Descartes Philosophy Essay Paper

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The Final Examination will consist of four half-hour essays, two on Descartes and two on Hume, on essay topics that will be distributed in advance.  In non- writing sections, the course grade will be the better of the quiz-and-recitation grade and the Final Examination grade.  In writing sections, papers and revisions will count for 25% of the course grade; the other 75% of the course grade will be based on the better of the quiz-and-recitation grade and the Final Examination grade.
 

{Two topics from Group A and one topic from Group B will be omitted from the actual final examination.  Otherwise, the final examination will be exactly like this preview.}

INSTRUCTIONS:  Write a 25-30 minute essay on any two topics from Group A (Descartes), and on any two topics from Group B (Hume) below.  Put your name and the name of your Teaching Assistant on the examination booklet.  Also, turn in with your booklet the  3" x 5" card (with your name printed on it) on which you have written, typed, or printed whatever you have thought might help you to write intelligent essays.  Be sure to write legibly and to give examples wherever possible.  Also, be sure to incorporate into each of your essays all the matters mentioned in the paragraph that expands the essay topic.  This material is meant to help you structure your essays; it is not -- nor is it intended to be -- exhaustive, and you should not limit your essays to matters raised in it.

GROUP A (DESCARTES):
D1.  Descartes's 4-Part Method
 In the epiphany he experienced in the stove-heated tent on November 10, 1619, Descartes somehow espied the 4-part method whereby he claimed to have later made remarkable discoveries.  In what does this method consist?  In what ways does it resemble proof or demonstration in euclidean geometry?  Are its rules algorithmic (like the rules of long division), i.e., is creativity unnecessary when applying them?  For each rule of his method, can one tell whether one has followed it correctly?  What are the starting points of the method?  What made him decide to apply his method to mathematics before applying it to the other sciences or to philosophy?  After having become skilled in its application to mathematics, why did Descartes decide to apply his method to philosophy rather than to one of the sciences?

D2.  Descartes's Provisional Moral Code
 Why does Descartes find it necessary to formulate and adopt a provisional moral code?  In what does it consist?  Is it a radical or conservative code?  Is it provincial?  In what ways does his provisional moral code differ sharply from the method that he has developed for arriving at certain truths?  What is "Stoic" about his provisional moral code?  How does he use the old Scholastic principle that "the will naturally tends to desire only what the intellect represents to it as somehow possible" to  justify his second provisional moral maxim?  What occupation does Descartes adopt?  Does he think it to be the best occupation?  Why?

D3.  Descartes's Language and Action Tests
 Explain carefully Descartes's so-called Language Test for discriminating between humans and robots.  What, according to Descartes, makes this test work infallibly?  What kind of certainty does it produce?  Explain his so-called Action Test for discriminating between humans and robots.  Is it an infallible test?  What kind of certainty does it generate?   Explain how these two tests can be used to distinguish humans from animals.  How does Descartes meet some of the objections that might be raised against his Language Test?  How does he appeal to animal failure to justify his Action Test?

D4.  Descartes on Observation and Experimentation
 Why does Descartes think that observations become more important the further one goes in knowledge?  At the outset of inquiry into nature, should one rest content with natural (spontaneous) observations or should one seek more recondite observations via deliberate, contrived experiments?  Why?  What order does Descartes follow with respect to observations?  What problems does he encounter at the third stage, i.e., after first having dealt with God and the first principles or causes of everything that exists, and secondly with the first and most ordinary effects deducible from these causes?  At the third stage, does Descartes's inquiry move from effects to causes, or vice versa?  What holds him back from further progress?  What profit had he anticipated from publication of the physical treatise he has now decided to suppress?

 D5.  Descartes's Method of Doubt in the First Meditation
 Why is Descartes so obsessed with doubt?  Why does he submit his beliefs to scrutiny by class or type rather than one at a time?  What causes him to doubt his sense-based beliefs?  To doubt beliefs such as that he has a head and hands?  To doubt his mathematical beliefs?  What is the Evil Demon hypothesis?  What function does it serve?  Is there any way for Descartes to frustrate the Evil Demon?  Formulate Descartes's dream hypothesis.  Why does he advance it?  Which of his beliefs does it call into doubt?  Which ones does it leave intact?  Is he able to reject the dream hypothesis in this Meditation?

D6.  "Cogito ergo sum"  ("je pense donc je suis") in the Second Meditation
 What is the Cogito, a proposition or an argument or a bit of both?  How does Descartes derive it?  What does he mean by thinking?  How certain is Descartes that he is thinking?  On what grounds?  How certain is he that he exists?  On what grounds?  How certain or indubitable is the Cogito itself?  What does the Cogito tell Descartes about his own nature?

D7.  Descartes's nature as a thinking thing in the Second Meditation
 Why does Descartes reject the traditional answer "rational animal" to the question what his nature is, i.e., what kind of thing he is?   What is his own answer to this question?  Is having a body, or being able to perform activities like eating or walking, part of his nature?  Why or why not?  What does he mean by thinking?  Does he distinguish seeing a horse from seeming to see the horse?  Why or why not?  Is it possible that a body can think?  Is it possible that Descartes is really a body?  Which is more easily and better known: a piece of wax or one's own mind?  Why?

 D8.  The Third Meditation Argument for the Existence of God
 What at the beginning of this Meditation does Descartes know with certainty to exist?  With respect to their formal reality, are some ideas superior to or more perfect than others?  With respect to their objective reality?  What causal principle does Descartes invoke to escape from solipsism?  How does it apply to ideas?  What kind of idea will enable him to escape solipsism?  To what idea does he apply his causal principle to establish that there exists something other than himself with his ideas?  How does his argument to the existence of God go?  Would this argument still go through if he had applied the causal principle to his idea of himself or to his idea of an angel (a purely spiritual but finite substance)?  Is his idea of an infinite substance a negative or a positive idea?  Why does it matter?  Could his idea of God be materially false?  Why does it matter?

