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Cartesian Doubt: Rene Descartes’s Skepticism


Rene Descartes’s form of skepticism, which is referred to as Cartesian Doubt, represents a manifestation of methodological skepticism. It implies a systematic process of doubting the validity of people’s personal beliefs, which has become a key characteristic of philosophy. For many who studied the topic, methodological doubt is considered to be the fundamental component of the scientific method used in research.

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Doubting the truth of one’s beliefs is necessary for testing which of them are real and which have no basis in reality. Thus, Descartes’s statement, “I think, therefore I am” defines the nature of scientific skepticism and encourages those involved in research to be wary of personal biases. As all studies on a variety of topics currently require the low presence bias on the part of those conducting them, Descartes’s philosophy has full application in real life.

Background of Descartes’s Skepticism

The method of doubt proposed by Descartes establishes a framework upon which an individual can build lasting knowledge in the sciences. The philosopher observed that everything people know and think relies on the assumption that the senses represent reliable sources of information about the surrounding world. For instance, whenever a person believes that a dog is sitting in front of them, the assumption is made simply because they seem to see the dog with their eyes.

Equally, when a person comes to believe that something exists on the basis of someone’s testimony, one assumes that what is heard is coming from a reliable source of information. Therefore, upon reflecting on these situations, it is hard to consider any substantive beliefs around the world that have not been acquired through the help of one’s senses. This leads to the conclusion that it is hard to think of any opinions that do not depend on justifications that the senses view as generally reliable.

That is, Descartes suggested that all of the people’s sensory experiences have content and thus have a basis in reality, as they represent the world around people being a certain way. The most appropriate way of understanding the notion of the content of experiences is imagining oneself in situations, in which senses can present as unreliable. An interesting example of this is imagining oneself being surrounded by distorting mirrors. While a person sees himself or herself being distorted, they believe what they see. However, they consider their environment and understand that the deformed person one sees in the mirror is not an accurate representation.

The most crucial thing is that people’s senses constantly make claims about the external world, and in an ordinary course of events, when there is no evidence to conclude that the feelings are misguiding, people usually believe what their senses tend to say.

The Dream Argument and the Evil Demon

Because people’s senses show the world being a specific way, one usually believes what they tell and show. Therefore, one thinks, “I have a particular experience of the world in which something happens. The visual experience I have is reliable. Therefore, I live in a world in which something happens.” However, Descartes intends to cast doubt on the mentioned inferences by showing that visual experiences are unreliable. This applies to the phenomenon of a mirage, which is an optical illusion caused by the atmospheric conditions and resulting in the appearance of water from the refraction of light from the sky from heated air.

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While a person sees water on the ground, the sense of vision is unreliable because the water is not there. Sensory illusions show that one should not believe one’s senses at all times because their reliability is under question. Descartes, thus, suggests that the only thing that one should take seriously is the hypothesis that there may be an illusion taking place in terms of the visual representation being affected by external factors.

Thus, doubting one’s perception of the world is imperative for maintain the spirit of inquiry and eliminating any biases that may be involved in distorting the view of the world. As the philosopher writes, “How often has it happened to me that in the I night I dreamt that I found myself in this particular place, that I was dressed and seated near the fire, while in reality I was lying undressed in bed” (Descartes, 1997, p. 135). Therefore, people are justified to believe anything about the world around as based on their sensory experiences. This conclusion stems from the following logical chain:

  1. It seems to a person that he is seated by the fireplace.
  2. He is either sitting by the fireplace or he is asleep and dreaming.
  3. The person is justified in believing to be seated by the fireplace only in the case that the dreaming hypothesis can be eliminated.
  4. Internal indications that can differentiate between dreaming and waking are absent.
  5. It is impossible to rule out the premise of dreaming.
  6. The person has no justification to believe that he is seated by the fireplace.

Descartes’s form is skepticism is therefore correct if to look at the dream argument. Since the contents of people’s dreams can often be lifelike, the philosopher hypothesized that people could only think that they are not dreaming in order to make assumptions about reality. As long there is no evidence to suggest that one is not dreaming, it is always necessary to believe that one does and thus should not believe the senses.

