Contemporary Concerns: Pushpa Rani Prasad

Descartes : As the father of Modern Western Philosophy and his ‘Dream Argument related with Modern Literature’
Dr. Pushpa Rani Prasad

Abstract
In Meditation I Descartes offers an argument to show that he cannot know that he is not dreaming. This argument has occupied a central place in the history of modern philosophy: it forcefully raises the problem of external world, and, at the same time, leads to considerations that Descartes uses in his proof of dualism. It has seemed to many philosophers that some more or less simple manoeuvre is all that is needed to refute the argument. But in my view, some of the criticisms miss the mark entirely, other show that the argument needs to be reformulated in certain ways. My aim in this paper is to show that Descartes’ argument is a great deal more difficult to refute than has been commonly thought. I have pointed out Descartes’ distinction between moral and metaphysical certainty and then to show that in the light of the distinction between moral and metaphysical certainty, we can interpret the Dream Argument so that they do not commit Descartes to inconsistent claims. 

Introduction
            In the second stage of the method of doubt Descartes takes a quick inventory of the opinions that survived the first stage. Thus, while the first stage advocates a hard line against the reliability of the sense faculties in general, it soon becomes clear that the implicit arguments deployed there in fact have a more limited efficacy. So, while he admits that the senses ought not to be trusted in the extraordinary circumstances there are plenty of quite ordinary circumstances where it would be foolish to doubt their testimony. Descartes, therefore, urges a more cautious approach that recognizes that there are many occasions in which the senses simply do not offer conflicting testimony. Thus, that he is sitting by the fire, wearing his dressing gown and holding his pen and paper is testified to unequivocally by his senses and, more importantly, this picture of the situation is confirmed in a coherent way by each of his senses.  One would have to be mad to suspect the testimony of the senses in such circumstances. Descartes deploys the madness hypothesis. According to this it must be admitted that if one is mad the reliability of such opinion as ‘I am sitting in my study now’ would be called into question and it is through the introduction of this possibility that Descartes first seeks to dislodge the opinions that had survived the first stage of doubt. But soon he moves on to what is now famously referred to as dream argument. Having noted that he is not mad, or at the very least ought not to admit this possibility into his method, he immediately notes that he is in the habit of sleeping and having dreams.