D9.  Error, intellect, and will in the Fourth Meditation
 Would God be a malicious deceiver if He placed in me a cognitive faculty that makes mistakes or errors when I use it properly?  Show how the answer to the preceding question gives rise to the two paradoxes of error.  Formulate Descartes's account of error.  Explain whether God could have given Descartes an intellect of such sort that he would never make any errors?  In what sense is Descartes's will equal to God's?  In what sense is it inferior to God's?  Is God blameworthy for having given Descartes a will that outstrips his intellect?  What can Descartes himself do to escape error?  How does he know that this escape from error really works?  If he nonetheless falls into error, does it reflect badly on God?}

D10.  Descartes's ontological argument in the Fifth Meditation
 Where does Descartes get the idea for his ontological argument?  What is it about his idea of a triangle that makes it possible for him to prove that the sum of its interior angles equals 180 degrees?  How does the idea of a unicorn differ from the idea of a triangle?  How cogent are mathematical demonstrations (proofs)?  Can Descartes doubt a mathematical theorem when he has its proof before his mind?  Formulate his ontological proof of the existence of God.  How cogent is it?  Why then does Descartes hesitate to accept its conclusion as an indubitable and certain truth?  Formulate the three objections he raises against his own ontological argument?  How does he answer these objections?  Does he now give his full assent to his ontological argument and its conclusion?}

D11.  Descartes's Sixth Meditation argument to an external world
 What causal principle and what conceptual premiss does Descartes invoke to prove that bodies can exist?  Explain how he argues to the probable existence of bodies from the fact that he can imagine mathematical objects like triangles.  On the basis of what causal principle does Descartes think that his sense ideas (sensations and sense perceptions) must come from one of four sources: himself, bodies, God, or some being intermediate in perfection between bodies and God?  How does Descartes rule out himself as the source of his sense ideas?  Why would God be a malicious deceiver if the source of Descartes's sense ideas was either God Himself or some being intermediate between bodies and God?  What permits Descartes now to conclude that he really does have a body and that material bodies are the sources of his adventitious sense ideas?

 D12. Good-tasting poison, dropsical thirst, and God's veracity in the Sixth Meditation
 Distinguish accidental from systematic or intrinsic error?  Is the fact that someone desires to eat a good-tasting but poisoned soup an example of accidental or systematic error?  Does it convict God of malicious deception?  Why or why not?  Is the illness-induced thirst of someone who suffers from dropsy an accidental or a systematic error?  If systematic, does it convict God of malicious deception?  Why or why not?

GROUP B (HUME):
H1.  Simple Idea as Copies of Impressions
What does Hume mean by a perception of the mind?  Into what classes does he divide them?  On what basis?  Is this bipartite classification mutually exclusive?  Jointly exhaustive?  What is an impression?  A simple idea?  A complex idea?  Give examples.  What is inner sense?  Outer sense?  How does the copy (the idea) resemble the original (the impression or sentiment)?  How do they differ?  What are Hume's evidence and arguments for the thesis that simple ideas are copies of impressions?  Does he intend this thesis to be exceptionless, i.e., general or universal?  How then might opponents challenge the thesis?  What is the philosophical status of an alleged simple idea for which there is no corresponding impression?  What is Hume's Microscope and how does this thesis give rise to it?  What is the relevance of the case of the missing shade of blue?  What is Hume's final disposition of this case?

H2.  Hume's Fork
Formulate Hume's Fork.  Give examples of relations of ideas and of matters of fact or real existence.  What is the basis of Hume's Fork?  Does it divide propositions into mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive classes?  Which propositions are discoverable a priori?  Which are discoverable a posteriori?  Which contradictories are conceivable?  Which propositions take us beyond the immediate deliverances of sense and of memory?  When do people think they have insight into causal relationships?  When do they recognize that they lack such insight?  What allegedly follows from the observation that cause and effect are distinct events?  What is the thought experiment about Adam supposed to show?  To what is human reason limited in causal matters?

H3.  No Rational Justification of Causal Reasoning
 What is the nature of all reasoning concerning matters of fact and real existence?  What is the foundation of all our reasonings and conclusions concerning cause-and-effect?  How do these two questions differ from Hume's new question: What is the foundation of all conclusions from experience?  Formulate Hume's negative answer to this new question.  What can past experience tell us about which objects follow upon which objects?  On what basis do we extrapolate from past experience to the future and to unobserved cases?  Is the link between past and future intuitive?  Demonstrative?  Do we appeal to a principle of the uniformity of nature in making such extrapolations?  Can we justify this appeal in a noncircular fashion?  Why don't these considerations show only that Hume isn't clever enough to find a justification for the aforesaid extrapolation?

H4.  Hume's Microscope
 Given Hume's theory of ideas as copies of impressions, what is the obvious way or method to eliminate the obscurity and ambiguity of ideas in the moral sciences?  What does Hume take definition to be?  Why does definition serve to clarify and disambiguate only complex ideas?  How, then, does one clarify and disambiguate simple ideas that are obscure or ambiguous?  To what is Hume referring when he speaks of a new microscope or species of optics, by which, in the moral sciences, the most minute, and most simple ideas may be so enlarged as to fall readily under our apprehension?   To which idea, as a test case of philosophical analysis, does Hume apply his new microscope?  Why did he choose to investigate this particular idea?  Why does he look for the impression of which this idea is supposedly a copy, rather than define it by enumerating its component simple ideas?

H5.  Necessary Connection
 Does Hume think that the idea of necessary connection is a copy of an impression produced by single instances of physical objects or events that stand in a causal relation?  Why not?  Does it arise from reflection on the operations of the mind?  In particular, does it arise from the control of, or influence over, the body by the will?  What makes Hume think that we come to know the influence of the will over the body only through experience?  Does the idea of necessary connection arise, then, from an impression produced or felt when the mind or will operates on ideas or other mental contents, as when we will to call up ideas or propositions?  What makes Hume think that we learn the influence of will over thoughts and other mental contents only from experience?  What impression does Hume finally identify as the original sentiment of which the idea of necessary connection is a copy?  Is necessary connection, then, a matter of projecting something mental onto the world?  By finding an impression corresponding to the idea, has Hume shown that necessary connection is a philosophically legitimate idea?

H6.  Hume's Touchstone
          Does it enhance the credentials of a theory about the human mind when one finds that it is needed to explain operations of animal minds?  What is Hume's Touchstone?  Why does he proceed to apply this touchstone to his theory of experimental reasoning (his theory of how we reason about matters of fact and real existence)?  Does he think that animals, like men, learn many things from experience?  Do they expect that like effects will follow like causes?  Are these inferences or expectations based on past experience?  To what evidence for these claims does Hume point?  Can one account for these animal inferences or expectations as instances of reasoning or argument that invokes some sort of  uniformity of nature principle?  Do human children make causal inferences in this way?  Why not?  Is animal belief to be explained in the same way Hume explained human belief?  Why didn't Nature entrust such important operations as causal inferences to reasoning and argumentation rather than to habit or custom?

H7.  A Priori Knowledge of Matters of Fact
          Do animals acquire all their knowledge of matters of fact and real existence from sense perception and causal reasoning?  If not, what is this knowledge like and where do they get it?  What is INSTINCT?  Is causal reasoning itself an instinct?  Do animals have a priori knowledge of matters of fact and real existence?  If so, how can this be reconciled with Hume's system?  Do humans have a priori knowledge of matters of fact and real existence?  If so, where and how do they get it?  If not, are animals cognitively better endowed than humans?

