Friday, August 15, 2008

why Descartes' criterion of doubt is awesome

I don’t know how many times I’ve read Descartes’ Meditations. I’ve definitely read it more than any other philosophical text so far, and I love it (and hate it) every time. It’s amazing to think about how much of an impact that short treatise has made on academic philosophy in particular and on intellectual culture in general.

The criterion of doubt continues to capture my interest, as well as I think any epistemologically minded reader of Descartes.

I think Descartes tied it to a completely implausible theory of mind, whereby the cognizer is endowed by God with an extremely powerful doxastic will. Perhaps Descartes was able to exercise his will such that he was able to disbelieve obvious perceptual appearance propositions or even mathematical propositions. I can’t.

See this post for what I think motivated Descartes to affirm such a strong doxastic voluntarism.

However, I think it would be premature to jettison the criterion of doubt on the implausibility of the overly strong Cartesian will. There’s a way to think about and deeply appreciate the criterion of doubt that has lasting salutary effects on one’s philosophical temper.

Here’s how it goes. Even though, pace Descartes, I am not able to disbelieve at will some of the beliefs that are forced upon me (such as ordinary sense perceptual beliefs), I can nevertheless engage in epistemic empathy combined with a little make-believe. I can imagine what it would be like to fail to hold a belief in question. A little further, I can imagine what it would be like for me to live without a belief in question.

Perhaps an example is in order.

I currently believe that there is a God. This is a fairly strong belief over which I do not exercise direct control, either to believe or disbelieve. There are things that could happen to me (some of which I might be able to initiate in some sense which might qualify as very indirect control) that would alter the strength of the belief or perhaps vanquish it altogether, but the important point to note is that these scenarios involve something happening to my beliefs.

Even though I do not exercise direct control over this belief, I can nevertheless imagine myself and my life without belief in the existence of God. Many things would change; many would remain exactly as they are. In this respect, I can bring about a kind of empathy and identification with that version of myself. I prefer the way I am now (and the way reality is, if my current representation is true), but I also don’t recoil at the picture that is formed on the basis of the thought experiment of the alternative.

Back to the criterion of doubt and the possible salutary effects...

Even though Descartes is wrong to connect the criterion of doubt with his view of the cognitive will, the criterion is useful in that it is an aid towards epistemic humility.

If one can imagine, consider, and form a lively picture about the alternative epistemic commitments one might bear (and manage not to recoil), I think one is better off, on the whole, in terms of one’s intellectual virtues of fair-mindedness, intellectual charity, and accurate self-assessment of one’s own epistemic justification. This becomes important and evident when one actually encounters someone else whose beliefs differ markedly on a range of issues, some of which might be quite important. If one has already exercised this practice of “otherness” on oneself and also found that imaginary “self-other” not to be so foreign after all, then the extension of charity should be one of degree, not of kind, when one encounters another person who might initially strike one as “other.”

I guess in a weird kind of way, the criterion of doubt can be mobilized into an epistemic counterpart of the Golden Rule.

All of this is consistent with having epistemic commitments. This need not be an inevitable precursor to skepticism, relativism, anti-realism, or fill-in-your-favorite-bad-blank-ism (though I have to admit that I really like skepticism).

And if the criterion is one aid, one type of exercise, in forming the habits and dispositions of epistemic humility, then I’m all for it.
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