Address the following in a three-page paper:Identi...

Address the following in a three-page paper:

  1. Identify a belief that you (or someone in your community) think is true.
  2. Present an account of at least one metaphysical account of reality from the assigned readings with support from the course texts and online lectures. For example, you might discuss Plato, Aristotle, or the Cartesian method. Make sure that you include an account of reality and truth and discuss how (and/or whether) human beings are capable of knowing reality with any certainty. For instance, is there a difference between a well-founded opinion and a false one? How are opinions/beliefs related to the truth as such?
  3. Explain how the account of truth set forth by the chosen theory of reality might apply to their belief.
  4. Identify and explain an additional metaphysical theory that would take a different approach.
  5. You should quote or paraphrase from specific pages in the course text to support your claims about philosophical ideas and concepts, using correct APA citation.

Notes from text

Chaffee, J. Philosopher’s Way, The: Thinking Critically About Profound Ideas, 3/e for EDMC (1st ed). Pearson Learning Solutions.

Metaphysics explores issues beyond the physical world, such as the meaning of life, the existence of free will, the nature of mind, the fundamental principles of the universe, and the possibility of life beyond death. We can trace the origins of the term back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who wrote on a vast range of topics. One set of writings, the Physics (from the Greek word physika, “of nature”), deals with subjects pertaining to the natural world. Another set of writings, which he sometimes referred to as “first philosophy” or “wisdom,” deals with subjects that are more abstract and theoretical than those dealt with in the Physics. In time, this set of writings became known as “the books after the books on nature” (in Greek, ta meta ta physika biblia), which eventually became shortened to Metaphysics. Metaphysics deals with a variety of important philosophical questions, which include those listed below. We have already explored a number of these questions in the preceding chapters, while others we will be taking up in this and subsequent chapters.

  1. Metaphysics
  2. Most generally, the philosophical investigation of the nature, constitution, and structure of reality.

Plato (427–347 b.c.e.).

An ancient Greek philosopher of extraordinary significance in the history of ideas. Plato not only preserved Socrates’ teachings for future generations but also contributed original ideas on a wide range of issues such as morality, politics, metaphysics, and epistemology.

The other world, the world of “reality,” is much different. This is the world of Being, a realm that is eternal, unchanging, and knowable through the faculty of reason. Plato doesn’t suggest that the everyday world of Becoming is an illusion: It’s just that this physical world of changing sensation is “less real” than the timeless world of Being. But what does the eternal world of Being contain, and what is its relation to the mutable world of Becoming? It is populated with Forms, the cornerstone of Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology.

What precisely are Forms? The word form itself derives from the Greek word eidos, which is variously translated as idea, archetype, or essence. Plato considers Forms to be the ideal archetypes or essences of everything that exists. We can think of them as the perfect ideals of every meaningful object and idea. For example, there is an ideal Form for horses—the essence of what we mean when we use the term horse. This Form would include all of the essential qualities that constitute being a “horse,” attributes that the tyrannical schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind gets a terrified student, Bitzer, to enumerate in this passage from Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times:

Of course, Plato’s ideal Form of “horse” would also include aesthetic qualities (physical beauty), functional qualities (strength, endurance, speed), and any other attributes that constitute the ideal, perfect idea of “horse.”

For Plato, the Form of “horse” actually exists in the timeless and eternal world of Being. Although the Form for “horse”—and other Forms—do not exist in a material sense, they do exist independently of the minds of people. And, Plato believes, we can discover these Forms through disciplined study based on developing our ability to reason in an enlightened fashion. That is to say, we can become familiar with the Form of “horse,” and in so doing we have knowledge of the ideal pattern that we can use to understand and evaluate all of the actually existing horses in the world. For Plato, the relationship between the ideal Form of “horse,” and the multitude of actual, existing horses, is complex and central to Plato’s thought. He says that the actually existing horses participate in the ideal Form of horse. What exactly does “participate” mean? That’s exactly the question that Plato’s student Aristotle posed to Plato, and not receiving a satisfactory response, Aristotle vigorously criticized Plato’s views:

Form In Plato’s metaphysics, the ideal essence of a thing.