H8.  The Nature of Belief
           What does Hume take belief in a proposition to be?  Does he offer a definition of belief?  Why not?  How does he describe the feeling or sentiment of belief?  Would someone who was incapable of feeling have any beliefs?  Which principle of association of ideas is closely tied to belief?  In what way is it tied?  Do resemblance and contiguity by themselves ever give rise to belief?  Why not?

H9. Reliability of Human Testimony and Miracles
 How common, useful, and necessary is reasoning based on human testimony?  On what does such reasoning depend?  On past experience of human veracity and of the conformity of events to reports about them?  On the relation of cause and effect?  When does the evidence of human testimony have the status of probability?  When does it become proof?  What factors will enhance the force of testimony?  What factors will diminish it?  Is the improbability of the reported event one of these diminishing factors?  What does Hume mean by a miracle?  If the reported event is miraculous, is this circumstance direct and full proof against its occurrence?  What if the testimony to the miracle is so solid that its falsity would be miraculous, or even more miraculous than the wondrous event?  What should a rational person conclude if he or she finds a miracle supported by absolutely incontrovertible testimony?  Is there ever such testimony for religious miracles?  Why or why not?

The third quiz will count for 30% of the quiz-and-recitation grade (the first quiz and recitation section participation will each count for 20%, the second quiz for 30%).  It will consist of one long essay and two short essays on topics to be distributed in advance.

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ESSAY TOPICS FOR 3RD QUIZ

Long Essay Topics:

L1.  Simple Idea as Copies of Impressions
     What does Hume mean by a perception of the mind?  Into what classes does he divide them?  On what basis?  Is this bipartite classification mutually exclusive?  Jointly exhaustive?  What is an impression?  A simple idea?  A complex idea?  Give examples.  What is inner sense?  Outer sense?  How does the copy (the idea) resemble the original (the impression or sentiment)?  How do they differ?  What are Hume's evidence and arguments for the thesis that simple ideas are copies of impressions?  Does he intend this thesis to be exceptionless, i.e., general or universal?  How then might opponents challenge
the thesis?  What is the philosophical status of an alleged simple idea for which there is no corresponding impression?  What is Hume's Microscope and how does this thesis give rise to it?  What is the relevance of the case of the missing  shade of blue?  What is Hume's final disposition of this case?

L2.  Hume's Fork
     Formulate Hume's Fork.  Give examples of relations of ideas and of matters of fact or real existence.  What is the basis of Hume's Fork?  Does it divide propositions into mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive classes? Which propositions are discoverable a priori?  Which are discoverable a posteriori?  Which contradictories are conceivable?  Which propositions take
us beyond the immediate deliverances of sense and of memory?  When do people think they have insight into causal  relationships?  When do they recognize that they lack such insight?  What allegedly follows from the observation that cause
and effect are distinct events?  What is the thought experiment about Adam supposed to show?  To what is human reason limited in causal matters?

L3.  No Rational Justification of Causal Reasoning
     What is the nature of all reasoning concerning matters of fact and real existence?  What is the foundation of all our  reasonings and conclusions concerning cause-and-effect?  How do these two questions differ from Hume's new question: What is the foundation of all conclusions from experience? Formulate Hume's negative answer to this new question.  What can past
experience tell us about which objects follow upon which objects?  On what basis do we extrapolate from past experience to the future and to unobserved cases?  Is the link between past and future intuitive?  Demonstrative?  Do we appeal to a principle of the uniformity of nature in making such extrapolations? Can we justify this appeal in a noncircular fashion?  Why don't these
considerations show only that Hume isn't clever enough to find a justification for the aforesaid extrapolation?

L4.  Single versus Multiple Cases
    Can single cases of the conjunction of two objects or events ever give rise to the idea of cause-and-effect?  Explain.  How does a multiplicity of cases give rise to this idea?  What does this show about the role of reason or the understanding in generating the idea of cause-and-effect?  Could the understanding by itself ever get beyond what is immediately present to the
senses or to memory?  If reason does not prompt us to draw conclusions from experience, i.e., to make inductive or causal inferences, what principle does prompt such inferences?   What is custom?  Is it a type of instinct?   How does the invocation of custom (habit) remove the difficulty about multiple-case versus single-case causal inferences?  Without custom, what would the range of human knowledge be?  Can we, by reasoning about it, resist custom (habit) when it prompts us to infer one thing from another thing that is present to our senses or memory when we have found the two things constantly conjoined in our  experience?  Is it custom or will, then, that determines what we believe about matters of fact?  Was Descartes wrong to think that we have it always within our power to suspend judgment on any proposition that we do not clearly and distinctly perceive to be true?

L5.  Hume's Microscope
    Given Hume's theory of ideas as copies of impressions, what is the obvious way or method to eliminate the obscurity and ambiguity of ideas in the moral sciences?  What does Hume take definition to be?  Why does definition serve to clarify and disambiguate only complex ideas?  How, then, does one clarify and disambiguate simple ideas that are obscure or ambiguous?  To what is Hume referring when he speaks of a new microscope or species of optics, by which, in the moral sciences, the most minute, and most simple ideas may be so enlarged as to fall readily under our apprehension?   To which idea, as a test
case of philosophical analysis, does Hume apply his new microscope?  Why did he choose to investigate this particular idea?  Why does he look for the impression of which this idea is supposedly a copy, rather than define it by enumerating its component simple ideas?

L6.  Necessary Connection
    Does Hume think that the idea of necessary connection is a copy of an impression produced by single instances of physical objects or events that stand in a causal relation?  Why not?  Does it arise from reflection on the operations of the mind?  In particular, does it arise from the control of, or influence over, the body by the will?  What makes Hume think that we come to know the influence of the will over the body only through experience?  Does the idea of necessary connection arise, then, from an impression produced or felt when the mind or will operates on ideas or other mental contents, as when we will to call up ideas or propositions?  What makes Hume think that we learn the influence of will over thoughts and other mental contents only from experience?  What impression does Hume finally identify as the original sentiment of which the idea of necessary  connection is a copy?  Is necessary connection, then, a matter of projecting something mental onto the world?  By finding an impression corresponding to the idea, has Hume shown that necessary connection is a philosophically legitimate idea?

