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Descartes defined global skepticism as all of our experiences, thoughts and everything we know to be true as dubious and deceptive. Therefore we are constantly being deceived and what we perceive to be true may not be true at all. In this essay I will attempt to show how Descartes’s dreaming argument and evil demon argument justifies global scepticism and which of the two is a stronger and more convincing argument.
According to Descartes, we rely on our senses to determine what is most true and many of the decisions we make are based on our senses and feelings.
However, our senses can deceive us, so what’s not to say that our senses are not deceiving us all of the time. Or if what our senses tell us is supposedly true most of the time, how are we able to differentiate between when we are being deceived and when we are not? Bearing this in mind it is safe to say that if our senses can deceive us, even once, it is unwise to trust and rely on them.
This brings us to the evil demon argument. What if our senses, thoughts, instincts, perceptions and everything that we believe to supposedly be true has been deliberately placed in our minds by some evil entity that has manipulated us into believing those things? According to Descartes’s argument, it is possible that we are being controlled by an evil demon that has deceived us into believing everything that we have come to know as being true: from sunset to sunrise; going to sleep at night and waking up the next morning, to every other aspect of our lives and our knowledge of the world as we’ve come to know it. (Descartes, _Introduction to Philosophy,_ 2009)
If we believe God to be the creator of life itself, is it possible that he could also be controlling all human life according to the way he thinks it should be? And if he is in fact controlling all life itself, is it safe to say that the evil demon and God could be one in itself? Could God in fact be the reason behind the chaotic state that the world is in today? This would go against everything that we’ve believed God to be. Therefore one would think that perhaps the evil demon and God are two entirely separate entities that are counteracting each other. Yet if the evil demon has total control of all human life, it implies that the evil demon is greater than God, which is impossible since there is nothing greater than God.
So perhaps there really is no evil demon and everything that we have experienced was never real to begin with. This brings us to Descartes’s dreaming argument. Like the evil demon argument, the dreaming argument also states that we are being deceived into believing what we know to be true, or rather what we know to be real.
According to our knowledge, we know when we are dreaming and when we are awake and therefore can differentiate between dreaming and reality. Dreams are incoherent and we are unable to control the occurrences within our dreams, which is why we know when we are dreaming. So when we wake up, we know that we are no longer asleep and dreaming and are once again in reality. However, according to Descartes’s argument we could be having one long coherent dream that we are unaware of and have yet to wake up from. (Descartes, _Introduction to Philosophy,_ 2009)
If this is true, or even possible, we then have to ask ourselves when or if we will ever wake up from this dream. Will everything we have come to know as real turn out to be an illusion or something that our own imaginations have conjured up as being part of this never ending dream. One then has to wonder what will happen if we were to wake up and discover that everything we have seen and felt, all the knowledge that we have acquired, the way we have lived our lives, was never real.
Is it possible to have a dream within a dream? To fall asleep, when according to the argument, we are constantly sleeping? Or perhaps that is simply our interpretation, due to the fact that in order for someone to dream, they need to be asleep. Does this mean that up to this point, if all our experiences have been part of this long, coherent dream, that we have been asleep for our entire lives? And if this is true, what happens when we die and our lives have come to an end? Is our death the time that we finally wake up from the dream? If we are dreaming, who is controlling that dream? Is every dream different for each individual or are they linked in some way? Is our birth a part of this dream as well?
This argument brings up many questions that cannot be answered which proves that this argument cannot be justified. If the argument itself cannot be justified, it therefore cannot be used as an argument for global scepticism.
We then come back to the evil demon argument. It is likely that the evil demon does not exist, due to the fact that even though Descartes came up with the evil demon argument, he himself did not believe in its actual existence. It is however possible to use this argument for global scepticism as unlike the dreaming argument, the evil demon argument is in fact plausible.
The evil demon deceives us into believing what it wants us to believe, while global scepticism makes one aware of the constant deception that we experience everyday. Even though according to the evil demon argument, when we think we are not being deceived, the evil demon is constantly deceiving us. The argument implies that we cannot trust our own perceptions at any time because either way, we are constantly deceived, whether we are aware of it or not. This shows that the evil demon argument can be justified and is stronger than that of the dreaming argument. It can therefore be used for global scepticism.
- Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, _Introduction to Philosophy_, 2009
- Philosophy lecture notes