Plato’s metaphysical view enables him to achieve his epistemological goals, employing clear rational criteria to distinguish unsubstantiated and transient opinion from the eternal realm of knowledge. Even when our opinions happen to be accurate, this does not mean we have achieved knowledge:

  • Haven’t you noticed that opinion without knowledge is blind—isn’t anyone with a true but unthinking opinion like a blind man on the right road?
  • Plato provides a visual analogy to illustrate the corresponding levels in his metaphysics and epistemology, which is reproduced in Figure 5.1. Levels C and D represent the world of Appearance, the Visible World in which we live our lives. Despite our best efforts, the highest form of knowing that we can achieve in this world of sense experience is Opinion. This is the world of Becoming, where everything is continually changing, evolving, disappearing, reappearing. The lowest level of Knowing and Being (Level D) is that of images produced by the human faculty of Imagination. This is the level of illusion, composed of unsubstantiated beliefs, transitory images, and fragmentary impressions that are received uncritically. For example, as we saw in The Apology in Chapter 2, Socrates acknowledged that there were many different images of who he was, conflicting perspectives of his character and reputation. He saw his challenge to be clarifying these unsubstantiated views of him but realized the difficulty of his task in a realm where people state their opinions without trying to provide compelling reasons and evidence. Plato was convinced that much of what people consider to be “knowledge” in the world is actually at this lowest level of opinion but that they deceive themselves into thinking that their unsupported impressions have genuine merit.

The next level in Plato’s hierarchy of metaphysics and epistemology is Level C, that of Perception, which is effected by means of our five senses. Unlike the images produced by the imagination, perceptions have a grounding in the actual world in which we live. We see, hear, touch, taste, and smell things on an ongoing basis. Thus, Socrates was an actual, physical human being whom people in Athens could experience directly. But although the beliefs about the world based on our perceptions are more substantial than those produced by our imaginations, these perceptual beliefs still fall far short of knowledge. As we shall see, our perceptions are typically fragmentary and incomplete, and the conclusions that we reach based on them are typically subjective and biased. For example, although many people in Athens had seen, heard, and spoken to Socrates over a period of fifty years, people still had a diverse variety of perspectives on him. And, of course, the same principle applies in our lives. For example, interview a number of people who have witnessed the same event, and you’ll likely hear a wide variety of different perceptions. Ask a number of people their opinion of the president, and you will no doubt receive many different points of view. Compare people’s opinions with respect to a movie they saw or a college class they took, and you will no doubt find a range of different perceptions. When people’s perceptions conflict, how can we tell which are “true” and rise to the level of Knowledge? That’s the challenge of epistemology, and Plato believed that it was impossible to achieve at this level of metaphysics and epistemology.

According to Plato, the realm of human experience where knowledge begins to exist is Level B, the level of the “Lower” Forms. Lower Forms are those universals that we find exemplified in our physical world. For example, Socrates was a man who was an example of the universal form of “Human Being.” And for us to understand the essence of Socrates, we need to use our reasoning ability to develop a clear idea of what it means to be a human being: What are the essential qualities that constitute this Form? Of course, Socrates isn’t the only example of this form: All human beings illustrate or “participate” in the form of Human Being. And this Form qualifies as “Knowledge,” according to Plato, because it represents a form of knowing that is universal and unchanging, unlike the transitory perceptions and images of Levels C and D.

The highest realm of Knowledge in Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology is that of the “Higher” Forms, Level A. Universals such as Truth, Beauty, Good, and Justice are all examples of Higher Forms. Like the Lower Forms, the Higher Forms represent universals that are unchanging and eternal. The difference is that the Higher Forms refer to abstract ideals rather than actual physical objects in the world. Thus, although many people considered Socrates to illustrate the form of Wisdom by being a wise man, “wisdom” is not the essence of a physical object in the world that we can experience. It—like truth, beauty, justice, and good—exists on a much higher intellectual level, and understanding these ideals requires a lifetime of rational exploration and reflection. There are few people who can achieve this supreme understanding of these highest Forms. When you reach this exalted level of understanding, you “directly apprehend” these supreme, absolute Forms.

The Theory of Innate Ideas

Plato’s belief that genuine knowledge can only be achieved through our reasoning abilities means that, in epistemological terms, he is a rationalist. In contrast, philosophers who, like Aristotle, believe that we can gain true knowledge through our sense experience are known as empiricists (though Aristotle was, like Plato, also seeking universal knowledge). As we will see in the pages ahead, this division between rationalism and empiricism has endured since first introduced by Plato and Aristotle, and it has remained one of the core issues in epistemology.

Rationalism The position that reason has precedence over other ways of acquiring knowledge or, more strongly, that it is the unique path to knowledge.