L7.  Hume's Touchstone
          Does it enhance the credentials of a theory about the human mind when one finds that it is needed to explain operations of animal minds?  What is Hume's Touchstone?  Why does he proceed to apply this touchstone to his theory of experimental reasoning (his theory of how we reason about matters of fact and real existence)?  Does he think that animals, like men, learn many things from experience?  Do they expect that like effects will follow like causes?  Are these inferences or expectations based on past experience?  To what evidence for these claims does Hume point?  Can one account for these animal inferences or expectations as instances of reasoning or argument that invokes some sort of  uniformity of nature principle?  Do human
children make causal inferences in this way?  Why not?  Is animal belief to be explained in the same way Hume explained human belief?  Why didn't Nature entrust such important operations as causal inferences to reasoning and argumentation  rather
than to habit or custom?

L8.  A Priori Knowledge of Matters of Fact
          Do animals acquire all their knowledge of matters of fact and real existence from sense perception and causal reasoning?  If not, what is this knowledge like and where do they get it?  What is INSTINCT?  Is causal reasoning itself an instinct?  Do animals have a priori knowledge of matters of fact and real existence?  If so, how can this be reconciled with Hume's system? Do humans have a priori knowledge of matters of fact and real existence?  If so, where and how do they get it?  If not, are animals cognitively better endowed than humans?
 
 



 

S1.  Mental Geography
    Why does Hume attach considerable importance to taxonomy in the study of mind when he fully realizes that taxonomy has little value in the natural sciences?  What does he mean by the moral sciences?  Does he expect them to advance beyond the taxonomic stage?  How does he envision progress in these sciences?  Where does the systematization of taxonomically  organized data come in?  Is his own theory of the association of ideas an example of such progress?

S2.  The Missing Shade of Blue
    Formulate this thought experiment.  What does Hume think it shows?  Is it a counterexample to his thesis that simple ideas are copies of impressions of sense?  How might Hume have dismissed this thought experiment as unprobative?  Why didn't he do this?  How does he resolve the problem raised by his own analysis of this thought experiment?

S3.  The Association of Ideas
    What governs the flow of ideas in our minds?  Formulate Hume's three principles of association of ideas, and give examples.  Does Hume believe these three principles are complete?  In what sense?  On what grounds?  Why is the principle of Cause & Effect so important?  How does it differ from the other two principles?  How is it related to belief?

S4.  Does Scepticism Paralyze?
    Why do religion and some types of philosophy corrupt morals, detract from the enjoyment of life, and make one lazy and presumptuous?  Does Hume's brand of scepticism do these things?  Why or why not?  Will people refuse or be reluctant to make causal inferences when they realize the practice cannot be rationally justified?  Why or why not?  Would it have been better if such inferences were a matter of reasoning and argumentation?  Why or why not?

S5.  The Nature of Belief
           What does Hume take belief in a proposition to be?  Does he offer a definition of belief?  Why not?  How does he describe the feeling or sentiment of belief?  Would someone who was incapable of feeling have any beliefs?  Which principle of association of ideas is closely tied to belief?  In what way is it tied? Do resemblance and contiguity by themselves ever give rise to belief?  Why not?

S6.  Pre-established Harmony between the Courses of Nature and Ideas
    Why does Hume speak of a certain pre-established harmony between the course of Nature and the course of our ideas?  In what does it consist?  Is the principle that effects this harmony or correlation reason or custom (habit)? Explain.  Why is it advantageous to the human organism that it be custom rather than reason that establishes this correspondence?

S7.  Definitions of Cause
    Hume advances two definitions of cause, namely, (a) an object, followed by another, and where all the objects similar to the first are followed by objects similar to the second, and (b) an object followed by another, and whose appearance always conveys the thought to that other.  Are these two definitions equivalent?  To which experience does each definition orrespond?  Is the following restatement by Hume of definition (a) really equivalent to definition (a), namely: an object followed by another where, if the first object had not been, the second never had existed?  If not, what are we to make of this restatement of  definition (a)?

S8.  Reliability of Human Testimony
     How common, useful, and necessary is reasoning based on human testimony?  On what does such reasoning depend?  On past experience of human veracity and of the conformity of events to reports about them?  On the relation of cause and effect?  When does the evidence of human testimony have the status of probability?  When does it become proof?  What factors will enhance the force of testimony?  What factors will diminish it?  Is the improbability of the reported event one of these  diminishing factors?

S9.  Miracles
     What does Hume mean by a miracle?  If the reported event is miraculous, is this circumstance direct and full proof against its occurrence?  What if the testimony to the miracle is so solid that its falsity would be miraculous, or even more miraculous than the wondrous event?  What should a rational person conclude if he or she finds a miracle supported by absolutely incontrovertible testimony?  Is there ever such testimony for religious miracles?  Why or why not?
 
 

Long (25 minutes) essay topics (The student must select one topic):

  L1.  Descartes's Method of Doubt in the First Meditation

     {Why is Descartes so obsessed with doubt?  Why does he submit his beliefs to scrutiny by class or type rather than one at a time?  What causes him to doubt his sense-based beliefs?  To doubt beliefs such as that he has a head and hands?  To doubt his mathematical beliefs?  What is the Evil Demon hypothesis? What function does it serve?  Is there any way for Descartes to frustrate the Evil Demon?}

 L2.  "My whole nature is to be a thinking thing" in the Second Meditation

          {Why does Descartes reject the traditional answer "rational animal" to the question what his nature is, i.e., what kind of thing he is?   What is his own answer to this question?  Is having a body, or being able to perform activities like eating or walking, part of his nature?  Why or why not?  What does he mean by thinking?  Does he distinguish seeing a horse from seeming to see the horse?  Why or why not?  Is it possible that a body can think?  Is it possible that Descartes is really a body?  Which is more easily and better known: a piece of wax or one's own mind?  Why?}
 

 L3.  The Third Meditation Argument for the Existence of God

     {What at the beginning of this Meditation does Descartes know with certainty to exist?  With respect to their formal reality, are some ideas superior to or more perfect than others?  With respect to their objective reality?  What causal principle does Descartes invoke to escape from solipsism?  How does it apply to ideas?  What kind of idea will enable him to
escape solipsism?  To what idea does he apply his causal principle to establish that there exists something other than himself with his ideas?  How does his argument to the existence of God go?  Would this argument still go through if he had applied the causal principle to his idea of himself or to his idea of an angel (a purely spiritual finite substance)?  Is his idea of an infinite substance a negative or a positive idea?  Why does it matter?  Could his idea of God be materially false?  Why does it matter?}

