How do we know that we do not know?
At first glance, meditations 1 and 2 by Descartes seem like the foundation of a skeptical argument. However, when analyzed at a deeper level, his argument is not as much of a skeptical approach as it seems.
To begin, Descartes offers the dream, deceiving God, and evil demons arguments, each building off the premise that our senses can be deceiving. Although Descartes poses a strong argument, each situation can be evaluated for its weaknesses. Firstly, even though dreams can resemble much of what one sees in the real world, there are still notable differences. Seen in the movie Inception, the biggest difference seen in the dream world is a lack in continuity. Therefore, although not obvious, it can be argued that it is possible for one to know that he is not dreaming and in fact present in the real world.
When considering Descartes’s deceiving God, and evil demons arguments, it is a very far possible world. It is just as likely, if not more, that these two things do not exist. Due to the fact that they are very far possible worlds, Descartes does not actually give sufficient evidence to prove that these possibilities are true.
Descartes says that some people or things may be more deceived. However, consider the process of deceiving. According to the JTB account of knowledge and many others, in order to know that one is deceived, one must first believe he is being deceived, and one must also be justified in having that belief. In order to fulfill these requirements, one must first realize that he is being deceived. Once one realizes that he is being deceived, is the deception still a deception? When applied to the broader term of skepticism, can one still be a skeptic if one realizes that the entire world around him is a deception?
This argument however, leads into Descartes’s second meditation. In this meditation, the hopeful seems to make a more powerful argument. When arguing with the doubtful skeptic, the hopeful says: “for if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed.” (4) Take for instance, that one was actually a brain-in-a-vat. Even if the brain was being stimulated by other sources, the brain itself does actually exist. Therefore, it could not possibly be true that nothing exists. If one is able to have sensory intake, it is very possible that the intake itself is a deception; however, the thing that is taking information, the “I” in the case of Descartes’s second meditation, must exist.
Descartes arguments seem to be very powerful in the questions that it stirs among philosophers throughout the ages. Although many aspects of his arguments, especially in the first meditation, can be used for a skeptical argument, it is very important to realize that that is not the sole purpose that Descartes is trying to convey. Descartes’s arguments should be used by philosophers, to be aware of the world and their knowledge of it, instead of rejecting it as a whole.
Other sources: “Important Arguments from Descartes’ Meditations.” http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/dcarg.htm. Web.