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Descartes Method of Doubt


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Method of Doubt

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The Method of Doubt

[The following is included because it is useful for consideration the nature of reality in relation to dreams. This essay has the additional value for the individual attempting to lucid dream using the latter method on the previous page by offering a perspective that is useful for the cultivation of the habit.]


The following will examine Desecrates’ search for knowledge using something called the method of doubt. This issue is important to anyone who cares about what can truly be known. The following will apply several examples to help clarify the method of doubt.

Desecrates decided to explore all he can and cannot know. To begin, Desecrates used as a tool the method of doubt. This method consists of purposely doubting everything that can be possibly doubted, and whatever remains is known with certainty. Desecrates knew, however, that he could not simply take each and every belief of his and examine each separately for reasons of doubt—I doubt any man has such time. Therefore, Desecrates grouped his beliefs by their origin or kinds of beliefs. He called the origin of the beliefs the foundation for the beliefs. If it is found, he claimed, that there is any reason to doubt the foundation, then all of beliefs held by that foundation could not be known as true. In this way, he begins his analysis.

Desecrates first analyzes the senses. What we see and hear must be true, for how can we see and hear falsely? Sometimes we may hear what appears to be the voice of a good friend behind us, turn around, and discover the voice is in fact of a stranger. Have you ever tried one of those stare-at-this-drawing-for-one-minute-and-then-stare-at-a-white-wall-to-see-the-image pictures? The image appears to float on the white wall, yet surely we understand that we see what does not exist.

Also, what about perception and dreams, Desecrates asks. Most of us have had dreams that appeared real while in the dream. I once went to bed, thought I couldn’t sleep, got out of bed, and started doing other things. I no longer felt tired, as was upset because I couldn’t sleep. As it turns out, I really fell asleep immediately, and so I was asleep and dreaming the entire time I thought I got out of bed and was upset because I couldn’t sleep! The point—how was I to know that I was dreaming while I was having the dream? Everything appeared real, and I certainly had no reason to doubt the dream while in it (in fact, I was shocked and confused when I really awoke!).

So how then can we know that we are dreaming while we are dreaming? By what mark, what indicator can we always count on to inform us of our conscious state? There is no such indicator or mark. Therefore, it cannot be known undoubtedly if I am dreaming as I think I write this paper, or if the reader is dreaming as he thinks he reads this paper. It must then follow that all that my senses inform me may be an illusion. Thus, all beliefs founded by the senses cannot be known to be true.

What about obvious “truths,” like the cloud is white? What about logical and rational ideas? Can’t these be known to be true? To challenge this by applying any possible reason for doubt, Desecrates explains the possibility of the evil genius. The evil genius is the doppelganger of the Christian God of goodness and truth. This powerful doppelganger might spend all of his energies and efforts to deceive me in every possible way. He may make what is truly a silver sky look blue to me, a cat seem to be a chicken, or that I have a body when truly I don’t.

Further, the evil genius could give me false thoughts as well. For example, a triangle may truly have four sides. The evil genius may force my thoughts so that I never see the fourth side of the triangle, and never understand what is truly meant by triangularly. This evil genius might even be able to deceive me into believing that I don’t exist!

Now we have deconstructed all foundations of belief and have shown that knowledge of anything is not possible (or have we?). Further examination of Desecrates exploration will involve just the opposite, a construction of knowledge based on what he believes to be the one thing that can be known by any man undoubtedly—cogito, ergo sum. Unfortunately, though he "deconstructive" arguments are forceful, his attempts to reconstruct the world fail. Desecrates method may be compared to a messy chalkboard being erased, cleaned, and prepared for a new and “correct” approach to knowledge.

Marques Schwartz
November 12, 1999
Revised May 13, 2002


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