The falliability of sense experience

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 2 September 2016

The falliability of sense experience

One of the foremost notions concerning the rise of empiricism and the natural sciences, French thinker and mathematician Rene Descartes, also considered as the father of modern philosophy, proposes the use of methodological doubt in order for knowledge to be determined with absolute certainty. His work, Meditations on First Philosophy, contains ontological arguments which deny the reliance on the senses as the ample source in determining absolute knowledge.

As a mathematician, his approach concerning the acquisition of knowledge is through substantial proof which forms the groundwork of empiricism, as well as the foundation of the different disciplines in science. Cartesian rationalism provides the understanding of empirical evidence in order for a phenomenon or study to be considered true. The work is narrated in the first person perspective as Descartes acts as the ‘mediator’ on the infallibility of the senses through the use of ontological arguments which determine the source and essence of knowledge as well as the proof of God’s existence.

The first-person point of view is essential in understanding Descartes philosophy as an objective refutation of all the given objects that are naturally perceived by the senses. The concept of universality on sense experience, through the narration, provides an objective analysis of the problem which Descartes offers to solve through the use of doubt.

This doubt however is not of the skeptic nature which ultimately denies the possibility of acquiring knowledge; the Cartesian doubt is methodological, it offers a complete denial of all existing objects generated by the senses in order to determine the ‘real’ underlying truth which in turn becomes the foundation of true knowledge. As such, the ‘dream argument’ from the first part of the Meditations presents the unreliable nature of sense experience in terms of determining reality or universal objects of experience.

The argument generally centers on the distinction between the process of dreaming and the waking experience which completely garbles the concept of a true reality. The Dream Argument The dream argument is narrated as thus: Suppose then that I am dreaming, and that these particulars – that my eyes are open, that I am moving my head and stretching out my hands – are not true. Perhaps, indeed, I do not even have such hands or such a body at all.

Nonetheless, it must surely be admitted that the visions which come in sleep are like paintings, which must have been fashioned in the likeness of things that are real, and hence that at least these general kinds of things – are things which are not imaginary but are real and exist. (Descartes, 1996, 13) The first part of the Meditations deals with the proposal of doubt, which argues for the indemnification of the senses as a fallacious source of determining experiences: “But from time to time I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceive us even once.

” From all experiences that have deceived the mediator, it is deemed prudent to be doubt present knowledge in order to know the truth. The dream argument follows from the methodological doubt as a way of determining real experiences from illusions. Descartes narrates that a dream experience provides him an understanding of an object itself. For example, a dream involving a chair may be interpreted that the chair is indeed real because we sense it. We see the chair in the mind’s eye and there we perceive it to be true.

However, when we wake, we still perceive a chair which is outside the dream and therefore can still be considered real. The confusion between two realities is the main thesis of Descartes’ dream argument where he places disregard with the sense. Thus, he relates the relationship between dreaming and real experience as that of a painting. The painter creates a mermaid where each part of the character is based from an existing or real object. The mermaid has a body of a fish and the torso of a human which are two separate objects forming a whole picture.

The real object of experience becomes the basis for the formation of objects in dreams and both experiences provide a sense of reality. The problem arises whether the realness in dream experience may be considered to be true. Descartes answers this problem with doubt; an individual cannot doubt the specific parts of a whole. Taking from the painting analogy, doubt can only be applicable to the painting itself (e. g. mermaid) whether it really exists but the parts such as the legs, arms, torso, and body cannot be doubted since they are real that provide the basis of the illusion.

Descartes relates the analogy to the study of the different sciences wherein each discipline which depends on the study of composite objects can be considered doubtful (e. g. physics, astronomy) while disciplines that deal with the simplest or general form (e. g. mathematics, geometry) are considered universals or certain. Thus, the dream argument may be summarized as follows: the senses are an unreliable source of determining knowledge since dream experiences may be considered real because it relies on the senses to be real.

