Rene Descartes Dream Argument

In the context of this paper, I am going to deeply examine the dream argument put forward by Descartes. This argument was put forward to cast doubt upon human knowledge. The argument is arranged in two premises and a conclusion. I am going to test the validity of the argument and proceed to determine its soundness. Validity is going to be tested by examining the structural logic of the argument, and if it is able to lead to the conclusion stated. Soundness will depend on first of all its validity, then if the premises are all true. I will go ahead and consider the counter-arguments and how Descartes addressed them.

The Dream Argument
Descartes was very keen on getting the foundations of true knowledge. He wanted to achieve this by successively eliminating concepts that were doubtable to the point where he only remained with indubitable components. The dream argument is just one of the methods which he employs to achieve his ambition. He organized his argument in three premises.

First Premise      Sometime, I have perceptions that are like the ones I have when I am dreaming.
Second Premise It is not possible to confirm with certainty if I am awake or dreaming.
Conclusion I may be dreaming now and thus my sensations are false.

In the first premise in this argument Descartes expresses the opinion that from time to time, he perceives or feels and sometimes senses, things when he is not dreaming that are exactly similar to the things he perceives in his dreams. This first premise is highlighting the similarity between his perceptions of things when he is awake and in the course of his dream. In the second premise, Descartes is emphasizing on the difficulty in determining if he is awake or if he is dreaming. At least, no particular way that can be used all the time with certainty on whether he is sleeping or awake. These two premises lead Descartes to his conclusion. He concludes that since the manner in which he perceive things both in his dream and when he is awake are similar, and due to his inability to determine with certainty that he is awake or dreaming, then there is a probability that a he could just be in the course of his dream and as such the things he is perceiving may be false as well as unreal (Descartes, 1641).

This leads to the controversy whether one is always in a state of dreaming and not awake and one may wonder if the knowledge he gains at any particular time may be true or false. This leads Descartes to crave at knowing real knowledge. Through the argument, every individual is cast into confusion concerning the knowledge that he has. He introduces the possibility that the beliefs as well as the knowledge held by a person and generally thought to be true may still be false. Before accepting this kind of argument it is necessary that we try to test it to determine its plausibility (Descartes, 1641).

I am going to begin by testing its validity as an argument. The argument can only be valid if the conclusion is a clear consequence of the premises. This is to mean that the premises cannot be true and the conclusion remains false. If I literally pretend that the sensations and feelings I experience in the course of my dream are similar to those I experience while I am awake, and also that I am not able to certainly determine whether I am in a dream or not, then I can confidently conclude that I may be dreaming even at this moment and thus my perception at this moment is based on false things. I think this conclusion is valid since after believing the premises one can only arrive at the same conclusion (Descartes, 1641).

First we agree that being awake and dreaming is so much alike according to Descartes argument. We can only determine that we are awake or dreaming by checking. In his second premise, Descartes emphasizes that we cannot be able to determine when we are awake or dreaming, meaning that we have been denied the chance to check. We just have to contend with a state of not being able to know if we are in the dream world or in the world of reality since they are similar. Without placing great emphasis on the probability of this conclusion, and focusing on the validity of the conclusion based on the premises, we realize that the argument is logical. Validity does not necessarily mean the soundness of an argument it only infers the correct structuring of the argument. We have realized that the argument is valid. The next test I am going to perform is aimed at proving the soundness of this argument (Descartes, 1641).

An argument is considered to be sound only if it is both valid and all the premises that constitute it are actually true. Since I have determined that the argument is valid, the next task is to ascertain the truth of each of these premises. First of all I do not think that the truth of the first premise can be disputed. Every one of us has had a dream in the course of his life. When we examine these dreams, we realize that they are very close to reality, in fact some are very difficult to distinguish, and the only difference is sometime known when a person wakes up. This premise is also supported by the fact that the things we dream about are things that we have perceived in the world of reality. This premise is particularly true since it is not based on the requirement that all the all the things in our dreams to be exactly similar to those in the real world. The only requirement which we need to make this premise true is to cite at least one single dream which was more or less like a reality (Descartes, 1641).