Aristotle categorically rejects all of these intertwined metaphysical beliefs. From his perspective, there is indeed a human soul, but it cannot be separated from the body. We are entirely creatures of nature, just as all forms of life are. We are unique because of our ability to reason, but beyond that there is no other reality than this world, either before birth or after death. Metaphysics is not the study of nonphysical realms or entities—it is the study of the natural world, and the study of humans as an integral and inseparable part of the natural world.

Aristotle’s Two Categories: Matter and Form

Like Plato, “forms” are an important part of Aristotle’s metaphysic—with one significant difference. While Plato believed that Forms (with a capital F) embodied the highest order of reality in a timeless, transcendent realm knowable only through reason, Aristotle believed that forms (with a lowercase f) were embedded in physical objects, existing completely within the natural order. Every “thing” that exists has both a material element and a formal element; and, although we can separate these two in thought, they cannot be separated in reality. For example, “mortality” is a formal—or essential—aspect of living things. But although we can separate “mortality” and “living things” intellectually, they cannot be separated in reality. “Mortality”—or any formal element in nature—cannot exist independently, on its own. For Aristotle, this was Plato’s fundamental mistake, believing that formal elements of things could be abstracted and then elevated to a transcendent status of ultimate reality. Or, as Aristotle expressed it, we must take care not to mistake “intellectual analysis” for “ontological status.” And this is true for all of Plato’s forms: Redness, Roundness, Justice, Beauty—although we can distinguish these concepts in our mind, they can’t really exist on their own. They can only exist as a formal aspect of some material object: a red apple, a round ball, a just law, a beautiful sunset. Thus, in Aristotle’s metaphysical system, there are two basic categories of things:

  • •Matter (in Greek, hyle), which refers to the common “stuff” that makes up the material universe
  • •Form, which refers to the essence of a thing, that which makes it what it is

Taken together, matter and form combine to create formed matter or substance—that is, all of the familiar things we see in the universe. For example, a piece of wood is composed of matter and certain formal elements that give the piece of wood shape, color, and texture. A craftsperson can take a number of pieces of wood and create a bed, reflecting the formal elements of design that he imposed on the wood. Similarly, a sculptor takes a block of marble (which itself embodies both matter and form), and then shapes it into a sculpture, reflecting the formal design she had in her mind.

Thus for Aristotle, matter and form require each other in order to exist. Matter provides the opportunity for formal elements to shape it into a purposeful design; or, in the case of living things, for a potential purposeful design to become actualized. A fertilized human egg has within it the potential to become an embryo; and, given the right conditions, this potential will become actualized into a reality.

The same is true on a human level. Aristotle believed that each person has a potential to fulfill, in accordance with his or her own entelechy. In people, the formal element is the soul, which gives shape and purposeful direction to the body: “… for every part of a living body is an organ of the soul. Evidently then, all such parts are for the sake of the soul, which is their natural end.” But the conditions for a person to fulfill her potential are much more complex and challenging than something like an acorn, and people’s potentials are often not realized due to inhibiting experiences.

Aristotle believed that, as with every other aspect of nature, the soul is not immortal: It ceases to exist once the matter in which it is embedded (the body) stops functioning. And as we will see in Chapter 8, Aristotle believes that there is a “good life” for each of us to aspire to and achieve, a life of balance, fullness, and happiness.

The Four Causes

Aristotle integrated his central metaphysical ideas into a comprehensive framework that he termed The Four Causes. The Greek word for cause is aitia, which means “the reason for something happening.” For Aristotle this meant achieving a complete understanding of a thing. Although Aristotle’s concept of cause as “the reason for something happening” includes our modern concept of “one event bringing about another event,” it also extends far beyond this notion. Aristotle’s Four Causes include

  • Material Cause—the “matter” of which a thing is made.
  • Formal Cause—the embedded form that gives shape and purpose to the “matter.”
  • Efficient Cause—the “triggering” action that sets the thing in motion.
  • Final Cause—the ultimate purpose for which a thing exists.

For Aristotle, a complete explanation for why something happens necessarily entails addressing all of these “causes,” as he explains in his Metaphysics: “It is the business of the natural scientist to know about them all … (and to) give his answer to the question ‘why?’ in the manner of a natural scientist … (by referring to them all—to the matter, the form, the mover, and the purpose).”


As we have seen, Aristotle considers matter to be the basic “stuff” of the universe. However, matter requires form to shape it into something useful and purposeful. As he explains in the following passage, simply describing the material (wood or bronze) that something like a bed or statue is made of is necessary but in no way sufficient for providing a comprehensive explanation of the thing in question.

