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The Seriousness of Doubt and Our Natural Trust in the Senses in the First Meditation1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

David Macarthur
MacQuarie University Sidney, NSW, 2109, Australia


In the Synopsis to the Meditations Descartes assures us that ‘extensive doubt… [provides] the easiest route by which the mind may be led away from the senses’ (12). And in the Fifth Replies Descartes adds that it is essential to a proper understanding of the Meditations that ‘the entire testimony of the senses should be regarded as uncertain and even as false’ (350). But to deny our ordinary trust in the senses on the grounds of such ‘hyperbolic’ or ‘metaphysical’ doubts as that one might be dreaming or the victim of an evil demon is, as Descartes himself puts it, quite mad: ‘no sane person has ever seriously doubted that there really is a world and that human beings have bodies’ (16). We seem, then, to be confronted with a dilemma: on the one hand, the skepticism about the senses that we find in the First Meditation must be taken seriously. On the other hand, it is, in some sense, a sham. How, then, are we to understand these doubts?

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Copyright © The Authors 2003

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I'd like to thank two anonymous reviewers of this Journal for helpful comments on a previous draft of this paper.


2 All references to Descartes’ writings are to the following English edition of his work: The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Cottingham, J. Stoothoff, R. and Murdoch, D. eds. & trans. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1986)Google Scholar. Unless otherwise stated, numerical references are to AT VII.

3 H., Frankfurt Demons, Dreamers and Madmen (New York: Bobbs-Merrill 1970), 16Google Scholar

4 Rosenthal, D.M.Will and the Theory of Judgment,’ in Essays on Descartes’ Meditations, Rorty, A.O. ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press 1986), 430Google Scholar

5 Newman, L.Descartes’ Epistemology,’ in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Zolta, E. ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1995),Google Scholar 2.2

6 Wilson, M. Descartes (London: Routledge 1978), 26Google Scholar

7 Carriero, J.The First Meditation,’ Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 68 (1987) 222–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar, writes: ‘Modern Descartes scholars see the importance of the doubts raised in the First Meditation as lying not so much in the skeptical challenges they present, but rather in the way they advance his scientific program’ (222).

8 The initial position of the meditator is cleverly characterized so that it can be taken both as a description of the position of folk epistemology and of the neo-Aristotelian Scholastic doctrine that Descartes had been exposed to in his schooling.

9 As Michael Williams, ‘Descartes and the Metaphysics of Doubt,’ in Rorty, ed., Essays, writes: ‘There is no argument anywhere in Descartes’ Meditations to show that common sense recognizes the conception of justification, embodied in the metaphor of foundations, on which Descartes’ definitive doubt depends’ (124-5). I would only add that the same goes for science. The existence of the meditator's strong foundationalist requirement on scientific knowledge was by no means the prevalling assumption in the seventeenth Century. Descartes’ correspondents, Gassendi and Mersenne, both advocated a fallibilist conception of science, which gave up the demand for certain foundations. This makes Descartes’ lack of any argument for his assumption all the more surprising.

10 There is not the Space to pursue this matter in the present context. Suffice it to say that the ‘cogito’ is supposed to rehabilitate the faculty of reason from a skeptical misconception of reason as unable to provide a sufficient basis for holding any belief whatsoever. Using the method of doubt, Descartes discovers within himself truths about his current thoughts and feelings without any appeal to a criterion of truth. This is of critical importance since ancient skepticism had techniques of argument designed to undermine any such criterion. Of course, the Cartesian response involves an essential and questionable appeal to God to guarantee that whatever is clearly and distinctly perceived is true. Cf. Striker, G. Essays on Hellenistic Epistemology and Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Burnyeat, M.Idealism & Greek Philosophy: What Descartes Saw & Berkeley Missed,’ Philosophical Review 91 (1982) 3-40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11 For a detalled discussion of these three kinds of certainty in Descartes’ work, see Curley, E.M.Certainty: Psychological, Moral, and Metaphysical,’ in Essays on the Philosophy & Science of Rene Descartes, Voss, S. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1993).Google Scholar

12 Cf. Williams, B. Problems of the Seif (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1973)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, eh. 9.

13 Contra Curley (24), it is not that ‘Descartes has set the evidential requirements for a valid ground of doubt so low.’ It is simply the nature of the quest for absolute certainty that any doubt (i.e. any possibility that things may be otherwise) is a reasonable ground for doubt about there being such certainty.

14 Of course, there are important dimensions of the dream doubt than I do not consider here. Carriero argues that the painter's analogy associated with the dream doubt is meant to help forward ‘Descartes’ overarching concern to win the meditator over to nativism from scholastic abstractionism’ by way of what he calls a ‘proto-innatist perspective’ (243). The idea is that Descartes means to nudge us towards the possibility that the Contents of a dream are innate and so do not presuppose non-deceptive perception.

