Next, we have Descartes’ demon problem. This can be said to go a step farther, as it assumes that it’s possible (a non-zero chance, to be sure) that a demon is possessing you and causing you to reason and analyze incorrectly or unreliably. Thus? We can’t trust ourselves. We can only look at evidence and build from there.
Finally, we come to a short parable and thought experiment that Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi put forth: the butterfly dream. If Zhuangzi dreamt that he was a butterfly, and his dream seemed so genuine as to be reality, who’s to say that in his current life as a human, he is not just a butterfly dreaming that he is here? And again, how can we ever be sure, even about our very existence? You already know the answer, and how that should affect your approach to thinking.
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A Loss of Control
Recall that Descartes’ general method of doubt involved searching for firsthand evidence and proof, and trying to inject a bit of certainty into knowledge by starting from ground zero. This was a roundabout way to say that our reasoning abilities cannot always be trusted—a self-evident truth as we are always subject to cognitive biases, skewed perspectives, and simple errors. This is what is typically referred to as Descartes’ demon problem.
I shall then suppose, not that God who is supremely good and the fountain of truth, but some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole energies in deceiving me; I shall consider that the heavens, the earth, colours, figures, sound, and all other external things are nought but the illusions and dreams of which this genius has availed himself in order to lay traps for my credulity; I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses, yet falsely believing myself to possess all these things; I shall remain obstinately attached to this idea, and if by this means it is not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of any truth, I may at least do what is in my power and with firm purpose avoid giving credence to any false thing, or being imposed upon by this arch deceiver, however powerful and deceptive he may be.
Translation? We can’t be sure that our reasoning abilities are trustworthy, honest, reliable, or correct. Descartes puts forth an argument to prove his point, just like before. If we think about a simple addition problem such as 2+3=5, then there are two possibilities about how we reach the answer. The first possibility is that our powers of reasoning are indeed reliable and sound, and thus we are calculating correctly.
The second possibility is that an evil demon from the depths of the earth is manipulating our brain, and we only come to the conclusion that 2+3=5 because the demon puts that idea in our minds. Here, we come to an answer via deception and a profound lack of correct reasoning.
Thus, we can only trust our sense of reasoning if we can ensure that the second possibility, and ones like it, never occurs. But that’s not possible. We can’t ensure that our sense of reasoning is reliable or absolute truth—not by itself, anyway. Thus, we can only rely on firsthand evidence or experiences.
This can be a highly disconcerting notion—to not be able to trust your own reasoning and thought processes. If you can’t trust your senses or thoughts, then in what sense is your view of the world real or accurate? What, if anything, can provide the type of certainty that Descartes so desires? That is the very conundrum Descartes dealt with and strove to overcome.
On a final note concerning uncertainty, lack of knowledge, and the inevitable level of ignorance we are burdened with, let’s take a look into Taoist philosophy. One of the most famous parables, or thought experiments, comes from the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who is generally considered the second-most important figure after Lao-Tzu in Taoism. He asserted that one day he fell asleep and dreamed that he was a butterfly.
Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction.
The transition is called the transformation of material things.
When he woke up, Zhuangzi did not know whether he really was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or whether he was a butterfly now dreaming he was a man. Was it such a realistic dream that he couldn’t tell the difference? How would he ever know? How can any of us ever know?
What we believe simply may not be true. In fact, our senses and reasoning may be deceiving us. What we feel so incredibly certain of (being a human and not a butterfly)—well, think twice.