Descartes’ Dream Argument           
            Having noted that, as a man, he is accustomed to dream, Descartes continues:
            “At this moment it does indeed seem to me that it is with eyes awake that I am looking at this paper; that this head which I move is not asleep, that it is deliberately and of set purpose that I extend my hand and perceive it; what happens in sleep does not appear so clear nor so distinct as does all this. But in thinking over this I remind myself that on many occasions I have in sleep been deceived by similar illusions, and in dwelling carefully on this reflection I see so manifestly that there are no certain indications by which we may clearly distinguish wakefulness from sleep that I am lost in astonishment. And my astonishment is such that it is almost capable of persuading me that I now dream.” 1
            In the above ‘Dreaming Argument’ Descartes suggests that the alleged impossibility of distinguishing waking from sleeping by certain marks provides some reason for doubting even those sense -based beliefs that concern the most obvious aspects of his current personal circumstances and surroundings. According to the most common interpretation, the dream argument is intended to show that I cannot be certain of particular sense-based judgements such as ‘I am sitting by the fire’, ‘I am standing up’, or ‘here are two human hands’. And it is supposed to reach this conclusion via the premises; I cannot know for certain that I am now awake, rather than asleep and dreaming.
            The Dream Argument has received the close scrutiny Cartesian classics deserve. Critics have raised objections, and friends of Descartes have tried to answer them.
            Descartes wants to show that some of his sensory evidenced beliefs are uncertain. He opens with:
(1)       My present experience is qualitatively indistinguishable from dreams I have had.
With the aid of other premises, he infers what is called the Dream Uncertainly Principle:
(2)       I am uncertain that I am not now dreaming.
Descartes then uses (2) and other premises to get:
(3)       I am uncertain of particular propositions evidenced by my senses.
G.M. Moore’s objection to the Dream Argument is still widely accepted. Moore objects that Descartes is committed to inconsistent claims. Moore thinks the argument is in trouble even before the details are filled in:
            “There is a very serious objection to the procedure of using it (1) as a premise in favour of the derived conclusion (2). For a philosopher who does use it (1) as a premise, is, I think, in fact implying, though he does not expressly say, that he himself knows it to be true. He is implying therefore that he himself knows that dreams have occurred. And, of course, I think he would be right. All the philosophers I have ever met or heard of certainly did know that dreams have occurred: we all know that dreams have occurred. But can he consistently combine this proposition that he knows that dreams have occurred, with his conclusion that he does not know that he is not dreaming? Can anybody possibly know that dreams have occurred, if, at the time, he does not himself know that he is not dreaming? If he is dreaming, it may be that he is only dreaming that dreams have occurred; and if he does not know that he is not dreaming, can he possibly know that he is not only dreaming that dreams have occurred? Can he possibly know therefore that dreams have occurred? I do not think he can; and therefore, I think that anyone who uses this premise and also asserts the conclusion that nobody ever knows that he is not dreaming, is guilty of an inconsistency.”2
            When Descartes uses (1) in his argument, he presumably commits himself to the claim that (1) is certain; that is, to
(4)       I am certain that (1) my present experience is qualitatively indistinguishable from dreams I have had.
            Moore things that (4) is inconsistent with the Dream Uncertainty Principle (2). Just as the Dream Uncertainty Principle implies that Descartes is not certain of particular beliefs evidenced by his senses, it also implies that Descartes is not certain that he has had dreams qualitatively indistinguishable from his present experience.
            Other commentators agree with Moore. David Blumenfeld and Jean Beer Blumenfeld in their recent examination of the Dream Argument announce that “Moore is correct”3.
            The problem Descartes sets himself in the First Meditation is to find ‘certain marks’ to distinguish dreaming from waking, where this is understood to mean marks by which one may certainly tell on a given occasion whether one is, on that occasion, dreaming or waking. But Descartes comes to retract the denial at the end of the Sixth Meditation. That is, he comes to affirm that there are certain marks to distinguish waking from dreaming.
            He writes:
            “And I must reject all the doubts of these past days, as hyperbolic and ridiculous, particularly that one about sleep, which I could not distinguish from waking; for now, I notice that there is a very great distinction between them, in as much as the things of sleep are never joined together with all the other actions of life by memory, like those which occur when awake.”4
Margaret Dauler Wilson is of the view that there are grounds for considering a different reading of both the initial argument and the reply of the Sixth Meditation. On this reading the ‘marks’ Descartes seeks are not criteria to determine whether he is on a given occasion dreaming. This interpretation goes as follows:
1.            I believe in the past I have dreamed that I was perceiving various physical objects at close range when it was false that I was really perceiving any such objects (when my experience was thoroughly delusory.)
2.            If I see no certain marks to distinguish waking experience of physical objects from dream experience when, I believe, I was deceived, I have reason to believe my waking experience too may be deceptive.
3.            I see no such certain marks to distinguish waking experience from dreams.
4.            Therefore, I have reason to suppose that waking experience too may be deceptive (thoroughly delusory).
5.            But if I have reason to suppose my waking experience may be deceptive, I have reason to doubt the existence of physical objects.

