Descartes’ Argument
Intro to Philosophy

Mid-Term Paper

Following his First Meditation, Descartes commences his next meditation with a rather overwhelming doubt on the certainty of his conclusions from the meditation he has written a day before. He expresses his extensive uneasiness with those new doubts by comparing himself to being tumbled in a deep whirlpool; unable to find grounding nor gasping for air, as if he is drowning in his own convictions.

His dilemma began during the First Meditation, which opens with searching for the ultimate “truth” or “knowledge” through questioning his own beliefs and experiences that involve his senses. He has resolved to sweep away all he thinks he knows and to start again from the foundations, building up his knowledge once more on rather certain grounds. Descartes has seated himself alone, by the fire, free of all worries so that he can demolish his former opinions with care. He reasons that he need only find some reason to doubt his present opinions in order to prompt him to seek sturdier foundations for his knowledge. Rather than doubt every one of his opinions individually, he reasons that he might cast them all into doubt if he can doubt the foundations and basic principles upon which his opinions are founded.

Everything that the writer has accepted as most true he has come to learn from or through his senses. He acknowledges that sometimes the senses can deceive, but only with respect to objects that are very small or far away, and that his sensory knowledge on the whole is quite sturdy. In addition, he acknowledges that insane people might be more deceived, but that he is clearly not one of them and needn\'t worry himself about that.

However, Descartes realizes that he is often convinced when he is dreaming that he is sensing real objects. He feels certain that he is awake and sitting by the fire, but reflects that often he has dreamed this very sort of thing and been wholly convinced by it. Though his present sensations may be dream images, he suggests that even dream images are drawn from waking experience, much like paintings in that respect. Even when a painter creates an imaginary creature, like a mermaid, the composite parts are drawn from real things--women and fish, in the case of a mermaid. And even when a painter creates something entirely new, at least the colors in the painting are drawn from real experience. Thus, the Meditator concludes, though he can doubt composite things, he cannot doubt the simple and universal parts from which they are constructed like shape, quantity, size, time, etc. While one can doubt studies based on composite things, like medicine, astronomy, or physics, he concludes that one cannot doubt studies based on simple things, like arithmetic and geometry.

On further reflection, Descartes realizes that even simple things can be doubted. Omnipotent God could make even our conception of mathematics false. One might argue that God is supremely good and would not lead him to believe falsely all these things. But by this reasoning one should think that God would not deceive him/her with regard to anything, and yet this is clearly not true. If one supposes there is no God, then there is even greater likelihood of being deceived, since a perfect being would not have created his/her imperfect senses.

In the end, Descartes resolves to pretend that these opinions are totally false and imaginary in order to counter-balance his habitual way of thinking. He supposes that not God, but some evil demon has committed itself to deceiving him so that everything he thinks he knows is false. By doubting everything, he can at least be sure not to be misled into falsehood by this demon.

Following the First Meditation, Descartes tries profusely to scrap his claim of knowledge, however, he is most successful in portraying only doubts about the knowledge he had already experienced. Since his senses, his reality, his God, and his reality may be just illusions, Descartes shows certainty only in the doubts he has created. This knowledge of knowing nothing, as he argues, only proves the doubts he now has about the truth, about reality.