Aristotle, from Metaphysics

Some people regard the nature and substance of things that exist by nature as being in each case the proximate element inherent in the thing, this being itself unshaped; thus, (according to such a view) the nature of a bed, for instance, would be wood, and that of a statue, bronze. (Those who think this way offer) as evidence … the fact that if you were to bury a bed, and the moisture that got into it as it rotted gained enough force to throw up a shoot, it would be wood and not a bed that came into being. (According to this view, the bed’s) arrangement according to the rules of an art … is an accidental attribute, whereas its substance is what remains permanently, and undergoes all these changes.


As we discussed previously, form is the other major element in Aristotle’s metaphysical system, representing the embedded shape or purpose of particular matter. In the bed and the sculpture, it is the design of the artisan that uses form to shape the material (wood and bronze) into something useful and purposeful. Before that happens, the material is only potentially a bed or sculpture. It is not until the artisan crafts the materials “according to the rules of an art” that the potential becomes an actuality. The same principle holds true for biological matter, such as flesh and bone, as well. Until nature shapes matter into the formed matter of flesh and bone, they exist only as potentials.

Aristotle, from Metaphysics

What is potentially flesh or bone does not yet have its own nature until it acquires the form that accords with the formula, by means of which we define flesh and bone; nor can it be said at this stage to exist by nature. So in another way, nature is the shape and form of things that have a principle of movement in themselves—the form being only theoretically separable from the object in question.


This is the concept that’s closest to our modern idea of “cause”—the “triggering event” that sets things in motion or initiates change, transforming a potential into an actuality. Aristotle terms this immediate cause the “proximate mover.” For example, the artisan is the “efficient cause” of the wood being crafted into a bed and the bronze being shaped into a sculpture.

Aristotle, from Metaphysics

Thus the answer to the question “why?” is to be given by referring to the matter, to the essence, and to the proximate mover. In cases of coming-to-be it is mostly in this last way that people examine the causes; they ask what comes to be after what, what was the immediate thing that acted or was acted upon, and so on in order.

The Final Cause embodies the ultimate purpose of a thing’s existence, its reason for being, its telos or final goal. For Aristotle, no description of an object is complete until we place it within the entire teleological framework of the universe. Every aspect of the cosmos is purposive, directed toward a goal, defined and driven by its entelechy. In humans, our soul or psyche is our entelechy, directing us toward our ultimate purpose in life. However, Aristotle’s conception of “soul” or “ultimate purpose” is in no way supernatural: It simply describes our unique purpose within the natural order. As Aristotle observes: “If purpose is present in art, it must also be present in nature.”

Aristotle extends this concept of Final Cause to the universe as a whole, a cosmological concept that he variously characterizes as “first (Final) cause,” “prime mover,” and “pure thought, thinking thought.” This is not a “God” as a Creator but rather an impersonal teleological principle that permeates the universe as a whole. Aristotle arrives at this conclusion through an intriguing—and famous—argument. If we examine each of the Four Causes, we can see that each one assumes the existence of something that came before. But to avoid what philosophers term an infinite regress, we need to posit a First Final Cause.

Infinite Regress A philosophical kind of argument purporting to show that a thesis is defective because it generates an infinite series when either no such series exists or, were it to exist, the thesis would lack the role (e.g., of justification) that it is supposed to play.

Aristotle, from Metaphysics

Moreover, it is obvious that there is some first principle, and that the causes of things are not infinitely many either in a direct sequence or in kind. For the material generation of one thing from another cannot go on in an infinite progression (e.g. flesh from earth, earth from air, air from fire, and so on without a stop); nor can the source of motion (e.g. man be moved by air, air by the sun, the sun by Strife, with no limit to the series). In the same way neither can the Final Cause (that is, purposes) recede to infinity—walking having health for its object, and health happiness, and happiness something else: one thing always being done for the sake of another. And it is just the same with the Formal Cause (that is, the essence). For in the case of all intermediate terms of a series which are contained between a first and last term, the prior term is necessarily the cause of those which follow it; because if we had to say which of the three is the cause, we should say “the first.” At any rate it is not the last term, because what comes at the end is not the cause of anything. Neither, again, is the intermediate term, which is only the cause of one (and it makes no difference whether there is one intermediate term or several, nor whether they are infinite or limited in number). But of series which are infinite in this way, and in general of the infinite, all the parts are equally intermediate, down to the present moment. Thus if there is no first term, there is no cause at all.

