So, today I will be sharing a paper I recently wrote about sceptical arguments and, more specifically, on the question of whether or not I know that I have hands. This will probably bore most people, but I put quite a bit of thought and work into it and I feel that it deserves to be read by someone other than myself and my professor. I realize that everyone will find this post to be long and excessive on my part, but I don't care and I would appreciate it if at least a small percentage of people would read it and offer me their opinions on it. To keep you all interested I will post pictures of the philosophers that I mention in the paper.
DESCARTES G. E. MOORE
I Don’t Know That I Have Hands!
Certain philosophers, most famously the well-known and much studied Rene Descartes, have been strong proponents of the sceptical hypothesis. The sceptical hypothesis is that we cannot be sure that, as Descartes puts it, we are not simply being deceived in every single way by some evil demon who leads us to believe that what we experience through sensory stimuli is a way of knowing that there is anything external to our minds. Sceptical arguments state that there is no way of telling the difference between those stimuli being given to our minds by the evil demon and the stimuli we would have if we actually lived a world which contained things that were external to our minds, thus there is no way to disprove the sceptical hypothesis. However, there are many other philosophers, notably G. E. Moore, who seek to dismiss sceptical arguments on the basis of plain common sense. In this paper, I will address both sides of this argument on scepticism and I will show why I do not know that I have hands.
Rene Descartes is one of the philosophers who write in support of scepticism. He takes this position as a result of several thought experiments that he undertakes in his Meditations (Descartes 1). Descartes in these thought experiments asserts that he is attempting to strip away all his false beliefs and opinions (Descartes 1). He concludes that to do this he must return to the bare foundations of his knowledge and demolish not only false beliefs, but also those that he is not absolutely certain about (Descartes 1). He starts by considering the sensory input that he receives and has up until now based his beliefs about the world on (Descartes 1). Descartes states that his senses are not to be treated as trustworthy sources of information since there have been times when his senses have deceived him and he asserts that things that have been deceitful even one time cannot be treated as trustworthy (Descartes 1). Therefore, good sensory input cannot possibly be distinguished from bad sensory input (Descartes 1). Even worse than that, as the thought experiment continues, Descartes comes to the realization that there is no real way in which he can distinguish between his waking experiences and his dreaming experiences since he experiences dreams just as vividly as if he were awake (Descartes 2). These troubling conclusions even lead Descartes to state that he cannot rule out the possibility that there is a demon that has been misleading and deceiving him in every single way on everything since he was born (Descartes 3). He decides to suspend his belief on anything that he had come to know by means of sensory input, even the fact that he possesses a physical form (Descartes 3). He eventually concludes that the only thing he knows himself to be is a “thinking thing” and thought is the only thing that he knows about himself and can use to prove his existence (Descartes 4-6). Basically, Descartes argues that there is no way to prove that the external things that we perceive are actually there, or that we have physical bodies at all; the only thing that we can know for sure is that we think, therefore we exist (Descartes 1-6).
G. E. Moore presents an opposing viewpoint to the sceptical argument, in his piece “Proof of an External World”. Moore takes a completely opposite view to that of Descartes that is obvious even from the title of his piece. Moore deals directly with the question with which I am concerned in this essay, whether or not he has hands, or more broadly, whether there are things that exist outside of our minds (Moore 165). He sets out to do this through a proof that he describes as “perfectly rigorous”: he wants to prove that two human hands exist, in order to do this he starts by holding up and making gestures with his right hand while uttering the words “ ‘here is one hand’ ”, and then proceeding to hold up and gesture with his left hand while uttering the words “ ‘and here is another’ “ (Moore 166). Through this method, Moore asserts that he has proven that there exist at least two human hands, which means that he has also proven the existence of things that are outside our minds (Moore 166). He understands that some might not be convinced by this method of proof, so Moore sets out to show that this is indeed a rigorous method (Moore 166). He firstly sets out three conditions necessary for proofs to be acceptable: that the premises and the conclusion be different, that the premises be known by him to be the case, and that the conclusion actually follow from the premises (Moore 166). The condition that is the most controversial with respect to Moore’s proof is the second, and this is the one that he spends most time explaining: he asserts that he did in fact really know those premises to be true (Moore 166). He states that gesturing with each of his two hands and uttering the words “ ‘here’ “ allowed him to show that he really knew that they were there externally to his mind (Moore 166). Moore argues that to propose that he did not really know it, but only believed that both his hands were there and that this might not be the case is completely absurd (Moore 166). Moore acknowledges that sceptics will clamour not only for a proof of this particular proposition about hands but for a method with which any propositions of this variety can be proven (Moore 167). He admits that he has not provided this and that he does not believe that it can be provided at all (Moore 167). However, Moore argues further that this should not be taken to mean that his proof about his hands in not conclusive (Moore 170). He asserts that it is possible for him to know things that he cannot prove, also that the premises in his hand proof were among those things that he certainly did know, even though he could not offer a proof for them (Moore 170). He thus concludes his proof that he does indeed have hands and that nothing is more obvious to him than that (Moore 170).
