Descartes and Scepticism (doubting stuff)
‘I think therefore I am’- you might have heard this famous line by Renee Descartes a thousand times, but never really knew what on earth he was actually talking about. So let’s start from the basics.
Once upon a time, there was a not so attractive man called Descartes. This is him.
And like many unattractive people in the world he compensated this by being super geeky and philosophising about stuff.
One day, he sat on his armchair, and began thinking about stuff and tried to work out all the things that humans know for certain. Fun. The technique he used was to start by doubting everything we already think we know (and I mean everything) and then working through them all to see if he can find something that’s impossible to doubt. He started with things we know through our five senses, and decided that nothing we know through them is guaranteed because our senses can play tricks on us. You might think that you’re on your phone or laptop now, but how can you be sure that you’re not actually a brain suspended in a glass container and being manipulated by a mad scientist? Maybe you’re in a coma, dreaming or hallucinating. Maybe we’re living in fake computerised world controlled by machines like in the Matrix movie. These questions sound silly, but also show that you can’t really trust any data you receive through your senses.
But, what about things we know that are based on logic? Like the fact that 2+2=4? Well, according to Descartes, we can’t really know stuff like that for sure either. Maybe God is not all merciful and good, and created the world with wrong logic just to fool us for the fun of it. Maybe 2+2=100, but God or some evil demon is manipulating our brains to think that logic says 2+2=100.
So what do we know for sure then? Descartes comes to one simple conclusion: he’s sure of the fact he’s thinking about all these things. And when he thinks he intuitively realises that he exists. Listen carefully now, Descartes is not saying that the fact that you are thinkingproves that you exist; because like he said, logic can’t be guaranteed to be true. Over the years Descartes’ line has been quoted as ‘I thinktherefore I am’; and the word ‘therefore’ gives you the impression that there is some logical link between thinking and existing. But in fact, it’s better to think of his argument as ‘I think; I am’- meaning when I think, I just realise on some strange intuitive level that I exist. This is a special piece of information that was taught to me during my philosophy minor, but all online sources I’ve found seem to go with the other interpretation (silly people). Honestly, why would Descartes spend hours undermining the certainty of logic and then give you a conclusion based on logic?
Wittgenstein and Language Games
Ludwig Wittgenstein was a German philosopher who just had enough of people arguing about what’s right and wrong, whether something is true or not, or if you can be sure of anything. So he turned around and said: ‘well actually, there is no objectively correct answer, everyone is just playing language games’. Basically, what he’s saying is that ethics and philosophical ideas are a social phenomenon and built into our language. If I say ‘eating people is wrong’, I’m playing a specific social language game; and in the language game of my community, this sentence is correct. But a tribe that believes in cannibalism has a different language game, and so for them the sentence ‘eating people is wrong’, is incorrect. You can’t go outside the rules of the cannibal’s language game and try to apply another set of rules. Like you can’t apply the rules of Uno to Monopoly.
If you want to disprove or justify anything you need to work from within the language game.
Wittgenstein also felt that it makes no sense to be like Descartes and doubt simple things like the sentence: ‘I have a hand’. First of all, instead of trying to figure out if the word ‘hand’ in the sentence correspond to an actual hand in reality, we should focus on the practical side of these statements. If we started doubting them it would be impossible to communicate in a normal way or really do anything. This is because everything in language depends on the fact that, ‘I have a hand’ and ‘I exist’ are considered to be true. This is how our conversations would become if we didn’t think this way:
ME: Mama I just burned my hand really badly.
Mum: Don’t worry, your hand probably doesn’t exist.
ME: I think I need the doctor.
Mum: The doctor probably doesn’t exist either. I suggest you think about him. You can’t doubt that you’re thinking of him.
Hume and the Standard of Taste
Remember, when they told you in school that there is no wrong answer when writing a literature essay? And that as long as you back-up your opinion, what you say is correct? And all that rubbish about how the sciences are based on fact and the humanities are based on opinion? Well I’m sorry to burst your bubble but there are wrong and right answers when it comes to art subjects. For example:
Shakespeare is brilliant = FACT
Twilight sucks= FACT (The books not movies)
But how can I say something like that? Well, I can say that because I’m a literature graduate and know what I’m talking about. But not everyone knows what they’re talking about.
This is basically what David Hume argues in the ‘Standard of Taste’. His theory goes like this:
When people give their opinions on things like favourite colour or ice cream flavour, it never turns into an argument. No one feels offended if their friend doesn’t agree with them that orange is the best colour. But when things turn to art, music or literature, people become extremely passionate about their ideas and find it hard to accept the other person’s opinion. Why is this? This is because there’s something more to art than opinion. In the same way that some people have good taste in food or clothes, some people have good taste and bad taste when it comes to literature. For example, a professional chef is better than an ordinary person at judging a dish because he has developed his taste and can detect the different flavours and ingredients in the food. Likewise, someone who has studied literature is a better judge of whether a book is good or not because they understand what makes good literature. So although academics will disagree on certain things, some ideas or interpretations of art are just simply wrong.