Descartes' Skeptical Argument and Reponses by Bouwsma and Malcolm
In this essay, I will examine Rene Descartes' skeptical argument and
responses by O.K. Bouwsma and Norman Malcolm. I intend to prove that while both
Bouwsma and Malcolm make points that refute specific parts of Descartes'
argument in their criticisms, neither is sufficient in itself to refute the
In order to understand Descartes' argument and its sometimes radical ideas,
one must have at least a general idea of his motives in undertaking the argument.
The seventeenth century was a time of great scientific progress, and the
blossoming scientific community was concerned with setting up a consistent
standard to define what constituted science. Their science was based on
conjunction and empirical affirmation, ideally without any preconceived notions
to taint the results. Descartes, however, believed that the senses were
unreliable and that science based solely on information gained from the senses
was uncertain. He was concerned with finding a point of certainty on which to
base scientific thought. Eventually he settled on mathematics as a basis for
science, because he believed mathematics and geometry to be based on some
inherent truths. He believed that it was through mathematics that we were able
to make sense of our world, and that the ability to think mathematically was an
innate ability of all human beings. This theory becomes important in Descartes'
Meditations because he is forced to explain where the mathematical ideas that he
believed we were born with came from. Having discussed Descartes' background, I
will now explain the specifics of his argument.
The basis of Descartes' entire argument is that the senses can not be
trusted, and his objective is to reach a point of certainty, one undeniable
truth that fixes our existence. He said it best in his own words, "I will . . .
apply myself earnestly and openly to the general destruction of my former
opinions."1 By opinions he meant all the facts and notions about the world
which he had previously held as truths. Any point which had even the slightest
hint of doubt was discarded and considered completely false. Descartes decided
that he would consider all things until he found that either nothing is certain,
which is itself a point of certainty, or he reached the one undeniable truth he
was searching for. In order to accomplish this certainty, in the first
Meditation he asks the reader to assume that they are asleep and that all their
sensory information is the product of dreams. More significantly, Descartes
implies that all consciousness could actually be a dream state, thus proving
that the senses can be doubted. The dream argument has its intrinsic problems,
however. One, is that images in dreams can be described as "painted images".2
In other words, a dream image is only a portrait of a real-life object, place or
person. If we are dreaming then it is implied that at some point we were