I will now use elements from the arguments presented by these two philosophers to put forward my own conclusion that I don't know that I have hands. I have chosen this position, which, admittedly, is largely Cartesian, because of various problems that I see with Mooreanism. Moore, in his argument, attempts to use what he seems to believe is common sense in order to discredit scepticism and prove that he has hands. I completely fail to see how his proof of this fact has any logical validity whatsoever. If we ignore the fact that the premises he is using are improvable, then I would definitely agree that the structure of his argument is valid and that it does satisfy the three conditions for an acceptable argument that Moore sets out for himself. However, I do not believe that this fact can be ignored. Premises are supposed to be assertions that are given, that are known to be true, and the conclusion alone, is meant to be that of which we are not yet certain. Moore’s proof completely violates this notion because its premises, that he has two hands, are not things that we certainly know. I find this fact to be a glaring problem with Moore’s proof; in fact Moore himself seems to agree and acknowledges that many people may be dissatisfied with his proof for just this reason (Moore 166). However, he then gives a justification for his process by stating that it is possible for him to certainly know these things although he cannot prove them, and that the fact that he cannot prove those premises about his right hand and his left hand does not indicate that his method of proof is not rigorous and that sceptics are wrong to be dissatisfied with his proof (Moore 170). I argue that sceptics are perfectly justified in being dissatisfied with Moore’s proof. Moore seems not to understand the nature of proofs in this last statement and his further admission that propositions of the kind that sceptics would like him to prove are not provable only serves to discredit his own argument and give the sceptics more with which to criticize him in this last assertion (Moore 167). By asserting this, he has basically admitted that the sceptical hypothesis cannot be disproven. If the sceptical hypothesis were true, then Moore would not know that he had a left hand and a right hand when he gestured with them during his proof since they would not have existed externally to his mind. By admitting that his premise that he knows that he has a right and left hand is not provable, he has admitted that he also cannot prove that the opposite, the sceptical hypothesis, is not the case. Moore has attempted to come to the defence of the existence of an external world through his proof that he knows that he has two human hands which are external to his mind, but he has instead discredited his own arguments and given more credibility to the sceptics.
Although, up until now, I have merely criticized Moore and used that to justify my belief that I do not know that I have hands, I will not base my conclusion solely on opposing Mooreanism. I cannot say that I know that I have hands for precisely the same reason that Descartes cannot certainly conclude that he is anything more than a “thinking thing” (Descartes 6). When meditating on my own sensory experiences, I, like Descartes, cannot deny the fact that my senses have failed me on many occasions leading me to conclude that the input I receive from them cannot be taken to be proof of things that are external to me. It is impossible for me to use a source of information which has proven itself to be fallible in the past as a means of gathering any kind of credible evidence, this would not be logical. I argue that Descartes’ approach with regard to the dismissal of sensory experience as evidence for an external world is the only logical approach. I also cannot find any way to discount the possibility that I am in fact only dreaming at this moment and all that I experience is merely a fabrication of my mind, or even that an evil demon is tricking me into believing that there is an external world by manipulating my sensory experiences and using them as his instruments of deceit (Descartes 2-3). Since my sensory experience would be exactly the same if the demon were deceiving me to make me believe that I had hands as if I actually had hands, there is no logical reason for me to state that I certainly know that I have them.
Through my examination of Moore’s and Descartes’ arguments concerning sceptical arguments, I argue that my only logical choice is to conclude that I do not certainly know that I have hands. I have shown that I cannot logically accept Moore’s blind faith in the existence of his two hands external to his body and that Descartes’ arguments are convincing enough that they have showed me that I cannot disprove the sceptical hypothesis. Therefore, I do not know that I have hands.