Descartes' Evil Demon Argument

Topics: Meditations on First Philosophy, Epistemology, René Descartes Pages: 5 (1981 words) Published: September 29, 2012
Essay Choice 1
In the First Meditation, Descartes gives us the Evil Demon Hypothesis which serves to give him reason to doubt the existence of everything he perceives and believes. He describes a ‘malicious demon of the utmost power and cunning’ that has the sole purpose of deceiving Descartes (Descartes, 2010: 17). I will argue that his hypothesis has proven to be a strong one because only the cogito provides a way for us to frustrate or trick the evil demon. The Evil Demon Hypothesis is an important component of the Method of Doubt. Descartes used the Method of Doubt to find what is true by withholding assent from all beliefs that are dubitable. However, if Descartes was to scrutinise everything he believed, he would be left with an endless and impossible task. So instead of going through each opinion one by one, he went ‘straight for the basic principles on which all his former beliefs rested’ (Descartes, 2010:15). He grouped his beliefs into the faculties from which they are derived, such as the senses, imagination and reason. He then used increasingly stronger hypotheses to find whether the faculties can be doubted. He began by using the sceptical hypothesis that senses deceive us at a distance. For instance, a person standing under a tree a kilometre away from where you are could mistakenly be interpreted by you as a boy with a golf club when really it is an old woman with a walking stick. But what cannot be doubted are the objects nearby, such as the keypad I’m typing on and that I’m sitting on a chair. So Descartes went to the next argument, the Dream Hypothesis, which claims that our senses are dubitable because when we dream, we are convinced that we are having real life experiences as a wizard or driving to the shops, not asleep in bed. However, with that hypothesis we cannot doubt the laws of physics and mathematics and that we use knowledge from our senses when we are awake to create those dreams. To doubt physics, maths and the most simple things like shape, quantity and time, Descartes devised his most powerful argument; the Evil Demon Hypothesis (The Method of Doubt, n.d.). In it, he presents a malevolent deceiver which presents a complete illusion of the outside world. According to Descartes, all sensory experiences are ‘merely the delusions of dreams which he (the Evil Demon) has devised to ensnare my judgement’ (Descartes, 2010:17). The demon is possibly omnipotent, even matching the powers of God, making it capable of altering Descartes’ thoughts of seemingly indubitable concepts such as pure maths, geometry and gravity (The Method of Doubt, n.d.). Similar to the Dream Hypothesis, the Evil Demon Hypothesis uses the ‘rule-out’ principle for knowledge. That is, if we cannot rule-out every possibility that would make x false, we cannot know that x is true (Descartes’ Sceptical Arguments, n.d.). Although the possibility of such a ‘malicious demon’s’ existence may be very slim, the small chance of its being allows the implementation of the Method of Doubt, which means Descartes must withhold assent from what he believes through his senses as well as his beliefs in the laws of nature and mathematics. The Evil Demon Hypothesis has parallels in the film The Matrix. The demon is represented as the AI which created the virtual world that humans believed to be real, when really their bodies were imprisoned, used as an energy source by the AI (Mann & Hochenedel). In his First Meditation, Descartes initially accuses God of being the great deceiver. That viewpoint, according to him, wouldn’t stand because God is ‘supremely good’ and would never try to deceive (Descartes, 2010:17). Also, at the time when he wrote the Meditations he could have been found guilty of blasphemy if he decided to accuse God of being wicked in nature (Smith, 2010). However the Deceiving God Argument had the same function as the Evil Demon Hypothesis. So it is possible that the demon was used to strengthen Descartes’ thinking and...

References: Cottingham, J. 1976. Descartes on ‘Thought’. The Philosophical Quarterly. Vol. 28, No. 112: pp. 261-263.
Descartes, R. 1988. Meditation 1 and the beginning of meditation 2 in: Cottingham, J (ed), Descartes: Selected Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 73—76.
Kennington, R. 1971. The Finitude of Descartes’ Evil Genius. Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 32, No. 3: pp. 442.
Kierkegaard, S. 1985. Philosophical Fragments. Trans. Hong. Princeton. pp. 38-42.
Smith, Kurt. 2010. Zalta, E. (ed), Descartes’ Life and Works. [29/03/2012]
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