I also feel that the second premise is true. This is because there are instances when each one of us has been through a dream that was so similar to reality that one would easily conclude that they were not dreaming while in fact they were in a dream. There are also instances when a person is awake and would experiences things in a manner that he would believe that he was dreaming while in actual sense it was the real world. Just like the first premise, the second premise owes its truth to our life experience. Similar to the first premise, we only need one instance when a person was not able to distinguish if he was dreaming or if he was a wake to render the second premise true. It does not require all the dreams to be indistinguishable from the reality. However, we have to contend with a number of counter-arguments that attempt to disapprove this argument (Descartes, 1641).

The first among the counter-arguments is the one that is centered on Descartes motive. It tries to examine what Descartes wanted to achieve through this argument. It tries to portray that Descartes wanted to cast doubts on knowledge and rally people to believe that he is truthful. This counter-argument is based on the opinion that, since the things we perceive in the dream are normally based on the things we actually perceived in the real world, then it is not wrong to trust the things that we experience in our dreams since they are based on the actual things that we had perceived in the real world. This means that the things we experience in our dreams are not necessarily wrong and should not be perceived to be necessarily false or untrue. A good example is when we consider a picture of something that is inexistent, like a cat that can fly. This painting can be seen to have been composed of two things that are real in the world. While the picture may be seen to be representing something that is inexistent in the real world, we realize that the components of the picture are derived from aspects of the actual world. This gives credit to the dream world since it implies that no matter what we dream, it is derived from real world experience. This counter-argument fails in the sense that it is not able to explain the concept of abstract paintings which are not based on any prior feelings or experience. Such paintings have no real life basis. If one is able to come up with an abstract painting, then it is possible that the mind can come up with images that are inexistent in the real world (Descartes, 1641).

Another counter-argument is that In order to dream, I must be asleep, and in order to sleep, I must have a body. If I have a body, then my body must be somewhere, like in a bed. According to Descartes argument, when one is dreaming, he cannot be sure of his external environment. This counter-argument seeks to establish that if I am dreaming, then I must be asleep, and if I am asleep then the external world exists.

Another counter-argument is that There are things which I know but I am not able to prove. That, I am not dreaming, that I am not insane, that my words mean what I think they mean, and this logic seems to be working-all these are things I know but I am not able to argue for them in a non-circular way. So, I can conclude that I am not dreaming now but I am not able to prove it.

The concept of dreaming exists. This would not be the case if we could not be in a position to differentiate dreaming from being awake. If I could not be able to tell the difference, then there is a likelihood that I would tell my friend, Last night, I climbed Mt. Everest, rather than Last night, I dreamed that I climbed Mt. Everest. It is true that there are some dreams that appear to be very real in their nature but they occur only in very few occasions. For us to have dreaming as a concept, then dreams must be distinctive kinds of things. It is a fact that not all coins could be counterfeit for the same reason, not all experiences could be illusory. Most dreams must have that dream-like quality, for otherwise, we would not have the concept of dreaming in the first place.

It is unfortunate to note that Descartes argument is not conclusive. Abstract art may not have been generated from previous experience, but the shapes and colors used in its composition are basic in nature. They are not part of the empirical knowledge which Descartes cast doubts upon. Things like numbers, sizes, time, as well as shapes cannot be changed. This make the second premise loose its soundness. If any of these basic laws is ignored then it must probably be a dream. This was a very strong argument that Descartes had to counter by coming up with an argument about a demon that had all powers (Descartes, 1641).

Premise one There is an evil demon that is all powerful.
Premise two He can make us be deceived even with very basic knowledge that we ought to understand like mathematical knowledge.

Conclusion   There is a likelihood that we are cheated about our knowledge.
The second premise of the initial argument is saved by reasoning that if we are able to realize that a fundamental law has been broken, it must be an evil demon trying to trick us (Descartes, 1641).

Descartes argument was established to have passed both the validity and soundness tests. We can thus say that we can never know when we are awake or dreaming. His argument was not necessarily meant to disapprove knowledge his aim must have been to make people doubt the knowledge. He even went ahead to state that his was going on with his normal activities and it is only at the time that he was set to write a philosophical paper that he realize that he did not know anything. This argument was only made to assist him in his bid to know the truth.


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