L4.  Error, the intellect, and the will in the Fourth Meditation

     {Would God be a malicious deceiver if He placed in me a cognitive faculty that makes mistakes or errors even when I use it properly?  Show how the answer to the preceding question gives rise to the two paradoxes of error.  Formulate Descartes's account of error.  Explain whether God could have given Descartes an intellect of such sort that he would never make any rors?  In what sense is Descartes's will equal to God's?  In what sense is it inferior?  Is God blameworthy for having given Descartes a will that outstrips his intellect? What can Descartes himself do to escape error?  How does he know that this
escape from error really works?  If he nonetheless falls into error, does it reflect badly on God?}

 L5.  Descartes's ontological argument in the Fifth Meditation

     {Where does Descartes get the idea for his ontological argument?  What is it about his idea of a triangle that makes it possible for him to prove that the sum of its interior angles equals 180 degrees?  How does the idea of a unicorn differ from the idea of a triangle?  How cogent are mathematical demonstrations (proofs)?  Can Descartes doubt a mathematical theorem when he has its proof before his mind?  Formulate his ontological proof of the existence of God.  How cogent is it?  Why then does Descartes hesitate to accept its conclusion as an indubitable and certain truth?  Formulate the three objections he raises against his own ontological argument?  How does he answer these objections?  Does he now give his full assent to his  ontological argument and its conclusion?}

 L6.  Descartes's Sixth Meditation argument to an external world

     {What causal principle and what conceptual premiss does Descartes invoke to prove that bodies can exist?  Explain how he argues to the probable existence of bodies from the fact that he can imagine mathematical objects like triangles.  On the basis of what causal principle does Descartes think that his sense ideas (sensations and sense perceptions) must come from one of
these four sources: himself, bodies, God, or some being intermediate in perfection between bodies and God?  How does Descartes rule out himself as the source of his sense ideas.  Why would God be a malicious deceiver if the source of Descartes's sense ideas was either God Himself or some being intermediate between bodies and God?  What permits  Descartes now to conclude that he really does have a body and that material bodies are the sources of his adventitious sense ideas?}
 

Short (12 minutes each) essay topics (The student must select two of the topics below, subject to the following restriction: the short-essay topics and the long-essay topic must all pertain to different Meditations.  For example, you may choose only one of L1, S1, and S2; similarly, you may choose only one of L2, S3, and S4; and so on.}

     S1.  The dream argument in the First Meditation
     {Formulate Descartes's dream hypothesis.  Why does he advance it?  Which of his beliefs does it call into doubt?  Which ones does it leave intact?  Is he able to reject the dream hypothesis in this Meditation?}

     S2.  The Evil Demon hypothesis in the First Meditation
          {What is the Evil Demon hypothesis?  What purpose or purposes does it serve, i.e., why does Descartes introduce it?  If he  doesn't believe an Evil Demon is trying to trick him, why does he pretend that one is?  Which of Descartes's beliefs does the Evil Demon hypothesis call into doubt?  Can he avoid being deceived by the Evil Demon?  If so, how?}

S3.  "Cogito ergo sum"  ("je pense donc je suis") in the Second Meditation
          {What is the Cogito, a proposition or an argument or a bit of both? How does Descartes derive it?  How certain is he that he is thinking?  How certain or indubitable is the Cogito?  How certain is Descartes that he exists?}

     S4.  The piece of wax example from the Second Meditation
          {Explain how Descartes uses his piece of wax example to show that mind is both better known and more easily known than body.}

     S5.  Metaphysical doubt in the Third Meditation
          {What is metaphysical doubt?  How does it arise?  Does it make Descartes question the Cogito?  To which of his beliefs does it apply?  Is it a serious doubt for him?  Why does he want to eliminate it?  How does he think he can eliminate it?}

 S6.  Descartes's two ideas of the sun in the Third Meditation
          {What are Descartes's two ideas of the sun?  Where do they appear to come from?  If an external object is the source of one of his ideas, must the idea resemble or be similar to the object?  What is the philosophical lesson of his two ideas of the sun?}

     S7.  First Paradox of Error in the Fourth Meditation
          {What are the premisses and conclusion of Descartes's argument that Professor Massey calls the First Paradox of Error?  Is it a satisfactory response to this argument to say that Descartes makes errors because he is an imperfect knower suspended between being and non-being?  Why or why not? Would this response be satisfactory if error were a negation  nstead of a privation?  Why or why not?}

 S8.  Second Paradox of Error in the Fourth Meditation
          {What are the premisses and conclusion of Descartes's argument that Professor Massey calls the Second Paradox of Error?  What is paradoxical about the conclusion?  How in brief does Descartes resolve the paradox?  Does he invoke final causes in this resolution?}

     S9.  Fifth Meditation memory-of-clear-and-distinct-ideas principle
          {What is the clear-and-distinct ideas principle?  What is the principle that Professor Massey calls the memory-of-clear-and-distinct-ideas principle?  Does the latter principle underwrite the former one?  What ultimately underwrites the latter principle?  What is the point or purpose of the latter principle, i.e., why does Descartes invoke it?}

     S10. The real distinction between mind and body in the Sixth Meditation
          {What is the real distinction between mind and body?  Formulate Descartes's first argument for this distinction?}
 

     S11. Good-tasting poison, dropsical thirst, and God's veracity in the Sixth Meditation
          {Distinguish accidental from systematic or intrinsic error?  Is the fact that someone desires to eat a good-tasting but poisoned soup an example of accidental or systematic error?  Does it convict God of malicious deception? Why or why not?  Is the illness-induced thirst of someone who suffers from dropsy an accidental or a systematic error?  If systematic, does it convict God of malicious deception?  Why or why not?}

#########################################################################################
 

    DESCARTES'S SIXTH MEDITATION ARGUMENT TO AN
             EXTERNAL WORLD {Long Essay Topic}

1. By invoking the causal principle that God can bring about whatever Descartes can clearly and distinctly conceive in such a way that what is brought about conforms exactly to his conception of it, Descartes is able to conclude that the clarity and distinctness of his geometrical ideas shows that material bodies (real extension) can exist. It remains, however, an open question
whether they do exist.
 

2. Imagination and understanding are different activities. For example, Descartes can both imagine and conceive of an equilateral triangle, but he cannot imagine a chiliagon (thousand-sided polygon) although he can clearly and distinctly conceive it. Because Descartes can clearly and distinctly conceive of himself existing as a mind without the faculty of imagination,  nlyunderstanding belongs to him essentially.
 

3. Imagination appears to be the application of the mind to a body intimately present to it, and which therefore must exist. From the fact that there is no other account of imagination as good as the one just given, Descartes concludes that it's probable that, when he imagines something, his mind is intimately present to an actually existing body. Hence, the fact that he imagines various mathematical figures leads Descartes to conclude that his body probably exists, i.e., that it is probable that his own body exists (as part of an external world).
 

