The Self and Disembodied Predictive Processing

While I criticized his claim overall, there is some truth in Scott Alexander’s remark that “the predictive processing model isn’t really a natural match for embodiment theory.” The theory of “embodiment” refers to the idea that a thing’s matter contributes in particular ways to its functioning; it cannot be explained by its form alone. As I said in the previous post, the human mind is certainly embodied in this sense. Nonetheless, the idea of predictive processing can suggest something somewhat disembodied. We can imagine the following picture of Andy Clark’s view:

Imagine the human mind as a person in an underground bunker. There is a bank of labelled computer screens on one wall, which portray incoming sensations. On another computer, the person analyzes the incoming data and records his predictions for what is to come, along with the equations or other things which represent his best guesses about the rules guiding incoming sensations.

As time goes on, his predictions are sometimes correct and sometimes incorrect, and so he refines his equations and his predictions to make them more accurate.

As in the previous post, we have here a “barren landscape.” The person in the bunker originally isn’t trying to control anything or to reach any particular outcome; he is just guessing what is going to appear on the screens. This idea also appears somewhat “disembodied”: what the mind is doing down in its bunker does not seem to have much to do with the body and the processes by which it is obtaining sensations.

At some point, however, the mind notices a particular difference between some of the incoming streams of sensation and the rest. The typical screen works like the one labelled “vision.” And there is a problem here. While the mind is pretty good at predicting what comes next there, things frequently come up which it did not predict. No matter how much it improves its rules and equations, it simply cannot entirely overcome this problem. The stream is just too unpredictable for that.

On the other hand, one stream labelled “proprioception” seems to work a bit differently. At any rate, extreme unpredicted events turn out to be much rarer. Additionally, the mind notices something particularly interesting: small differences to prediction do not seem to make much difference to accuracy. Or in other words, if it takes its best guess, then arbitrarily modifies it, as long as this is by a small amount, it will be just as accurate as its original guess would have been.

And thus if it modifies it repeatedly in this way, it can get any outcome it “wants.” Or in other words, the mind has learned that it is in control of one of the incoming streams, and not merely observing it.

This seems to suggest something particular. We do not have any innate knowledge that we are things in the world and that we can affect the world; this is something learned. In this sense, the idea of the self is one that we learn from experience, like the ideas of other things. I pointed out elsewhere that Descartes is mistaken to think the knowledge of thinking is primary. In a similar way, knowledge of self is not primary, but reflective.

Hellen Keller writes in The World I Live In (XI):

Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. I had a mind which caused me to feel anger, satisfaction, desire. These two facts led those about me to suppose that I willed and thought. I can remember all this, not because I knew that it was so, but because I have tactual memory.

When I wanted anything I liked, ice cream, for instance, of which I was very fond, I had a delicious taste on my tongue (which, by the way, I never have now), and in my hand I felt the turning of the freezer. I made the sign, and my mother knew I wanted ice-cream. I “thought” and desired in my fingers.

Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another. So I was not conscious of any change or process going on in my brain when my teacher began to instruct me. I merely felt keen delight in obtaining more easily what I wanted by means of the finger motions she taught me. I thought only of objects, and only objects I wanted. It was the turning of the freezer on a larger scale. When I learned the meaning of “I” and “me” and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me.

Helen Keller’s experience is related to the idea of language as a kind of technology of thought. But the main point is that she is quite literally correct in saying that she did not know that she existed. This does not mean that she had the thought, “I do not exist,” but rather that she had no conscious thought about the self at all. Of course she speaks of feeling desire, but that is precisely as a feeling. Desire for ice cream is what is there (not “what I feel,” but “what is”) before the taste of ice cream arrives (not “before I taste ice cream.”)



Parmenides the Eliminativist

While the name “eliminativism” is used particularly with respect to the denial of the reality of consciousness or various mental conditions, we could define it more generally as the tendency to explain something away rather than explaining it. The motive for this would be that someone believes that reality does not have the principles needed in order to explain the thing; so it is necessary for them to explain it away instead. In this way we noted that Daniel Dennett denies the existence of consciousness. Since every being is objective, in his view, reality does not have any principle which could explain something subjective. Therefore it is necessary for him to explain away subjectivity.

