Thursday, April 24, 2014

Descartes: Portrait of a Sense-able Man


(A man so bright he always needs shades.)

So I found myself rereading Descartes' First Meditation again recently and it can be effectively summarized with the phrase "It is impossible to know anything - But here are some things that I know". It sounds a bit silly when phrased that way but Descartes undertook in his later years the task of trying to figure out what he could know with absolute certainty and came up with some interesting conclusions.

Descartes starts his crazy journey of discovery by explaining that everything, literally everything, we believe is true we have learned through our senses: "All that up to the present time I have accepted as most true and certain I have learned either from the senses or through the senses; but it is sometimes proved to me that these senses are deceptive, and it is wiser not to trust entirely to any thing by which we have once been deceived".

Was Descartes right not to trust his senses entirely?
See for yourself!

(Fa: A long, long way to run.)

The weirdness I just subjected you to is called the McGurk Effect (for those of you too illiterate to catch the video's title, but literate enough to read this blog), and it demonstrates how while our sense of hearing can offer one reality, our sense of sight can show another, and the truth can become a very difficult thing to determine, much like in Descartes' opinion.

Descartes' examples of altered realities through sense data leads him to explain that while you might have difficulty questioning the reality you can see, hear, feel and taste with certainty that we've all felt certain about our the realities of some of our dreams. So that even in our waking hours we cannot be certain of the "realness" of our reality. He further claims that because of the ability of dream-realities to change many concepts we consider to be immutable laws "that Physics, Astronomy, Medicine and all other sciences which have as their end the consideration of composite things, are very dubious and uncertain".

Take for example Inception:
(Joseph Gordon-Levitt can incept my dreams any day.)

In the famous Hallway fight scene between the enchantingly sexy Joseph Gordon-Levitt demonstrates Descartes' theories on Physics, among other things, adhering to different rules based on the reality in which the subject is currently exploring. Joseph, and his nameless opponent, fight in a realm where Physics act all silly and thus prove that the laws of Physics can be subject to change in dreams.

Descartes' ends his first Meditation with the conclusion that although he cannot perceive God with any of his senses, and although he has just previously explained that all knowledge even that collected by the senses can be questioned, he has no doubt that God exists. He further concludes that "I fall back into my former opinions, and I dread awakening from this slumber", so basically 'I'm too deep in the rabbit hole and would like to return to the place where everything is real, God exists and I can generally trust my senses' without much basis for his decision to return.

So in conclusion Descartes' had some neat theories, but prefers the potential illusion of reality to his own ideas. Vaguely reminiscent of Morpheus' quote from the Matrix "You have to understand that most of these people are not ready to be unplugged" and I suppose that Descartes', the first person to recognize the possibility we live in a Matrix-Inception-Dream-Program-Thing, was among those to whom Morpheus refered.

(Descartes took the blue pill. What a tool.)


  1. That McGurk Effect video is awesome, and this was new to me. SO fascinating!! Great post all around, though hard to get past the misspelling of DESCARTES. Doh.

  2. I have no idea what you're talking about.
    Mayhaps your senses are deceiving you!

    Trust nothing.

  3. I really enjoyed your page! Great summation of Descartes.


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