Descartes’ Broom of the System: An Apple? No, Doubt.

(A little ditty for my Intro students–to push them into the Meditations’ deep sea.)

Descartes has gone wrong.  He knows it.  Between the true and the false there is a double yellow line, and he’s been swerving from lane to lane.  He’s been suckered.  His senses are untrustworthy, his dreams betrayals and his God, well, maybe his God has been a cheat.  His mind, his home, his castle, has been invaded.  The walls are full of rats and the roof leaks and the foundation shakes.  He needs a fresh start, a spring-cleaning, a clean sweep.  He needs repair.

But to repair he needs to test.  What does he have worth keeping?  How can he decide?  He decides to doubt.  Not a pale, will-I-make-it-on-time? had-those-leftovers-gone-bad? daily double doubt.  No, he wants to doubt a real doubter’s doubt, steroidal doubt, fertility be damned.  He will drive out the rats, patch the leaks, and secure the foundations.  He’ll rid himself of falsity.  He will throw open his windows, prop open the door, let some air in.  Breathe deep.

How now to doubt, really doubt?  One needs a plan.  –He doesn’t want to doubt willy-nilly, randomly.  He wants to doubt systematically.  The doubt should be endeavored with a bankerish caution.  A little doubt first, and then more, and then yet more, until all that can be doubted has been doubted.  Then:  what is left is for keeps:  doubters keepers, believers weepers.

Descartes starts.  He starts with eyes and hands, suchlike.  –They’ve fooled him.  Hands have been faster than eyes.  –He can’t believe his eyes.  His hands go numb.  He has heard without hearing.  Things smell funny.  He has failed taste tests.  So much senseless sensing.

Still, some of that sensing seems sensible.  Can he really be wrong about his hand before his eyes?  Can that be doubted?  Maybe not by doubt like the doubt he’s been doubting.  But turn that doubt up.  He had dreamt his hand before his eyes when he was asleep, when he saw nothing.  He could be dreaming even now.  So much for his senses.

But Descartes realizes that not everything in his mind was deposited there by his senses.  He believes, well, like math and stuff.  Does dreaming doubt doubt that?  Maybe not.  To turn doubt all the way up Descartes looks heavenward.  Maybe there exists a creature like God, but rotten, rotten to the core, wormy.  A creature like the Garden-creature, but more seductive.  An apple-giver of the worst sort, coiled around the Tree of Knowledge, choking it, all the while smiling its villain’s smile.  Maybe that creature, that evil demon, has been fooling Descartes.  Not just about hands and eyes, but even about math and stuff.  Maybe everything has to go.  Maybe nothing is left.  Walls, roof, foundation—all to go, and not just rats, leaks and shakes.  Nothing left, no, just bits of stone and rubble.  –Descartes’ mind gone to ruin.  Demonized.

Wait, though; wait just a demon-damned minute!  Descartes’ mind gone to ruin.  Right.  Right.  There is something left.  Descartes.  Someone’s standing in the stone and rubble.  Our doubter!  (Bless his doubting heart!)  The demon can do his worst, has done his worst, but he has to do it to someone.  Someone’s got to be his patsy, his fool.  And Descartes is the man for the job.  Fool him once, shame on you, fool him twice, shame on you, –all you are doing is establishing his foolish existence.  Because he can be fooled, he exists.  Because he can get everything wrong, he exists.  What the demon can’t fool him about is his fitness to be fooled.  To be the jester in the demon’s court Descartes must be.  He submits, as all do, to the dialectic of Hamlet:  to be or not to be.  And while that is the question, Descartes knows the answer.  To be.  He is.  He thinks, maybe foolishly, but he thinks, so he is.

There, in the midst of doubt, stands Descartes.  He’s waiting for the midst to clear.

2 responses

  1. As a follow-up to my previous comment (which hasn’t appeared yet, so maybe I’m jumping the gun) I should add that I don’t just mean I think it’s funny.

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