exist. We might reconstruct Descartes Argument as a dilemma: Either the demon exists or he does not. If he does not, then I have no reason to doubt that I exist. But if he does and he is deceiving me, then I still must exist. So in either case I cannot doubt that I exist.
Extending the Argument: Descartes offers several elaborations of the Cogito.
1. From Thought to My Existence: It is not only doubt of my existence that guarantees I exist. Any mental activity is sufficient to establish my existence. If I think or reason or hope, then I must exist. Any thought implies the existence of a thinker. Of course, the demon may be deceiving me when I think; I may think that I am in my study when in fact I am in my bed (or when in fact I have no body at all); but in order to be deceived I must exist. So, even though my thoughts may be wrong, my existence follows from my thinking them. Descartes summarized this argument with the Latin phrase: Cogito ergo sumI think, therefore I am.
2. The Certainty of the Contents of Consciousness: It is not, Descartes argued, merely the fact of our own existence about which we can be certain. We may also be certain about all those beliefs, which concern the contents of our consciousness. The evil demon may convince me that I am seeing an aardvark, when in fact there is no aardvark to be seen. But though I may falsely believe that there actually is an aardvark which I am perceiving, still, I have a weaker belief about which I can be certain, namely the belief that I think I see an aardvark, or the belief that there is an aardvark-like shape in my visual field. I may be wrong in my belief that there is a real aardvark about, but I cant be mistaken about the fact that I am having an aardvark perception.
NOTE: So far Descartes has only proven the contents of his own consciousness (his mind). He has not proven the existence of your mind or the existence of his own body.
Two Meanings of Perceive: To understand Descartes point we must note that the words perceive, see, etc. have two quite different meanings. In one sense of perceive, the veridical sense, I see something because there is something outside of my mind causing the perception. For example, is someone brings a yellow and purple striped zebra to class and it truly exists thereby causing me to see it and smell it, then it produces a
Veridical Perception: A mind externally caused perception that corresponds to an object existing in the real world. Example: You have a mental image of a tree because you are currently looking at a tree.
This is to say my perceiving the yellow and purple striped zebra implies that there actually is a real yellow and purple striped zebra there to be perceived. Thus if I believe I am perceiving a yellow and purple striped zebra (in the veridical sense) and there is no zebra there before me (because I am being deceived by a demonic philosopher) then my assertion was false. But suppose the demonic philosopher has me hooked up to a machine which creates in my visual field a lifelike image of the zebra. (Perhaps I am even caused to sniff the smell of a zebra.) In this case I do not perceive a zebra veridically; yet I still do have the visual impression of a zebra. Here too we might say that I see a zebra. But we are using the word in a different sense, the Phenomenological sense.
To say that we perceive or see something in the phenomenological sense does not imply that there actually is a real thing there to be seen, but only that we are having the sort of visual sensations we would be having if there were a real object there. Case in point, you have a phenomenological perception of the yellow and purple striped zebra right now because you are thinking about it!
Phenomenological Perception: A mind internal perception with no corresponding object causing the perception that is outside of your mind. Example: You have a mental image of a tree because you looked at one in the past.
Summary of Descartes Method of Doubt
The Argument from Illusion Doubts the Certainty of the reliability of the senses. It doubts Veridical Perceptions.
The Dream Argument Doubts your ability to distinguish with certainty whether or not your perceptions are Veridical or Phenomenological.
The Evil Demon Argument Doubts the Certainty of the source of all perceptions.
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