4. First Answer to the Skeptic
There are so many good reasons to be an extreme skeptic. There are the seven modes offered by the skeptical doctor in the earlier dialogue, and the Grand Deception Doubt (GDD), and just the routine experience of being wrong, which happens to everyone, and which could happen to anyone with regard to everything, it seems. And yet hardly anyone is really this skeptical. Why is this? Do we have good reasons for not being skeptics? Or are we just proud and stubborn and unwilling to think we might be wrong about everything?
After expressing the GDD, René Descartes went on to try to refute it. He wanted to show how to organize our knowledge so that everything is based upon secure principles and we would be free from skeptical doubts. He did this by establishing one thing he could never be wrong about: namely, that he existed as a thinking thing. “I think, therefore I am,” he said. He was not sure whether he had a body, or whether there were other people in the world, but he knew that he could not be wrong about his own existence. This insight of Descartes’s is called “the cogito” since in Latin he would have said “Cogito, ergo sum.”
What made him so sure? Ultimately, he found he could not make sense of any way of being wrong about his own existence. You may try to prove this to yourself. Try to imagine some situation in which you do not exist but are somehow deceived into believing that you do exist. It is impossible, for you would have to exist in some fashion in order to be deceived about anything! If you are not convinced, then try this experiment: grab something that doesn’t exist, and then try to trick it into believing that it does exist. Any success?
But if this first insight is secure, it is hard to know what to do next. Descartes goes on to argue for God’s existence and that God is not malevolent and that God would not deceive us about things that seem to us to be clearly and distinctly true, and before you know it, he has built an entire system of knowledge upon his cogito foundation. Readers generally do not find his arguments compelling. But they like the cogito. It seems like the one definitive claim philosophers have been able to prove!
In this chapter, we will explore another way someone might try to answer the skeptic, and in the next chapter we will explore a second way. The first way requires us to be content with a system of knowledge that is based upon what appears to be true.