15 Descartes misleadingly uses the term ‘uncertain’ to mean, simply, not certain.

16 Markie, PeterThe Cogito and Its Importance,’ in Cottingham, J. ed., The Cambridge Companion to Descartes (Cambrdige: Cambridge University Press 1992)Google Scholar correctly notes that Descartes employs two levels of epistemic appraisal, corresponding to certainty and reasonableness, and that the First Meditation doubts are directed at Claims to certainty. However, he does not go on to say that that leaves reasonable perceptually-based belief untouched by any reasonable doubt.

17 Aiston, WilliamLevels Confusion in Epistemology,’ in his Epistemic Justification: Essays in the Theory of Knowledge (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1980)Google Scholar discusses a different type of levels confusion in epistemology’ between P and S knows that P (where S is a subject and P is an empirical proposition) in relation to what he calls, with due caution, Cartesian skepticism. This is understood as an argument apparently capable of undermining any particular empirical knowledge claim. Alston's main concern is to criticize this argument on the grounds that it conflates knowing that P with knowing that one knows that P.

18 I reject the view of commentators such as Curley, who take the methodological withdrawal of assent to imply disbelief: ‘But if we take him at his word, he does not at that stage believe that he has a body, that there is a sky, earth, and so on’ (15).

19 Note that I am offering these remarks as an explanation, not a definition, of doubt.

20 Margaret Wilson Claims that ‘Descartes was confused about the relation between his sort of “doubts” and action’ (46) on the surprising grounds that real doubt about the external world has no logical implication for action. This seems to be an oversight. If one doubts one has a body then such doubt is, at least, incompatible with action in any ordinary sense of the term.

21 The prima facie incompatibility of skepticism and action is an important and familiar criticism of Pyrrhonism, repeated by both Descartes and Hume. However, it seems to me that both philosophers underestimate the resources Pyrrhonists had to respond to this criticism. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism, Barnes, J. and Annas, J. trans. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1994)Google Scholar, for example, distinguishes two kinds of belief: natural (passively acquired) belief and rational (actively acquired) belief, and he Claims that skepticism only requires disowning the latter.

22 Of course, an interpreter might try to accommodate the practical insulation of belief in the context of radical skepticism by down-playing the seriousness of the spirit in which the problem was originally raised. As we have seen, one might think that the meditator's doubts are merely hypothetical and not genuine doubts. And this might seem consistent with the aim of the Meditations as a whole, which is quite clearly not to engender skepticism. But the consequence of questioning the seriousness of the doubt is that it is hard to explain the meditator's explicit reference to them as such (21). And although a merely hypothetical doubt is compatible with action, it is difficult to see how such non-genuine doubts could bring about any genuine cognitive transformation, especially with regard to certainty, which is the primary purpose of the Meditations.

23 When Peirce, C.S. Peirce on Signs, Hoopes, J. ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1991)Google Scholar, later called Descartes’ strategy here ‘mere self-deception’ (55), he may have been questioning the intelligibility of this attitude of believing that P whilst pretending to oneself that P is false. Peirce's point seems to be that in so far as one is prepared to act as if one believed that P then it is hard to see what sense can be made of the claim that one is pretending that P is false.

24 It even seems unrealistic when one considers complex logical or mathematical propositions. For example, shortly after the publication of the proof of Fermat's last theorem a mathematician might have assented to the proof by appeal to authority despite harboring some slight doubt about the result, at least until she has satisfied herself of its correctness.

25 One might think our natural trust in the senses is simply a matter of ordinary trust on the grounds that although we do not normally doubt our core sensory beliefs, we would not want to say that it is impossible to doubt them. Alternatively, the amazement that the skeptical doubts typically engender may be understood as evidence that Descartes is right to think that we have an absolute trust in the senses. The issue is important since it bears on who might be a candidate for the cognitive transformation that Descartes intended the Meditations to induce. The general question is: to what extent can we, as readers, identify with the figure of the meditator in order to undergo the same transformative process?

26 I do not think Descartes means the meditator to ultimately give up making such judgments as ‘That grass is green.’ What he expects, if the Meditations has done its Job, is that the meditator will no longer suppose that this truth consists in the perceived quality, greenness, being ‘in’ (or ‘resembling’ something in) the grass.

27 Hatfield, G. The Natural and the Normative (Cambridge: The MIT Press 1990)Google Scholar writes: ‘Descartes used skepticism in the context of a set of ‘cognitive exercises’ intended to better acquaint the reader with his or her intellectual faculties’ (59).

28 Hume, David Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon 1975)Google Scholar, for instance, Claims that Descartes ‘recommends a universal doubt not only of all our former opinions and principles, but also of our very faculties’ (12.1, 149). And he goes on to say that, given our nature, such doubt is quite impossible for human beings.

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