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Descartes's Method of Doubt

5. Conclusion

Book cover: The Web of Belief by W. V. Quine and J. S. Ullian

Descartes is rightly regarded as one of the forefathers of modern analytic philosophy. In seeking to wipe the epistemic slate clean and starting afresh, he sought to discover what we could know with certainty. His desire to avoid all preconception and prejudice in building a new science of knowledge is eminently admirable and his methods form the basis of schools of philosophical thought today.

The question remains whether he succeeded in his task of uncovering a set of beliefs that cannot be rationally disputed. Did Descartes apply his method of doubt to every type of proposition and with rigorous consistency? I have argued here that he failed on both counts. Descartes uncritically assumed that propositions about the self referred to a metaphysical substratum in which conscious states inhere. It turned out that whenever Descartes purportedly experienced this non-material substrate, he was simply having another conscious experience; an experience that failed to point to any underlying entity. For the sake of consistency, Descartes readily and rightly recognized the fallibility of his memory regarding previous events in his life. If he had applied his method of doubt more rigorously, he would have taken the same skeptical stance toward his past conscious states. These may never have existed also.

I argued that Descartes fared no better in his proofs for the existence of God. In Descartes's theory of knowledge, God held the indispensable role of guaranteeing the veracity of Descartes's clear and distinct ideas. However, it transpired that his proofs for the existence of God relied on clear and distinct principles, which, in turn, required the existence of God to validate. Once again, contradictorily, Descartes did not extend his initial skepticism over mathematical principles to the principles used in his proofs for God's existence. Recognizing this bifurcation, Descartes's later attempt to wrestle himself free from a deceiving demon, I argued, only led him down the path of psychologism. This ultimately subjectivist approach to epistemology surfaced as well in his method for uncovering God's attributes. I also devoted some time to showing, contra Descartes, how our understanding of the concept of infinity does not require the existence of an infinite, divine being and how Descartes's view of the nature of logic is self-defeating.

Modern philosophy is heavily indebted to Descartes's program for placing human knowledge on an incorrigible foundation. His rigorous approach to epistemology is the mainstay of philosophical argument to this day. In the end, he was not successful in warding off the deceiving demon and avoiding a radical skepticism and Humean solipsism. However, building on the work of Descartes's method of doubt, I think this task has now been more successfully completed by his philosophical descendants.

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