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Shortfalls of Descartes Mediation

The aim of Descartes’ Mediation 1, “Meditation on the First Philosophy,” is to present the philosopher’s radical doubt and its implications for people’s abilities to know anything. To a great degree, Descartes breaks down the knowledge and reality in order to reconstruct it on more reliable and science-based grounds. The philosopher presents his project of building a new framework of philosophical and scientific understanding by implementing the method of doubt. According to Descartes, a human being cannot trust his or her senses and reason so long as it is possible due to the mistakes in what they can deliver. However, even though the arguments put forth by the philosopher are well presented and elaborated, there is a lack of evidence to support the claims.

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People are usually familiar with the standard errors in perception, and this should imply, in Descartes’ powerful philosophical framework, that it is possible to reject the evidence offered by the senses entirely because they are not infallible. However, there is undoubtedly a difference between a regular or ‘local’ mistake, such as seeing a rectangular shape as round in the distance, and a more significant ‘global’ mistake, which is associated with the false representation of the entire world around people. Because any veridical experience of the senses can be reproduced as a dream, if there is no way to distinguish between wakefulness and dreaming, one cannot be sure whether the experience lived accurately reflects the world beyond the mind or not. Therefore, the philosopher holds if there could be an evil spirit with complete control over an individual’s mind, then it could deceive the person all the time, and then there could be no certainty that even the simplest of thoughts are real. Therefore, it appears that a person can be sure of nothing.

Despite the fact that Descartes makes a solid argument, his case does not actually support his skepticism to the extent that it claims. Initially, it is worth mentioning that the senses can be deceiving in some instances, the skepticism that the philosopher has towards them is unwarranted. To support his case, Descartes offers an extensive range of examples that the philosopher has found the senses to be deceiving: “I am in the habit of sleeping, and in my dreams representing to myself the same things or sometimes even less probable things or sometimes even things, than do those who are insane in their waking moments”.1 He draws a parallel of sitting near the fire and looking at his hands in reality while also seated near the fire and looking at his hands in his dream. However, to make justifications in the claim that the senses deceive, an individual would have the capacity to recognize that a mistake in judgement has taken place.

Specifically, to know that the mirages resulting from the heat that occurs on paved roads are deceptive, one should have the baseline knowledge that they are optical illusions; hence, what a person sees is not what actually exists in real life. Although, having such knowledge, a person can differentiate deception and, as a result, avoid being mistaken. It is ironic that through offering examples of how the senses deceive people, Descartes shows how one can see through the deceptions, therefore undermining the claim that is being argued. Therefore, on the one hand, the philosopher suggests that the senses are deceiving and cannot be trusted. On the other hand, he also argues that one can easily see through such deceptions.

Another argument that Descartes makes that may be countered is his dream argument. Despite the fact that the philosopher claims that one can never be certain that one is not asleep, there is evidence to suggest that it is quite the opposite. Based on the personal experience and anecdotal accounts of other people, the state that is referred to as dreaming and the state of being awake in different ways. Specifically, the key difference is that the world that one sees in a dream does not have the same continuity as the waking world. For example, when a person is awake, the things that they experience one day to another are similar and familiar. After waking from asleep, a person still has the same house or the same car, but in a dream, things can change and vary and cannot transfer into reality no matter how one wishes. The rules of law are also very different in the worlds of waking and dreaming. For example, it is common for a person to fly in a dream, for dead people to resurrect and speak to the living, as well as for TV and cartoon characters to come to life. Much of the things that take place in people’s dreams cannot happen in reality, which is why it is quite easy to differentiate between fantasy and reality.

The third point made by Descartes that may be countered is concerned with the evil demon example. Although it is a great opponent, the devil may be quickly diffused by a person making careful consideration of the possibility of the demon taking. Even though there is a possibility that there are evil deities, the purpose of which existence is to deceive a human being, the claim that they can exist is heavy. Such a claim requires significant support from evidence, and with the absence of any justification, there is no reason to accept even the possibility of a demon taking control over the mind of an individual.

Even though Descartes has clear considerations of even the most remote possibilities in his method of doubt, all that the philosopher offers in his Meditation I are the claims of something existing or not existing. Nevertheless, there is hardly any reliable evidence upon which Descartes could build his case. To some extent, it is ironic that the skepticism that the philosopher aimed to transfer in his writing has shown to undermine itself. As one doubts their reality and thinks about whether they are dreaming, it is also doubtful that any deceiving agent or existing. For the devil to produce a significant level of doubt, as suggested by Descartes, there is also doubt regarding the possibility of its existence. The critical problem is that the philosopher does not offer enough support besides hearsay in order for his claims to have any possibility. Therefore, the argument concerning the evil demon fails because it does not warrant the degree of doubt that the philosopher claims. Overall, considering the shortfalls in Descartes’ arguments, it is reasonable to suggest that despite good reasoning, the arguments are not powerful enough for creating the desired level of doubt.

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Bibliography

Descartes, René. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Footnotes

  1. René Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: Volume 1 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 145.

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