Monday, May 26, 2008

Descartes: from doubt to existence

In Descartes' first Meditation he utilizes hyperbolic doubt aka the method of doubt in efforts to bring him from doubt to true belief. This method of doubt is ultimately the primer for his second Meditation where his famous "I think, therefore I am" derived.

Through this doubting in Meditations I, Descartes suspends sagacity regarding all beliefs which he feels might contain even the slightest bit of doubt. He readily admits though that this suspension does not apply to every specific thing that pops into his head as that would be impossible. Instead he suspends his beliefs regarding broad classes of knowledge such as the senses or arithmetic.

Descartes uses as an example of his doubting senses by use of the optical illusion of a reed in a pond appearing bent, yet if we pull the reed from the water we find it to be straight as an arrow. How can the senses be trusted when they decieved us thus so? He also employs the doubt he believes to be false from the insane who believe what they see/think to be true; such as the insane believing themselves to be "kings"(47) or that the insane has a "pumpkin"(47) for a head etc. He then throws into doubt whether or not he is sleeping or awake, since he believes he has had dreams which are similar to what he belives is his waking life, therefore how does he distinguish one from the other, awake or dreaming??? He further tosses a wrench into the mix by doubting God's existence and pondering whether some "evil genius"(48) has deceived him and all he holds to be real/true "the earth, colours, figures, sound"(48) to be illusions.

This method of doubt is Descartes jumping off point for the second Meditation. Descartes is reminded of Archimedes when he stated he could move the entire earth if he had simply a single fixed point with which to start. Descartes wishes to accomplish the same with regards to having one fixed certainty. He ponders if through the sheer act of doubting he has fixed a certainty regarding his existence. He then speculates whether some god or other has placed all these doubts(meditation I) in his mind in order to deceive him. He concludes that even if this were true, his being deceived assures him that for deceiving to occur he must be something, he must exist, of that he has no doubt. He says "that after having reflected well and carefully examined all things, we must come to the definate conclusion that this proposition: I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it". In the end we are to understand that according to Descartes Meditations I and II everything we know we know through the mind first, and the thing itself second, therefore we cannot know anything better than we know our minds.

Descartes reasonings for such a conclusion is not very convincing. A doubt of our own we can bring up is why was Descartes so sure HE was sane? The only examples of insanity he gives us are of extremes. Because he can think therefore be, doesnt at all convince that there isnt a diaphanous curtain from floor to ceiling between himself and himself and/or between himself and that which is outside of himself. Function doesnt necessitate sanity or a clear unclounded mind. Descartes does not go about proving his lucidity (and we've all seen enough Twilight Zone reruns to know the near impossibility of that) and having no proof or examples of proof of the thing that thought "I am, I exist", I'm of the opinion that Descartes Meditations could go the way of the baby/bathwater.

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