Examination of Russell's Essay vs Descartes's "First Mediation"

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  • Topic: Sense, Perception, Mind
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In this paper, I will critically examine and compare and contrast Russell’s essay with regards to Descartes’ “First mediation”. My comparison will evolve around 3 mains points, namely (a) how preconceptions are delusory, (b) how our sensation may be deceptive in acquiring knowledge and (c) how our mental scrutiny aids us in our judgment.

a) delusory preconceptions
Russell makes the observation that in life, we presuppose many things which upon closer inspection are “full of apparent contradictions”. Such contradictions are significantly apparent in the scientific field, where uncertainties and various possible scenarios (which differ from the stated hypothesis) may occur. Sensory perceptions play a large part in drawing hypothesis and reaching conclusions. In the pursuit of such truths, there is overdependence on sensation (for scientific experimentation and analysis requires visual observation). Descartes is of the same opinion that little or no knowledge is grasped sensation but rather, “by the faculty of judgment, which is in the mind” (2nd mediation P262)

Life is ultimately defined by experiences, both past and present, whereby knowledge and sensory perceptions are amorphous. In accepting knowledge as what is evident or common sense, one falls into the trap of self deception and trusting of doubtful sources. This definition, however, entails certain amount of irrationality for experience is inherently linked to sensation, which is proven to be illusory. By means of the example whereby one examines the table from different positions, Russell explains that different people observe different things[1], yet all arrive at the assumption that the table is rectangular. This is due to an inherent preconception and over reliance on sensory data. Man does not reflect on what he sees. He usually assumes it to be true. As such, no truth of the table is gleaned but rather, the outward appearance is known. This leads to the conclusion that if the appearance of the table is known, therefore the table exists, which is contradictory to Descartes’ argument.

Though this example, Russell emphasize that habitual assumptions[2] cause immediate but true assumptions of the appearance of object. Descartes tries to falsify such assumptions and claims it coincides with his appearance=deceptive, therefore there is a great deceiver cheating me argument.

The fallacy in depending on senses to obtain truths is echoed in Descartes mediation where he comments that wax in both liquid and solid form still remains the same wax[3] Such an obtrusive preconception highlights how past experience leads us to construct our own conclusions. Descartes is one who is more skeptical and critical. He tries to question if the object really exist since preconceptions are wrong and cannot be depended upon. This in turns leads to the question whereby he questions his own existence. He also aims to prove that everything gleaned from the senses is doubtful and hence wrong. Descartes hyperbolic skepticism rejects all sense data as useless and illusory.

b) delusory nature of sensation
Like Descartes, Russell tries to answer western philosophical questions such as the existence of things (metaphysic) and strongly opposes the Aristotelian[4] usage of sensation as a basis to gauge reality. For Descartes, the pursuit of truth would be wholly based on his’ method of methodological scepticism[5].

On the other hand, Russell acknowledges that sensory data do play a part in the knowledge acquirement process. It provides the basis from which mental scrutiny begins. Such sense data (ie, touch, colour, looks) enables one to make the inference that the table exist and from there, we are persuaded that since the object has that following properties, it is henceforth concluded that it is a table. All observations, which have equal importance in hypothesis making,(eg, observing the table through the microscope and naked eye are both equally correct) supplement the...
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