Doubt and Knowledge with Descartes

Why do we doubt something? What makes us certain about something? What do we mean when we say we know something? How is doubt, certainty and knowledge related to each other, if at all? Let’s explore.

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More than 300 years ago, in the 17th century, there lived a Frenchman, a philosopher who wanted to clear away all the shaky beliefs and create a solid, reliable foundation on which to build all further knowledge that would be equally reliable. His name – René Descartes – and he was after certainty. Some of his thoughts have had a profound influence on the development of the theory of knowledge, especially scientific method but not only. For example, in many societies nowadays we attach high value to critical thinking ability and we expect that anything called ‘knowledge’ (as opposed to, say, mere belief) has its truth supported by proof and not just by some authority. Descartes focused on both these ideas and, although this may seem almost natural in modern times, we humans did not always have such an outlook. Even today, there still are systems of education where you are expected to accept the truth of a certain statement because the teacher said so. Indeed, there are societies where if you are a grown-up then to ask “why” can be seen not only as a silly thing to do but even an impolite one. Children are allowed to enjoy the luxury of “why” for a while but only until a certain point after which they have to learn that there is some external authority that simply always knows better and that is the end of explanation. Despite having come a far way from Descartes some of his insights are still relevant today and we can learn from them. Here I would like to briefly look at two: doubt as a method and knowledge regardless of authority.

First, let’s start with doubt. Why do we doubt some things? With what purpose? Very generally, there could be at least two underlying motivations (perhaps more but here we go) – either to show that something is impossible or to show what is possible. In my everyday experience, I come across the first alternative more often than the second. Unfortunately. Usually, it boils down to people making general conclusions based on their particular experience. Generalisations. For instance: if I’ve had a bad experience with this one partner from a country/region/industry X, then all potential partners from that X are not to be trusted, it must be their ‘way’. This version of doubt stops here. The other alternative of doubt that I mentioned before would go further. Just to mention before I continue though – I use here a very mundane example and far less extreme than what Descartes suggests in his ‘universal doubt’ method where you should not accept anything that you have at least the slightest reason to doubt until you reach that absolute certainty that is beyond any doubt. That is where you can start building knowledge and not mere opinions or unjustified beliefs. This absolute certainty was what Descartes was after and that is where his famous “I think, therefore I am” statement comes from. That was his first absolute certainty. He felt that even if there is some horrible power manipulating all his senses and ideas and so on (along the lines of The Matrix movie), the very fact that he was able to think of all that was a sign that there was something that was doing the thinking. In other words, a “nothing” could not be having thoughts, so there must be something. This Descartes took as his first fundamental certainty that was beyond any doubt and which is a separate big topic in itself. 

From here we come to see the distinction in the underlying motivation of this second type of doubt. It assumes an initially nearly universally doubtful position but with the main purpose of looking for what is possible, what we can be certain of, what kind of knowledge can we attain. That is why it is a methodic doubt – doubt as a method to look for certainty. So, to take again my very ordinary example and apply the methodic doubt, admittedly in a more moderate way than the extreme variant proposed by Descartes: I doubt the trustworthiness of all potential partners from X (simply because there is at least a slight reason to doubt it) but I also realise that these parties from X exist and so they must function and cooperation somehow with someone; thus, although I cannot trust all of them fully, there must be some of them that I can trust enough to find appropriate ways of cooperation. You get the point. Basically, due to its approach (method) aimed at finding at least some certainty within a general context, this type of doubt is less prone to generalisations. Of course, whether it is possible to find absolute certainty that could serve as a permanent foundation for all further knowledge is in itself highly doubtful but the core of the idea remains valuable to this day: reasonable doubt as a method aimed at finding reasonable certainty and avoiding prejudice.   

Finally, the second crucial idea that came to us from Descartes – knowledge regardless of authority. This seems much more self-evident than the first topic and that’s probably because it is – for us in our modern times where individual critical thinking is highly valued in most democratic societies. However, when Descartes wrote about this idea in the 17th century it was far less self-evident. He made it one of his focus points to place an individual human being at the centre of the knowledge gaining process and basically said – don’t accept something as true just because some authority said so, doubt until you reach certainty, think critically for yourself. Well, what can I add to this, really? Perhaps only a wish for us all that, indeed, we do more of that and less of unreflective, automatic acceptance of whatever we receive from different types of authorities. 

keep exploring!          

One thought on “Doubt and Knowledge with Descartes

  1. Pingback: Thales of Miletus or the First Greek Philosopher – humanfactor

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