< READING CRITICALLY >: Analyzing Aristotle’s Concept of Reality

  • ▪Plato believes that Forms occupy the highest level of reality in the eternal realm of Being. Thus, the perfect Idea of “horse” is the most real element in his metaphysic, that actual horse the least real. Aristotle inverts this hierarchy of reality: The individual horse is the most real element in his metaphysic, whereas the abstract concept of “horse” the least real. Explain which view you find to be most intelligible and the reasons why.
  • ▪Aristotle criticized Plato’s concept of “participation,” calling it “a mere empty phrase and a poetic metaphor.” Do you agree with his critique? How do you think Plato would defend himself?
  • ▪Plato believed that the human soul is immortal, existing before birth and continuing after death. Aristotle believed that the soul is a natural phenomenon that gives form and purpose to the body but ceases to exist after the body dies. Which view of the soul do you find most compelling? Why?
  • ▪Aristotle believed that the entire universe is purposeful, both individually and collectively. Do you agree with his contention? Explain why or why not and provide an example to support your perspective.
  • ▪Although Aristotle does not believe in a supernatural Creator or God, he does conclude that there must be a “first (Final) cause,” a “prime mover,” “pure thought, thinking thought.” Evaluate the cogency of Aristotle’s idea and the reasoning he uses to reach this conclusion.


Remember, the Cartesian method involves doubting everything one believes until it can be logically demonstrated to exist.

So here it is, the birth of the infamous Cartesian ego that is destined to bedevil philosophers and Western thinking as a whole from its gestation up until the present. Initially, it seems to be an innocent enough creation, and it does provide an apparent escape from the skepticism threatened by the “evil genius.” For though the “evil genius” may force us to doubt the existence of our physical bodies, it cannot, by definition, cause us to doubt the existence of our thinking self, the “I think” that “doubts, understands, conceives, affirms, denies, wills, refuses which also imagines and feels.” Of course, as we saw in Chapter 3, this concept of a pure, thinking self starts us down a slippery slope that leads inevitably to a full-blown dualism of mind and body, with all of its conceptual vexations.

Descartes’ attitude is so contemporary that he almost could have written the lyrics to the Paul Simon song, “Kodachrome,” which begins, “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school/it’s a wonder I can think at all.” Having had the growing suspicion that much of what he had been taught had been biased, incomplete, or downright wrong, Descartes resolves to try and wipe his epistemological “tablet” clean and begin anew. The “radical doubt” that he is employing is for the positive purpose of establishing a “firm and permanent structure in the sciences,” not to end up mired in skepticism. In taking this approach, Descartes is modeling a very philosophical approach to knowledge first initiated by Socrates, which nonphilosophers often misunderstand. Rather than using doubt destructively, to simply disprove and undermine ways of thinking, doubt is used constructively, to identify, strengthen, and refine the best beliefs. It is this “trial by fire” that helps us develop beliefs that are tempered and firmly grounded. In the absence of genuine doubt, beliefs are left to exist uncritically and ill informed. It is also fascinating that Descartes recognized the need to wait until he had reached a level of intellectual maturity before calling into question the beliefs he had acquired growing up, as he wanted to ensure that his beliefs were not still in the process of evolution.

Is it really possible to suspend all of the beliefs we have been brought up with to start fresh in constructing our understanding of the world? No, of course not: Such a project would surely be impractical, and we would likely retain an abiding faith in many of the beliefs we had come to believe were true. Nevertheless, there is real merit in undertaking a “doubting project” like this, for it encourages us to begin questioning beliefs we may have been unwittingly taking for granted, and it also initiates what will hopefully become a lifelong process of critical reflection. And as Descartes is quick to point out, it is not necessary to question every individual belief, simply our core beliefs, such as:

  • •How is it possible to be certain of what I think I know?
  • •What is the reason for believing (or not believing) in a God?
  • •On what basis should I make ethical decisions?
  • •How do I know that there is a world that exists outside of my experience?

Having identified the general aim of his reflective analysis and established its basic ground rules, Descartes moves on to explore the reliability (and unreliability) of our sense experience.