4. Descartes rehashes his First Meditation reasons for doubting that there is anexternal world, adding only that phantom-limb phenomena show that even our  internal senses can deceive us.
 

5. Because he is nothing but a mind (a thinking thing really distinct from his body), Descartes takes it for granted that he cannot himself be the source of his adventitious sense ideas (e.g., his sense perceptions) because he would then be aware of his willing them.
 

6. Invoking the causal principle that there must be at least as much formal reality in the cause of an idea as there is objective reality in the idea itself, Descartes concludes that his sense ideas (sense perceptions and sensations) must come from bodies, from God, or from some being intermediate in perfection between bodies and God.
 

7. Invoking our strong inclination to attribute many of our sensations and sense perceptions to the material bodies from which they appear to come, Descartes concludes that God would be a malicious deceiver if the source of these sensations and ideas were either God Himself or some intermediate creature more perfect than bodies, because we would then have no way to correct our strong propensity to attribute these sensations and perceptions to material bodies existing in an external world.
 

8. Since God is not a deceiver, Descartes concludes that he really does have a body and that material bodies are the actual sources of our sensations and sense perceptions, i.e., that his body exists (as part of an external world).

####################################################################################

THE REAL DISTINCTION BETWEEN MIND AND BODY IN THE
            SIXTH MEDITATION {Short Essay Topic}
 

A. Descartes's First Argument for the Real Distinction of Mind and Body
 

1. What does Descartes mean when he says that x is really distinct from y?
 

a. That God can bring it about that x exists separately from y.

b. That x can exist apart and independently from y.
 
 

2. What causal principle does Descartes employ to establish the real distinction of mind and body?
 

Causal Principle: God can bring about whatever Descartes can clearly and distinctly conceive in such a way that what is brought about conforms exactly to his conception of it.

Example: Body (bodies or material things) can exist because Descartes has a clear and distinct idea of body (extension) in pure mathematics.
 

3. What conceptual premiss does Descartes argue from?

Conceptual Premiss: That he has a clear and distinct conception of himself as a mind (thinking substance) without a body, and of his body apart from himself as mind. That is, he can clearly and distinctly conceive of himself as a mind existing without a body, and of his body existing apart from himself as mind. (Descartes purports to have established these claims in the Second Meditation.)
 

4. How does the argument go?

Conceptual Premiss: Descartes has a clear and distinct conception of himself as a mind (thinking substance) without a body, and of his body apart from himself as mind. That is, he can clearly and distinctly conceive of himself as a mind existing without a body, and of his body existing apart from himself as mind.

Causal Premiss: God can bring about whatever Descartes can clearly and distinctly conceive in such a way that what is brought about conforms exactly to his conception of it.

First Conclusion: God can bring it about that Descartes is himself a mind without a body, and also bring it about that his body exists apart from him as a mind.

Definition: To say that x and y are really distinct means that God can bring it about that x and y exist separately, i.e., God can bring it about that x and y exist apart and independently.

Final Conclusion: Descartes's mind and body are really distinct.
 
 

B. Descartes's Second Argument for the Real Distinction of Mind and Body
 

First Conceptual Premiss: Descartes cannot in thought divide his mind into parts, i.e., he cannot conceive of his mind as divisible.

Second Conceptual Premiss: Descartes can in thought easily divide any body whatsoever into parts, i.e., he can clearly and distinctly conceive of any body as divisible.

Causal Premiss: What is divisible is really distinct from what is indivisible.

Conclusion: Descartes's mind is really distinct from his body.

#################################################################################################

GOOD-TASTING POISON, DROPSICAL THIRST, AND GOD'S VERACITY IN THE
SIXTH MEDITATION  {Short Essay Topic}

1.  What does Descartes say that his nature, in the sense of the totality of things conferred on him by God, teaches him?  What does it appear to teach him that it really does not teach him?

     Descartes says that his nature in the aforesaid sense teaches him that he has a body; that when he feels pain there is something wrong with his body; that when he is thirsty, his body needs a drink; that his mind is not present to his body as a sailor in his ship but rather that his mind is so intimately joined or fused with his body that they form a composite unit; that other bodies exist in the vicinity of his body; and that some of these other bodies should be sought out or pursued, whereas others of them should be avoided.   Descartes thinks that his nature in the aforesaid sense also appears to teach him such things as that there is absolutely nothing in a empty space (in a vacuum); that the heat or color in a body exactly resembles his ideas of the
heat and color; and that physical objects have the size and shape which they present to his senses.  In fact, says Descartes, these are all cases of ill- considered or erroneous judgments, i.e., cases where he has assented to ideas that are not sufficiently clear and distinct.
 

2.  What does Descartes think that his nature, in the sense of the composite of his mind and body, teaches him?  What does it appear to teach him that it really does not teach him?

     Descartes thinks that his nature, considered as the composite of his mind and body, teaches him to avoid things that induce pain and to pursue things that induce pleasure.  That is to say, the natural purpose or function of his sensations and sense  erceptions is to inform him about what is beneficial and what is injurious to the composite of mind and body.  For example, his nature (as the composite of mind and body) teaches him that he should drink when he is thirsty (because his body then needs liquid), should eat when he is hungry (because his body then needs food), and should pull back his hand when it touches something that makes him feel pain (because the thing touched is harming his hand).      What nature as the composite of mind and body does not teach him, saysDescartes, is anything about the properties of objects external to him.  Truth about external objects is determined by the mind alone, not by the composite of mind and body.

3.  When someone desires to eat a sweet-smelling and sweet-tasting poison, doesn't his nature (as the composite of mind and body) make a grave error about what is beneficial to the composite?  If so, doesn't this convict the Creator of malicious deception?

     The person's nature (as the composite of mind and body) teaches him to pursue the good taste, not the poison.  The fortunate fact that what tastes good is in this case also poisonous shows only that the person's nature is not omniscient; it does not show that his nature misled him, but only that it has made an accidental mistake.      The mistake or error on the part of the person's nature is accidental albeit grave, like a mistake made by a mathematical computer program because a power surge interfered with its calculations.  The mistake or error is not systematic or intrinsic, like the mistakes made by a mathematical program that has some bugs in it.  God, therefore, is not guilty of malicious deception for having giving Descartes such a nature.

4.  If God had given Descartes a nature (as a composite of mind and body) that makes systematic or intrinsic mistakes, God would be guilty of malicious deception.  But when Descartes experiences thirst when suffering from dropsy, his nature (the composite of his mind and body) is instructing him to drink because his body needs more liquid, which is simply false.  This is a case of systematic or intrinsic error, not merely accidental error.  God, therefore, is a malicious deceiver.

