Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy 2


The Letter of Dedication and the First Meditation

The Letter of Dedication and the First Meditation

In all teaching, whether of Descartes or some other great philosopher, one should seek to get students to learn how to dissect and analyse an entire philosophical text, in which there is not just argument for one claim alone but a whole series of interlocking claims and arguments which together paint a comprehensive picture. In this set of notes, I begin the illustration of this forensic task by identifying the various component arguments of the First Meditation and how they arguments hang together, that is, what role they play in the overall strategy of the work. The overall strategy is obviously determined by the overall point and purpose of the text. So we must first identify just what Descartes himself says he is doing in the Meditations.

This is all the more important as it has become quite traditional in philosophy to read Descartes as primarily concerned with epistemological issues, in particular, with overcoming scepticism about the external world, that is showing why we should not be worried about being things like brains in vats. Thus, Descartes’ claim that he wants to provide human knowledge with a firm foundation (fundamentum inconcussum) is often interpreted as motivated by a need to respond to sceptical worries he genuinely felt, particularly to scepticism about the external world—as of Descartes took sceptical arguments to be a serious challenge, hence saw it as at least one of his primary objectives to refute them.1 I think that this very standard interpretation is incorrect and that a sufficiently forensic reading of the text, undertaken, of course, against the background of an understanding of Descartes’ general concerns, life and times, will show it to be incorrect. Of crucial importance in this regard is the Letter of Dedication with which the work is introduced to its intended audience, those most learned and distinguished Dean and Professors of the Faculty of Sacred Theology at the Sorbonne. Thus, before we look at the First Meditation itself, we need to look at the Letter of Dedication.

§ 1: Some Remarks about the Letter of Dedication

That Descartes should explicitly address his Meditations to the theologians of the Sorbonne clearly needs explanation. In the previous lecture I suggested that one could make sense of this if one understood Descartes to be out to show that both religious faith itself and theology are better served by a Galilean rather than an Aristotelian natural philosophy, or rather and more accurately, by the metaphysical picture of nature which underpins the former rather than that which underpins the latter. Clearly, if this is Descartes’ objective, then it makes sense that he should seek to win the favour of leading theologians because it is the theologians who determine the Church’s position on metaphysical issues.

Now in his dedicatory letter Descartes explicitly states that he seeks to defend two central tenets of the Christian religion, namely, the existence of God and the character of our soul as something distinct from the body, hence capable of surviving the dissolution of the latter in death. And he never once mentions either scepticism about the external world or the need to provide human knowledge with a firm foundation. It seems, then, that according to Descartes himself, the Meditations are directed solely towards providing philosophical arguments for these central tenets of Christianity, as opposed to theological ones based on scripture and appeal to authority. (p.8) Yet in the Meditations themselves, as we shall soon see, Descartes is very much concerned with these epistemological issues. There seems to be a mismatch between the goals Descartes says he is pursuing in the Letter of Dedication and what he actually does in the Meditations themselves. How is this mismatch to be overcome? How do the theological issues Descartes explicitly says he is addressing relate to the epistemological issues he addresses in the text?

§ 2: How are we to understand the Meditational Character of the Meditations?

Resolving the issue of how the theological issues Descartes says he is addressing relate to the epistemological ones he addresses in the text is crucial not just for resolving the apparent mismatch between the Letter of Dedication and the Meditations themselves. It is also crucial for understanding the very style or genre of the work. All six individual Meditations are precisely that, namely, meditations written from a first-person perspective, with an apparently autobiographically and certainly mildly dramatic character. It seems that in the Meditations Descartes is giving an account of a personal crisis of belief he actually suffered and worked his way through, a crisis of belief primarily in his capacity to know anything at all, and in particular, to know anything via the senses about the external world. Evidently, if this should be right, then the Meditations are primarily to be understood as a work designed to counter various sceptical arguments, arguments which Descartes himself had actually taken seriously and to which an answer must be sought if knowledge is to be possible for us human beings. But should one take these appearances at face value?

As already pointed out, it is a very common, indeed still the standard account, of what Descartes is seeking to accomplish in the Meditations to take these appearances more or less at face value. That is, it is very common, indeed still very much standard to regard the Meditations as seeking to put human knowledge claims on a firm foundation because Descartes takes scepticism, in particular about the external world, seriously and for this reason seeks to refute it. If, however, one thinks that Descartes is primarily concerned with refuting scepticism (and not just concerned with it secondarily, as something which is only introduced, elaborated and then refuted for other, ulterior purposes), then one would expect the autobiographical character of Descartes’ initial reflections on scepticism to be genuine and not just a literary device. In this case, we must understand the First Meditation as describing a crisis of belief in his capacity to know which Descartes has actually undergone because he has actually encountered various sceptical arguments which he actually believes one must take seriously. One should therefore expect to find evidence in Descartes’ life of some such sceptical crisis or at least an ongoing uneasiness about sceptical arguments.

