How Does Descartes Try To Extricate Himself From The Sceptical Doubts

October 1, 2018 Theology

that he has raised? Does he succeed?[All page references and quotations from the Meditations are taken fromthe 1995 Everyman edition] In the Meditations, Descartes embarks upon what Bernard Williams hascalled the project of ‘Pure Enquiry’ to discover certain, indubitable foundations for knowledge. By subjecting everything to doubt Descartes hoped to discover whatever was immune to it. In order tobest understand how and why Descartes builds his epistemological system up from his foundationsin the way that he does, it is helpful to gain an understanding of the intellectual background of the17th century that provided the motivation for his work.We can discern three distinct influences on Descartes, three conflictingworld-views that fought for prominence in his day. The first was what remained of the mediaevalscholastic philosophy, largely based on Aristotelian science and Christian theology. Descartes had beentaught according to this outlook during his time at the Jesuit college La Flech? and it had animportant influence on his work, as we shall see later. The second was the scepticism that had made asudden impact on the intellectual world, mainly as a reaction to the scholastic outlook. This scepticismwas strongly influenced by the work of the Pyrrhonians as handed down from antiquity by SextusEmpiricus, which claimed that, as there is never a reason to believe p that is better than a reason not tobelieve p, we should forget about trying to discover the nature of reality and live by appearance alone.

This attitude was best exemplified in the work of Michel de Montaigne, who mockingly dismissedthe attempts of theologians and scientists to understand the nature of God and theuniverse respectively. Descartes felt the force of sceptical arguments and, while not being scepticallydisposed himself, came to believe that scepticism towards knowledge was the best way to discover what iscertain: by applying sceptical doubt to all our beliefs, we can discover which of them are indubitable,and thus form an adequate foundation for knowledge. The third world-view resulted largely from thework of the new scientists; Galileo, Copernicus, Bacon et al. Science had finally begun to assertitself and shake off its dated Aristotelian prejudices. Coherent theories about the world and its placein the universe were being constructed and many of those who were aware of this work became veryoptimistic about the influence it could have. Descartes was a child of the scientificrevolution, but felt that until sceptical concerns were dealt with, science would always have to contend withMontaigne and his cronies, standing on the sidelines and laughing at science’s pretenses toknowledge. Descartes’ project, then, was to use the tools of the sceptic to disprove the sceptical thesis bydiscovering certain knowledge that could subsequently be used as the foundation of a new science, inwhich knowledge about the external world was as certain as knowledge about mathematics. It wasalso to hammer the last nail into the coffin of scholasticism, but also, arguably, to show that Godstill had a vital r?le to play in the discovery of knowledge.Meditation One describes Descartes’ method of doubt. By its conclusion,Descartes has seemingly subjected all of his beliefs to the strongest and most hyberbolic ofdoubts. He invokes the nightmarish notion of an all-powerful, malign demon who could be deceiving him inthe realm of sensory experience, in his very understanding of matter and even in the simplestcases of mathematical or logical truths. The doubts may be obscure, but this is the strength ofthe method – the weakness of criteria for what makes a doubt reasonable means that almost anythingcan count as a doubt, and therefore whatever withstands doubt must be something epistemologicallyformidable.In Meditation Two, Descartes hits upon the indubitable principle he hasbeen seeking. He exists, at least when he thinks he exists. The cogito (Descartes’ proof of his ownexistence) has been the source of a great deal of discussion ever since Descartes first formulated itin the 1637 Discourse on Method, and, I believe, a great deal of misinterpretation (quite possibly as aresult of Descartes’ repeated contradictions of his own position in subsequent writings). Manycommentators have fallen prey to the tempting interpretation of the cogito as either syllogism orenthymeme. This view holds that Descartes asserts that he is thinking, that he believes it axiomaticthat ‘whatever


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