Sunday, November 18, 2012

Descartes' First Meditation

In Rene Descartes' First Meditation, he creates quite a powerful argument for how and why we could know nothing. The conclusion might seem absurd, but if you look at the argument, it's difficult to see where the misstep took place. Disagreeing with the conclusion is no help. Let's look at the steps he takes to get to this conclusion. Let the following be a kind of paraphrase of his argument.

When we think about where most of our knowledge comes from, we're pretty sure it comes from our senses. Maybe there are some exceptions, like mathematics for example, but we're talking about knowledge for the most part. 'I know he was in the park today because I saw him there.' 'What do you mean how did I know the restaurant was playing Weezer's "The Sweater Song"? I heard it.' But if our five senses could be proven unreliable across the board, then maybe they're not really a source of knowledge. Maybe, just maybe, we can't know anything.

So we need a representative example of when we think we know something but could be proven not to know it after all. Here's as good example as any. Take me. It's the afternoon. I feel fatigued, which is not unusual for me, because I often feel fatigued, perhaps because I'm unhealthy, maybe for other unknown reasons, I dunno. I'm typing on my Macbook Pro. I'm thinking about my debt in the intermittent moments when I'm not thinking about how to arrange what I'm writing. In most ordinary situations, I'd say I know I'm sitting in front of my laptop typing. But I've been wrong before. I've had vivid dreams where I think I'm doing something, and I'm not doing them at all. Recently, for example, maybe two nights ago, I had a dream that someone I saw someone I had a somewhat antagonistic relationship with in college, and who I would be reluctant to say hello now, was sitting outside of a college and talking with a friend, books in lap, and I approached him and said hello, albeit nervously. When I woke up, I knew it was just a dream. I wasn't really seeing that guy or listening to him or speaking to him. So back to this moment, right now, where I am typing this and thinking and having intermittent thoughts about my future. This could all be a dream too, right? I mean, like the children's song, this whole life could be a dream.

Let's recap, then, to see what the argument is. Put concisely: If it's really possible I'm asleep right now, then I can't possibly know that I'm typing this and sitting here and trying to drink coffee to stay awake and so on. But I must know that I'm typing this and sitting here and so on if I know anything at all about the world around me. Oh, but gosh, I can't really know I'm not sleeping right now. But if I don't know that, then I might be asleep. So I can't know I'm sitting here and so on, and so I can't know anything about the world around me.

Reality check: I don't actually believe this, mind you. The above is just a little thought experiment. I just want to spell out the argument and think about where the argument goes wrong. Maybe some people who read this will still be confused about what the argument is or why it's a problem. So in keeping with the reality check, making sure any of you passersby to this blog are with me so far, I'll lay the argument out point by point. Sometimes it's better for people if they see it like that. So here goes, again, laying out the basic form.

1. If I know that I'm doing what I think I'm doing right now, then I can't possibly just be dreaming I'm doing what I think I'm doing.
2. I could be dreaming I'm doing what I think I'm doing.
3. So I can't know that I'm doing what I think I'm doing.

Now, truly consider the argument. If Descartes is wrong, you can't just disagree with the conclusion because it's tasteful. If that conclusion is wrong, then one of the two premises that get you there must be wrong. I will address these premises in turn. Here goes.

1. If I know that I'm doing what I think I'm doing right now, then I can't possibly just be dreaming I'm doing what I think I'm doing.
Does this seem right to you so far? Think about it. Put more plainly, 'I can't be dreaming right now if I really know what I'm doing right now.' If I'm typing this and thinking about how sick I am of thinking about this topic, I can't really be asleep. That can't be possible. That is, if I really know I'm doing what I'm doing right now. Let me give you my two cents on this point.

Even though this sentence looks perfectly harmless, I think it suffers from a kind of ambiguity that often pervades philosophical argumentation. Namely, I don't think it is clear in what sense we'd be using the word 'know' here. Is 'know' here being used in an ordinary sense or in a technical sense? If it's being used in an ordinary sense, is it possible that there are certain semantic ambiguities with usage of the word? To take this seriously requires corpus linguistics and ethnography. It cannot just be assumed outright that people always and everywhere mean the word 'know' in the same sense. The reason this is important is because it might be possible to examine the usage of this word and find that people do not in fact seem to have the requirement that to know something, you need to know you're not dreaming. Triangulate this with survey information and observation of particular usages and you could make a good case one way or the other. This is just a hunch, but, my intuition is that I don't think people believe this at all. I mean, I don't think that people in ordinary situations using 'know' in its ordinary sense require that you know you're not dreaming to know anything else. So, if in this argument Descartes or any subsequent philosophers are appealing to some kind of common sense notion or notions of 'know,' it must be clear that the entailment that they claim really is there. I don't see a reason to believe that it is, although I do think that if you present the argument in this way, some people could be easily convinced to believe that one thing entails the other, that is, that you have to know you're not dreaming to know, for example, that you have to use the bathroom (like I know now). If, on the other hand, it is being used in a technical sense here, that too must be explained and the word be given at least a provisional definition that distinguishes it from its ordinary usage, in the same way that words like 'work' or 'charm' in physics have meanings that deviate from ordinary usage.

Let's step away from this, though, for a moment. Suppose that Descartes and the other philosophers are right and I am wrong, and premise (1) here is true. Even if it is true, we still have another reason to doubt the argument. Premise (2) also seems false to me. Here goes.

2. I could be dreaming what I think I'm doing.
I don't even think this is true, at least right now. The reason is because being awake and being asleep feels different. Being able to distinguish between dreams and wakefulness is one of the hallmarks of waking life, something I feel right now. A dream experience has never, in its totality, felt as qualitatively rich or, to set value judgments aside, the same as a waking state. In fact, if these different states of consciousness were not very qualitatively different we would not have much grounds for knowing the difference between them. If you think that is too strong a claim, how about this? Dream states of consciousness as opposed to wakeful states of consciousness would not be amenable to scientific study or even ordinary distinction because we could not even feel the difference between them. But we do and so this premise is bunk.

So have I shown that the argument for skepticism Descartes puts forward is malarkey? Have I dismissed all possibilities for skeptical argument that takes this form? Tune in to the next exciting edition to find out. Varied Bat Time but Same Bat Channel.


Klein, Peter, "Skepticism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =

Stroud, Barry, "The Problem of the External World," Epistemology: An Introduction (2000 Edition), Ernest Sosa and Jaegwon Kim (ed.), Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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