By Amina Khannous
By Amina Khannous
Morocco World News
Ifrane, January 15, 2013
Descartes is one of the modern philosophers that influenced the traditional philosophy.
His ideas were considered revolutionary and radical. He was one of the firsts to question the existence of the world through his skeptical doubt. Descartes was also the source of the famous phrase “I think therefore I exist” that impacted the modern philosophy. On the other hand, the western philosophers tried to find an answer to that skepticism and refute it.
Descartes tries to understand the nature and essence of the human knowledge through skepticism. Though, he reexamined his system of beliefs by investigating the ones that has doubtful foundations in his meditations. Doubt is the main tool Descartes is using all over the first two meditations. Their main purpose is to find a peace of mind and answer any skeptical questions about the external world in a rational context.
Descartes skepticism is characterized by its radical aspect compared to other traditional skeptics. According to Grene, M., Descartes was a hyperbolical-methodological skeptic unlike the former ones (p.556). In fact, his skepticism doubts not only bodily things but also takes a universal form. It does not only questions events and experiences but also the existence of the world. On the other hand, Al Ghazali was a dogmatic skeptic who never questioned his existence as Descartes. Grene, M. states that the traditional skeptics would not dare doubting the existence of the external world (p.556). Their main emphasis would be the investigation of specified kind of truths and beliefs. Even though, his skepticism was mainly a tool to reach certainty.
Consequently, he tried to refute that skepticism in order to achieve his goal but was not successful all the time (Grene, M. p.558). Descartes emphasizes a universal skepticism in his first two meditations through a hyperbolic doubt as a main tool to reach certainty.
In the first meditation entitled “What can be called into doubt”, Skepticism is given high importance by René Descartes. He starts by discussing that his life was built on a large number of falsehoods that he has believed all his life and accepted as true (p.12). He used hyperbolic doubt or the method of exaggerated hyperbole that aims to reject any opinion that is doubtful.
This universal doubt put on hold all the ideas that are not certain. Therefore, his knowledge was false since it was built up from this faultiness. Descartes decided though to demolish any opinion that could be questionable and uncertain and to build his knowledge on more certain foundations (p.12). He decided to sweep away his former beliefs that have any sign of doubt to build a new knowledge based on certain grounds. Examining each idea individually would be an endless process; therefore, Descartes would reject the ones that their basic principles and foundations are doubtful. He attempts to convey that even our beliefs of evident things can be uncertain
According to Landesman C., Descartes asserts that “if any part of the foundations should be less than certain, it would throw doubt upon all the other parts connected to it” (p.71). Even a slightest doubt in the foundations would lead to uncertainty and skepticism of the argument. As a result, a proposition that is somehow or probably true is a false one because of the small uncertainty of it and because “probability does not exclude falsehood” (Landesman C., p.72).
Being convinced that it is true, is not enough to prove the proposition is true if the ground principle is false. Such strategy was mainly aimed to find the false ideas and reject them to build a more truthful knowledge free from doubt.
Descartes and Al Ghazali both tried to reach truth by refuting skepticism. Al ghazali went also through the crisis of doubting and tried to seek the true knowledge. Albertini,T. said that Al Ghazali wanted to achieve certainty by “purging one’s mind of opinions and beliefs that have been adopted from youth without ever being questioned” (p.5). He is appointing that our knowledge that is not based on conviction and imposed by our parents and society can be false (p.55). He was seeking knowledge that could not be overturned by the miracle maker. Therefore, only Fitra, the born belief in God, would be recovered and adopted. Both Al Ghazali and
Descartes seek certainty and true knowledge. However, Al Ghazali never tried to question his existence as Descartes did in the first meditations. Both of them link knowledge to God Albertini,T. stated (p.8).
Descartes asserts that senses are the source of his knowledge. He clarifies that all that he has accepted as true was acquired from the senses or through them (p.12). The sense perception provides us with the nature of things. They are our source of information of the outside world, which build the knowledge of the objects that surround us. However, senses can deceive us he states. This was exemplified in the first meditation by the example of the contrary appearances that we are confronted to. Something that looks different from a distance than when close up.
Al Ghazali also advocated the same idea of senses deception. Here, he provided the example of the star and the fact that it looks small. However, thanks to astronomic demonstration, it can be proven that it is even bigger that the earth (p.56). Sense judgment can then be subverted by reason. Therefore, “the thought thus engendered may be mistaken due to such inaccuracies of representation” (Landesman C., p.79). Moreover, Grene, M. mentioned that Descartes wants us to dismiss senses (p.561). Senses should not be trusted though, are not reliable and make us unable of locating the truth. Appearances are deceptive and can disorient our judgment from real truths.
