’s “Descartes’ Evil Genius” Essay, Research Paper
Oct. 28, 1999
The Intent of Bouwsma’s “Descartes’ Evil Genius”
Bouwsma’s essay critiques Descartes’ use of the evil demon in his Meditations on First Philosophy through the creation of two situations in which the “evil genius” attempts to use his powers for their express purpose, that of deception. Bouwsma conveniently admits the existence of “four or five clear and distinct ideas” and goes on to show that the evil genius is capable of deceiving mankind about everything else, specifically sensory perceptions. Bouwsma’s main point in taking this approach is to express his view that Descartes’ hypothesis that one might be deceived by an evil demon is incoherent. Bouwsma’s second “adventure” is supposed to indicate that once there becomes no way for one to distinguish between reality and illusion, the illusion becomes reality. This suggests that Descartes’ supposition that our senses are always mistaken is in itself a form of trickery, because what one can hold, see, touch, smell, and so forth is reality, no matter whether the progenitor of the “illusion” is the evil demon or God.
The two “adventures” gradually lead to Bouwsma’s point by beginning with the degree of influence and power exerted by the evil demon. Bouwsma himself admits that his first adventure is a “transparent case of deception” in which the word illusion will be used in a “clear and familiar application” which is intended to demonstrate his version of how Descartes’ evil demon may be expected to deceive. This first adventure shows an ordinary illusion, a thin illusion which consists of images that can fool someone but which can be distinguished from reality eventually. The fictional young man, Tom, is immediately struck by the fact that the bowl of flowers he is approaching are no longer flowers, but are instead made of paper. He soon recognizes that everything appears to be made of paper, and all is thus illusion. Tom experiences this illusion, but he is not deceived by it because he recognizes the difference between paper and everything that is not paper, even though everything has been carefully crafted to fool him. Bouwsma’s point of this is to use Tom’s recognition of the difference between a flower made out of paper and a real flower, and consequently his recognition that everything but paper had changed its nature, to introduce his idea that people have a solidly formed concept of what things are, that a flower is a flower, and not paper.
In the second adventure Bouwsma introduces a thick illusion, where everything is as it would normally be experienced, in which the evil demon exerts his full power and submerses Tom into a “dream” world, because the first adventure failed to fully take into account Decartes’ statement “And all other external things are nought but illusions.” The evil demon destroys everything, but creates illusions in order to mislead Tom into assuming that everything is as it was, that flowers are flowers and may be smelled and felt and have their blossoms plucked and so forth. The problem that this illusion creates is that it has become too real. Bouwsma is arguing that since to Tom the illusions have become indistinguishable from what Tom previously knew as reality, the new dream world of the evil demon has become reality. The demon’s illusion has become so real to Tom that when the demon, in order to gain the admiration which he feels he deserves for such a brilliant deception, begins to plant doubt in Tom’s mind, Tom immediately refutes the demon-derived suspicion and insists that what he is experiencing is reality. Only the evil demon is able to perceive that the dream world in which Tom is ensconced is not reality, and this is only because the evil demon possesses an extra sense which humans lack. For all intents and purposes, Tom’s new world has become real.
So what has Bouwsma accomplished? Well, by showing that the “thick illusions” of the evil demon become reality, Bouwsma has severely undermined the validity of Descartes’ argument. If the illusions of the evil demon become reality, then they cannot call into doubt all but Descartes’ assertion that he is a thinking thing, and thus Descartes’ arguments are effectively crippled. Bouwsma believes that if Descartes’ supposition about the evil demon in some way violates reason, then the consequence is that he must have doubted what cannot be reasonably called into doubt and thus would not have sufficiently lowered his foundation of knowledge.
So has Bouwsma rendered Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy outdated and ineffectual? No, because Bouwsma is mistaken when he argues that the dream world of his second adventure is reality. I am defining an illusion as something that is falsely believed to exist or a false belief about reality. Reality may be considered to be that which exists in the world. The world of the first adventure is an illusion, because it and everything in it are imitations designed to fool Tom. When Tom recognizes that everything is in truth paper, the illusion ceases to have meaning for him. The world of the second adventure is different because while what Tom perceives may be real to him, in actuality it lacks real existence. Tom may be able to reach out and touch the flowers, he may experience them just like they were real flowers, however, the fact remains that real flowers have a separate existence of their own, they are “alive” in a way that fails to be summed up through sight, smell, or touch. A better example of this is Milly, Tom’s “friend and dear”, who is perceived by Tom as being real in this dream world, and who acts as she would have before the demon destroyed everything but Tom, but who does not exist. A “real” person has their own senses and perception, their own thoughts, yet the evil demon destroyed everything except for Tom and replaced it with illusion. All that exists in the world is Tom, Tom’s perceptions, and the evil demon. Although Tom’s perceptions perceive everything as it was in the real world, it is clear that all of the perceptions are illusions. What is meant by flowers or by Milly is not just Tom’s perceptions of these things, but rather the thing itself, which if possessing senses should be able to perceive the things around it, which Milly is unable to do as “she” does not exist, merely Tom’s perception of her. Thus Bouwsma falls short of his goal of impeaching Descartes’ use of the evil demon.