According to Wilson:
“Here the source of doubt is not located in the problem of knowing one is awake; it is rather expressed in the claim that I cannot say why I should unquestionably regard waking experience of physical objects as real or veridical, when there are no marks to distinguish it from the illusions of dreams.”5
On this reading, the point of the observations about connectability in Meditation VI is that there are after all marks present in waking experience that explain why we should rationally regard it as different from the illusions of dreams – i.e. as having some claims to veridicality. The fact that one has falsely dreamed he perceives physical objects no longer provides a ground for doubt of one’s present waking belief that one is perceiving physical objects. For one notices that his waking experience has a characteristic one finds to be lacking in the dream experience he dismisses as unreal. Descartes’ statements of the Dreaming Argument in the ‘Discourse on Method’ and in the ‘Principles of Philosophy’ also indicate that the question to be raised is not whether he is awake but rather whether the objects experienced when awake are real.
            I have discussed Wilson’s alternative reading of Descartes’ dream argument. Now I shall examine Peter J. Markie’s views. In his paper Dream and Deceivers in Mediation I Markie has tried to eliminate the ambiguity in Descartes’ Dream argument. We have seen that Moore is of the view that Descartes is committed to inconsistent claims. Markie is of the view that the terms ‘uncertain’ and ‘certain’ are ambiguous in the four claims they cite; once we eliminate the ambiguity, Descartes’ position is clearly consistent.  Markie is of the view that once we appreciate Descartes’ distinction between moral and metaphysical certainty, we can show that Descartes’ position is clearly consistent.
            First, I find it necessary to clarify the definitions of moral and metaphysical certainties.
In Discourse on Method Descartes says that it is more certain that he has a soul and that God exists than he is that there are stars and an earth. He has metaphysical certainty, or complete assurance, about God and his soul; he has only moral certainty about the stars and the earth. Moral certainty is a lower grade of epistemic appraisal than metaphysical certainty, but it still has some punch to it; Descartes says that it is extravagant for him to doubt moral certainties.
The distinction between metaphysical and moral certainty also comes into play in the First Meditation. After he presents the Dream and Deceiver Arguments, Descartes says that beliefs he has considered are:
“Opinions in some measure doubtful, as I have just shown, and at the same time highly probable, so that there is much more reason to believe in them than to deny them”.6
Descartes might have put his point in slightly different terms. The beliefs he has considered are not metaphysical certainties (they lack complete assurance), but they are moral certainties.
In my view the supposedly inconsistent claims citied by Moore are ambiguous. The term ‘certain’ in each may refer to moral or to metaphysical certainty; ‘uncertain’ to moral or to metaphysical uncertainty. We need only explore the concepts of moral and metaphysical certainty to see that Descartes’ position is consistent.
Let us concentrate on moral certainty first. Descartes thinks our moral certainties have three important characteristics.
“It is ‘extravagant for us to doubt them”.7
“We have ‘more reason to believe in them than to deny them.”8
“And they are ‘highly probable, so that there is much more reason to believe in them than to deny them.”9
            What about metaphysical certainty? According to Descartes, metaphysical certainty is a higher grade of epistemic appraisal than moral certainty; metaphysical certainty is ‘complete assurance’. His point is again fairly clear. When a proposition is a metaphysical certainty for us, believing it is more reasonable for us from the standard perspective than doubting it or denying it; indeed, believing it is as reasonable as belief ever can be from that perspective.
Descartes thinks his metaphysical certainties are just those moral certainties he has no reason to doubt.
This is all the information we need to give an adequate Cartesian response to Moore. It is time to reconsider Descartes’ presumably inconsistent commitments which Moore cites as discussed above. Premises (2) as above states that -
            “I am uncertain that I am not now dreaming.”
            and premise (4) states that -
            “I am certain that (1) my present experience is qualitatively   indistinguishable from dreams I have had.”
We can quickly clear away part of the ambiguity involved. (2) is a premise of the Dream Argument. It says that reasons for doubt have not been ruled out. Since reasons of doubt need only be metaphysical possibilities, the term ‘uncertain’ in (2) refers to metaphysical uncertainty. We may restate them as:
            (2a) It is a metaphysical possibility for me that I am now dreaming.
            What about (4)? We have two choices with regard to (4):
            (4a) I am metaphysically certain that (1) my present experience is qualitatively indistinguishable from dreams I have had.
            (4b) I am morally certain that (1) my present experience is                qualitatively indistinguishable from dreams I have had.
            Descartes is in trouble if he is claiming metaphysical certainty, viz. (4a). According to (2a), Descartes has not ruled out the hypothesis that his present experience, including his recollection of having had dreams like his present experience, is all part of a dream. If Descartes has not ruled out this hypothesis, his belief that he has had dreams like his present experience is not maximally reasonable from the standard perspective. He lacks the metaphysical certainty claimed in (4a).
            The contradictions Moore is after do not arise if Descartes is claiming only moral certainty, viz. (4b). Descartes can be morally certain of a proposition even though he has a reason to doubt it. The metaphysical possibility that he is dreaming does not imply that he is morally uncertain that he has had dreams similar to his present experience.
            Moore does not try to show that Descartes is committed to the claims to metaphysical certainty, (4a), rather than those to moral certainty, (4b). We may suggest two arguments on his behalf.
            The first argument appeals to the text. When Descartes begins the Meditations, he exchanges the standard epistemic imperative, believe all and only what is true, for the Cartesian imperative, believe only what is true and metaphysically certain. Since Descartes accepts that Cartesian imperative and goes on to give the Dream Argument, he is committed to the claim that the premises of his arguments are metaphysically certain and true. He is, therefore, committed to (4a).
