To Be or Not To Be: A Look at Descartes and His Arguments
Descartes is a name that may not ring a bell for most of you, but he just so happens to be a man who helped to combine the ideas of science, religion, and dreaming all together into a nice little pile of confusion and self-doubt. While Descartes has a number of theories that may seem a little ‘out there’, he is most well-known for his theories concerning what is called his dream argument.
According to Descartes, in order for the scientific method to have a solid basis, the idea of science had to be taken from the mind and not the senses. Descartes believed that the senses could lie to us but that the mind could not. He also held that science and religion could be compatible if you looked at the world as two different types of substances: the mind and the body. Science deals with the body and what’s known as extended matter while the mind concentrates on religious truths and the soul.
Descartes has three arguments that he puts into play and each of these arguments is meant to lead us to question all that we know. There’s the dream argument, then the deceiving god argument, and finally the evil demon argument. All of these arguments can be traced back to Leibniz’s Law. The law states that if two things are the same, then they have to share all of the same properties. Descartes believed that the mind and body had different properties and were therefore not the same thing. His arguments stem from that belief.
The deceiving god argument is that, if God is all powerful and all knowing, then he has the power to give false knowledge. The idea is that the knowledge that you think to be true (mathematical, scientific, etc.) could very well be some type of deception or illusion placed on you by whichever God you follow.
There were a lot of people who didn’t place much stock in the deceiving God argument, however, which is how the evil demon argument came up. Rather than it being God responsible for the deception, it’s instead the fault of an evil demon. In a number of religions, there are varied accounts of what people call ‘the trickster’ or ‘the deceiver’. Descartes thought that, while the knowledge that we have can’t be trusted, the source of our knowledge, or deceptions, can’t lie.
- Even though our senses most likely give unreliable information, our minds couldn’t do the same.
- The argument behind that belief is that even though we can be deceived about material objects or even our own bodies by an evil demon /deceiving god / dream, the knowledge that we are thinking beings cannot be denied.
- In short, the psychical (and therefore the senses) can be a deception, but not the fact that you exist.
The God and Demon arguments concern the body. The dream argument looks into the mind. Descartes claims that:
Very often you perceive things in the same way that you would in a dream, which means that you often get the same feelings or sensations that occur while you’re in the middle of a dream.
There’s no hard evidence to say when you’re dreaming and when you aren’t.
Therefore, it’s very possible that you’re in a dream right now, which means that everything you perceive or know is false.
When you combine these arguments, you can see that Descartes covered as many bases as possible in order to introduce the idea of Universal Doubt. Or at least he thought he did. His theories and arguments weren’t enough to keep other philosophers from pecking at the details until room for reasonable doubt appeared. Yes, the mind and the body may be different, but the mind affects the body and the body can also affect the mind. If they’re so different from one another, then how can they interact so closely? And what if you’re an atheist and you don’t believe in either a higher or a lower power? What arguments can be used to make up for the holes that can be found in the dream argument?
Chances are that, no matter whether you are or are not a philosopher, the ideas that Descartes introduces can be the cause of some very interesting conversations. If Descartes accomplished nothing else with the introduction of his arguments, he at least made people think, and in the end, that’s all that’s important in the world of philosophy.
- Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason (Vintage) (ISBN9780307275660): Russell Shorto
- Descartes: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (ISBN9780192854094): Tom Sorell
- Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings (ISBN9780521358125): René Descartes, John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch
- Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy (ISBN9789562915571): Rene Descartes
- Discourse on Method and Related Writings (Penguin Classics) (ISBN9780140446999): Rene Descartes
- Discourse on the Method for Conducting One’s Reason Well and for Seeking Truth in the Sciences (ISBN9780872204225): Rene Descartes
- Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences (ISBN9781153601900): René Descartes
- Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings (Penguin Classics) (ISBN9780140447019): Rene Descartes, Desmond M. Clarke
- Meditations on First Philosophy (ISBN9781453611920): Rene Descartes
- Meditations on First Philosophy: In which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated (ISBN9781615340286): Rene Descartes
- The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: Volume 1 (ISBN9780521288071): Rene Descartes, John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch
- The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: Volume 2 (ISBN9780521288088): Rene Descartes, John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch
with what you may find.