Examining Rene Descartes Dream Argument Philosophy Essay


In Meditation One Rene Descartes brings up the theory concerning those things that can be called into doubt. At the beginning of the meditation Descartes tells us that he wants to reject (or try to reject all of his beliefs). He is trying to accomplish this seemingly impossible feat because as he has matured he has witnessed "how numerous were the false opinions that in [his] youth [he] had taken to be true" and he had built all his other ideas on those foundations. He also mentions that in order "to establish anything firm and lasting" then he must free his mind of all presuppositions and see which beliefs are still valid. To accomplish this goal, it would be impossible to call into question every single belief. Descartes believes that if he eliminates his foundation beliefs, then the other beliefs that have been built on top of them will crumble. To be able to doubt any of his foundations, Descartes believes that two steps must be taken in order to truly call in to question or make dubitable these beliefs. The first step is to explain how one's beliefs went wrong, and the second is to explain how things would be different if this belief were to be false. This second step is the most important because if Descartes is unable to imagine a world where one of his beliefs is wrong how can that idea possibly be questioned? The easiest way for Descartes to question his beliefs would be to believe that the senses are unreliable and that they trick us at times. Descartes goes on to tell us that "the senses are sometimes deceptive" and the senses have tricked him in the past, so they could be tricking him now. This gives weight to cases where the object is "a long was off", "in bad light", etc. An ordinary sense deception provides a reason for doubting beliefs about objects "a long way off", but not objects that are up close and personal in plain view. To be able to bring into question things that are up close and personal in plain view Descartes creates the dream argument and it has a very unique view on how dreams can be so real at times that one may not be able to tell the difference when he is dreaming or awake. The dream argument is designed to call into question the existence of the material world. The reason that Descartes creates the dream argument is for the sake of calling into doubt sensory judgments; these are judgments about material things. Descartes believes that ordinary misperception occurs quite often and that the senses lead one to make false judgments. The example that Descartes provides in his meditation is a very simple and clear one. First Descartes has an experience (we will call this E1) that prompts the judgment where he is sitting next to a fire, wearing his winter dressing gown. During this first experience (E1) Descartes has a visual experience of himself sitting next to the fire and wearing his winter dressing gown. Next, Descartes lets us know that he had another experience (E2) and this prompts the same judgment where he is sitting next to the fire and wearing his winter dressing gown. The distinctive thing about his last experience (E2) is that he had this experience during a dream. Through these two experiences Descartes' comes to the conclusion that "there are no definitive signs by which to distinguish being awake from being asleep." Descartes later goes on to explain the significance of the dream argument. First off, all judgments about the material world are based on experience. Secondly, if an experience is dreamt, that is a reason to doubt the judgment based on it. Finally, for any experience (E) there is no way to tell if it is a dreamt or waking experience. These three rules lead to a final conclusion that all judgments based on experience are dubitable. With this conclusion Descartes has shaken the foundations of all of his beliefs. Of course not everything can be answered by the dream argument; there are questions that arise that Descartes is unable to provide an answer for solely with his one theory. It could be argued that the images we form in dreams can only be made up of bits and pieces of real experience combined in novel ways. This obviously means that without reality and the act of being awake we would not be able to create the things that we could misinterpret without ever waking. Although we can doubt the surface structure of our reality, we have no reason to doubt the things that make up the basics of our daily life. (In particular, there is no reason to doubt the arithmetic and geometric properties that the material world is made out of.)

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However, in the Sixth Meditation Descartes adopts a position calling into doubt the dream argument and states that there is an obvious way of telling the difference between dreaming and being awake, because "dreams are never joined by [his] memory with all the other actions of life." However, to bring a counterpoint to what is said in the Sixth Meditation, Descartes might have stated the following justifications. Just because experiences in dreams are not remembered or interrelated to our waking life does not mean that the dream world during sleep is not another form of reality. Many times I have had dreams that are very vivid and completely leave my mind while awake. However, as I return to bed and prepare to go to sleep these vivid dreams come rushing back as though my psychic being is preparing to enter the dream world. The dream world experienced while asleep may indeed be a completely different dimension that our psychic consciousness goes to. There may be an infinite amount of plains that we visit while we are in this dream world. They have no relation to the physical world or experiences that we have while awake therefore; that is why we encounter persons, places and things that are completely unknown and irrelevant to us in the reality we experience while awake. Therefore, who is to say which state is the most real? As we spend almost as much time sleeping as we do awake. Some experiences while awake are primarily to nourish our physical bodies. However, our psychic emotional states may be nourished more while in the dream state as opposed to the repetitive mundane experiences from daily life. It is highly possible that our consciousness develops more while being immersed in the dream state more so than in the waking state which goes hand in hand with the statement 'reality sucks.'