  • 3.All that up to the present time I have accepted as most true and certain I have learned either from the senses or through the senses; but it is sometimes proved to me that these senses are deceptive, and it is wiser not to trust entirely to anything by which we have once been deceived.
  • 4.But it may be that although the senses sometimes deceive us concerning things which are hardly perceptible, or very far away, there are yet many others to be met with as to which we cannot reasonably have any doubt, although we recognize them by their means. For example, there is the fact that I am here, seated by the fire, attired in a dressing gown, having this paper in my hands and other similar matters. And how could I deny that these hands and this body are mine, were it not perhaps that I compare myself to certain persons, devoid of sense, whose cerebella are so troubled and clouded by the violent vapours of black bile, that they constantly assure us that they think they are kings when they are really quite poor, or that they are clothed in purple when they are really without covering, or who imagine that they have an earthenware head or are nothing but pumpkins or are made of glass. But they are mad, and I should not be any the less insane were I to follow examples so extravagant.
  • 5.At the same time I must remember that I am a man, and that consequently I am in the habit of sleeping, and in my dreams representing to myself the same things or sometimes even less probable things, than do those who are insane in their waking moments. How often has it happened to me that in the night I dreamt that I found myself in this particular place, that I was dressed and seated near the fire, whilst in reality I was lying undressed in bed! At this moment it does indeed seem to me that it is with eyes awake that I am looking at this paper; that this head which I move is not asleep, that it is deliberately and of set purpose that I extend my hand and perceive it; what happens in sleep does not appear so clear nor so distinct as does all this. But in thinking over this I remind myself that on many occasions I have in sleep been deceived by similar illusions, and in dwelling carefully on this reflection I see so manifestly that there are no certain indications by which we may clearly distinguish wakefulness from sleep that I am lost in astonishment. And my astonishment is such that it is almost capable of persuading me that I now dream.
  • 6.Now let us assume that we are asleep and that all these particulars, e.g. that we open our eyes, shake our head, extend our hands, and so on, are but false delusions; and let us reflect that possibly neither our hands nor our whole body are such as they appear to us to be. At the same time we must at least confess that the things which are represented to us in sleep are like painted representations which can only have been formed as the counterparts of something real and true, and that in this way those general things at least, i.e. eyes, a head, hands, and a whole body, are not imaginary things, but things really existent. For, as a matter of fact, painters, even when they study with the greatest skill to represent sirens and satyrs by forms the most strange and extraordinary, cannot give them natures which are entirely new, but merely make a certain medley of the members of different animals; or if their imagination is extravagant enough to invent something so novel that nothing similar has ever before been seen, and that then their work represents a thing purely fictitious and absolutely false, it is certain all the same that the colors of which this is composed are necessarily real. And for the same reason, although these general things, to wit, [a body], eyes, a head, hands, and such like, may be imaginary, we are bound at the same time to confess that there are at least some other objects yet more simple and more universal, which are real and true; and of these just in the same way as with certain real colors, all these images of things which dwell in our thoughts, whether true and real or false and fantastic, are formed.
  • What we experience through our senses is often incomplete, subjective, and inaccurate. Consider the many times during the day in which you think one thing is happening and it turns out to be something completely different. Or think about those many occasions in which you witnessed an event with others—an accident, a party, a walk downtown—and each person ended up with very different, and perhaps conflicting, perceptions of the experience. Or reflect on optical illusions (such as the “bent” straw in a glass) or the tricks performed by a magician. In all of these cases our sense experience reveals itself to be consistently unreliable and therefore completely unsuitable for Descartes’ “firm and permanent” foundation for knowledge.
  • But Descartes then takes his radical doubt to the next level, with a provocative suggestion: Suppose what we consider to be our entire waking life is instead an illusion? What then? To support the plausibility of this possibility, Descartes first asks us to consider the plight of the mentally ill. Often they are convinced that their deranged perceptions of reality (“they have an earthenware head or are nothing but pumpkins or made of glass”) are in fact true: How can we be sure that the same is not true for us? A disturbing notion, certainly. But Descartes recognizes that we need not go to this extreme to doubt the validity of our experience because we have another and very common altered state of consciousness that makes the same point just as well: dreaming. Think of the times your dream was so vivid and “real” that you woke up sweating and with a pounding heart. When you were fully absorbed in that dream, you were convinced that it was absolutely real—until you woke up. But, Descartes says, how can we be sure that when we believe we are awake we are not actually dreaming? How can we tell the difference? He contends that we can’t:
  • René Descartes, from Meditations on First Philosophy
  • … in dwelling carefully on this reflection I see so manifestly that there are no certain indications by which we may clearly distinguish wakefulness from sleep that I am lost in astonishment. And my astonishment is such that it is almost capable of persuading me that I now dream.



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