Descartes 101

An “Existential Terror and Breakfast” Companion:


Descartes: The only time locking yourself away in a cabin and writing a manifesto did any good.

The latest entry to my serial Existential Terror and Breakfast was concerned mostly with Malcolm Steadman doubting the existence of an external wold and ultimately cursing a man by the name of Descartes. We will be exploring Descartes’ ideas and concepts in detail so that you too may be justified in cursing his name as well. We live within our own minds, everything we know about the external world comes from our senses, and, according to Descartes, our senses not only deceive us, but are not to be trusted. It is for this reason that we can conclude that we cannot be absolutely certain that the external world exist outside of our minds.

In reconstructing one of his argument on the validity of an external world, I ultimately found two premises that lead to his conclusion, it is this specific argument that we will be focusing on. However, Descartes had to first establish that we cannot trust our senses for his argument to work. Thus, we find a premise that I will sum up as: “We do not trust things which deceive us, even once ”. With this in mind he secondarily declares that our senses deceive us when we dream. Finally, with both of these in mind, he is able to conclude that our senses are not to be trusted. The weight of this conclusion, drives Descartes into a solitary existential abyss. Now that it has been established that our senses are not to be trusted, he can go a step further and claim that: Our senses tell us about the external world, our senses deceive us and are not to be trusted, therefore, the outside world might be a lie.

The words and phrases we are clarifying and defining are concerned with are essential to understanding Descartes argument and his conclusion, that being “senses”, “deceive”, and “external world”. By “senses” Descartes means “touch”, “taste”, “sight”, “smell”, and “hearing”, the means by which our bodies report information to the brain. Thus, our senses are related to our “sensors” (hands, nose, eyes, and ears.) When he is speaking about being “deceived”, he means something more akin to “misled” without the connotation that it was by malicious means (he does play with this idea, but ultimately rejects it as being impossible) or even knowingly. It is important now to look upon the phrase “external world”, for in this case it is defining all of reality that exists outside of the mind, or more importantly, the world that exists outside of thought.
One may not be compelled by these lines of thinking, and it is important to note that Descartes himself believed that there was in fact an external world outside of the mind (a conclusion he would come to later in his other meditations). In objecting to his argument one can point out that his first premise “Our senses deceive us when we dream”, based off of our knowledge of dreams now, is false. We know more about dreams now than ever before, that it is not actually our sensors that deceive us in dreams, like our hands, eyes, and nose, but our mind in recreating these senses. Our sensors are dormant during sleep (insofar as our dream consciousness is aware), it is not our hand’s fault that we feel the absurd during our dreams, but rather our mind that fabricates these experiences. I have personally had dreams where I am tossing pizza dough, and it feels just as real to me in the dream as it does when awake. There is of course no dough that I was tossing, and it is not my hands that deceived me, for they were dormant and in reality resting under my pillow, but my mind that deceived me.
Descartes’ response to this would be to point out that when you were deceived by the mind into believing that your senses were reporting something, you were absolutely convinced of it in sleep. The dream, being the ultimate deception, even had you convinced that you had a pair (or more) of hands which do not exist. Thus, if you cannot even tell the difference between your fabricated dream hands, to your actually real life external counterparts, why should you trust that even those counterparts are real? If your mind is powerful enough, to conceive of a fabricated reality convincing enough as to not be questioned, is there not, indeed, anyway to be sure that it is not fooling you now? The premise “Our senses deceive us when we dream” still holds true because though your dream hands report back falsehoods, what is fabricated is your sensors. What you feel, or sense in the dream came from a false sensor, and in that state you cannot tell the difference.
It is important to remember that Descartes’ line of thinking was powerful enough that Descartes himself had to rely on the existence of an all-powerful, all-present and knowing perfect God to even consider that there was something external from the mind. Our senses are our only connection to the external world, and if they report back falsehoods, than it is not a leap to conclude that the external world may be in-of-itself a lie, but rather a simple step. Thus his two arguments, are not only important, but devastating to philosophy as a whole. The external world may be real, but it will never hold itself up as a concrete definite that is self-evident ever again. If our senses are not to be trusted, then the external world no longer  holds any credibility.

Want to read about Descartes’ other meditations? Check out Dead Philosophers in Heaven. Want some more essays on philosophy? Check out ‘Trick Slattery.

Existential Terror and Breakfast” Updates every Wednesday, Its “Companion Piece” updates every Thursday.
Rev. Fitz
Michael Fitzgerald (Rev. Fitz) is a writer, illustrator, and amateur Electrical Engineer who lives in Seattle.

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