Descartes' Skeptical Argument and Reponses by Bouwsma and Malcolm

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Descartes' Skeptical Argument and Reponses by Bouwsma and Malcolm

In this essay, I will examine Rene Descartes' skeptical argument and responses by O.K. Bouwsma and Norman Malcolm. I intend to prove that while both Bouwsma and Malcolm make points that refute specific parts of Descartes' argument in their criticisms, neither is sufficient in itself to refute the whole.

In order to understand Descartes' argument and its sometimes radical ideas, one must have at least a general idea of his motives in undertaking the argument. The seventeenth century was a time of great scientific progress, and the blossoming scientific community was concerned with setting up a consistent standard to define what constituted science. Their science was based on conjunction and empirical affirmation, ideally without any preconceived notions to taint the results. Descartes, however, believed that the senses were unreliable and that science based solely on information gained from the senses was uncertain. He was concerned with finding a point of certainty on which to base scientific thought. Eventually he settled on mathematics as a basis for science, because he believed mathematics and geometry to be based on some inherent truths. He believed that it was through mathematics that we were able to make sense of our world, and that the ability to think mathematically was an innate ability of all human beings. This theory becomes important in Descartes' Meditations because he is forced to explain where the mathematical ideas that he believed we were born with came from. Having discussed Descartes' background, I will now explain the specifics of his argument.

The basis of Descartes' entire argument is that the senses can not be trusted, and his objective is to reach a point of certainty, one undeniable truth that fixes our existence. He said it best in his own words, "I will . . . apply myself earnestly and openly to the general destruction of my former opinions."1 By opinions he meant all the facts and notions about the world which he had previously held as truths. Any point which had even the slightest hint of doubt was discarded and considered completely false. Descartes decided that he would consider all things until he found that either nothing is certain, which is itself a point of certainty, or he reached the one undeniable truth he was searching for. In order to accomplish this certainty, in the first Meditation he asks the reader to assume that they are asleep and that all their sensory information is the product of dreams. More significantly, Descartes implies that all consciousness could actually be a dream state, thus proving that the senses can be doubted. The dream argument has its intrinsic problems, however. One, is that images in dreams can be described as "painted images".2 In other words, a dream image is only a portrait of a real-life object, place or person. If we are dreaming then it is implied that at some point we were conscious and able to perceive these things. If we are able to perceive these things then we must admit that we have senses and that our senses are, at least in part, true. This was exactly what Descartes was trying to disprove, and it was one reason he abandoned the dream argument.

The second problem with this argument is that it points to mathematics as a point of certainty. I believe Descartes best explained this in his own words: "[W]hether I be awake or asleep, two plus three equals five and a square does not have more than four sides: nor does it seem possible that such obvious truths can fall under the suspicions of falsity."3 Even when we are dreaming, the laws of mathematics and geometry hold true, but they can not be Descartes' point of certainty for a simple reason; these abilities that Descartes believed were innate still had to come from somewhere. If they are in our heads when we are born, someone had to put them there. Descartes' question is who, and...
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