            This otherwise persuasive argument has one flaw. Descartes does not simply replace the standard epistemic imperative the one to believe only what is true and metaphysically certain. His new Cartesian imperative is to include in his scientific theory all and only what is metaphysically certain and true. Descartes does not give up the standard imperative, he just restricts its range of application to areas other than science. His investigation in the Meditations is governed by two imperatives: to accept, under the heading of ‘non-science’, all and only what is true; to include under the heading of ‘science’ all and only what is metaphysically certain and true. Since the Dream Argument is not part of his scientific theory, his acceptance of its premises and conclusions is governed by the standard epistemic imperative. He is committed to the claim that its premises and conclusions are true and reasonable for him to adopt from the standard perspective (morally certain). Yet, none of this amounts to a commitment to (4a) with their claims to metaphysical certainty.
            It appears to me that the text supports the view that Descartes restricts his new imperative to his scientific theory. He never says he adopts the new imperative without restriction. While he does not directly say that he limits the new imperative to the sciences, several passages indirectly support this view. When he presents the new imperative in Meditation I, he prefaces his statement of it with a biographical account that shows the sciences are his concern: 
            “It is now some years since I detected how many were the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had since constructed on this basis; and from that time I was convinced that I must once for all seriously undertake to rid myself of all the opinions which I had formerly accepted, and commence to build a new from the foundations, if I wanted to establish any firm and permanent structure in the sciences.”10
There is also textual support for the view that Descartes does not include the Dream Argument in his scientific theory. Descartes’s scientific theory includes some philosophical principles that provide the basis for mathematics and the physical sciences:
“But having noticed that the knowledge of these difficulties [in mathematics and other sciences] must be dependent on principles derived from Philosophy in which I yet found nothing to be certain, I thought that it was requisite above all to try to establish certainty in it.”11
Descartes presents these metaphysically certain philosophical principles in the Meditations and the Principles, and he does not list the premises and conclusions of the Dream Argument among them. In the Meditations, he presents the Dream Argument in Meditation I but does not claim to find a metaphysically certain proposition until he considers his existence in Meditation II. In the Principles, two sections after he gives the Dream Argument, he writes that:
“[T]his conclusion ‘I think, therefore I am’ is the first and most certain of all that occurs to one who philosophises in an orderly way.”12
Descartes fills out his scientific theory in both works by adding claims about his own nature and God’s to the one that he thinks and, therefore, exists. He then decides that these philosophical claims provide the basis for mathematics and the physical sciences:
“And it seems to me that I now have before me a road which will lead us from the contemplation of the true God (in whom all the treasures of science and wisdom are contained) to knowledge of the other objects of the universe.”13
“And now that I know Him I have the means of acquiring a perfect knowledge of an infinitude of things, not only of those which relate to God Himself and other intellectual matters, but also of those which pertain to corporeal nature in so far as it is the object of pure mathematics (which have no concern with whether it exists or not).”14
Descartes never includes the Dream Argument among his scientific discoveries.
The second argument which has been suggested on behalf of Moore gives us a choice. Either decide that Descartes presents the Dream Argument in an attempt to derive metaphysically certain conclusions from metaphysically certain premises or decide that those arguments have no important epistemic role in the First Meditation. Since the second choice is unacceptable, we are stuck with the first.
The problem with this argument is that the Dream Argument has an important epistemic influence on Descartes consistent with their having only morally certain premises and conclusions. Since, we may assume, their premises are moral certainties, the arguments make Descartes morally certain that propositions he has previously accepted in the natural sciences and mathematics are metaphysically uncertain. The attainment of this epistemic state is very important to him. Once it is reasonable for him to believe, from the standard perspective, that those previously accepted propositions are metaphysically uncertain, it is also reasonable for him to believe, from that perspective, that those propositions do not meet the requirement set by the Cartesian imperative for inclusion in his scientific theory. This makes it reasonable for him to exclude those previously accepted propositions from his scientific theory, which is just what he does at the end of the First Meditation.
Descartes comes very close to describing this epistemic function of his arguments:
“[A]t the end I feel constrained to confess that there is nothing in all that I formerly believed to be true, of which I cannot in some measure doubt, and that not merely through want of thought or through levity, but for reasons which are very powerful and maturely considered; so that henceforth I ought not the less carefully to refrain from giving credence to these opinions than to that which is manifestly false, if I desire to arrive at any certainty [in the sciences].”15
I think Descartes has in mind that his moral certainty that his past beliefs are metaphysically uncertain (‘I feel constrained to confess that there is nothing in all that I formerly believed to be true, of which I cannot in some measure doubt’) plus his decision to include in his scientific theory only what is metaphysically certain (‘if I desire to arrive at any certainty in the sciences’) makes it reasonable for him to exclude his past beliefs from his scientific theory (‘I ought not the less carefully to refrain from giving credence to these opinions than to that which is manifestly false’). He later includes some of these past beliefs in his scientific theory, but he only does so once he is able to derive them from his presumably metaphysically certain philosophical claims about his own nature and God’s.
On the basis of above discussions, I have come to the conclusion that once we appreciate Descartes’ distinction between moral and metaphysical certainty, we can interpret the Dream Argument so that they do not commit Descartes to inconsistent claims. We can do this in a way that provides those argument with an important function in Descartes’ strategy of general doubt.
Markie has rightly said that:
“They give him the morally certain information that some of his past beliefs are metaphysically uncertain. This information makes his exclusion of those beliefs from his scientific theory under his new Cartesian imperative reasonable.”16