The Evil Demon is another explanation that the philosopher gave to support the approach to skepticism. Descartes suggested that an absolute evil power may control the personal experiences that people have. This power is cunning and deceitful and could have created a superficial world, the events in which should not be trusted. Following the logic nature of doubt, the proposal of the Malicious Demon Hypothesis furthers the argument that people cannot trust even the simplest perceptions of the senses.

Therefore, the philosopher argued that people’s senses could easily fool them, with this idea being embedded into the framework of scientific inquiry. When people doubt everything they see as if a powerful being is controlling their existence, they have reason to further their exploration of the world and reflecting upon one’s knowledge.

Opposing Methodological Skepticism

Philosophical, or Pyrrhonian, skepticism undermines the fundamentals of Descartes’s skepticism because it questions the possibility of certainty in knowledge. Philosophers adhering to this school of thought either deny the possibility of all knowledge or aim to suspend the judgment because of evidence’s inadequacy. Therefore, while Descartes, the representative of academic skepticism, is skeptical about trusting one’s own perceptions and basing the understanding of the world on evidence, philosophical skepticism questions the reliability of evidence.

The philosophy of skepticism thus asserts that no truth is knowable and, at best, is only probable. Such an argument challenges the nature of scientific inquiry, and doubt is treated as a problem that should be solved. Pyrrhonian skepticism, keeps the questions regarding the possibility of knowledge open, with the process of an inquiry being furthered without any conclusions being reached.

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As suggested by Pyrrho of Elis, wise people are only those who suspend judgment and take no part in controversy associated with the possibility of specific knowledge (Vogt, 2018). This view thus encourages us to take a neutral position regarding accepting knowledge without facilitating further analysis. However, Descartes’s approach to doubt is methodological and facilitates efforts for the inquiry to reach conclusions regarding the existence of knowledge.

The arguments that Descartes make in Meditations reinforce the ongoing issue that perfect knowledge cannot appropriately encompass external judgment. Instead, judgment can arise from a system of inferences about the reasons because of which sensations take place. When closing his Sixth Meditation, the philosopher revisits the example of dreaming, thus claiming that it is possible to reach perfect knowledge that one is presently awake. The solution offered by the philosopher implies a naturalistic perspective on the issue in the form of a test for continuity. Descartes suggests that since continuity with past experiences only works with waking, checking for continuity can offer a trial for ascertaining that one is not dreaming.

The philosopher writes, “In now notice that there is a vast difference between the two, in that dreams are never linked by memory with all the other actions of life as waling experiences are. […] But when I distinctly see where things come from and where and when they come to me, and when I can connect my perceptions of them with the whole of the rest of my life without a break, then I am quite certain that when I encounter these things I am not asleep but awake” (Descartes, 1988, p. 122).

Thus, Descartes connects the present experiences with the one that preceded them and used intellect to examine the causes of error. In many ways, the conclusion goes against the dream argument. Moreover, the philosopher concludes that one should not be afraid to reflect on the falsity of senses that appear every day. Upon a closer look, the philosopher allows having a theistic solution on concluding whether knowledge is possible. The following truth rule is being evoked: “I am not in error in cases in which I have a natural propensity to believe, and God provided me no faculty by which to correct a false such belief” (Corringham, 1987, p. 10). Because of this, a person should set aside preconceived opinions about the world.

Concluding Thoughts

In summary, Descartes’s approach to skepticism provides significant grounds for believing that one should not trust one’s own senses when making conclusions about the external world. Since methodological doubt has a logical nature, one should not consider knowledge as impossible for applying the approach to one’s inquiry of the world. The attempt of Descartes to question human existence in all of its realms, stating that a person exists because he or she thinks. Such a way of looking at life is a continuous adventure of inquiry.


Corringham, R. (1987). Descartes on the errors of the senses. Web.

Descartes, R. (1988). Descartes: Selected philosophical writings. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Descartes, R. (1997). Key philosophical writings. Ware, UK: Wordsworth Editions Limited.

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Vogt, K. (2018). Ancient skepticism. Web.

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