Thought Dump: René Descartes’s Skepticism

As many of you may know, I’ve been doing a deep dive into philosophy over the past year. With people like Nietzsche, Socrates, and more, I’ve learned how to question my existing beliefs and understandings of my reality.

This week I decided to take on a new philosopher: René Descartes

René Descartes had thoughts way ahead of his time. He created foundations of intuition that, when he is thinking, he exists; this he expressed in the quote “I think, therefore I am.” His work still impacts us today in math, physics, mind, and of course, philosophy.

In particular, I want to talk about his work in Cartesian doubt, or skepticism. Cartesian doubt is a process of being skeptical about the truth of one’s beliefs, which has become a characteristic method in philosophy. We see this in the modern world with things like the scientific method.

After spending more than a week going deep into the subject, I got some thoughts of my own.

My Thoughts On Skepticism

Questions

Researching the idea of questioning everything has made me question even that philosophy.

I don’t wholeheartedly agree with skepticism to the very core. In my readings, there were critiques and ideologies that counter how René Descartes seemed to think about the subject. I would pose these to him as questions.

Wouldn’t anyone who tried to be a complete skeptic drive themselves insane? The doubt conjured by this process of philosophical thought could end up removing pleasure from basic, human activities. A skeptic would isolate themselves from natural practice in an effort to discover the truth; which becomes especially harmful if they truth couldn’t be found. Even David Hume, a key philosopher, argued that the complete skeptic would wind up starving to death or walking into walls or out of windows.

Does it prevent real progress? Skeptics may end up raising false problems. In many instances, questioning a basic belief ends up meaningless. There may be no real answer. In turn, the skeptic only makes a situation worse. For example, in high-school geometry, we’re taught postulates. They’re given to us as true until we have a need (perhaps in undergrad or grad school) to actually understand how it works. Using these postulates, believing something to be true, we’re able to create progress.

Praises

Alongside critical questions I may have for Descartes, I do acknowledge the benefit of skepticism. The harms and benefits can cut both ways.

Skepticism allows people to formulate their own decison-making calculus. By questioning what you were taught, skepticism allows our society to become more progressive. The feminist and the anti-racism movement would’ve never happened until someone questioned why anybody could be treated differently based on gender or race.

It also creates scientific progress. As I said earlier, the scientific method was developed from the principles of Cartesian doubt. By questioning an existing assumption, we allow ourselves to go deeper into the idea and achieve full understanding.

Takeaways

All in all, I do think there are benefits of skeptics. As a human, I should learn to question my beliefs and challenge what I’m being told. However, as Humes wrote, it’s important to notice when you’re causing more problems than you’re solving. Let’s not drive ourselves into insanity.

Here are some basic things I’ve started to become more skeptical in my everyday life:

  1. Use Data – Get the numbers and use them as a basis for reason. Avoid subjective judgements and always look for data to provide a foundation for your conclusions.
  2. “What if I’m wrong?” – Before getting into a heated argument about my point of view, I try to ask myself this question. It helps me begin thinking about the other side and, in many cases, prevents a fight. Part of this involves cutting your arrogance and recognizing that you can be wrong.
  3. Play the Devil’s Advocate – Even in conversations where I agree with the point someone is making, I try to play the devil’s advocate. Thinking of a problem that the other side may have can yield new, creative answers. Most times, you won’t end up changing your mind out of your original stance. But, in all of those times, you will get to understand your own argument better after having to defend it.

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