Scepticism is the ‘belief that some or all human knowledge is impossible. Since even our best methods for learning about the world sometimes fall short of perfect certainty, skeptics argue, it is better to suspend belief than to rely on the dubitable products of reason.’1 Descartes, in ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’, is one of several philosphers who looks at such ideas, outlining that there are ‘possible grounds for doubt about all things, especially material things’2.
There are three main branches to the arguments Descartes offers in his First Meditation. Firstly Descartes aims to classify what things we may call into doubt. The aim of such a process is to attain knowledge which is indubitable. His arguments provide an understanding of the difficulties in accepting what may at first hand appear to be true because there may be underlying reasons for it being false. The evident scepticism highlights that accepting the foundations of something as true leads to the whole concept being misunderstood. In light of this Descartes explains the need to re-examine science by returning to basic principles in order to provide a demonstration of its certainty. By doing this Descartes arguably removes the possibility of prejudices or stereotypes clouding judgement.
Descartes’ sceptical arguments assess the role and reliability of sensorial experience or empirical evidence when making valid claims about others, ourselves or the universe. He proposes that such claims cannot lead to certainty because we experience things through the senses, and senses can often be deceiving because they are limited. As a result misinterpretations can occur.
Descartes’ line of thought has been heavily criticised, however most of these objections are ‘irrelevant to what Descartes is actually trying to do’3. Although doubting the reliability of the senses he does not explicitly say that the senses are always unreliable. His arguments are not proposed to out rightly maintain that the senses are deceptive, only that sometimes they can be unreliable. It is seen here that Descartes sceptical arguments merely point out that sense experience can be deceptive.
The ideas that Descartes proposes in his First Meditation have been described as ‘ancient material’4 because some feel it is mere repetition of Plato’s work. However they do agree with his line of reasoning. In light of this objection Descartes withstands this rather mundane criticism by outlining that the First Meditation merely prepares the readers for what is to follow. He points out that the sceptical arguments in the First Meditation were as necessary as it is for a doctor to give a ‘description of a disease when he wants to explain how it could be cured’.5
Secondly Descartes’ famous dream argument appears in the First Meditation. This is significant because it highlights that even sensory judgments such as ‘I am sitting by the fire’ which appear obviously indubitable can actually be false. He outlines that it is possible to be dreaming that ‘I am sitting by the fire’. Descartes moves on to say that irrespective of whether we are ‘awake or asleep, two and three added together are five and a square has no more than four sides’6. However he then demonstrates that not only sense experience or empirical evidence can be doubted, but also what is often assumed to be logically necessary truths. This is because it is quite possible that an omnipotent God can make the sum of two and three equal four.
The second of the three arguments has also raised various objections. Critics have opposed Descartes’ dream argument on the ground that it does not make sense to ask ‘am I dreaming?’ This is because to doubt whether one is dreaming requires a conscious state. However the objection fails miserably because it seems quite plausible to accept that dreams do occur in which we find ourselves doubting our conscious state.
Descartes claims that there are no clear criterions to differentiate between being awake and dreaming. Other grounds for opposing Descartes’ argument revolve around this claim. Although methods of testing this have been proposed, they are put forward in vain because it is plausible that these tests occur in the dream.
Lastly, the First Meditation introduces the idea of a malicious demon committed to deceiving, as a reason for uncertainty because he feels this deceiver cannot be an omnipotent God. The demon is thought to have clouded all sensory judgement but by acknowledging this, although difficult at times, one cannot be deceived.
The Fifth Set of Objections attacks the method and validity of the proof Descartes claims to have found. P. Gassendi is unclear about the reasons why Descartes chooses to write at great length about the ‘simple’ idea of doubting all previous knowledge to attain certainty. He feels there is no need to raise the idea of a ‘deceiving God or some evil demon who tricks us’. In reply Descartes accuses the objector of not seeing the complexities involved in the discussion at hand. Descartes maintains that it is not ‘simple’ to ‘free ourselves from all the errors’ and the introduction of the deceptive demon aids our ability to doubt. Thereafter Descartes accuses the writer of not providing a philosophical approach but a ‘rhetorical display’ in his attempt to look for loop holes in the First Meditation.
It appears that the introduction of the last argument overrides the purpose of the previous ones. In other words it seems that there was no real need for the first two arguments. However Descartes felt it necessary to introduce the idea as a devise to remind the reader that what is happening at this very moment in time may not be reality, since the demon is present. He also finds the idea to be important in order to provide a basis for those not fully competent in the area of philosophy.
Descartes uses the doubt hypothesis outlined in the First Meditation as a tool to help him on his quest for certainty. His intense scrutiny of reality is his preferred method of acquiring knowledge, which in his eyes is not difficult but ‘readily accessible’,7so long as the first step on one’s road to certainty was not clouded by any preconceptions. In essence the doubt hypothesis tests truth claims under extreme conditions in an attempt to verify them as certain. Descartes felt it is after the survival of this rigorous doubt regime that the foundations ‘in the sciences…was stable and likely to last’.8 When such a stage is reached ‘it impossible for us to have any further doubts about what we subsequently discover to be true.’9