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 whole.
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...