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 he
comes up with two possibilities.
One possibility is that our inherent mathematical abilities are the gift of
a benign creator, a gift of God. As a supremely good being, he would not allow
us to be deceived, and mathematical processes would be a point of certain and
undeniable truth. If this were the case, the idea of mathematics would meet
Descartes' objectives as a point of certainty. The existence of God, however,
can not be proven and so there is a second possibility that Descartes proposed.
He asks the reader to imagine that instead of a benign God, there is an "evil
genius