     Descartes concedes that if God had given him a nature that makes systematic or intrinsic mistakes, God would indeed be a malicious deceiver -- but only if God could have done better.  It's true that from time to time his nature (as the composite of mind and body) does mislead him systematically or intrinsically, e.g., when thirst prompts him to drink when he is suffering
from dropsy, because what his nature then impels him to do is to consume liquid, which is in fact bad for his body in the circumstances.  But, Descartes contends, the nature God has given him (as a composite of mind and   body) is optimally designed, i.e., it is the best design possible for a creature composed of mind and body.  But no one should be blamed for doing
what is best, so God is not blameworthy for having given Descartes a nature that occasionally makes intrinsic mistakes.  God, therefore, is not a malicious deceiver.

5.  What is Descartes's argument for his claim that his nature (as a composite of mind and body) is optimally designed?

     The argument runs thus:  The mind is immediately affected by only one part of the body, namely, the brain (or perhaps one particular part of the brain, viz., the pineal gland).  A state [of motion] of the brain (or of the pineal gland) sends exactly the same signals to the mind, irrespective of the states of other organs or other parts of the body.  The body is a mechanical system, so when a part A is moved by a part D by means of  intermediate parts C and B, part A would be moved exactly the same way if part D didn't move at all while parts C and B moved as before.  For example, stubbing the big toe of your left foot on a rock causes motions in the toe and foot that cause motions in the   nerves that ultimately cause a motion in the brain that affects the mind in such a way that you experience pain in your left foot, so the same motions in the nerves near your brain would cause the same brain state and thus occasion the same mental experience of pain in your left foot even if your left foot as resting comfortably on a footstool or even if your left foot had been amputated.  Experience shows that the correlation of brain
states (pineal gland states) and mental states has the following property: Of all possible mental states, each brain state occasions that particular mental state that would most benefit the mind-body composite in most of life's circumstances.  That is, for each brain state, the correlation of any other mind state with it would result in an arrangement less beneficial overall to the mind-body composite.  Thus, although the correlation of the feeling of thirst with the brain state caused by dryness of the mouth will casionally result in a desire to drink in circumstances where drinking is harmful to the body, e.g., as in a person with dropsy, in most cases where the brain is in the aforesaid state, drinking will be beneficial to the body.  Thus, the correlations of mind states with brain states in our nature (as composites of mind and body) is the best possible arrangement so far as the well being of
the mind-body composite goes.  In other words, Descartes's nature is optimally designed.

6.  Can Descartes say anything else on behalf of God's veracity?

     Yes, he can and does.  Descartes points out we can correct the systematic or intrinsic errors made by our nature (as the composite of mind and body) by employing several senses instead of just one, and by using our intellect and our memory.  For example, if we suffer from dropsy, we can correct what our sensation of thirst tells us (that we need to drink) by recalling that medical science has shown that drinking is harmful to someone suffering from dropsy. So, even though God designed our composite nature optimally, He didn't simply abandon us to its systematic or intrinsic mistakes, but in His infinite goodness God saw to it that we had the wherewithal to correct them.
 
 
 

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Descartes' Skeptical Argument and Reponses by Bouwsma and Malcolm