One influential author has argued that Descartes did undergo such a sceptical crisis and that it was this crisis which led Descartes to write both the Discourse on Method of 1637 and the later Meditations of 1641. In his book The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza, Richard Popkin claims that by around 1628 or 1629, Descartes had become fully convinced of the need for a stronger answer to sceptical arguments purporting to prove the impossibility of knowledge. Popkins goes on to claim,

It was in the light of this awakening to the sceptical menace, that when he was in Paris Descartes set in motion his philosophical revolution by discovering something ‘so certain and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions brought forward by the sceptics were incapable of shaking it’. (Popkin 1979, p.1742)

So according to Popkin in the Meditations Descartes is genuinely driven by a fear of scepticism, that is, by a fear of inability to provide conclusive refutations to those who, from antiquity on but particularly in the early seventeenth century, had argued that we humans could not really have objective knowledge of anything.3

But Popkin makes these claims on the basis of a rather scanty investigation of Descartes’ life. Stephen Gaukroger, by contrast, has extensively investigated Descartes’ life, works and letters and he has come to a quite different conclusion about the motivations behind, hence the nature of, Descartes’ philosophical revolution. In response to Popkin, Gaukroger writes that he can find “ … nothing in the Discours or the correspondence from this period [that is, in the early to mid 1630’s—C.B.C.] to indicate any interest in scepticism on Descartes’ part at this time, nor can I find any evidence at all that Descartes was motivated by an interest in scepticism before the 1630s.” (Gaukroger 1995, p.184) In fact, according to Gaukroger,

(t)he first mention of an interest in scepticism on Descartes’ part occurs in a report by Samuel Hartlib on the meeting at Elizabeth’s house [Elizabeth Stuart, Electress Palatine, Queen of Bohemia4] in the Hague in the winter of 1634/5. Present at the meeting was the Scottish pastor and reformer John Dury, who offered a version of the millenarian response to scepticism by appeal to biblical prophecies, an approach which was evidently very common at this time. It seems that Descartes challenged Dury, ‘complaining of the uncertainties of all things’ as Hartlib puts it. (Gaukroger 1995, p.304)

Importantly, by the time of this meeting, Galileo had been condemned and Descartes had radically revised his plans for publishing what he had been working on up till them. It is thus likely that, as Gaukroger goes on to say, “Descartes had … begun to think of the strategy that he was to employ in the Discours [and, of course, later in our text, the Meditations], of using a radical form of scepticism to clear the ground for a metaphysical legitimation of his natural philosophy.” (ibid.) In other words, the reason for the interest in scepticism displayed by Descartes at this meeting in the winter of 1634/5 is that he had already begun to think of using scepticism and its refutation as a device for demonstrating that, properly understood, a Galilean natural philosophy was not threat—not a threat to the Christian and, in particular, the Catholic faith; and in particular not a threat to the intitutions and practice of theological speculation which sought to provide theoretical foundations for the Catholic faith.

Gaukroger seems to me to be right about this character of Descartes’ concern with scepticism—in which case Gaukroger must also be right about the merely apparently autobiographical character of both the Discourse and the Meditations. Descartes is using the autobiographical, first-person form as a literary device. And he is using scepticism and its refutation as a philosophical device. That is, he is using it as a Trojan horse for demonstrating to Christian theologians, so to speak without their being explicitly aware of it, that they would do a lot better to drop Aristotle in favour of the kind of natural philosophy endorsed by Galileo, Descartes himself and indeed practising priests such as Descartes’ friend Marin Mersenne.5 Already in the First Meditation we will find indications that this is so. More precisely, already in this Meditation we will find a subtle hint that a concern to demonstrate the compatibility and indeed complementarity of the Galilean world view with Christian faith and theology is shaping the way Descartes unfolds the sceptical crisis depicted in the First and Second Meditations.

