The search for indivisible truth and certainty has permeated the minds of great thinkers since the inception of philosophy and metaphysical inquiry. René Descartes followed a long line of philosophers before him by attempting to reveal if there is anything that is truly a fundamental aspect of existence. Descartes, known as the father of the newly formed modern age of philosophy, took this age-old question to its limit. Descartes’ inquiry specifically leads him to the question “can everything be doubted” in his book Meditations. Descartes rationalized that he could doubt his way to truth by finding something that could not be thrown into uncertainty. To do this, Descartes employed his famous “evil demon hypothesis.” Through the metaphor of an evil demon controlling all levels of reality, Descartes was able to investigate which aspects of reality were able to be manipulated and, consequently, able to be doubted.
Descartes initially came up with his “evil demon hypothesis” as a thought experiment to explore what could be said to be known with unwavering certainty. Scientific in his approach, Descartes reasoned that to work towards this certainty, false positives for what is true must be disposed with. In order to weed out these fake paths to the truth, one must ask if they can be doubted in any manner. If they can be doubted, there is a possibility that they may not be real. To Descartes, this is proof that they cannot be unequivocally true. In order to explore what things could be thrown into doubt, Descartes invokes his evil demon. The question posed is if there was hypothetically an evil demon trying to torment you by manipulating everything you experience through your senses and seem to know, would you be able to distinguish true reality from the presented falsehood. Since we depend on our senses to interpret reality and our senses can be fooled, there is no way to know if what we are experiencing is real or a grand delusion. Descartes brings to light the question of what or if anything can be truly known if our fallible methods of gathering information from reality are to be rightfully doubted. This hypothesis of the dark deity deceiving the senses is a continuation of Descartes’ other ideas pertaining to life. For example, how can life be distinguished from a dream? Without any reliable method for determining what is real, Descartes mused that, “When I consider this carefully, I find not a single property which with certainty separates the waking state from the dream. How can you be certain that your whole life is not a dream?” However, the ultimate goal of this hypothetical situation is to determine what is indisputably true, not to simply tear down all semblances of what can be known. Through the evil demon, though it may be able to trick one into perceiving reality incorrectly, we must still exist to be able to experience its misdirection. This fact cannot be doubted, because doubting one’s own existence requires that the person exists to doubt it. To Descartes, the fact that I must think in order to doubt proves that one’s existence is an irrefutable truth of reality.
Through René Descartes’ proposed scenario of the evil demon, attempts to show that all presupposed notions of fidelity with regard to the nature of reality could be called into question. Whether it be innate and seemingly untouchable principles of mathematics, nature, or our own senses, all can be manipulated and must be doubted because of this fact. However, if the premise of this argument holds true and all things must be doubted, then the only thing that cannot be doubted is one’s existence as it is predicated in the evil demons plans of deception. Descartes ultimate goal of finding a fundamental tenet of reality seems to have proved fruitful.
As Descartes said, “Except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power.”