Descartes’ and Socrates’ Doubt and Quest for Truth Essay

December 1, 2020 by Essay Writer

Although the utility of so extensive a doubt is not readily apparent, nevertheless its greatest utility lies in freeing us of all prejudices….

Descartes’ first mediation helps us free our minds from prejudices by encouraging us to doubt everything. According to Descartes, we should doubt everything including what we have learned, and what we have always believed to be true. For example, most of us believed that God exists, but Descartes argues that we should doubt such assumptions, and start to seek knowledge afresh. Another reason Descartes encourages us to doubt everything is that we acquire most of our knowledge through senses, which are imperfect and deceitful. An example that may prove this fact is dreams.

When we are dreaming, we can never tell whether the events we are experiencing are real. Therefore, dreams are a result of our senses deceiving us, and also this may happen when we are awake. Doubting everything, according to Descartes, helps us get rid of prejudices, and enables us to start acquiring real knowledge. However, Descartes also cautions that we should not doubt basic components that make material things such as size, shape, amount, and time. In Apology, we learn that Socrates also advises us not to accept knowledge without doubting. For example, he admits that the youth of Athens should not believe in gods that the majority in the city are worshiping.

Like Descartes, Socrates also believed that we should free our minds from prejudices. He stated that for us to acquire knowledge and wisdom, we should start by admitting that we know nothing. Doubting is useful because with its help we can separate facts from false information and hearsay. However, doubting everything as proposed by Descartes is wrong because it may make us discard almost all of our knowledge.

….in preparing the easiest way for us to withdraw the mind from the senses

Descartes questions and doubts the things we have always accepted as facts, and the issues we perceive through our senses. Ignoring things we perceive through our senses prevents our minds from being influenced by sensory experiences. Moreover, Descartes argues that we should discard our initial knowledge that is mainly acquired through senses, and start acquiring real knowledge through introspection. The concept of introspection is based on the belief that knowledge is innate to humans, and if we think hard we may find answers to everything. Empiricists like Plato and Descartes advocate for the withdrawal of the mind from senses because they believe that human beings are born with some concepts, for example, the knowledge that God exists.

In Phaedo, Socrates stipulates that everything we see in the world is a reflection of the perfect form that exists in our minds. This means that Socrates encourages people not to pay attention to what they perceive through their senses because they are inferior forms. Just like Descartes, Socrates also advocates for the withdrawal of the mind from senses because perfect knowledge exists in the mind. Socrates considers that the soul is immaterial, and belongs to the world of forms.

According to Socrates, knowledge emanates from the soul because the soul is capable of perceiving the universal truths. Descartes helps us understand Socrates’ arguments by stating that humans possess an immaterial mind that performs the same function as the soul, i.e. thinking. According to these two scholars, knowledge emanates from the mind/soul and anything perceived through senses is deceitful and should be doubted.

….and finally, in making it impossible for us to doubt any further those things we later discover to be true.

In mediation II to VI, Descartes tries to find out the truth through several doubts. He outlines that what he sees and perceives does not exist, and he even goes ahead to conclude that the physical world including his own body does not exist. In his quest for the truth, Descartes acknowledges that there is only one thing that exists, the mind. According to Descartes, the mind thinks, and this is what confirms his existence. This is captured in his famous statement “I think, therefore I am”. In Phaedo, Socrates also disputes the existence of the physical world and argues that everything exists in our minds. Therefore, the truth cannot be perceived through senses, but through introspection.

The new quest for the truth by Descartes and Socrates is not that successful because these two scholars undermine the role physical experience plays in gaining knowledge or knowing the truth. Descartes doubts the existence of the physical world, but human beings learn what they know from the world. We acquire all our knowledge through experience that comes from the physical world. According to philosophers like Kant, knowledge is not innate to humans. Moreover, it is the experience that comes from the physical world and enables us to acquire knowledge and know the truth.

Kant and other relativists state that at birth the human brain is like a blank slate, and it does not have any preconceived concepts apart from certain instincts. It is the experience from the physical world that ‘writes’ on the human brain and gives humans knowledge. Relativists dispute the idea that we should doubt everything and disregard information that we receive through our senses. Therefore, we may never know the truth by doubting everything or completely undermining the role of our senses and the physical world.

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