If we take eliminativism in this general way, it will turn out that Parmenides is the ultimate eliminativist. According to Parmenides, not only is there nothing but being, but nothing can be distinct from being in any way, even in concept. Thus anything which appears to be conceptually distinct from being, including ourselves and all the objects of our common experience, is nothing but an illusion deluding itself. And ultimately nothing at all, since even illusions cannot be something other than being.

Parmenides comes to this conclusion in the same general way as Dennett, namely because it seems to him that reality cannot have any principle which could explain things as they are. It is evident that there cannot be anything besides being; thus if something seems distinct from being in any way, there is no principle capable of explaining it.

Descartes argued that he can know he exists since he thinks. On the contrary , Parmenides responds: you think, but thinking means something different from being; therefore you are not.

Ezekiel Bulver on Descartes

C.S. Lewis writes:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

In the post linked above, we mainly discussed “explaining how he came to be so silly” in terms of motivations. But Ezekiel Bulver has a still more insidious way of explaining people’s mistakes. Here is his explanation of the mistakes of Descartes (fictional, of course, like the rest of Bulver’s life):

Descartes was obsessed with proving the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. This is clear enough from his own statements regarding the purpose of the MeditationsThis is why he makes, “I think, therefore I am,” the fundamental principle of his entire system. And he derives everything from this single principle.

Someone who derives everything from such a thought, of course, is almost sure to be wrong about everything, since not much can actually follow from that thought, and in any case it is fundamentally misguided to derive conclusions about the world from our ideas about knowledge, rather than deriving conclusions about knowledge from our knowledge of the world.

While Bulver includes here a reference to a motive, namely the desire to prove the immortality of the soul and the existence of God, his main argument is that Descartes is mistaken due to the flawed order of his argument.

As I suggested above, this is even more insidious than the imputation of motives. As I pointed out in the original discussion of Bulverism, having a motive for a belief does not exclude the possibility of having an argument, nor does it exclude the possibility the argument is a strong one, nor does it exclude the possibility that one’s belief is true. But in the case under consideration, Bulver is not giving a cause rather than a reason; he is saying that Descartes has reasons, but that they are necessarily flawed ones, because they do not respect the natural order of knowing. The basic principle is the same: assume that a man is wrong, and then explain how he got to be wrong. The process appears more reasonable insofar as reasons are imputed to the person, but they are more exclusive of the person’s real reasons, while motives do not exclude any reasons.

As we have seen, Bulver is mistaken about Descartes. Descartes does not actually suppose that he derives his knowledge of the world from his knowledge of thought, even if he organizes his book that way.


Knowing Knowing is Secondary

It would be a mistake in general to suppose that one could derive all important truths from a few first principles, but one particular way to fall into this error would be to think that one can or should derive metaphysics or other branches of scientific or philosophical knowledge from epistemology. One reason for this is implied by the previous post: insofar as we come to know knowledge from a knowledge of the known or knowable, it is never possible to begin by thinking about knowledge, but one must begin by thinking about things.

Descartes’s discussion of the scenario of the evil demon appears to be an example of this error, insofar as he seems to suggest that his first knowledge is of the fact that he is thinking something. In fact, it is quite evident that one must know oneself in order to have the thought, “I am thinking,” and that one would never think about thinking without first thinking about something else.

Still, Descartes’s adoption of this error is only partial. He does realize that this is not the natural order of coming to know. Thus in the Synopsis of his Meditations he says:

Finally in the Sixth I distinguish the action of the understanding from that of the imagination; the marks by which this distinction is made are described. I here show that the mind of man is really distinct from the body, and at the same time that the two are so closely joined together that they form, so to speak, a single thing. All the errors which proceed from the senses are then surveyed, while the means of avoiding them are demonstrated, and finally all the reasons from which we may deduce the existence of material things are set forth. Not that I judge them to be very useful in establishing that which they prove, to wit, that there is in truth a world, that men possess bodies, and other such things which never have been doubted by anyone of sense; but because in considering these closely we come to see that they are neither so strong nor so evident as those arguments which lead us to the knowledge of our mind and of God; so that these last must be the most certain and most evident facts which can fall within the cognizance of the human mind. And this is the whole matter that I have tried to prove in these Meditations, for which reason I here omit to speak of many other questions which I dealt incidentally in this discussion.
Descartes cannot be excused from error here insofar as he asserts that “the knowledge of our mind and of God” are “the most certain and most evident facts” that we can know, but he does realize that people do not actually deduce the existence of an external world from the fact that they think. This is why he admits that such things “never have been doubted by anyone of sense.”

