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Rene Descartes Dream Argument (2005)

"It is not until you awaken that you will realize that you have been asleep, dreaming that you are awake. "- Leonard Jacobson

In his genuine quest for truth, Rene Descartes bravely decides to free his mind from the prejudices that inhibit him from acquiring authentic knowledge by doubting everything about which he can have the slightest uncertainty. In this essay, I will evaluate Descartes’ Dream Argument, which questions the nature of reality by comparing our lives to a dream with the purpose of finding a belief that is not subject to doubt.

Descartes begins by philosophizing about what would happen if his life was only an illusion or a dream created with the aid of sense perception. This comes about after his observation that "I have never believed myself to feel anything in waking moments which I cannot also sometimes believe myself to feel when I sleep" (Descartes, 47). Consequently, this produces in him an anxiety that what he has taken to exist might be as well part of dreams since there are no clear signs that enable him to distinguish between the walking and the dreaming state since his sense perception can be deceiving. The first fact that he discovers that relives his worry is that no matter how abstract his dreams are, they always have elements that have a foundation on reality. This means that he might not be able to prove directly that he exists independently of a dream, but using this logic, he can prove that at some level there exists a physical foundation for his existence as a composite corporeal thing. In his own words "there are some other objects more simple and more universal which are real and true" (Descartes, 15).

Furthermore, having dealt with the physical entity, Descartes proceeds to discuss the universals, which he believes are a source of "obvious truths." He concentrates on mathematical observations that are independent of a physical entity, and thus, apply in both the dream and the walking state. Descartes anxiety as a philosopher resurfaces after he hypothesizes that these truths might be the product of a very successful deceit by an evil genius, or even a God, and therefore, they cannot be trusted blindly.

After this exploration, Descartes concludes that since all of his previous beliefs contain a certain degree of uncertainty, he cannot use them to deduce further knowledge, leaving him temporarily in a state of skepticism. This would have been completely unacceptable if he were to enter in a state of apathy and abandon the attempt to reach an answer to his questionings. Fortunately, this is not the case, and his initial radical approach encourages him to reach a core belief that can serve as a foundation to his philosophy as it is independent of sense perception and carefully planned deceit. After a long meditation, Descartes realizes that the accurateness of his sense perception or the fact that there is an evil genius is not relevant to ultimately prove his existence. Since he can show that he thinks, he concludes that he must exist independently of the degree of which he is being misled into trusting illusions. From this, Descartes is not only able to prove his own existence and thus relief his anxiety, but he also sets the groundwork for proving the existence of a higher being.

I find Descartes argument very appealing, especially since I found myself during my childhood in a very similar process and was able to reach a similar conclusion, and thus relieving the anguish that results from questioning you own existence. However, other philosophers have argued that there might be a flaw in the argumentation since the initial premise that there is no criterion to distinguish between sleep and wakefulness doesn’t necessarily hold true. For instance, Anthony Kenny argues that although there might not be an objective proof that he is awake, that does not imply that there is no solid grounds to say "I am awake" (Kenny, 30). However, this intuitive reasoning is not enough to clear out Descartes dream-related anxiety since in order to produce trustworthy judgments, one must be genuinely awake, and there is no proof that walking reality is not simply another level of dream consciousness.

Descartes solves his skeptic dilemma by discovering the only belief that he cannot doubt and which proves his existence. He can doubt all that comes to his mind through his senses, which clear out completely the tablet that he has keep throughout his life. Moreover, Descartes Dream Argument opens the door to a very interesting paradox. What if there was an endless cyclic chain of dreamers? This line of reasoning questions his assumption that there has to be a physical foundation for the dream, but what if the foundation was unsteady since it was also part of a dream? What if Descartes existed because God was dreaming about him? Yet on the same token, what if this infinite creature only existed because Descartes is dreaming about her in his meditation? Just as in science there is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, philosophers will never be completely without a doubt regardless to their existence (and even on other matters). However, this does not limit us to continue with our meditation by contemplating the perfection that lies before our eyes; even if we can only dream that we exist we can still find beauty and flawlessness in the flower that blooms in springtime.

Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. Trans. Cress, Donald. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., 1999. 1-17.
Kenny, Anthony. "Cartesian Doubt." Descartes: A Study of His Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1968. 14-39.