Indeed, that the autobiographical character of this depiction is a literary device than a historical record accords well with the literary traditions and styles with which Descartes himself was familiar and knew his contemporaries to be familiar. Personal, first-person reflection in which the author conducts in the public realm a dialogue with himself about matters of existential significance was familiar literary style which had been frequently employed for moral and religious instruction. In 1628 Descartes had promised his friends and colleagues an account of his life. As Gaukroger points out, that fact that Descartes had made this promise to friends

… suggests that it is not simply the basic facts of his life that were wanted, since they would presumably have known those. Autobiography is seen as a moral tale, as it had been seen, albeit in different ways, by Augustine in the Confessiones, by Cardano in his De vita propria liber, and by Montaigne in his Essais. It functions as didactic genre in which lessons are implicitly contained in the story that is set out. But it is also a public exercise in self-knowledge, which for Descartes is a prerequisite both for knowledge more generally and for instruction of others’ something closely connected with the idea, which we have already looked at, that self-conviction must precede any attempt to convince others. Because of this, we should not expect an account of the intimate details of Descartes’ life so much as a stylized reconstruction. (Descartes 1995, p.306)

Indeed, in the Discourse on Method of 1637, Descartes characterises (AT vi. 4) the autobiographical material contained in this work, which is much more extensive than that contained in the later Meditations, “as a story (histoire) or fable (fable) which contains some examples worthy of imitation.” (Gaukroger 1995, p.306)

§ 3: Identifying and Analysing the Arguments of the First Meditation

I want first simply to identify the individual steps in Descartes’ reflections. Only after I have done this will I explain what Descartes is doing in each of them.

The First Meditation (pp.18-22) is in fact quite short. It breaks up into the following stages or phases:

  1. Descartes’ account of what follows from the fact that he has frequently erred in the past (pp.18-19) This stage or phase extends from the beginning of the Meditation on p.18 down to the paragraph on p.19 which ends with the conclusion Descartes draws from this account, namely, that “I have occasionally found that [the senses] deceive me, and it is prudent never to trust those who have deceived us, even if only once.”

  2. The ‘commonsense’, pre-philosophical response to the conclusion that it is prudent not to trust perceptual experience because it has deceived us (pp.19-20)

This stage or phase begins in the next paragraph on p.19, which opens with the sentence “But despite the fact … ”

  1. The argument from dreams and its limitations for Descartes’ purposes (pp.19-20) This stage or phase begins in the paragraph on p.19 which opens with the rhetorical gesture “Very well. But am I not a man who is used to sleeping at night …”

  2. The question as to whether it is conceivable that God might be radically deceiving him (pp.20-21) This stage or phase starts with the paragraph on p.20 which begins with the sentence “However, there is an ancient belief somehow fixed in my mind that God can do everything and that I was created by him with the kind of existence I enjoy” and ends with the sentence on p.21 “Therefore, I should carefully withhold assent in future from those beliefs just as much as from others that are clearly false, if I wish to discover anything that is certain.”

  3. A concluding passage This final stage or phase extends from the paragraph on p.21 which begins, “But it is not enough … ” to the end of the Meditation, in which Descartes draws the methodological lesson of his arguments, namely, that he should (and can) treat all his beliefs6 as if they were all false.

Let us know consider the first stage or phase of Descartes’ argument, i.e., the lesson he draws from the fact that he has made, and knows himself to have made, frequent errors of judgement in the past. Experience, he says, has taught him the falsity of many things he had previously accepted as true and that therefore every other of his beliefs which presupposed the truth of these things was dubious. By dubious – Clarke has translated the Latin dubia as doubtful – Descartes appears to mean “not believed to be true for adequate reasons, i.e., lacking the grounding or justification needed in order to qualify as rational belief, as a belief rationally had.” So Descartes is saying that in the past he has discovered that many of his beliefs presuppose the truth of things which he has subsequently learnt to be false and that therefore these beliefs lack the grounds or justification they need in order to qualify as rational beliefs.

From this, Descartes draws a very strong conclusion: if he is ever to know anything in the truest sense of the word—“if,” as he puts it, “I ever wished to establish anything firm and durable in the sciences” (p.18)—he must overturn all his existing beliefs and begin again from the most basic foundations. What does he mean by this? By the overturning of all his current beliefs and opinions, Descartes does not mean declaring them all to be actually false and then actually rejecting them. Rather, this overturning is a matter of first systematically determining whether they have completely adequate grounds or justification and then, if they do not, putting them to one side, as things one may not use until one has improved on their grounding or justification. This is what Descartes means when he speaks of withdrawing assent “from whatever is not completely certain and indubitable” (p.18): one identifies that a certain belief lacks the grounding it needs and on this basis refuses to use it as a premise in theoretical and practical inferences until such time as one can beef its grounding up—until such time as one has found a genuinely certain and indubitable foundation for it. One does not accuse the belief of falsity but rather one treats it as if it were false, and so does not make use of it in reasoning.