Mixing Water and Wine

St. Thomas discusses what happens if you mix consecrated wine with another liquid:

I answer that, The truth of this question is evident from what has been said already. For it was said above (3; 5, ad 2) that the species remaining in this sacrament, as they acquire the manner of being of substance in virtue of the consecration, so likewise do they obtain the mode of acting and of being acted upon, so that they can do or receive whatever their substance could do or receive, were it there present. But it is evident that if the substance of wine were there present, then some other liquid could be mingled with it.

Nevertheless there would be a different effect of such mixing both according to the form and according to the quantity of the liquid. For if sufficient liquid were mixed so as to spread itself all through the wine, then the whole would be a mixed substance. Now what is made up of things mixed is neither of them, but each passes into a third resulting from both: hence it would result that the former wine would remain no longer. But if the liquid added were of another species, for instance, if water were mixed, the species of the wine would be dissolved, and there would be a liquid of another species. But if liquid of the same species were added, of instance, wine with wine, the same species would remain, but the wine would not be the same numerically, as the diversity of the accidents shows: for instance, if one wine were white and the other red.

But if the liquid added were of such minute quantity that it could not permeate the whole, the entire wine would not be mixed, but only part of it, which would not remain the same numerically owing to the blending of extraneous matter: still it would remain the same specifically, not only if a little liquid of the same species were mixed with it, but even if it were of another species, since a drop of water blended with much wine passes into the species of wine (De Gener. i).

Now it is evident that the body and blood of Christ abide in this sacrament so long as the species remain numerically the same, as stated above (4; 76, 6, ad 3); because it is this bread and this wine which is consecrated. Hence, if the liquid of any kind whatsoever added be so much in quantity as to permeate the whole of the consecrated wine, and be mixed with it throughout, the result would be something numerically distinct, and the blood of Christ will remain there no longer. But if the quantity of the liquid added be so slight as not to permeate throughout, but to reach only a part of the species, Christ’s blood will cease to be under that part of the consecrated wine, yet will remain under the rest.

Given the doctrine of transubstantiation, at least as St. Thomas understands it, so that it implies the existence of accidents without a subject, it is very difficult to understand how such a mixing would be possible at all. But his general position here is that a process analogous to substantial change necessarily happens if you mix anything into the consecrated wine, either according to a part of the wine, or according to the whole. He explains this kind of change in article five of the same question:

I answer that, Since “the corruption of one thing is the generation of another” (De Gener. i), something must be generated necessarily from the sacramental species if they be corrupted, as stated above (Article 4); for they are not corrupted in such a way that they disappear altogether, as if reduced to nothing; on the contrary, something sensible manifestly succeeds to them.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how anything can be generated from them. For it is quite evident that nothing is generated out of the body and blood of Christ which are truly there, because these are incorruptible. But if the substance, or even the matter, of the bread and wine were to remain in this sacrament, then, as some have maintained, it would be easy to account for this sensible object which succeeds to them. But that supposition is false, as was stated above (75, 2,4,8).

Hence it is that others have said that the things generated have not sprung from the sacramental species, but from the surrounding atmosphere. But this can be shown in many ways to be impossible. In the first place, because when a thing is generated from another, the latter at first appears changed and corrupted; whereas no alteration or corruption appeared previously in the adjacent atmosphere; hence the worms or ashes are not generated therefrom. Secondly, because the nature of the atmosphere is not such as to permit of such things being generated by such alterations. Thirdly, because it is possible for many consecrated hosts to be burned or putrefied; nor would it be possible for an earthen body, large enough to be generated from the atmosphere, unless a great and, in fact, exceedingly sensible condensation of the atmosphere took place. Fourthly, because the same thing can happen to the solid bodies surrounding them, such as iron or stone, which remain entire after the generation of the aforesaid things. Hence this opinion cannot stand, because it is opposed to what is manifest to our senses.