In this essay, I will examine Rene Descartes' skeptical argument and
responses by O.K. Bouwsma and Norman Malcolm. I intend to prove that while both
Bouwsma and Malcolm make points that refute specific parts of Descartes'
argument in their criticisms, neither is sufficient in itself to refute the
whole.
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 the
blossoming scientific community was concerned with setting up a consistent
standard to define what constituted science. Their science was based on
conjunction and empirical affirmation, ideally without any preconceived notions
to taint the results. Descartes, however, believed that the senses were
unreliable and that science based solely on information gained from the senses
was uncertain. He was concerned with finding a point of certainty on which to
base scientific thought. Eventually he settled on mathematics as a basis for
science, because he believed mathematics and geometry to be based on some
inherent truths. He believed that it was through mathematics that we were able
to make sense of our world, and that the ability to think mathematically was an
innate ability of all human beings. This theory becomes important in Descartes'
Meditations because he is forced to explain where the mathematical ideas that he
believed we were born with came from. Having discussed Descartes' background, I
will now explain the specifics of his argument.
The basis of Descartes' entire argument is that the senses can not be
trusted, and his objective is to reach a point of certainty, one undeniable
truth 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 former
opinions."1 By opinions he meant all the facts and notions about the world
which he had previously held as truths. Any point which had even the slightest
hint of doubt was discarded and considered completely false. Descartes decided
that 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 he
was searching for. In order to accomplish this certainty, in the first
Meditation he asks the reader to assume that they are asleep and that all their
sensory information is the product of dreams. More significantly, Descartes
implies that all consciousness could actually be a dream state, thus proving
that 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".2
In other words, a dream image is only a portrait of a real-life object, place or
person. If we are dreaming then it is implied that at some point we were
conscious and able to perceive these things. If we are able to perceive these
things then we must admit that we have senses and that our senses are, at least
in part, true. This was exactly what Descartes was trying to disprove, and it
was one reason he abandoned the dream argument.
The second problem with this argument is that it points to mathematics as a
point of certainty. I believe Descartes best explained this in his own words:
"[W]hether I be awake or asleep, two plus three equals five and a square does
not have more than four sides: nor does it seem possible that such obvious
truths 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 believed
were innate still had to come from somewhere. If they are in our heads when we
are born, someone had to put them there. Descartes' question is who, and he
comes up with two possibilities.
One possibility is that our inherent mathematical abilities are the gift of
a benign creator, a gift of God. As a supremely good being, he would not allow
us to be deceived, and mathematical processes would be a point of certain and
undeniable truth. If this were the case, the idea of mathematics would meet
Descartes' objectives as a point of certainty. The existence of God, however,
can not be proven and so there is a second possibility that Descartes proposed.
He asks the reader to imagine that instead of a benign God, there is an "evil
genius . . .who has directed his entire effort to misleading [us] "4 In this
case, all things in the physical world would have to be thought of as deceptions,
because all our sensory information, including ideas of sizes, shapes and colors
would be fed to us by the evil genius. This is enough to prove that mathematics
can not be a point of certainty. It is here that he concludes the first
Meditation.
Having decided that we have no senses that are not deceptive, Descartes, in
the second Meditation, looks for something outside the world of sensation to
find some certainty. What he discovers is that he knows he exists. He knows he
exists because he is thinking he exists. If there is an evil genius out there
deceiving him at least he is secure in his thoughts. By thinking he exists, by
knowing he is "something", not even the evil genius can convince him he is
"nothing".5 His point of certainty comes down to the statement "I am, I exist"6
or more aptly translated "I think, therefore I am".
Descartes ideas sometimes seem radical or extreme and his argument has been
challenged many times. Two particular criticisms that we discussed were
"Descartes' Evil Genius" by O.K. Bouwsma and "Knowledge Regained" by Normon
Malcolm. I would like to examine the significant points each has made in their
criticisms and then discuss why I believe each argument is damaging but not
sufficient to refute Descartes' argument.
Bouwsma's criticism focuses on Descartes' idea of an evil genius creating
an "illusory" world. His intent was to prove that Descartes' ideas of illusion
and deception were misleading. First, Bouwsma set out to define "illusions" and
to show how they are detected. In order to accomplish this goal, he gave the
example of the evil genius turning the world and everything in it into paper.
"An illusion," Bouwsma says, "is something that looks like or sounds like, so
much like, something else that you either mistake it for something else, or you
can easily understand how someone might come to do this."7 In this first
example, the reader watches "Tom" as he is exposed to and realizes the
difference between the real world and the genius' paper one. Although the evil
genius attempted to create a realistic world out of paper, Tom saw through the
illusion when he realized the difference between the paper flowers and real
flowers. Tom was not really deceived by the paper illusion since he saw through
it rather quickly, but he did "experience" the illusion.8 He experienced it and
he detected it. Bouwsma, with this example, is trying to point out the
importance of how people detect illusions. For instance, Tom detects the
illusion because he knows the difference between flowers and paper. If he did
not know the difference, he would not be able to detect the illusion and he
would go on being deceived. Bouwsma also states that it is critical that the
genius also understand the difference between his illusion and reality even if
Tom does not.
Bouwsma then admits that Descartes had something slightly different in mind.
He asks the reader what would happen if Descartes' ideas were true, if the
genius' illusion were so perfect that it would be impossible to tell the
difference between the illusion and reality. Here Bouwsma sets up a second
example, one in which the world has been destroyed but Tom goes on believing
that the world exists, just as Descartes had imagined. Tom can not detect this
illusion, for it is completely unlike the paper illusion. In this example,
there is no difference between the illusory world and the real one. Tom
continues living in what he thinks is the real world; he goes on being deceived.
What Bouwsma wants the reader to think about is this idea of deception. Is Tom
really being deceived if he can not tell the difference between the real world
that the genius destroyed, and the illusory one the genius created for him?
Bouwsma does not believe that Tom is being deceived. The evil genius has a
sense of the world that Tom can not comprehend, because the genius is the only
one who knows the difference between the real world and the illusion that he has
created. The word "illusion" then, would mean something different to the evil
genius than it does to Tom. In order for something to be an illusion, there
must be a way to detect the reality, like in the paper example. Because there
is no way for Tom to detect the difference, there is no illusion. For Tom, the
"illusion" becomes the reality and the existence of the evil genius does not
alter his life.
Malcolm comes up with a very different criticism of Descartes. His
argument focuses on the simple premise that there is nothing more real to a
person than their sensory experience. He begins by stating two points commonly
associated with Descartes and skepticism in order to challenge their validity.
First, that any sensory experience one has now, can be refuted sometime in the
future and second that any statement made based on sensory experience is purely
hypothetical. Malcolm attempts to show that the opposite is true; that sensory
experience can not be refuted and that it is in fact the only certain knowledge
a person can have.
In order to prove his idea, Malcolm makes three propositions. The first is
what one would call a factual statement. The second is a type of belief, and
the third is an observation based on direct sensory experience. Malcolm
attempts to show the reader that what one considers fact can be proven wrong by
new evidence that is discovered in the future, but that sensory experience can
not be refuted. For example, he used the statement: "The sun is about ninety
million miles from the earth."9 New evidence could turn up in the future that
could drastically alter that figure. This statement that is considered fact
could be disputed. But what about a statement of near certain belief, such as
Malcolm's example: "There is a heart in my body."10 This statement seems
impossible to deny, but what if one were presented with incontrovertible
evidence to the contrary. Eventually, the person would come to believe the
evidence presented to them and accept that they had no heart. From this example,
one can gather that even statements of almost absolute certainty can be proven
wrong. Malcolm then examines his final proposition: "Here is an ink-bottle."11
This statement is an observation. Malcolm sees the ink-bottle on the desk
before him. This, Malcolm believes, is a certain, indisputable statement. If
at that moment he sees the ink-bottle, no evidence can convince him he did not,
at least at that moment, see the ink-bottle. Direct sensory experience,
according to Malcolm, brings certainty. As in the example, a person has no
direct sensory experience of the distance of the sun from the earth. This is
the problem with statements of fact and belief and explains why they can so
easily be proven wrong.
Malcolm believed that people are psychologically impelled to believe in
their immediate sensory experiences.
Bouwsma and Malcolm offer sound and reasonable arguments, but neither
is able to completely defeat skepticism. They are damaging to Descartes, but
not destructive to the whole of skepticism. For example, Bouwsma makes an
excellent case against the evil genius argument by suggesting that what the
genius would consider illusion, people would consider reality. But it must be
noted that while Bouwsma has made a valid suggestion, it does not prove that the
evil genius does not exist. It is as impossible to prove that the evil genius
does not exist as it is to prove that God does exist. Also Bouwsma's criticism
focused primarily on the evil genius example and did not take into account the
rest of Descartes' argument. There is a lot more to Descartes' argument than
that particular point. Descartes only brought up that extreme example in order
to prove that we can not trust our senses. It is important to keep in mind that
Descartes' purpose in undertaking the skeptical argument was to find a point of
certainty in our existence and not to prove that the world is meaningless.
Malcolm has made an admirable case for the validity of the senses, but upon
careful examination he says very much the same thing as Bouwsma. Namely, that
the senses are real to us. Bouwsma came to this point by examining the idea of
the evil genius and the idea of "illusions". Malcolm came to it through
examining the differences between fact, belief and sensory information. Despite
the differences in how they discovered it, they both came to the same conclusion.
The point is valid and their reasoning is sound, but it does not prove that
Descartes is wrong.
The strength of the skeptical argument lies in the fact that it can not be
completely disproved. No one can prove or disprove the existence of an evil
genius, they can only go so far as to say that it does not matter. This is
essentially what Bouwsma and Malcolm have done. They tried to prove that the
existence of the evil genius would not make a difference in our lives. For this
reason, I believe that although Bouwsma and Malcolm have made a valid point,
they have only touched the surface of Descartes' argument. They have succeeded
in proving that life is not meaningless, but that was not the purpose of
Descartes' argument to begin with.


 

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