The knowledge acquired thanks to senses is then not as strong as we thought, so we should avoid senses and rely on the mind. Nevertheless, Landesman C. states that Descartes skepticism here was defeated in the sense that he was not able to refute the idea that he was sitting by the fire holding a piece of paper in his hands (p.79). Indeed, Descartes was experiencing a situation in which denying its existence and perceptions is difficult. He could ask anyone but will get the same feedback and no one can deny the fact that he is holding a newspaper in his hands because of what Landesman C. called “privileged perceptual judgment”(p.79). There is no way to prove that this experience is prone to error unless you consider the
Descartes dream argument
The dream argument of Descartes doubts even the privileged perceptual judgments in our life. He uses dreams as way to discuss that all what we think is true can be uncertain (p.13). This mainly shows that we, the human beings, are helpless and powerless creatures. Descartes argues that we cannot differentiate between being awake and asleep (p.13); thus, the experiences we are having can be part of a dream. We would then be incapable of judging those events as true.
Nevertheless, how can we distinguish between these two states to be able to locate the true beliefs from the false ones? Landesman C. stated that when one is dreaming, he or she does not belief that he or she is dreaming and the same when one is awake (p.81). As a result, identifying the true beliefs based on the argument of the dream will not be very possible. The inability to differentiate between the state of being asleep and awake makes our knowledge of the external world uncertain.
According to Al Ghazali, no matter how absurd events in dreams, we grasp they are true (p.57). Therefore, he also agrees with Descartes that rational ideas can be subverted the same way and be subject to uncertainty under the dream premise. He also added the idea that there is no sign to differentiate between being asleep or awake (p.57). Landesman C. explains that the dream argument of Descartes does not only doubt the current perceptual judgments, but also the past ones (p.88). Hence, our knowledge that resulted from past events is subject to uncertainty.
Furthermore, when one dreams he is inspired from reality, then the dream argument lacks certainty. If the person dreams of a cat, he will imagine that it has the same bodily parts as in the reality. Those basic things are not evident to question; like geometry and mathematics unless the demon argument stands. Moreover, the idea of the universal dream suggest that all what we are experiencing are part of a dream. Thus, there would be no awake state and reference for true knowledge.
Descartes continues his skepticism with the demon theory during the meditations.
Descartes admits that God could not be deceiving us because of his goodness. Descartes doubted in the first meditation that he has a body and therefore relied on actions he can rely on and not the bodily ones (Landesman C., p.160). Starting from this refutation of his skepticism, Descartes proves that God exist and cannot be a deceiver (p.14). Since God is genuinely good, all the knowledge that was inspired by his goodness cannot be false or subject to doubt. Therefore, there must be a malevolent demon that deceives us. He stated that “some malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me” (p.15). This deception is the result of the untrue beliefs the demon is trying to implant in us. Because of this argument, Descartes was able to doubt mathematical beliefs since there is a God or an evil demon that deceives us. The presence of such demon will then make the false things be true.
Gerne, M. stated that this super power demon did not only deceive us about the beliefs we hold but also what we have accepted as existing since ever; such as the sky, the earth and all external things (p.567). This demon is then responsible for the illusions of the external world that surrounds us in order to trick us. This argument makes even the basic things; such as mathematics discussed earlier doubtful.
In the second meditation entitled “The nature of the human mind, and how it is better known than the body,” Descartes maintains his skepticism to introduce the cogito, the Latin word for “I think”, argument. He continues his knowledge investigation to find certainty and disregard any doubtful ideas. The result of the first meditation was the uncertainty of senses, memory and the body. He asserts that the only thing that is certain is skepticism (p.16).
The question left is whether he exits after he concluded that he has neither body nor senses. The argument of the universal dream resulted in the nonexistence of the world, which emphasizes the idea of his nonexistence too. After introducing the senses and demon argument, he doubted even his existence as a result of doubting everything else.
However, Descartes concludes that the only fact that he is meditating “I think” makes that he exits (p.17). He refutes the idea of his nonexistence by arguing that if he convinced himself of something; therefore, he exists. Consequently, thinking is a pre-condition for existence. Landesman C. also added that Descartes affirms the truth “I exist” because it follows from “I think” (p.163). Nevertheless, how can Descartes be sure that thinking entails existence? Moreover, he already doubted senses and mathematical logic; why should not be also the case for the cogito argument under the demon deception.