This indicates what Descartes means when he says that, “once in a lifetime, everything should be completely overturned and [one] should begin again from the most basic foundations.” He is saying that if one wants to be completely rational, if one wants to possess one’s various beliefs and opinions as rationally as possible, one must engage “once in a lifetime” in this reflective withdrawal from everyday life—in order, of course, to return to it with a truly adequate, hence completely rational account of why one’s beliefs and opinions are, if not always, then at least by and large, true. It is important to note that in saying all this, Descartes has not specified what he means when he speaks of a belief’s lacking the ground it needs, hence not being certain or indubitable.

I will return to the crucial issue of just what standard Descartes is requiring of a belief before it can count as knowledge. For the moment let us simply concentrate on how precisely Descartes thinks we can perform this general overturning of our beliefs and opinions. Descartes himself points out that one cannot simply enumerate all one’s current beliefs and opinions and then examine each to see whether it has sufficient grounding or justification. This is something, he says, “I might never be able to accomplish!” (p.18) But he immediately goes on to point out that one does not have to review individual beliefs and opinions one by one. It is only necessary to identify some general claim implicitly assumed as true by whole sets of beliefs and opinions and interrogate this. That is, one has only to ask whether and on what basis this one general claim might be rationally regarded as true.

At this point, Descartes observes, “Everything that I [have] accepted as being most true up to now I [have] acquired from the senses or through the senses.” (p.19, translation corrected) Here, Descartes is pointing to a whole set of beliefs and opinions which he has accepted as unproblematically true in the past, namely, his empirical beliefs and opinions. These all derive from the testimony of perceptual experience—what Descartes calls “the senses” (sensus). With this, Descartes has implicitly identified a general claim whose truth is presupposed by all his individual empirical beliefs and opinions: perceptual experience is a reliable source of true empirical belief. Let us call this general claim the principle of the reliability of the senses, i.e., of perceptual experience. It is crucial to understand this principle correctly. It does not say that perceptual experience always yields true belief and opinion, but merely that as a rule, or by and large, it does, such that error occurs only on the margins and is always discoverable as such by further perceptual experience—in which case it is possible to rely on perceptual experience, even though, on isolated occasions, one might go wrong in doing so.

So here, in the implicit conviction that perceptual experience is a reliable source of true belief, Descartes has found one single general belief upon which an indefinite number of his other beliefs depend. In order, then, to withdraw his assent from his many individual empirical beliefs and opinions, he has only to withdraw assent from this general conviction upon which they all rest. But should he withdraw assent from the principle of the reliability of perceptual experience? Can he? This depends on whether he can construe it as dubitable. Descartes now makes a first attempt as showing that the principle is dubitable, i.e., that he can indeed regard it as problematic, as lacking adequate grounding. He goes on immediately to say, “However, I have occasionally found that they [the senses—C.B.C.] deceive me, and it is prudent never to place one’s confidence completely in those who have deceived us, even if only once. (p.19, translation corrected)”

With this conclusion, the first stage or phase of Descartes’ argument ends: firstly, he has identified a general procedure for undertaking that temporary overturning or suspension of belief which he regards as necessary for us if we are ever to possess our beliefs and opinions in truly rational fashion. Secondly, he has found one central candidate to which to apply this general procedure, his general conviction, namely, his capacities for perceptual experience are reliable sources of truth. And thirdly, he has identified an initial reason for thinking that this principle it lacks adequate grounding, hence is dubitable and that therefore he should and can withdraw assent from it. This initial reason is the fact that every so often, his perceptual experience has misled him, leading him to form beliefs which are false, which indeed he has subsequently discovered to be false.7

But is this initial reason a good one? Does it really show that the principle that, as a rule, if not always, perceptual experience yields truth, such that we may rely on it, is not adequately grounded or justified? Descartes has pointed out that in the past he has been led by his senses to make mistakes which, when he discovered them, he has had to correct, namely, by dropping the mistaken belief and revising whatever further opinions might have presupposed the truth of this mistaken belief. But from this it does not follow that he did not hold rationally the beliefs he eventually discovered to be false. After all, it seems intuitively and pre-philosophically clear that one can quite rationally come to believe false things through perceptual experience: I perceive smoke wafting there on the horizon and conclude that a fire is burning there on the horizon. My eyes are both working well, I have quite correctly inferred, on the basis of past experience or the testimony of others who have had this experience, that, all else being equal, if there is smoke on the horizon, then there is a fire on the horizon. So on this occasion I have quite rationally, quite justifiably formed the belief that there is fire there on the horizon, even if the smoke on the horizon should be due to, say, someone’s having let a smoke grenade off, i.e., even if my belief should be false.

