Introduction to Philosophy
PAPER TOPIC III
that you were so sure was real?
What if you were unable to wake from that dream?
How would you know the difference
between the dream world and the real world?"
- Morpheus, THE MATRIX
HOW can we be certain that we know anything, anything at all or that what we claim or think we know is true? As Descartes was fond of challenging himself in the early stages of his own Meditations, we might be deceived by what we think we see. As Descartes himself supposes "an Evil Demon might be deceiving us" or "we could be dreaming."
Those who have compared our life to a dream were perhaps more right than they thought. When we dream, our soul lives, acts, exercises all her faculties, neither more nor less than when she is awake . . . Since our reason and our soul accept the fancies and opinions which arise in it while sleeping and authorize the actions of our dreams with the same approbation as they do those of the day, we do not consider the possibility that our thinking, our acting, may be another sort of dreaming, and our waking another kind of sleep.
Descartes uses dreams in his first meditation to set up a skeptical challenge to his impression that how he takes the world to be at a given monent is the way the world is.
The world may not be the way he thinks it is because he may, at that very moment, be dreaming. As Descartes puts it:
How often, asleep at night, am I convinced of just such familiar events - that I am here in my dressing gown, sitting by the fire -when in fact I am lying undressed in bed! Yet at the moment my eyes are certainly wide awake when I look at this piece of paper; I shake my head and it is not asleep; as I stretch out and feel my hand I do so deliberately, and I know what I am doing. All this would not happen with such distinctness to someone asleep. Indeed! As if I did not remember other occasions when I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep! As I think about this more carefully, I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep. The result is that I begin to feel dazed, and this very feeling only reinforces the notion that I may be asleep.
Descartes himself was not a skeptic about his knowledge of the external world, but he was nonetheless convinced that unless the possibility (the possibility that he was dreaming or the possibility that he was being deceived by an Evil Demon) could be dismissed, he would forever remain skeptically challenged, and had to be open to the possibility that he possessed no knowledge, none whatsoever, and that all his beliefs, were a delusion.
CLICK TO CONTINUE
Send comments to: Andreas Teuber
Last Modified: 08/26/08
Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College