Descartes skepticism took a more general scope though, which could also be used to doubt even the transition from thinking to existence. In fact, Descartes does not infer that he exits; he exists but in the mode of thinking. It is the cogito that brings integrated evidence that he exists. The next question Descartes tried to answer was what is that “I” that exist (p.18). He already refuted the idea of having a body, a memory and senses. Also, he added that anything that can be based on his imagination does not constitute the knowledge he has (p.19). On the other hand, the fact the he thinks is what he could not deny. As a result, the “I” that exists is the thing that thinkssince all the other components that are based on imagination are uncertain (p.19).
In the first meditation, Descartes discusses the mathematical truths that cannot be questioned even under the dream skepticism. In fact, one plus two equals three or a triangle has three sides; it seems there is no doubt about that. Even under the dream argument, such knowledge still can be considered true and not subject to questioning. Indeed, while dreaming of such mathematical logic, you believe they are true. However, Descartes asserts that such truths can be subject to doubt under the demon argument (p15.). Indeed, it may be possible that a super power tries to deceive us and convince us that one plus one is two. Until the demon intervention is proved, the arithmetic knowledge will be true and certain. Our arithmetic knowledge appears exempt from any questioning. Al Ghazali also argued about the subject and stated that there is no assurance that the reliance on sense data is not the same as the reliance on rational data (p.56).
Both philosophers pointed out that there is a higher authority that subvert the rational truth; malicious the demon according to Descartes.
Along the end of the second meditation, Descartes provides the wax argument to define the “thing that thinks”. He had already shown that senses cannot be trusted, similarly was the case for imagination. For Descartes, imagination provides ideas that cannot be real and may be part of a dream (p.19). Therefore, it cannot be used to determine the meaning and essence of the thinking thing. Descartes was still unable to define and know that thing and resorted to the wax argument.
First, he started by explaining that senses are all what constitutes his knowledge of the wax (p.20). Indeed, his sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste are what determine the color, size, shape, and smell of the wax. Later, Descartes wonders what will happen to the wax if melted or put by the fire (p.20). Evidently, the physical properties of the wax will change as a chemist will say. This is mainly because the compound acquired energy thanks to the heat. Therefore, the wax changing from hard to soft substance is explained through science.
According to Descartes, nor senses nor imagination can grasp the changing, flexible, extended features of the wax and concludes that it is the mind perception (p.20). The perception of the wax is then not what the senses perceive but the mind. Finally, one can conclude that it is the mind that has clear and distinct perspectives of things that are only grasped through it and not by senses or imagination.
Then he is a thinking thing. Overall, we can see that Descartes has made a distinction between the mind and the sensory world. Furthermore, our knowledge of things around us is based on the mind and not the senses. Senses can also provide us with information about the world like the shape of the wax. Nevertheless, this does not tell us that the flexible and changeable property of the wax. This reaffirms Descartes senses argument discussed earlier about the unreliability of senses.
To conclude, the main tool that the French philosopher used to reach the true knowledge was hyperbolic doubt. He started by tying to identify the beliefs with doubtful foundations in order to reject them. Then, Descartes explains in the first meditation that he tried to object to the senses perceptions of the outer world. He asserts that we should dismiss senses and rely on the intellect. Therefore, he discovers that he is no longer sure about his body existence. Then, he discusses the dream argument where he found that it is not very different from his waking state and unable to distinguish between being asleep or awake. As a result, Descartes deduced that the privileged perceptual judgments can be subject to uncertainty but not mathematical logic.
In the demon argument, Descartes argues that there is a powerful entity that deceives us, which make the basic truths uncertain. In the second meditation, Descartes continues his investigation and tries to identify if there is anything he can be sure of. Therefore, he asserts that he exists because he is thinking, doubting and wondering what is the ‘I’ that is thinking. Descartes ended his second meditation by the argument of the wax. Indeed, he concluded that there is a distinction between senses and the mind that is responsible for the true perception of things.
Albertini,T., Crisis and certainty of knowledge in Al Ghazali and Descartes. Philosophy East and West Journal. JSTOR. Jan. 2005. Web. 12 Dec. 2009.
Al Ghazali, “Delivrance from Error”, in Gary E. Kessler ed., Voices of Wisdom, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2004.
Grene, M., “Descartes and skepticism”: The Review of Metaphysics Mar. 1999 Journal. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec 2009.
Landesman, C., “Skepticism: The Central Issues”. Cornwall: Blackwell Publishing, 2002.
René Descartes, “Meditations I and II”, in Gary E. Kessler ed., Voices of Wisdom, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2004.