We can generalise this point: it seems perfectly possible to hold a false empirical belief rationally. So the mere fact that every so often our perceptual experience misleads us in the ordinary, everyday way does not show that we cannot, as a rule, rely on it. Indeed, the ordinary, everyday kind of perceptually induced error Descartes is talking about here actually presupposes that perceptual experience is, as a rule, a guide to truth. We have only to ask how Descartes knows that in the past he has been misled by his senses. Obviously, through further perceptual experience! How do I find out that despite having good reason to believe that there is fire on the horizon, my belief is nonetheless false? I go and have a look. It is clearly this kind of perceptually-induced error to which Descartes is alluding when he speaks of how he has found that occasionally his senses have deceived him. So little, then, does this kind of error show that the senses are not reliable, that one can and should withdraw assent from the principle that one can rely on them, that in fact this error shows the opposite!

In fact, the argument Descartes is advancing here makes a tacit and, as we now can see, false assumption about when we believe something rationally. It is assuming that belief is only ever rationally possessed, is only ever adequately grounded or justified, if the reasons one has for it are not just such that their truth means that the belief is likely to be true; the truth of the grounds has got to mean that the belief actually is true. But the example of my perfectly well-grounded but, as it turns out, false belief about there being fire on the horizon shows that this is an extreme, indeed a false understanding of what it is to hold an empirical belief rationally. Empirical beliefs and opinions are, as they say, fallible. A fallible belief or opinion is precisely a belief or opinion for which even the best possible grounding or justification can never exclude the possibility of error. To be fallible in this sense is precisely part of what it is to be an empirical belief. And given that this is what it is to be an empirical belief such as we get through perceptual experience, it is perfectly possible for such a belief to be ‘certain’ in the sense of being rationally indubitable even though it is false. This will be the case when one has the best possible grounds for believing it to be true—even though the best possible grounds for any such fallible belief are by definition never such as to entail the truth of the belief.

In fact, Descartes appreciates this point; recognition of it underlies the second stage or phase of his argument in the First Meditation. Descartes writes,

But despite the fact that the senses occasionally deceive us about some minute or more remote things, perhaps there are a good many other things which plainly cannot be doubted, even if they are derived from the senses; for example, the fact that I am here, sitting by the fire, wearing a dressing gown, holding this page in my hand and similar things. (p.19, translation modified)

What Descartes is saying here is that when one is perceiving under normal conditions, the beliefs which one forms about the things perceived cannot rationally be doubted even though it always remains logically possible that these beliefs are wrong. In the example just considered, in which I came to believe that there is a fire on the horizon on the basis of seeing smoke on the horizon, it was assumed that my eyes are functioning well, that I have drawn the right inferences from my past experiences or what I have learnt from others, and so on. In this example there is also the tacit assumption that I am perceiving the smoke under reasonably normal conditions, for example, during the day rather than the night, when the sun is shining rather than when it is overcast, in the absence of monsoonal rains, and so on. These assumptions may be summed up in the following general characterisation of my perceptual situation: it is one in which perceptual mechanisms can function well, hence may be rationally expected to yield true belief. And if my current situation is indeed a situation in which my perceptual organs can indeed function as they should, then I cannot rationally doubt the veracity of my perceptual experience and the truth of the belief it yields even though the logical possibility of error is not excluded. I am only entitled to doubt perceptual experience and the beliefs it engenders if I believe myself to be in an abnormal situation, i.e., one in which my perceptual organs are not performing well or in which some objective feature of the context works against their performing well – as is, of course, the case when I am perceiving and forming beliefs about very small or remote things. So unless I have some reason to think that I am in some such abnormal situation, I literally cannot rationally doubt the belief which my perceptual experience suggests to me even though I know it to be logically possible that my belief should be false.

Evidently, the claim that I can only rationally doubt perceptual experience and the beliefs it engenders when I believe myself to be in some abnormal situation is just another, more precise way of formulating what was described above as the reliability of the senses. Recall that this was described as the quite general claim that, as a rule, perceptual experience yields true belief, that is, that most perceptual situations are ones in which perceptual mechanisms function well. It is clear why situations in which perceptual mechanisms function well must be in the majority; if they had not, then perceptual experience would have hindered rather than helped the perceiver’s survival.8 So what Descartes is pointing out in this second stage or phase of his reflections is that the fact of ordinary, everyday perceptual error does not really give one a reason for regarding belief in the reliability of the senses as lacking the justification it needs. Ordinary, everyday perceptual error does not give one a reason for regarding this general belief as one from which one must withdraw assent until better justification has been found.

