Friday, October 14, 2005

The Limits of Reason and Anti-Skeptical Strategy

I've been teaching Descartes's Meditations recently, and happened to come across a very good paper by Jennifer Nagel (PDF) on the role of God in Descartes's response to skepticism. She argues that (at least an important part of) the role of God in Descartes's argument against skepticism is to provide a backdrop against which the limits of our own rational powers can be seen, and that there is something to be said for an approach that is at least broadly Cartesian (i.e., insisting that the skeptic properly recognize the limits of reason):

Having acknowledged that our active rational powers are limited, it is unsurprising that such powers would fail in certain hypothetical circumstances, tailored precisely to exploit those limitations, but when our limited powers are exercised in favorable circumstances, the Cartesian contends that this exercise has every right to count as yielding knowledge.

This doesn't, of itself, deal with the skeptical claim that we can't prove that we are not in an unfavorable circumstance; but, as she rightly says, the worry that we might be wrong is less pressing than the worry that we can't be right, to which it does provide a serious response.

(Cross-posted at Houyhnhnm Land)

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