The Seriousness of doubt and our natural trust in the senses in the First Meditation

David Macarthur

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6 Citations (Scopus)


In the present paper I shall argue that the real problem here is the very idea that there is a dilemma that compels us to choose sides. We can hold both that the meditator's doubts are fully serious, and that they leave the perspective of common sense largely unscathed. The key to dissolving the dilemma is to see that the meditator observes a distinction between two levels of epistemic standards: the very demanding standards appropriate to certainty, understood in a rather technical sense of that term; and the commonplace standards appropriate to reasonable belief. The significance of this levels distinction has not been widely appreciated but it has important consequences both for how we are to understand the skepticism about the senses that is at issue and for appreciating the extent to which Descartes acknowledges and retains our natural trust in the senses. I aim to show that the meditator’s skepticIsm about the senses specifically concerns the possibility of sensory certainties, and is quite serious. It is intended to lead one to a stable change of mind about what is most certain. But a skepticIsm about sense-based certainty leaves the matter of whether experience provides a reliable basis for belief untouched by reasonable doubt. Since the meditator's doubts presuppose very demanding standards they have no bearing on our assessments from within the common sense perspective. I defend this view by arguing that the methodological 'withdrawal of assent' from perceptual beliefs is a mere pretense that is compatible with continued endorsement. Despite the seriousness with which the method of doubt is pursued, there is an important sense in which the meditator never doubts the basic deliverances of his senses. This helps explain the practical insulation of perceptual beliefs from skepticism. With one minor qualification, the meditator retains his natural trust in the senses throughout - although Descartes’ rhetoric sometimes suggests otherwise. Note that I shall be exploring the skepticism about the senses as we find it in the First Meditation. This paper does not purport to discuss all of the skeptical doubts of the First Meditation, e.g., skepticism about mathematical truths, God's existence and reason. Instead I shall focus solely upon the ways in which the meditator's doubts bear on his perceptual beliefs. The rationale for this restriction is twofold: 1) in the first place Descartes describes the general aim of the skeptical doubts of the First Meditation m terms of 'freeing us from our preconceived opinions, and providing the easiest route by which the mind may be led away from the senses’. I am specifically concerned to qualify this ambition and argue that Descartes retains throughout his preconceived trust in the reliability of the senses; and 2) the Meditations has long been thought to provide the grounds for a radical form of external world skepticism which not only denies us knowledge of, but also any reason to believe in, the existence of an external world. My discussion of Descartes' perceptual doubts is intended to show just how distant any such skepticism is from Descartes' own thoughts and intentions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)159-181
Number of pages23
JournalCanadian Journal of Philosophy
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2003


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