Therefore, when we wake up, the objects around us lead us to doubt its existence because we perceive such objects through the senses. The dream argument leads to the formation of the Cartesian doubt, which necessarily denies the reliance of sense perception and offers as logical argument concerning the acquisition of truth. Critical Evaluation The dream argument provides the basis of Descartes methodological doubt where the senses provide a false impression of reality. His propositions are based on the dependence of empirical evidence rather than reliance to illusion.

Indeed sense perception may fully deceive the person, through the ‘objects are not what they seem’ argument. The dream argument’s distinctions provide support on method to doubt all existing forms of knowledge perceived by the sense in order to be proven its validity. Descartes’ propositions are considered true in the sense that the dream argument provides substantial evidence supporting the infallibility of sense perception. The evidence provided in the dream argument as well as in the painting analogy offers enough proof to distinguish illusion from reality.

For instance, when a person is awake, he or she experiences object through the sense; thus he or she perceives such experiences or objects to be true. These experiences leave an imprint on the mind and when we dream, these objects come into reality because we perceive it as such. This argument reinforces the process of doubt in order to determine with absolute certainty the real foundations of knowledge. The doubt that comes after the unreliability of the senses is then necessary to determine a firm foundation in which true knowledge to be based.

This doubt is clearly distinct from the classical conception of skepticism wherein it denies the possibility of existing knowledge and offers doubt as a means of achieving intellectual tranquility: “It [skepticism] is also the ephetic (suspending) from the experience which the inquirer feels after the search” . The distinction between the two systems of thought is that Cartesian doubt offers a denial of existing knowledge created through perception whereas skepticism doubts the possibility of acquiring knowledge itself. However, the dream argument necessarily implies the universal experience of dreaming or a selective dream experience.

The selective dream is identified when an individual is dreaming, he or she wakes up from such and the dilemma lies whether which reality is true. The universal concept of dreaming on the other hand falls under the general experience of individuals that life is in itself a dream and there is no such thing as a waking experience. This poses a problem on the existence of a true reality which leads to confusion between the relationship of the senses, body, and the intellect. If the senses cannot be trusted, then what do we use to determine real objects from mere illusions?

It may be considered as one of the weak points in the dream argument as there is no clear identification of what can be considered to be a true reality. The images perceived by the sense ultimately influence the objects in dreams and since it relies on the sense, it is considered to be real. This problem is answered with the Cartesian doubt itself; it merely provides a persuasion for the individual to not rely on the senses and instead empirically categorize knowledge based on substantial evidence and proof through logic and deduction reasoning.

This process inevitably leads to the foundation of the scientific method wherein facts are proven through observation, evidence, deduction, and conclusion in order to be construed as valid. From this notion, proof provides objectivity and universality which Descartes does not consider such subjects to be placed under doubt because it is already considered certain. Mathematics and Geometry are considered certain knowledge and physical existence is not a concern because of its deterministic essence. However, objects which fall a composite essence are subject to doubt.

In conclusion, Descartes’ dream argument and the dilemma of reality are answered through the use of doubt and logic. Doubt counters the infallibility of the sense; to clearly deny all prior knowledge since the senses provide misinterpretations or illusions. Logic on the other hand answers to the problem posed by the dualistic reality caused by the dream and waking phenomenon. Logic dictates the identification of the true reality even with the problem of the senses as something that can be physically proven in order to be considered real.

This physical essence is not of the material sense but instead uses deduction in order to be considered true. For example, a chair conceived in a dream may be logically explained as an immaterial existence because it does not fully provide the ‘real’ essence of a chair (e. g. form, shape, measure) which are considered as certain subjects or universals. As the senses cannot entirely function as a basis in determining true knowledge or experience, logic becomes the characterizing means in order to counter the illusions perceived by the senses.

Metaphysically, the use of logic enables the mind to think and prove experiences based on evidence rather than a garbled and subjective conception of an idea. Bibliography Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy; with Selections from the Objections and Replies. Translated by J. Cottingham. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Empiricus, Sextus. Selections from the Major Writings on Skepticism, Man & God. Translated by Samuel Etheridge. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1985.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 2 September 2016

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