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«Descartes' Evil Genius O. K. Bouwsma The Philosophical Review, Vol. 58, No. 2. (Mar., 1949), pp. 141-151. Stable URL: ...»

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Descartes' Evil Genius

O. K. Bouwsma

The Philosophical Review, Vol. 58, No. 2. (Mar., 1949), pp. 141-151.

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http://www.jstor.org Thu Oct 25 19:17:48 2007

DESCARTES' EVIL GENIUS

T H E R E W A S O N C E an evil genius who promised the mother of us all that if she ate of the fruit of the tree, she would be like God, knowing good and evil. H e promised knowledge. She did eat and she learned, but she was disappointed, for to know good and evil and not to be God is awful. Many an Eve later, there was rumor of another evil genius. This evil genius promised no good, promised no knowledge. H e made a boast, a boast so wild and so deep and so dark that those who heard it cringed in hearing it. And what was that boast? Well, that apart from a few, four or five, clear and distinct ideas, he could deceive any son of Adam about anything. So he boasted. And with some result? Some indeed! Men going about in the brightest noonday would look and exclaim : "How obscure!" and if some careless merchant counting his apples was heard to say: "Two and three are five," a hearer of the boast would rub his eyes and run away. This evil genius still whispers, thundering, among the leaves of books, frightening people, whispering: "I can. Maybe I will. Maybe so, maybe not." The tantalizer! I n what follows I should like to examine the boast of this evil genius.

I am referring, of course, to that evil genius of whom Descartes

writes :

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 m e ; I shall consider that the heavens, the earth, the colors, figures, sound, and all other external things are nought but illusions and dreams of which this evil 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.' This then is the evil genius whom I have represented as boasting that he can deceive us about all these things. I intend now to examine this boast, and to understand how this deceiving and being deceived Philosophical W o r k s of Descartes, I, 147.

T H E PHILOSOPHICAL R E V I E W

are to take place. I expect to discover that the evil genius may very well deceive us, but that if we are wary, we need not be deceived. H e will deceive us, if he does, by bathing the word "illusion" in a fog. This then will be the word to keep our minds on. I n order to accomplish all this, I intend to describe the evil genius carrying out his boast in two adventures. The first of these I shall consider a thoroughly transparent case of deception. The word "illusion" will find a clear and familiar application. Nevertheless in this instance the evil genius will not have exhausted "his whole energies in deceiving us." Hence we must aim to imagine a further trial of the boast, in which the "whole energies" of the evil genius are exhausted. In this instance I intend to show that the evil genius is himself befuddled, and that if we too exhaust some of our energies in sleuthing after the peculiarities in his diction, then we need not be deceived either.

Let us imagine the evil genius then at his ease meditating that very bad is good enough for him, and that he would let bad enough alone.

All the old pseudos, pseudo names and pseudo statements, are doing very well. But today it was different. H e took no delight in common lies, everyday fibs, little ones, old ones. H e wanted something new and something big. H e scratched his genius; he uncovered an idea.

And he scribbled on the inside of his tattered halo, "Tomorrow, I will deceive," and he smiled, and his words were thin and like fine wire.

"Tomorrow I will change everything, everything, everything. I will change flowers, human beings, trees, hills, sky, the sun, and everything else into paper. Paper alone I will not change. There will be paper flowers, paper human beings, paper trees. And human beings will be deceived. They will think that there are flowers, human beings, and trees, and there will be nothing but paper. I t will be gigantic. And it ought to work. After all men have been deceived with much less trouble. There was a sailor, a Baptist I believe, who said that all was water. And there was no more water then than there is now. And there was a pool-hall keeper who said that all was billiard balls. That's a long time ago of course, a long time before they opened one, and listening, heard that it was full of the sound of a trumpet. My prospects are good. I'll try it."





And the evil genius followed his own directions and did according to his words. And this is what happened.

Imagine a young man, Tom, bright today as he was yesterday,

DESCARTES' E V I L G E N I U S

approaching a table where yesterday he had seen a bowl of flowers.

Today it suddenly strikes him that they are not flowers. H e stares at them troubled, looks away, and looks again. Are they flowers? H e shakes his head. H e chuckles to himself. "Huh ! that's funny. I s this a trick? Yesterday there certainly were flowers in that bowl." H e sniffs suspiciously, hopefully, but smells nothing. His nose gives no assurance. H e thinks of the birds that flew down to peck at the grapes in the picture and of the mare that whinnied at the likeness of Alexander's horse. Illusions ! The picture oozed no juice, and the likeness was still. H e walked slowly to the bowl of flowers. H e looked, and he sniffed, and he raised his hand. H e stroked a petal lightly, lover of flowers, and he drew back. H e could scarcely believe his fingers.

They were not flowers. They were paper.

A s he stands, perplexed, Milly, friend and dear, enters the room.

Seeing him occupied with the flowers, she is about to take up the bowl and offer them to him, when once again he is overcome with feelings of strangeness. She looks just like a great big doll. H e looks more closely, closely as he dares, seeing this may be Milly after all.