REFERENCE

1
Haldane, Elizabeth.S and G.R.T Ross; The Philosophical Works of Descartes,  Cambridge University Press, 1967, p.146
2
Moore, George Edward; ‘Certainty’ In Philosophical Papers p. 248-249  Quoted in Rene Descartes : Critical Assessments, Ed. by J.D. Moyal,  Vol II, Routledge, London, p. 111

3
Blumenfeld, David and Jean Beer Blumenfeld; Can I know that I am not Dreaming. In – Descartes : Critical and Interpretive Essays Ed – Michael Hooker, London, p. 240
4
Haldane, Elizabeth.S and G.R.T Ross; The Philosophical Works of Descartes,  Cambridge University Press, 1967; Vol I, p.198-99
5
Wilson, Margaret Dauler; Descartes, Routledge & Kegan Paul London, 1978, p.23
6
Haldane, Elizabeth.S and G.R.T Ross; The Philosophical Works of Descartes,  Cambridge University Press, 1967; Vol I, p.148
7
Ibid; Vol I, p.104
8
Ibid; Vol I, p.148
9
Ibid; Vol I, p.148
10
Ibid; Vol I, p.144
11
Ibid; Vol I, p.94
12
Ibid; Vol I, p.221
13
Ibid; Vol I, p.172
14
Ibid; Vol I, p.185
15
Ibid; Vol I, p.148
16
Markie, Peter J.; Dreams and Deceiver in Meditation I. In Rene Descartes, Critical Assessments, Vol II, Routledge, London, p.126 


About the Writer:Dr. Pushpa Rani Prasad, a Commissioned Principal, working at S.P. Mahila College, Dumka, Jharkhand (India) writes in both English and Hindi. She is a pioneer of modern vision and her voice for modern Indian women is miraculous and outstanding.

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