In fact, as already pointed out, this kind of perceptual error presupposes the reliability of the senses, and Descartes knows this. When he says that he has occasionally found his senses to have deceived him, how exactly has he found this out? Obviously, through the senses! In other words, he has uncovered perceptual error precisely by relying upon further perceptual experience, hence precisely by presupposing that perceptual experience yields true belief in typical or normal perceptual situations. Acceptance that he is perfectly justified in relying on the senses is built from the outset into his claim to have discovered that on occasions he has had erroneous perceptual experience. Descartes indicates recognition of this point, and therefore that his initial attempt, in the first stage or phase, to show that belief in the reliability of perceptual experience lacks the justification it needs has failed, when he says that he could only regard his belief that he is here, sitting in this chair, that these hands and this body are his, as doubtful if he were like “those mad people whose brains are so impaired by the strong vapour of black bile that they confidently claim to be kings when they are paupers, that they are dressed up in purple when they are naked, that they have an earthenware head or that they are a totally hollowed-out shell or are made of glass.” Such people are insane, hence irrational, and he would expose himself as similarly irrational if he were to regard these empirical beliefs as insufficiently justified. Implicit in what Descartes is saying here is the assumption that these beliefs are paradigm cases, i.e., excellent examples, of beliefs acquired in circumstances in which nothing stands in the way of one’s perceptual organs functioning well. In other words, they are the kinds of belief which one would expect to be formed in circumstances in which nothing speaks against the accuracy of the perceptual experience that yields them. Descartes has no reason to believe that the circumstances in which he forms these beliefs are abnormal. So to regard these beliefs as insufficiently justified would be irrational, hence impossible for any rational person—even though one could always imagine abnormal circumstances in which these beliefs might be false and yet one’s perceptual experience would lead one into forming them.

Still, the fact that Descartes fails in his first attempt to show that general belief in the reliability of perceptual experience lacks the justification it needs does not entail that this general belief actually is justified. So is there some other consideration, some other argument, which might show that we cannot uncritically accept that perceptual experience is reliable but must seek some positive justification for belief in the reliability of the senses? If Descartes can find some other way of showing this, he will be able to maintain after all that, in his ordinary everyday theoretical and practical business, prior to philosophical reflection, he is relying upon something for which he lacks sufficient justification, hence is not truly rational in his beliefs. At this point, Descartes passes to the third stage or phase in his argument.

In response to what he has just said in the second stage or phase of his Meditation, Descartes writes,

Very well. [How clear, how reasonable!] But am I not [As if I were not] a man who is used to sleeping at night and having all the same experiences while asleep or even more improbable experiences [and undergoing while asleep all the same things or even less well-founded ones] than insane people have while awake? How often does nocturnal rest [quies; ‘quietness’ is surely wrong] convince me of familiar things, for example, that I am here, dressed in my gown, sitting by the fire, when I am really undressed and asleep in my bed? But at the moment I certainly see this sheet of paper with my eyes wide open, the head I shake is not asleep, I extend and feel this hand, carefully and knowingly; things which are as clear as this would not occur to someone who is asleep. As if I do not remember having been deluded by similar thoughts while asleep on other occasions! When I think about this more carefully, I see so clearly that I can never distinguish, by reliable signs, being awake from being asleep, that I am confused and this feeling of confusion almost confirms me in believing that I am asleep. (p.19; translation modified)

Having failed in his first attempt to show that belief in the reliability of perceptual experience lacks the justification it needs, Descartes in effect calls upon us to forget all about everyday perceptual error. He now turns to a completely different scenario and argument: surely, he says, one has often lain asleep in one’s bed, undergoing very vivid dreams. Surely it is conceivable that these dreams could be so coherent and complete that they were indistinguishable from the experiences one has while awake. As a matter of brute fact, our dreams are usually chaotic, incoherent affairs, hence very unlike ordinary waking experience. But this is a contingent matter, a mere quirk of our psychology or neurophysiology. Surely our dreams could be completely like our waking experience – identical in kind in all respects. Surely I could in principle, if not in fact, have the very same kind of experience in a dream as in waking like? In which case I surely could form beliefs on the basis of experiences I have in a dream just as I form beliefs on the basis of waking experience? In a dream I could in principle, if not in fact, have the very same or similar kinds of experiences and thoughts I have in waking life. But if this is so, how could I tell whether I was dreaming or awake? How could I tell, right now, even as I am aware of visually experiencing you as sitting in front of me in the lecture theatre, even as I am aware of aurally experiencing people going past the lecture theatre, even as I am aware of aware of feeling the carpet beneath my feet, the cold hardness of the aluminium marker pen, etc., that all these experiencings are not parts of a particularly vivid, particular coherent dream? Surely I could never tell just be inspecting these experiencings themselves. For by hypothesis these experiencings are identical in kind to what I would have in waking life. They themselves give me no reliable signs by which I can distinguish being awake from being asleep. For all I know, I could be dreaming right now, even as I am pondering the very thought that I am dreaming right now.