Milly, are you Milly ?- that wouldn't do. H e r mouth clicks as she opens it, speaking, and it shuts precisely. Her forehead shines, and he shudders at the thought of Mme Tussaud's. Her hair is plaited, evenly, perfectly, like Milly7s but as she raises one hand to guard its order, touching it, preening, it whispers like a newspaper. Her teeth are white as a genteel monthly. Her gums are pink, and there is a clapper in her mouth. H e thinks of mama dolls, and of the rubber doll he used to pinch; it had a misplaced navel right in the pit of the back, that whistled. Galatea in paper ! Illusions !

H e noted all these details, flash by flash by flash. H e reaches for a chair to steady himself and just in time. She approaches with the bowl of flowers, and, as the bowl is extended towards him, her arms jerk.

The suppleness, the smoothness, the roundness of life is gone.

Twitches of a smile mislight up her face. H e extends his hand to take up the bowl and his own arms jerk as hers did before. H e takes the bowl, and as he does so sees his hand. I t is pale, fresh, snowy. Trembling, he drops the bowl, but it does not break, and the water does not run. What a mockery !

H e rushes to the window, hoping to see the real world. The scene is like a theatre-set. Even the pane in the window is drawn very thin,

T H E PHILOSOPHICAL REVIEW

like cellophane. I n the distance are the forms of men walking about and tossing trees and houses and boulders and hills upon the thin cross section of a truck that echoes only echoes of chugs as it moves.

H e looks into the sky upward, and it is low. There is a patch straight above him, and one seam is loose. The sun shines out of the blue like a drop of German silver. H e reaches out with his pale hand, crackling the cellophane, and his hand touches the sky. The sky shakes and tiny bits of it fall, flaking his white hand with confetti.

Make-believe !

H e retreats, crinkling, creaking, hiding his sight. As he moves Ile misquotes a line of poetry: "Those are perils that were his eyes," and he mutters, "Hypocritical pulp!" H e goes on: "I see that the heavens, the earth, colors, figures, sound, and all other external things, flowers, Milly, trees and rocks and hills are paper, paper laid as traps for my credulity. Paper flowers, paper Milly, paper sky !" Then he paused, and in sudden fright he asked "And what about m e ? ' H e reaches to his lip and with two fingers tears the skin and peels off a strip of newsprint. H e looks at it closely, grim. "I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, or any senses." H e lids his paper eyes and stands dejected. Suddenly he is cheered. H e exclaims: "Cogito me papyrum esse, ergo sum'." H e has triumphed over paperdom.

I have indulged in this phantasy in order to illustrate the sort of situation which Descartes' words might be expected to describe. The evil genius attempts to deceive. H e tries to mislead Tom into thinking what is not. Ton1 is to think that these are flowers, that this is the Milly that was, that those are trees, hills, the heavens, etc. And he does this by creating illusions, that is, by making something that looks like flowers, artificial flowers; by making something that looks like and sounds like and moves like Milly, an artificial Milly. An illusion is something that looks like or sounds like, so much like, something else that you either mistake it for something else, or you can easily understand how someone might come to do this. So when the evil genius creates illusions intending to deceive he makes things which might quite easily be mistaken for what they are not. Now in the phantasy as I discovered it Tom is not deceived. H e does experience the illusion, however. The intention of this is not to cast any reflection upon the deceptive powers of the evil genius. With such refinements

DESCARTES' E V I L GENIUS

in the paper art as we now know, the evil genius might very well have been less unsuccessful. And that in spite of his rumored lament: "And I made her of the best paper !" No, that Tom is not deceived, that he detects the illusion, is introduced in order to remind ourselves how illusions are detected. That the paper flowers are illusory is revealed by the recognition that they are paper. As soon as Tom realizes that though they look like flowers but are paper, he is acquainted with, sees through the illusion, and is not deceived. What is required, of course, is that he know the difference between flowers and paper, and that when presented with one or the other he can tell the difference.

The attempt of the evil genius also presupposes this. What he intends is that though Tom knows this difference, the paper will look so much like flowers that Tom will not notice the respect in which the paper is different from the flowers. And even though Tom had actually been deceived and had not recognized the illusion, the evil genius himself must have been aware of the difference, for this is involved in his design. This is crucial, as we shall see when we come to consider the second adventure of the evil genius.

c- As you will remember I have represented the foregoing as an illustration of the sort of situation which Descartes' words might be expected to describe. Now, however, I think that this is misleading. For though I have described a situation in which there are many things, nearly all of which are calculated to serve as illusions, this question may still arise. Would this paper world still be properly described as a world of illusions? If Tom says: "These are flowers," or "These look like flowers" (uncertainly), then the illusion is operative. But if Tom says: "These are paper," then the illusion has been destroyed.

Descartes uses the words: "And all other external things are nought but illusions." This means that the situation which Descartes has in mind is such that if Tom says: "These are flowers," he will be wrong, but he will be wrong also if he says: "These are paper," and it won't matter what sentence of that type he uses. If he says: "These are rock" -or cotton or cloud or wood- he is wrong by the plan.

H e will be right only if he says: "These are illusions." But the project is to keep him from recognizing the illusions. This means that the ill.usions are to be brought about not by anything so crude as paper or even cloud. They must be made of the stuff that dreams are made of.

T H E PHILOSOPHICAL REVIEW

Now let us consider this second adventure.

The design then is this. The evil genius is to create a world of illusions. There are to be no flowers, no Milly, no paper. There is to be nothing at all, but Tom is every moment to go on mistaking nothing for something, nothing at all for flowers, nothing at all for Milly, etc.



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