And therefore others have said that the substance of the bread and wine returns during the corruption of the species, and so from the returning substance of the bread and wine, ashes or worms or something of the kind are generated. But this explanation seems an impossible one. First of all, because if the substance of the bread and wine be converted into the body and blood of Christ, as was shown above (75, 2,4), the substance of the bread and wine cannot return, except the body and blood of Christ be again changed back into the substance of bread and wine, which is impossible: thus if air be turned into fire, the air cannot return without the fire being again changed into air. But if the substance of bread or wine be annihilated, it cannot return again, because what lapses into nothing does not return numerically the same. Unless perchance it be said that the said substance returns, because God creates anew another new substance to replace the first. Secondly, this seems to be impossible, because no time can be assigned when the substance of the bread returns. For, from what was said above (4; 76, 6, ad 3), it is evident that while the species of the bread and wine remain, there remain also the body and blood of Christ, which are not present together with the substance of the bread and wine in this sacrament, according to what was stated above (Question 75, Article 2). Hence the substance of the bread and wine cannot return while the sacramental species remain; nor, again, when these species pass away; because then the substance of the bread and wine would be without their proper accidents, which is impossible. Unless perchance it be said that in the last instant of the corruption of the species there returns (not, indeed, the substance of bread and wine, because it is in that very instant that they have the being of the substance generated from the species, but) the matter of the bread and wine; which, matter, properly speaking, would be more correctly described as created anew, than as returning. And in this sense the aforesaid position might be held.

However, since it does not seem reasonable to say that anything takes place miraculously in this sacrament, except in virtue of the consecration itself, which does not imply either creation or return of matter, it seems better to say that in the actual consecration it is miraculously bestowed on the dimensive quantity of the bread and wine to be the subject of subsequent forms. Now this is proper to matter; and therefore as a consequence everything which goes with matter is bestowed on dimensive quantity; and therefore everything which could be generated from the matter of bread or wine, if it were present, can be generated from the aforesaid dimensive quantity of the bread or wine, not, indeed, by a new miracle, but by virtue of the miracle which has already taken place.

This is rather strange, because he seems to be saying that the subsequent substantial forms inhere in quantity as in a subject, and that there is no matter there. But if this is possible in any way, and in particular if things remain in this state permanently, as he seems to suggest, then there seems to be little reason not to adopt Descartes’s view of material substance in general, and say that quantity is always the subject of substantial forms, rather than saying that some parts of the world have matter as a subject, and other parts quantity. The account might be more reasonable if he were to accept that when a new substance is generated, matter again comes to be, not by being “created anew,” but because the being of matter in general is from substantial form.

As we can see, this discussion is especially complex on account of the doctrine of transubstantiation and St. Thomas’s account of that doctrine. But if we simply consider the mixing of two liquids in general, various difficulties will remain. Suppose we have a glass of water and a glass of wine, and mix the two together. What exactly will happen?

It is manifest to the senses that when we do this, there is a period of time when parts of the resulting liquid are water, just as it was, and parts are wine, just as it was, without any mixture. But what about the surface where the two are in contact? What is happening there?

According to St. Thomas, there will be a quantitative part which shares in the qualities of each. And this is pretty reasonable. Just as we can see that part is wine and part is water, at a certain point we can see that part is watery wine. But how exactly did that watery part get that way? If it is a certain size, was there a sudden transition of a part which was water into the watery wine? Or the like with the wine becoming watery? Or was there a continuous process with an expanding mixed region? The last possibility seems most consistent with what we see, but it might be difficult to analyze this in terms of substantial change, as St. Thomas does, because such a continuous process would have no first moment when the mixed substance came to be. For if it did, it would come to be with a definite size, and thus the process would not be continuous, but would imply that some part suddenly went from not being watery wine to being watery wine.

Of course, it is one thing to say there are difficulties. It is quite another to say that they mean that the thing cannot happen. So none of this proves that the mixing of liquids is not a substantial change. Nonetheless, many of the ancient naturalists were moved by such considerations to adopt some form of atomic theory. If water and wine are each composed of atoms, the mixing process is easily understood — it is simply the movement in place of these atoms. Each part of the water remains as it was even qualitatively, and likewise each part of the wine, but the resulting mixture has different sensible qualities because one cannot distinguish the diverse qualities of each, just as mixing two very fine sands of different color may appear to result in a third color, even though the grains of sand are not changing qualitatively.

