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Stages of doubt in Descartes' 1st Meditation


To: Egor S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Stages of doubt in Descartes' 1st Meditation
Date: 27th April 2011 14:38

Dear Egor,

Thank you for your email of 19 April, with your essay for the University of London BA Modern Philosophy: Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume module in response to the question, 'Describe the successive stages of doubt that Descartes set out in the First Meditation. Do they cover all pre-existing beliefs or are some left untouched?'

This is a well written essay which focuses for the most part on the question being asked: whether the stages of doubt that Descartes describes leave some pre-existing beliefs 'untouched'. Possibly, you stray a little from the topic in considering objections to Descartes' account of sensory perception. In an exam, any discussion or critique must be shown to be relevant to the question you are being asked.

One question which you raise concerns Descartes' attitude to the belief in God. You consider the argument that Descartes doesn't have to assume God's existence, because he is merely constructing a sceptical hypothesis and putting the onus on the anti-sceptic, but you are not fully satisfied with that response. You say, 'to invalidate the deceiving God argument one has to prove its impossibility. Which in practice involves presenting an alternative and more convincing account of how the world came about. In our day, such an account is readily available: it is provided by natural science. But, again, not in Descartes' time.'

Well, I don't agree with you here. Let's say that the scientific account of how the world came about is more 'convincing' than the God theory. They are both theories. We don't *know* which one is true. We can't *assume* the truth of one theory in order to defeat the other theory. Because everything is up for grabs. As it happens, Descartes could be described as the founder of modern science, no-one believed as passionately as he did that a natural explanation can be given for the existence of the world. Except, of course, that he believed (as many still do today) that this is fully consistent with belief in God as ultimate 'creator'.

However, I do think that you are onto something. Descartes makes an assumption, which is more subtle than the assumption that God exists (either a 'good' God or an 'evil God). His assumption is that *something* exists apart from immediate subjective experience, which is its cause or source. There could not be a reality which consisted entirely of my subjective experience. In other words, he rejects the alternative of egocentric subjectivism. You might think 'who would want to be an egocentric subjectivist?'. Another term to describe this view would be 'transcendental solipsism'. Although no philosopher has explicitly defended this, there is a hint in the Tractatus that Wittgenstein was tempted by this theory. Or perhaps more than tempted. I talk about this theory in my book 'Naive Metaphysics'.

There is also something rather important that you have missed out. It is interesting that you describe State 2 of the method of doubt as 'Madness and dreaming', but then you go on to talk only about dreaming. What about madness?

Descartes says something very interesting here. He considers the possibility that he might be a 'madman' but immediately dismisses the idea. The thought that he might be mad, and all his thoughts the thoughts of a madman are beyond the pale, so far as he is concerned. He isn't going there!

Is he right to take that view? He is doing philosophy, and in philosophy you are guided by your sense of what is, or is not, a rational argument. If you couldn't be sure whether you were being rational or not then, arguably, there would be no point in the exercise at all. OK, but still we can ask, 'Where does rationality come from? how are the standards for rationality recognized and applied?' Here I think you are absolutely right to say that 'leaving language and communication out of consideration makes for a very deficient description of the cognitive process.'

This does seem to be a big question mark against Descartes' project. As you say, 'Can you base a general philosophical inquiry entirely on your own experience?' Consider someone who suffers from paranoia. Let's say I am convinced that I am being spied on by the KGB. I find 'clues' everywhere. When I came to my office this morning, one of my books seemed to have moved. The KGB were here last night searching through my things. You can't argue against paranoid beliefs, you can only offer treatment. We understand the difference in perspective between the patient, and the psychiatrist. There's another viewpoint besides my own. There are certain questions which I cannot ask for myself (and asking others doesn't help either). But that doesn't prevent it being a legitimate hypothesis, e.g., that I have lost my sanity. There are some hypotheses that you can't investigate for yourself.

I think that this line of thought connects with the idea of transcendental solipsism. In effect, Descartes assumes what needs to be proved, that transcendental solipsism is incoherent. It is incoherent because it would require the solipsist to verify his own rationality for himself.

All the best,