In this essay, I will be exploring each stage of Descartes’ Method of Doubt and their aims in depth. Descartes’ uses the Method of Doubt more as a method of certainty with the aim of 1 building a certain and indubitable basis for knowledge . He ultimately aims to generalise all 2 human knowledge to certainty by running commonplace opinions through three stages of 3 doubt – retreat from the senses, madness and dreaming and the imperfect creator hypothesis, in order to reach his aim of certainty.
In the First Meditation, Descartes uses the Method of Doubt to arrive at a solid basis for his 4 knowledge and philosophy which cannot be doubted, as he regards this to be the strongest 5 starting point for certain knowledge. There are three stages to his Method of Doubt, which go as follows: retreat from the senses, the madness and dreaming hypothesis, and the imperfect creator hypothesis (which is sometimes also known as the evil demon hypothesis). Each stage is a response to scepticism , since each stage is questioning how we know the knowledge and 6 if we can be certain of it. Cartesian scepticism, the kind of scepticism that Descartes engages in, is different to classic scepticism because whilst they are both based on a dissatisfaction of knowledge and how we go about obtaining it, Descartes actively chooses to doubt, whereas for the classical sceptic the doubt ‘creeps up’ on them.
The first stage of Descartes’ Method of Doubt is a retreat from the senses. The aim of this first stage is to test whether or not we can rely on knowledge obtained from our senses, and it questions whether or not we can doubt knowledge which comes from seeing, touching, hearing etc. During the time that Descartes lived, there were two obvious sources for opinions – religion and science, but he starts with the senses as the first foundations of knowledge, because they do hold the basis for the majority of our opinions , as influenced from the a posteriori system of Aristotelian sciences. Therefore, since we need to doubt all of our opinions to establish a strong starting point , it would only make sense for Descartes to start with the senses. Descartes applies doubt to the senses and reveals that we cannot rely on knowledge obtained from the senses to be certain, since the senses can deceive us and we should therefore not place our complete trust in them. An example of this would be that a cow in a field appears to be different sizes dependent on how close to the cow we are and how we are perceiving it, so we can never be sure about how big the cow actually is. Therefore because senses can conflict it makes them unreliable as a source of knowledge.
The overall aim/result of this first stage is to demonstrate that our senses, although a main source of ‘knowledge’ for us, are unreliable and can be doubted, and thus any knowledge derived from the senses cannot be used as an indubitable basis for philosophy or making certain claims. This means all claims we make from the basis of see, touch, hear, taste etc are unreliable and uncertain.
The second stage of Descartes’ Method of Doubt is madness and dreaming. Unlike the first stage which questions the opinions themselves, this second stage questions our capacity to understand these opinions. Descartes starts by likening himself to a mad man , which means that he can doubt his entire reality and his entire physical existence, as he would not be able to rely on his reason if he were insane . However, Descartes quickly abandons madness as a possibility because it is inaccessible, and it is actually ‘too strong’ – the Method of Doubt is reliant on reason to be effective , as we need to use our reason to be able to doubt and question our ideas, and if we were all mad then we would not be able to do this. Descartes therefore appeals to dreaming to inspire doubt . Dreaming is better to practice doubt than madness, since dreaming is much more common and therefore more accessible to the meditator. It is possible that the reality we experience is all created in a similar mindset to a dream , and therefore we cannot be certain of this reality; dreaming has all the same marks as experiences that you have when you’re awake , since they seem so real and coherent. It is still useful that Descartes considered madness, since it highlights the power behind the dream hypothesis; dreams can be seen as ‘self-contained episodes of madness’ , since they can seem so real and coherent, so the madness comparison helps to highlight that we do need to call into question our capacity to understand our opinions, since the dreaming hypothesis is very possible.
In a second part to the dreaming hypothesis, Descartes compares dreams to paintings. Both dreams and paintings represent something which actually exists in the outside world , whichwould suggest that even if our reality were to be perceived as a dream, then there would still be something similar to this representation that exists in the external world. There still remains the possibility of fictional representations and abstract dreams – ideas such as sirens and satyrs don’t exist in the external world, so this means it cannot represent anything. However, these abstract ideas still conform to general categories of mathematics and geometry, for example shape and extension, which would suggest that we can certainly be sure of mathematical truths.
The overall aim/result of this second stage is that we can conclude that mathematical truths are indubitable and therefore reliable because even the most abstract concepts conform to these mathematical truths, meaning their representation must exist as part of an external world. The second stage aimed to question our rational capacity to understand our opinions instead of questioning the opinions themselves.
The third stage of Descartes’ Method of Doubt is the imperfect creator hypothesis. It is possible that an omnipotent being/evil genius exists, who is deceiving our entire experience, and could even be tricking us about basic mathematical truths that we thought to be indubitable. Sincethis is a very real possibility, we therefore cannot be certain that we ever have an accurate experience of the world , and we can doubt everything we experience except our own thoughts.
One possible solution is given by Descartes, and that is that an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God/creator would not allow us to be deceived in this way . Therefore, if there is aomnibenevolent and omnipotent creator, then we can assume that our experiences aren’t the result of being deceived by an evil genius.
The evil genius/imperfect creator hypothesis is still important, since the aim of it seems to be to strengthen our will so we do not fall back into bad habits of believing all opinions without doubting them and questioning them first. It acts as a reminder for the standard of certainty that Descartes’ established at the start – certain knowledge should be indubitable.
To conclude, there are three stages in Descartes’ Method of Doubt. The first stage, retreat from the senses, aims to test whether or not we should trust empirical knowledge which the majority of our opinions are based on. The second stage, the dreaming hypothesis, doubts our capacity to understand our opinions, and the third stage, the evil genius hypothesis, strengthens our will to test all opinions/claims. The overall aim of the Method of Doubt is to build a certain and indubitable bank of knowledge in order to successfully engage in philosophy.
- Aldrich, Virgil C, ‘DesCartes’ Method of Doubt’, in Philosophy of Science, Vol 4, No 4 (University of Chicago Press, Oct 1937), pp. 395 – 411.
- Brandhorst, Kurt, Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, Edinburgh Philosophical Guides (Edinburgh University Press, 2010)
- Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation One, pg 18
- Kurt Brandhorst, Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, Edinburgh Philosophical Guides (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), pg. 21.
- Michael Williams, ‘Descartes and the Metaphysics of Doubt’ Oxford Readings in Philosophy – Descartes (Oxford University Press, 1998) pg. 28.
- Virgil C. Aldrich, ‘DesCartes’ Method of Doubt’, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 4 (1937), pg 402
- Williams, Michael ‘Descartes and the Metaphysics of Doubt’,, Oxford Readings in Philosophy – Descartes (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp 28 – 49