What are we to say about this argument? Certainly, if it is valid, then we are in a tricky predicament indeed. The way Descartes has put things, if this argument is valid, then it is logically impossible for me to determine solely from within, simply by examining my current experiences and thoughts, for marks which would tell me that they are not experiences had while dreaming. Or is there something spurious, something confused or muddled in the way Descartes has put things? In this regard, it is crucial to note one thing: through his argument from dreams, Descartes is clearly assuming that when dreaming one can have experiences and thoughts, can form beliefs and opinions, in just the same sense in which one can do these things in waking life. Descartes says, for example, that when asleep he can have all the same experiences as insane people do when they are awake. Then he says that when asleep he can become convinced of, that is, form beliefs about, familiar things in just the same way as he does when awake. Finally, he says that when asleep he can be deluded by thoughts, hence can have thoughts, in just the same sense in which he has thoughts while awake. Indeed, these thoughts can be at least similar to the ones he has in waking life and surely he must also be prepared to say that he can have the very same thoughts, e.g., that Tony Abbott is Prime Minister of Australia. But is this set of assumptions true? Is it true that when I am dreaming there are things flashing past my mind, things of which I am aware as occurring in my mind, in just the same sense in which I am or can be aware of things flashing past or occurring in my mind when I am awake?

I do not want to resolve these issues here. Rather, I want you to ponder them in preparation for tutorials next week. Instead, I wish to push on because even if the argument from dreams should be valid as a way of showing that belief in our having reliable perceptual experience lacks the justification it needs, it still does not do all that Descartes wants. In the paragraph immediately following upon the argument from dreams (pp.19-20) he asks us to imagine that we are asleep and that the beliefs he has previously listed – “that I open my eyes, move my head, extend my hand” – are not true, that indeed “we do not even have such hands nor this whole body.” (p.19) Even so, Descartes says,

the things we see while asleep are like certain familiar images, which can be painted only as copies of things which are real. Therefore at least these general things—eyes, head, hands, the whole body—exist as real things rather than as some kind of imaginary things. For clearly even painters, when they try to imagine the most unusual sirens or satyrs, cannot assign natures to them which are completely new; rather, they simply mix up the parts of different animals. Even if they happen to think up something so novel that nothing like it was ever seen before—so that it is therefore very clearly fictitious and false—nonetheless, at least the colours from which they paint it must surely be real. In a similar way even if these general things—the eyes, head, hands, the whole body and so on—were imaginary, it must still be admitted that at least some other things are real, that they are even more simple and general and that it is from them, as if from true colours, that all those images of things in our thought, both true and false, are constructed. (p.20)

In order to understand this passage, we must appreciate that Descartes wants to show that we can be certain about absolutely no empirical belief. That is, he wants to show that our ordinary, everyday belief in ourselves as having reliable perceptual experience, perceptual experience which mostly yields true belief lacks the justification it needs. From this perspective, there is a flaw in the argument from dreams. The question which the argument puts to us is how we distinguish between experience which occurs as part of a dream and experience which occurs in waking life. But if this is the choice we confront, then one empirical belief is left untouched by Descartes’ argument thus far. For one can only dream if one has once been awake, i.e., has had at at least some point in time real waking experience. Moreover, even if one is having such a weird, imaginative dream that all the entities in one’s dream have never been experienced in one’s waking life, still the various features out of which these dream entities are composed—their heads, their hands, their bodies, or at least the colours, sounds and textures—will have to have been accurately experienced in waking life at some time or other. One cannot tell, of course, when one had such accurate experience in waking life. In particular, one cannot tell whether one is having such accurate experience right now. Nonetheless, if the choice one confronts is between whether one is currently dreaming or whether one is currently awake, then one empirical belief does remain certain for us, namely, that one has had real, veridical experience in waking life of such things as heads, eyes, bodies, or at least the colours and other sensible properties of things.