Modern atomic theory, of course, has far stronger arguments for it, but they are in principle, or at least were in the 18th and 19th centuries, of a very similar kind: atomic theory simply does a good job of explaining many of the things that we see happen in the world.

This is closely related to the discussion in the last post. When we construct a bicycle out of parts, it is manifest to the senses that the parts look just like they did before they were parts. And this is necessary, if it is true that those parts are governed by the same natural laws after they become parts that they were before they became parts. For however the parts “look,” they look this way because of how they act on the senses. So if their action does not change, the “way they look” will not change. Similarly, when we mix liquids, if the water parts and the wine parts do not change how they behave, the account one gives of the mixture must be an atomic theory or something very like it. That is, there must remain very small parts that act like water, and very small parts that act like wine. Or, given that wine and water are not in fact elements, at least the basic elemental parts must continue to act like those elemental parts.

Sola Me and Claiming Personal Infallibility

At his blog, P. Edmund Waldstein and myself have a discussion about this post about myself and his account of the certainty of faith, an account that I consider to be a variety of the doctrine of sola me.

In that discussion we consider various details of his position, as well as the teaching of the Church and of St. Thomas. Here, let me step out for a moment and consider the matter more generally.

It is evident that everything that he says could be reformulated and believed by the members of any religion whatsoever, in order to justify the claim that they should never change their religion, no matter how much evidence is brought against it. Thus, instead of,

But nor is such certitude based on an entirely incommunicable interior witness of the Spirit. Certainly it is impossible without such illumination, but what such illumination enables is an encounter with Christ, as a witness who is both external and internal.

a Muslim might say,

But nor is such certitude based on an entirely incommunicable interior witness of Allah. Certainly it is impossible without such illumination, but what such illumination enables is an encounter with Mohammed, as a witness who is both external and internal.

P. Edmund could argue against particular claims of the Muslim, and the Muslim could argue against P. Edmund’s particular claims. But neither would be listening seriously to the other, because each would assert, “It would be unserious in me to approach arguments based on natural evidence as though they could ever disprove the overwhelmingly powerful evidence of the [Catholic / Islamic] Faith.”

Regardless of details, each is claiming to be personally infallible in discerning the truth about religion.

It is possible to lock yourself into a box intellectually that you cannot escape from in any reasonable way. Descartes does this for example with his hypothesis of the Evil Demon. Logically, according to this hypothesis, he should suppose that he might be wrong about the fact that it is necessary to exist in order to think or to doubt things. Without accepting any premises, it is of course impossible to arrive at any conclusions. In a similar way, if someone believes himself infallible on some topic, logically there is no way for him to correct his errors in regard to that topic.

In practice in such cases it is possible to escape from the box, since belief is voluntary. The Cartesian may simply choose to stop doubting, and the believer may simply choose to accept the fact that he is not personally infallible. But there is no logical process of reasoning that could validly lead to these choices.

People construct theological bomb shelters for themselves in various ways. Fr. Brian Harrison does this by asserting a form of young earth creationism, and simply ignoring all the evidence opposed to this. Likewise, asserting that you are personally infallible in discerning the true religion is another way to construct such a shelter. But hear the words of St. Augustine:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

As Darwin Catholic points out, someone who argues that “either evolution is false or Christianity is false” does not make Christianity more credible, but less. In a similar way, someone who argues that their religion requires that they believe themselves personally infallible, is essentially saying, “Either my religion is false or I am personally infallible.” This does not make their religion more credible, but less, to whatever degree that one thinks they are right about the requirement.

(After some consideration, I will be posting at least on Sundays during February and March.)

Evil Demon

Descartes begins his Meditations on First Philosophy:

It is now some years since I detected how many were the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had since constructed on this basis; and from that time I was convinced that I must once for all seriously undertake to rid myself of all the opinions which I had formerly accepted, and commence to build anew from the foundation, if I wanted to establish any firm and permanent structure in the sciences.

