In philosophy a theory is not considered an infallible one without revision and argument. To refute a theory, and argue against points of it, is to be a sceptic. Many theories and beliefs about epistemology have come from scepticism (Newman 2010). They find points in an argument that can be doubted, and doubt. Descartes embraced this method of using doubt to achieve knowledge, but made it very clear that he used scepticism “not to be a sceptic, and doubt for the sake of doubting”, but to reach certainty through doubt (Newman 2010).
Descartes attempt to form a solid doctrine regarding knowledge began with the basis of his other profession, mathematics. He was fascinated with mathematics ability to build such solid foundations and still have clear and assured reasoning (Descartes 1637, p.5).
His contribution to modern epistemology is very distinct due to his use of doubt to define knowledge, using doubt as the polar opposite of good sense/reasoning (Newman 2010). He claims that within nature, good sense and reasoning is equal in all men, but it is not enough to have a good mind, the main thing is to apply it well (Descartes 1637, p.3).
Descartes believed that the works of a single hand is more likely to lead to perfection than that which involved several different parties; in particular architecture. He used this as a representation for knowledge, claiming that our beliefs and thoughts would be pure and solid if we were governed only by ourselves, our reason from birth as opposed to being led by our parents and societies (Descartes 1637, p.7). As Descartes was raised by his mother and sister, he came to the conclusion that his own beliefs and thoughts were not pure, and could not be counted as true knowledge.
After this revelation, Descartes examined as many people as possible through an impartial lense, and came to the conclusion that many commonly accepted beliefs were illogical and obscure; this sparked his ambition to take anything he had been exposed to through example and custom lightly, and found that he gradually eliminated errors in his reasoning using this method (Descartes 1637, p.9).
As it seemed impossible to “demolish the entire city and start from scratch” (as ideal as it would be), Descartes laid down four maxims he would follow in his attempt to rid his mind of fickle thoughts, including to follow the laws of the religion which he accepted as reasonable and solid notion (Descartes 1673, p.11), which inevitably lead to Descartes hardest conflict to resolve within his own theory.
After a long attempt to rid his mind of all his prior, poorly acquired opinions and beliefs, Descartes came dangerously close to the conclusion that everything is false. He decided that because we are quite often fooled by our senses, nothing exists in the way that we perceive it through our senses, everything that we consider knowledge is no more true than an illusion or a dream (Descartes 1637, p. 16); it was at this point that Descartes nearly accidently stumbled across his infamous ideology:
“It was necessary that I – who was doing the thinking – had to be something. Noticing this truth – I think; therefore I am”
(Descartes 1637, p. 17)
The method of doubt concludes that if you wish to acquire pure and solid knowledge, you must consider and analyse each thought you hold and have at least some reason to doubt. The theory uses sceptical doubts to assess the strength of ideas/beliefs to become knowledge. Applying exaggerated (hyperbolic) doubt universally (to all thoughts) helped Descartes secure his theory (Newman 2010). By applying doubt universally, allows the person to remove conflicting opinions stored since childhood, and go over each opinion and discard those which are anything but true and beyond doubt. Hyperbolic doubt does have an overarching value, in which no more doubt can be applied, and this is known as ‘The Evil Genius Doubt’. If a belief can stand up against this doubt, it is worthy of becoming a part of the foundation for ones knowledge (Newman 2010).
Upon completion of his “Discourse of Method”, Descartes sent his text out to the best minds across the globe for critiquing and feedback. He received several responses to his works, and responded to each of them individually, eventually adding them onto his book. Through the array of criticism he received, Gassendi had the simplest of critiques; why did Descartes excessively consider everything as false, as opposed to merely labelling his previous knowledge as uncertain, and attempt to conclude on their validity once he had secured the foundation of knowledge (Newman 2010).
The more hyperbolic the doubt, the harder it is to come to a certain answer about any knowledge or foundation, if one is to doubt something lightly, it is much easier to come to the conclusion that it is a justified, true idea and should count as knowledge, but if heavier doubt is consistently applied to even the core of ones beliefs, it should become impossible to settle on an unquestionable truth. Descartes mentions that there is a “supreme overlord” of doubt, but with little explanation into the doubt of all doubts, it appears to be quite an elusive thing to achieve, leading me to claim that the method of doubt appears to be a circular theory.
In an attempt to prove that the existence of god is undeniable, Descartes claims that because he is aware of other perfections in man that he does not hold, there was a nature which was god. He continued to add that thinking in the way that we have a body, and knowing that there are stars are less certain than gods existence (Descartes 1673, p.19). Descartes method of doubt would lead one to the conclusion that there is not enough empirical evidence and too much doubt that god exists to say this is so. As Descartes had a heavy hand when describing his devotion to his religion, it appeared as though he was making an exception to the rule.
Descartes motive was to fight against human nature, and the habit of dependence on second hand knowledge, which is nothing less than a noble intention. The underlying drive behind Descartes method of doubt is perhaps the most attractive part of the theory; although flawed it captures and bring awareness to the inability we have to filter and philosophise about information fed to us through external channels.
Descartes, Rene 1637, (italics) Discourse on the Method for Reasoning Well and for Seeking Truth in the Sciences, trans I Johnston, Vancouver Island University, Canada
Newman, Lex, “Descartes’ Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/descartes-epistemology/>.