Saturday, November 6, 2010

Descartes - A Solution to the Knowledge Crisis

What exactly is knowledge?

Rene Descartes faced a serious crisis in philosophy.  Undisputed knowledge was hard to come by.  Accountability was in question in his time.  What was left over from antiquity clearly did not hold as it once had.  The question on everyone’s mind was “how can this be trusted as truth?”
For what reason did this crisis come into existence?  

Knowledge is necessary for society

First of all, human beings cannot function well without truth in their lives.  We like bedrock, solidity; we like to be safe.  We build mental models of how to live our lives, and when these do not hold true, we have trouble functioning well.  If one person is saying that eating apples will surely cause cancer, and another person is saying that eating the same apples will surely prevent cancer, who are you to believe?  What gives either of these persons’ arguments any credibility?  On the one hand, they could be saving your life, and on the other, they could be effectively killing you.  Which argument is rational?  Which side is the truth?  

Enter: Science

The invention of science was one giant leap for mankind’s search for truth.  But Descartes wanted to go further.  Descartes wanted to know if there was a school of thought that could have some significant authority.  He wanted to know if anything could be said with absolute assurance.  The problem is where does one begin?  Descartes decided to start at the very beginning.  He set out to establish the foundations for knowledge.

Methodological doubt

To establish a foundation of bedrock for the ultimate house of knowledge, Descartes used a process called methodical doubt, in which he set up his mind to doubt everything.  There were four premises he used to establish this doubt.  To commence, he began by treating all individual perception as wrong.  Since it is possible for personal perception to be misguided, Descartes figured it best to regard all perception as fallacy.  He chose to abstain from the belief in anything that could be even occasionally minutely false.  If it can be doubted, then it is false.  As Descartes states in the first of his Meditations, “…it is prudent never to trust wholly those things which have once deceived us.”

The dream state

The next point he used to further establish doubt was a comment on the elusiveness of the dream state.  It is practically impossible to distinguish between dreams and waking life.  Descartes makes it clear that we are truly unable to know if this is all a dream or fabrication, because we know nothing else, and have no capacity to see outside this experience.  What if this is all a dream, and we lack to ability to see outside of it?  I know that in my life, I continually pass over many things that otherwise would be significant, but I lack the experience and knowledge to see with clarity the greatness that is around me.  And almost every night, while I am sleeping, I dream of things which for the most part seem absolutely foolish once I wake up, but while I was dreaming them, they seemed logical and I had no immediate need to question my surroundings.  What if we were all implanted with special lenses in our eyes which are tinted blue at birth?  How would we ever come to know the color yellow, or any other color for that matter?  All of life would seem to be shades of blue, while in reality we were blocked from the truth and had no idea.  Since these blue-tinted lenses have blinded us to other colors, and we lack the ability to remove the lenses, we will never know the brilliant spectrum of color surrounding us at every moment.  Descartes makes a similar point when he questions this experience as actual waking life.  There simply is no absolute way to know if this is all a dream.

Descartes the mathematician

In Descartes next appeal to the method of continuous doubt, he discards the reliability of mathematics.  At first, this is hard to believe.  Surely the inventor of analytic geometry could not mean to undermine his own work.  But even as a brilliant mathematician, he knew the likelihood of making an error in calculation.  So, just as he disregarded human perception, he threw mathematics to the wind on the premise that if error is possible, then the information is unreliable.  Mathematics was to be treated as wrong because it is always possible that an error be made.

To top it all off, Descartes dreamed up what some call the ‘Worst Case Skeptical Hypothesis’ or the ‘Evil Demon Hypothesis.’  There had been many critics before him who had feverishly torn apart all philosophy in a quest for truth.  That really is the nature of philosophy.  Concepts are supposed to be put out there for discussion.  But Descartes did not simply want to critique the work of others.  He wanted a fresh start; he wanted to establish new knowledge that would hold steadily.  Descartes came to the conclusion that if he doubted everything – if absolutely everything that he had ever known was wrong; all his common sense had failed – then maybe he could find one piece of truth that held strong.  Thus, the Evil Demon Hypothesis was born into existence.
In Descartes' Worst Case Skeptical Hypothesis, not only are all the previous three premises held true, but to make it worse, an evil demon is imagined to be solely intent on deceiving him.  This powerful demon’s only purpose is to use its own faculties to mistaken his mind and judgment.  The only point of whatever this existence might be, if it even is an existence, is for him to be systematically deceived by an evil being, much more powerful than could ever be able to overcome.  Under these premises, everything that has ever been thought right is wrong, and an evil
spirit is focused entirely on keeping that true.

The Cogito

Descartes responds to his methodical doubt with what is one of the few philosophical thoughts that can not truly be doubted.  His Archimedean Point, the “Cogito,” is the brilliant statement of “I am thinking.”  Descartes concludes that even if he is doubting, doubting is a form of thinking, so therefore it cannot be disputed that thought processes are taking place.  “I a thinking” is the bedrock that he had searched for, and from its establishment he was able to build up a number of other solid points.

Part of the reason Descartes might have responded to the knowledge crisis in the way that he did was due to the failing credibility of the knowledge from antiquity.  Descartes was part of a movement to find and establish new knowledge, since all previous knowledge had been derived from writings of the distant past.  If people needed to know something, they were accustomed to looking it up in the ancient teachings.  Aristotelian natural philosophy, previously regarded as pure truth, had really been edged out by the relatively new concept of ‘science.’  Those who were left believing the philosophers of the past were often looked upon by forward thinkers as holding on simply because they were used to it, or afraid of a change.  Thus, a point of philosophical instability had been reached in the matter of knowledge, and Descartes felt it necessary to help solve it.

Personal connection

I chose to comment upon Descartes’ response because I believe it is one of the most astounding points I have ever heard, across any subject in any class.  I cannot imagine a more perfect problem solving process, nor a more perfect conclusion derived from this process.  Philosophers before had doubted the world around them, but none could do this with the diligence and to the extent that Descartes did.  Whenever I hear a new philosophical idea, my mind automatically searches the validity of the argument.  I was stuck for quite a few days upon “I am thinking,” until I gave up and accepted it as truth.  I am curious if anyone has been able to disprove Descartes’ cogito, and I am now committed to finding this out.  Descartes was really the ultimate skeptic, and in being so he confirmed what I believe is the most undisputable piece of truth that has ever been known.

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