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Epistemology is a branch of Philosophy that involves the studying of nature and the limits of knowledge. In Epistemology there is always a dispute between Rationalists and Empiricists. Rene’ Descartes was a famous philosopher who was a known Rationalist and David Hume was a well known Empiricist. Rationalists believe that reason is the guide of all knowledge and Empiricists believe that all knowledge is based on personal experience. I side with David Hume and agree that experience is the key to knowledge, I also believe that Descartes belief of reason is somewhat flawed and is inferior to Hume’s approach to the foundation of knowledge.
Rene Descartes was known as the “Father of Modern Philosophy”, one of his most famous quotations is : “Cogito, ergo sum” which translates to “I think therefore I am.” He is also known for creating the school of thought; rationalism. Descartes’ “Meditation on First Philosophy” was significant for the fact that it doubted everything there was. It was a very different approach especially during the time period in which he lived in, but it allowed his to be well known in the philosophy world.
Descartes “The purpose of this exercise was to strip away all knowledge that could possible held in doubt as genuine in order to arrive at something that could be determined to be known at absolute certainty.” He claimed that even the human senses could not be trusted and often asked himself “What can we know certainly? Is there anything that is absolutely indubitable? He said that if he could not even trust his senses then who is to say that he even exist or that we are not just living a realistic dream.
This highly seems unlikely but it also could be a reality if thought about hard enough. Des cartes summarizes that the only thing that he is sure about is that he doubts. He then concludes with his famous quote “ I think therefore I am.” Which leads to Des cartes next meditation. Descartes wanted to establish a new and indubitable foundation for the newly emerging sciences. In his Meditation One Descartes gives three arguments for the things we can doubt, with each argument convincing a more radical level of doubt than the one before it. The first level of doubt is the senses. In this mediation The mediator explains how most of his beliefs are derived from sense perception. As a result some beliefs turned out to be false, he says this to convey how his senses had misled him in the past. “It is wiser never to trust what has once mislead us” says Descartes and he claims it is best to sweep aside everything he thought he knew and to basically start from his foundations. The mediator second level of doubt is personal/mental experience. He explains how dreams can feel real as if it is actually happening in reality. “I have no criterion tell a dream experience from a waking experience.” He uses the example of when he is sure he is awake and sitting by the fire but he remembers that he dreamt of something similar and ends up getting confused. This argument is relatable as most people have experienced the feeling of not remembering if a dream was real or not. The Meditator concludes that he cannot doubt the simple and universal parts from which they are constructed like shape and size. While we can doubt studies based on composite things, like medicine, astronomy, or physics, he concludes that we cannot doubt studies based on simple things like geometry. His third level of doubt is Mathematics. He claims that Math knowledge does not rely on the senses of the human body and does not vary according to the situation. His argument here is that the all knowing God could alter our conception of mathematics and therefore make it false. A counter would be those who do not believe in God but the mediator has an argument for that as well. He says “If we suppose there is no God, then there is even greater likelihood of being deceived, since our imperfect senses would not have been created by a perfect being.” He also claims that he cannot reject the possibility of an evil genius. His solution to this is by doubting everything there is and by doing this he cannot be misled by this so called evil genius (demon). The mediator also mentions his uncertainty of there being an alternative reality. “I cannot be certain of the existence of an external world” Descartes second meditation is the “Cogito, ergo sum” argument. In meditation two Descartes proves that he exists as thought (mind), shows us that the essence of the human mind is thought, and that the mind is better known than the body. ‘Class notes, 13 November 2018’ He states that the physical world does not exist and that would mean he himself does not exist, but since he is having doubts he must exist. The cogito presents a picture of the world and of knowledge in which the mind is something that can know itself better than it can know anything else. “The cogito is one of those rare philosophical joys: an argument that simply cannot be refuted, so long as it is correctly understood. Most of the objections to the cogito arise because of misguided attempts to reconstruct the argument as a syllogism: (1) Whatever thinks exists, (2) I think, (3) therefore, I exist.” The mediator says “My existence follows from any act of thought: doubting, imagining, reasoning, feeling.” In my opinion Descartes standard of knowledge is raised way too high. As a result he doubts everything that is not absolute basically everything.
David Hume was a well known Empiricist who had a different way of seeing reason. He disagreed with certain philosophers especially Des cartes. ‘Des Cartes maintained that thought was the essence of the mind; not this thought or that thought, but thought in general. This seems to be absolutely unintelligible, since everything, that exists, is particular: And therefore it must be our several particular perceptions, that compose the mind. I say, compose the mind, not belong to it. The mind is not a substance, in which the perceptions inhere… We have no idea of substance of any kind, since we have no idea but what is derived from some impression, and we have no impression of any substance either material or spiritual. We know nothing but particular qualities and perceptions.’ – David Hume, Abstract of A Treatise of Human Nature. Different from what Descartes thinks, Hume claims that all knowledge is ultimately based on experience.
After hearing both arguments it in my opinion Hume’s reasoning seems more valid than Descartes. According to Hume, when we listen to music, we have impressions and when we remember the music we heard, we have ideas. Impressions are our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. We have impressions when we hear or see or feel anything. All our thoughts and ideas are the copies of impressions. Impressions are at the center of Hume’s knowledge argument. He bases most of his claim on it, and it is a good thing he did because of the fact that it strengthen his argument. For example, after wounding oneself will inflict pain and as a result will cause a bad impression. This will lead to a better knowledge and Hume’s reasoning is proven. A counter to this would be those who never experience certain things and yet have a negative opinion on it. This could be challenged by stating how the brain sometimes generates thoughts that are considered random and without meaning. Hume also writes about the association of ideas, which takes impressions to knowledge. Hume also developed a fork which had the relations of ideas (theoretical) and on the other side Matters of fact (empirical). ‘4 December 2018 Notes.’ Matters of fact are strictly based on probability. Matters of fact deal with experience: that the moon is out in the night or that it will snow tomorrow are matters of fact. They are learned a posteriori. A posteriori is matter of fact, while a priori is relations of idea. He suggests that knowledge can not be a priori. If it is snowing outside and I claim that it is raining, I can easily be proven wrong by looking out the window and checking. My claim cannot be disproved simply by logic and reason.
By comparing both Descartes and Hume it is evident to me that Hume’s reasoning is primary. By experiencing different things one could gain knowledge just by learning from the past encounters of situations. Impressions are derived from our feelings and senses and results in knowledge according to Hume. This makes perfect sense and does not need to be doubted as Descartes doubted everything. Experience is ultimately the key to gaining knowledge because of what you gain as a result of it. Therefore it is obvious that knowledge about the world can not be acquired through only reason or only sense-experience but Hume’s approach is more logical to reason with.
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