In order to do this, he says, it is necessary to doubt all of his former opinions. So he invents a hypothesis to render them doubtful:

I shall then suppose, not that God who is supremely good and the fountain of truth, but some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole energies in deceiving me; I shall consider that the heavens, the earth, colours, figures, sound, and all other external things are nought but the illusions and dreams of which this genius has availed himself in order to lay traps for my credulity; I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses, yet falsely believing myself to possess all these things; I shall remain obstinately attached to this idea, and if by this means it is not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of any truth, I may at least do what is in my power [i.e. suspend my judgment], and with firm purpose avoid giving credence to any false thing, or being imposed upon by this arch deceiver, however powerful and deceptive he may be. But this task is a laborious one, and insensibly a certain lassitude leads me into the course of my ordinary life. And just as a captive who in sleep enjoys an imaginary liberty, when he begins to suspect that his liberty is but a dream, fears to awaken, and conspires with these agreeable illusions that the deception may be prolonged, so insensibly of my own accord I fall back into my former opinions, and I dread awakening from this slumber, lest the laborious wakefulness which would follow the tranquility of this repose should have to be spent not in daylight, but in the excessive darkness of the difficulties which have just been discussed.

He continues with his second meditation:

The Meditation of yesterday filled my mind with so many doubts that it is no longer in my power to forget them. And yet I do not see in what manner I can resolve them; and, just as if I had all of a sudden fallen into very deep water, I am so disconcerted that I can neither make certain of setting my feet on the bottom, nor can I swim and so support myself on the surface. I shall nevertheless make an effort and follow anew the same path as that on which I yesterday entered, i.e. I shall proceed by setting aside all that in which the least doubt could be supposed to exist, just as if I had discovered that it was absolutely false; and I shall ever follow in this road until I have met with something which is certain, or at least, if I can do nothing else, until I have learned for certain that there is nothing in the world that is certain. Archimedes, in order that he might draw the terrestrial globe out of its place, and transport it elsewhere, demanded only that one point should be fixed and immoveable; in the same way I shall have the right to conceive high hopes if I am happy enough to discover one thing only which is certain and indubitable. I suppose, then, that all the things that I see are false; I persuade myself that nothing has ever existed of all that my fallacious memory represents to me. I consider that I possess no senses; I imagine that body, figure, extension, movement and place are but the fictions of my mind. What, then, can be esteemed as true? Perhaps nothing at all, unless that there is nothing in the world that is certain. But how can I know there is not something different from those things that I have just considered, of which one cannot have the slightest doubt? Is there not some God, or some other being by whatever name we call it, who puts these reflections into my mind? That is not necessary, for is it not possible that I am capable of producing them myself? I myself, am I not at least something? But I have already denied that I had senses and body. Yet I hesitate, for what follows from that? Am I so dependent on body and senses that I cannot exist without these? But I was persuaded that there was nothing in all the world, that there was no heaven, no earth, that there were no minds, nor any bodies: was I not then likewise persuaded that I did not exist? Not at all; of a surety I myself did exist since I persuaded myself of something [or merely because I thought of something]. But there is some deceiver or other, very powerful and very cunning, who ever employs his ingenuity in deceiving me. Then without doubt I exist also if he deceives me, and let him deceive me as much as he will, he can never cause me to be nothing so long as I think that I am something. So that after having reflected well and carefully examined all things, we must come to the definite conclusion that this proposition: I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time that I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it.

Descartes’s demon is not very powerful. Otherwise, why should it not deceive him into believing that it is necessarily true that he must exist in order to think that he exists, even if this is false? In other words, it may be that Descartes can think that he exists even without existing, but the evil demon can deceive him into believing that it is perfectly obvious that this is impossible.

The situation is of course incoherent. But it would also be incoherent for two and two not to make four, and presumably Descartes meant to call this into question as well, or his existence would no longer have the special place of primacy that he is giving it here.

We noted earlier that in order to have a good conversation, we need to concede something to our conversational partner. We can take to this to its ultimate limit by noting that we cannot hold a conversation at all with someone who will not respond except in order to say, “no, that’s wrong.” Suggesting that an evil demon hypothesis (or some equivalent) is true about someone is in effect replying to everything he says in this way. Likewise, suggesting that such a hypothesis might be true about someone, in the sense that there is a substantial doubt about the hypothesis, is in effect responding to everything with, “you might be wrong anyway,” which will be no more effective in producing a conversation.