Descartes' Skeptical Method of Doubt
Descartes’ main task in the Meditations was to devise a system that would bring him to the truth. He wanted to build a foundational philosophy; a basic structure from which all further intellectual inquiry could be built. It was essential that his foundational beliefs were sound. If any one of them were at all in doubt, then it put the credibility of the whole structure of knowledge in jeopardy. Thus, Descartes utilised a method of systematic doubt to weed out those beliefs of which he could not be entirely certain. This approach is called the Method of Doubt.
There are two parts to Descartes’s overall method. The first part is the skeptical Method of Doubt. The second part is a constructive phase where he would rebuild the structure of knowledge based upon the truths that remained after the employment of his Method of Doubt. The main problem with Descartes’s method is that when he reconstructed his body of knowledge, he made use of many assumptions that he had not shown to pass the Method of Doubt.
The principle behind Descartes’s approach is that there is a distinction between belief and truth. For example, having made a pot of tea five minutes ago, I may well believe that it is now full and ready to pour. But in truth, perhaps, someone else may alreald have drunk the tea and emptied the pot while I was out of the kitchen waiting for it to brew. Although I think this is unlikely, and I continue to believe the pot is full of tea, I cannot be sure of it. Thus it is possible that I may believe something, but to my surprise find that it is not true. This situation is not inconsistent. The Method of Doubt ultimately involves the task of removing all uncertain beliefs, ensuring that only beliefs that are certainly true beliefs remain in one’s philosophy. Descartes states in the first paragraph of Meditation 1 that ‘I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterwards based on such principles was highly doubtful; and … I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking … to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted’.
Descartes saw that the Method of Doubt could be applied, generally, to a whole class of beliefs. This way he would not have to go through all the trouble of checking each and every one of his beliefs separately. Instead, he could deal with them in groups by doubting any common characteristic that they may share. ‘Nor for this purpose will it be necessary even to deal with each belief individually, which would be truly an endless labour; but, as the removal from below of the foundation necessarily involves the downfall of the whole edifice, I will at once approach the criticism of the principles on which all my former beliefs rest’ (from Meditations 1).
With this approach Descartes has an opportunity to bring doubt to bare on the whole class of beliefs that are based on sensory perception.
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