Do We Have Knowledge of the External World?

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The first of Rene Descartes six Meditations is concerned with the possibility that our immediate perceptions of the external physical world that we either ignorantly or correctly call reality, may all in fact be a dream. Is the external world we believe to be our waking reality different to a reality we are programmed to be unable to perceive? Is it merely an intelligent deception of some sort, orchestrated by a cunning evil demon? This essay will attempt to question our capacity (or lack thereof) of perception within a hypothetic “real world” by examining objections of the sceptic in order to discover the possibility of an objective reality with reference to arguments set out in Descartes’ Meditations. By the external physical world, I mean a world compiled of objects and events which we can only experience through our sense organs, forming the subconscious intelligence of sense perception, that which is impartial of the mind. We don’t seem to engage directly with the external world but rather subconsciously piece together a rational system of patterns from our experiences gained through our senses to develop our own individual concepts of the matter we come across as we grow up. These intangible concepts constitute our knowledge of the external world and allow us to build foundations for further experience. From this foundation, we begin to create a mental display of rationalised relationships between ourselves and other objects (along with inter-object relationships) through what we, again, perceive through our senses. But on what grounds is our knowledge of this external physical world substantiated? This is precisely the question Descartes presents us with and simultaneously tries to dismantle. The argument begins with the problem of being able to hold our senses in a trustworthy light. Although to us prima facie it seems that we are on most accounts able to trust our sense perception, however, there are times at which our senses deceive us into thinking one thing about an object or situation but due to possible suboptimal conditions the turn out to be different from our initial impression (Lerm, J. Lecture Notes: Slides on ‘First Meditation’). As Descartes puts it, “Whatever I have up till now accepted as most true I have acquired wither from the senses or through the senses. But from time to time I have found that the senses deceive me [...]” (Descartes, R. 1996: 12). However, one may ask how one can tell optimal conditions from suboptimal conditions? Well, through our senses, we surely are able to see or hear whether or not conditions are distorted, such as hearing the incorrect information on the radio news due to background soundtracks or noises coming from the car. But once again, our senses may be deceiving us and we are back to square one, creating what is known as external world scepticism (Lerm, J. Lecture Notes: Slides on ‘First Meditation’). It is at this time, Descartes introduces his Dreaming Argument. The Dreaming Argument

P1) If I have knowledge of the external world it is by means of my sensory experience. P2) The content of my dreamt experiences is alike to the my waking experiences. P3) “[T]here are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep.” P4) My dreamt experiences do not constitute knowledge of the external world, and thus my waking experiences do not either. C) Therefore, I do not have knowledge of the external world (Lerm, J. Lecture Notes: Slides on ‘First Meditation’). With dreaming and waking experiences often being identical, we often have dreams in which we experiences empirical phenomena that can too be experienced in a waking experience, either physically or through mental thoughts using our imagination. For example, I may dream that I am sitting at my desk, writing a rough a rough philosophical essay, or I may even dream that I am at a dinner table, making conversation with a bunch of gorillas. Although the latter sounds very...
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