Clearly, Descartes’ argument would be at least incomplete and possibly even invalid if he cannot show that all empirical belief is uncertain. If any empirical belief, no matter how abstract and general, remains certain, then this threatens his claim to have shown that our general conviction that perceptual experience yields, at least as a rule if not always, true belief is not adequately justified, hence dubitable. So the same thing goes for this third state or phase of Descartes’ reflections as went for the first: Descartes must move beyond it to find a better argument for the claim that our faith in our character as having reliable perceptual experience lacks justification. This brings us to the fourth and final stage of Descartes’ argument in the First Meditation. But before I move to discuss this, I need to point out that there is another consideration which similarly shows that Descartes cannot rest content with the argument from dreams.

Thus far, Descartes has only been discussing empirical beliefs and opinions, the ones we derive through the senses. But perceptual experience and the beliefs we build up upon perceptual experience are just one kind of knowledge and Descartes wants to show the need for us to place all our knowledge claims on hold and determine what basis or justification we have for regarding them not just as knowledge claims but as real knowledge. Now in addition to our empirical beliefs and opinions, we also have logical and mathematical beliefs, for example, the belief that either Tony Abbott is Prime Minister or he is not is necessarily true, or again that two plus three necessarily equals five. It is clear that the dream argument cannot touch these non-empirical kinds of belief and opinion. It cannot show that we are unable truly to justify our claim to know these things. So for this reason, too, Descartes must move beyond the argument from dreams to find some other way of showing that we simply do not have the justification we need for regarding ourselves as genuinely having knowledge, whether of the external empirical world, or of logic or of mathematics.

© Carleton B. Christensen, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014

  1. Clarke himself provides an example of such an interpretation—see pp.xvii-xxi of his Introduction. Of course Descartes wanted to ‘refute’ scepticism in the sense of showing, more or less in passing, what is wrong with it. But he was certainly not worried about scepticism, either in the sense of having, as Popkin wrongly claims, undergone himself a sceptical crisis which in the Meditations he sought to overcome; or even in the sense of seeing scepticism about the external world as a serious philosophical problem. This is shown by the Meditations themselves: in the summary he provides at the beginning, he speaks of how the Sixth Meditation introduces “all the reasons from which the existence of material things may be deduced …” and then goes on to say, “I do not think that these arguments are very useful on account of the fact that they prove what they establish—namely, that there really is a world, that human beings have bodies, and similar things—for no one of sound mind has ever seriously doubted these things. Rather, by considering these arguments, they are recognized as being less sound and clear than those by which we acquire knowledge of our own mind and of God. Thus the latter are the most certain and evident of all the arguments that can be known by human intelligence. My only objective in these Meditations was to prove that one thing.” (p.17) The discussion and refutation of scepticism is merely a device (which Descartes did indeed seize upon because, as Clarke and Popkin rightly point out, scepticism was a favourite topic in the early seventeenth century) through which Descartes seeks to achieve his real objective, which is, in the first instance, precisely the one he indicates here, namely, to show that all knowledge of the external world (in natural philosophy) presupposes knowledge of oneself and of God (in general philosophical and more specifically theological speculation).

  2. The quote from Descartes contained within what Popkin writes comes from the Discourse on Method, AT vi. 32.

  3. By a (legitimate or justified) claim to objective knowledge I mean a claim which one can ground in such a comprehensive, adequate way that any sufficiently rational self-conscious subject could be brought to understand this ground and accept it. In particular, in order to ground the claim, one need not presuppose as true any particular set of beliefs beyond those which all rational subjects may be rationally presumed to possess.

  4. Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662) was the mother of Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia (1618-1680), with whom Descartes corresponded in the last years of his life

  5. Mersenne lived from 1588 till 1648; for more on him see, e.g.,

  6. I.e., what Descartes calls his cogitationes. The term cogitatiocogitationes is the plural—is more literally translatable as ‘thought’ or ‘cognition’ rather than as ‘belief’. It is crucial to note that Descartes uses the term ‘thought’, i.e., cogitatio, very widely, to encompass not just beliefs and mental judgements, but also perceptual experiences of entities and events in the world. I will return to this.

  7. Clarke rightly points out (p.xix) that the very way Descartes formulates this his initial reason for regarding the principle of the reliability of the senses as dubitable suggests that he is here drawing upon the essayist Montaigne (1533-1592), whose writings were common fare amongst the educated elites of Descartes’s time—see So here Descartes is simply rehearsing an argument he has picked up from his intellectual milieu. What is crucial is that Descartes goes on, quite rightly, to reject this argument against the reliability of perceptual experience as a bad one, i.e., an argument which does not really show that we have rational grounds for regarding the principle that the senses are reliable as inadequately grounded, hence dubitable.

  8. So either evolution or God will have to have acted to ensure that most situations are ones in which perceptual mechanisms function well.