Descartes’ Skeptical Argument and Reponses by Bouwsma and MalcolmIn this essay, I will examine Rene Descartes’ skeptical argument andresponses by O.K. Bouwsma and Norman Malcolm. I intend to prove that while bothBouwsma and Malcolm make points that refute specific parts of Descartes’argument in their criticisms, neither is sufficient in itself to refute thewhole.
In order to understand Descartes’ argument and its sometimes radical ideas,one must have at least a general idea of his motives in undertaking the argument.The seventeenth century was a time of great scientific progress, and theblossoming scientific community was concerned with setting up a consistentstandard to define what constituted science. Their science was based onconjunction and empirical affirmation, ideally without any preconceived notionsto taint the results. Descartes, however, believed that the senses wereunreliable and that science based solely on information gained from the senseswas uncertain. He was concerned with finding a point of certainty on which tobase scientific thought. Eventually he settled on mathematics as a basis forscience, because he believed mathematics and geometry to be based on someinherent truths. He believed that it was through mathematics that we were ableto make sense of our world, and that the ability to think mathematically was aninnate ability of all human beings. This theory becomes important in Descartes’Meditations because he is forced to explain where the mathematical ideas that hebelieved we were born with came from.
Having discussed Descartes’ background, Iwill now explain the specifics of his argument.The basis of Descartes’ entire argument is that the senses can not betrusted, and his objective is to reach a point of certainty, one undeniabletruth that fixes our existence. He said it best in his own words, “I will . . .apply myself earnestly and openly to the general destruction of my formeropinions.
“1 By opinions he meant all the facts and notions about the worldwhich he had previously held as truths. Any point which had even the slightesthint of doubt was discarded and considered completely false. Descartes decidedthat he would consider all things until he found that either nothing is certain,which is itself a point of certainty, or he reached the one undeniable truth hewas searching for. In order to accomplish this certainty, in the firstMeditation he asks the reader to assume that they are asleep and that all theirsensory information is the product of dreams. More significantly, Descartesimplies that all consciousness could actually be a dream state, thus provingthat the senses can be doubted. The dream argument has its intrinsic problems,however.
One, is that images in dreams can be described as “painted images”.2In other words, a dream image is only a portrait of a real-life object, place orperson. If we are dreaming then it is implied that at some point we wereconscious and able to perceive these things. If we are able to perceive thesethings then we must admit that we have senses and that our senses are, at leastin part, true. This was exactly what Descartes was trying to disprove, and itwas one reason he abandoned the dream argument.The second problem with this argument is that it points to mathematics as apoint of certainty.
I believe Descartes best explained this in his own words:”Whether I be awake or asleep, two plus three equals five and a square doesnot have more than four sides: nor does it seem possible that such obvioustruths can fall under the suspicions of falsity.”3 Even when we are dreaming,the laws of mathematics and geometry hold true, but they can not be Descartes’point of certainty for a simple reason; these abilities that Descartes believedwere innate still had to come from somewhere. If they are in our heads when weare born, someone had to put them there. Descartes’ question is who, and hecomes up with two possibilities.
One possibility is that our inherent mathematical abilities are the gift ofa benign creator, a gift of God. As a supremely good being, he would not allowus to be deceived, and mathematical processes would be a point of certain andundeniable truth. If this were the case, the idea of mathematics would meetDescartes’ objectives as a point of certainty. The existence of God, however,can not be proven and so there is a