Monday, 5 October 2009

Descartes 2: Meditation 1

Descartes' overall aim is to find out what we can actually know for certain, amongst all the knowledge which could be complete rubbish. He then wants to use what he knows for certain to prove God, but that happens later on.

Meditation 1 introduces foundationalism, which is a way of thinking whereby: all knowledge (be it things we see, memories or sums) must have some indubitable knowledge to rely on, otherwise something called an infinite regress happens, when you can't be sure of anything. Descartes thinks he can prove foundationalism, by finding some indubitable knowledge, but to do so, he decides to doubt everything that is possible to doubt, and see what is left. This is called the 'method of doubt', and he does this in 4 big doubting sessions, as scrutinising everything individually would take too long. The 4 groups are called 'waves of doubt':
  1. Our senses may be deceiving us
  2. He may be insane (Descartes doesn't like this one, as if he were mad then he couldn't put forward a good argument, which alienates his audience)
  3. This could all be a big dream
  4. An evil daemon could deceive us to reality

In regards to the senses, Descartes says that there are plenty of tricks that our senses play on us, such as when the moon looks small, but is actually being distorted by perspective, or when you dip a stick in water and it looks bent. just like a friend who has lied to us, we cannot trust them again, and thus; all of our senses could be giving us a false impression of reality.

But if we were to look really closely at a cup, we could be quite sure we are looking at a cup, our senses don't deceive us that much. This is where the possibility of dreaming is brought forward. Descartes claims that sometimes when we dream, we think we are awake, and that even inspecting a cup closely doesn't help, as the cup is just a dream. Everything we see, touch, hear, taste, smell is false in a dream, but isn't it also true that we are not always dreaming? and that we do have experience of reality? Descartes says that he sometimes has dreams that are so alike to reality, that there is the possibility we might not realise when we slip into a dream, and so our whole immediate reality could be false.

However, dreams don't effect many of our thoughts, such as; 1+1=2, as these things must be true even in a dream. But this is where the big fat evil daemon destroys everything. As Descartes believes in god (much like everyone else in those days), he says that - hypothetically - it is equally possible to have an all powerful being, that doesn't love us, and who has fun in deceiving to everything. Because this being is all powerful, he could make us think 1+1=2, when actually 1+1=4. The possibility of the daemon (however absurd) means that EVERYTHING could be doubted. Doesn't it?

Next time: Find out how Descartes saves the day, and finds something indubitable. (clue - "I think therefore I am).

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