Descartes' Evil Genius
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Descartes’ official position is that the Evil Genius Doubt is merely one among multiple hypotheses that can motivate the more general hyperbolic doubt. (See Cunning 2014, 68ff, and Hatfield 2006, 126, for variations on this theme.) Fundamentally, the more general doubt is about our cognitive nature, that is, about the possibility our minds are flawed. The First Meditation texts are somewhat ambiguous on this count. But later passages are very clear (a theme we’ll develop more fully in Section 4.3).
What is essential to the doubt is not the specific story about the origin of our cognitive wiring; it’s instead the realization – regardless the story – that for all we know, our cognitive wiring is flawed. Even so, I regularly speak in terms of the evil genius (following Descartes’ lead), as a kind of mnemonic for the more general doubt about our cognitive nature.
Having introduced the Evil Genius Doubt, the First Meditation program of demolition is not only hyperbolic but universal. As the meditator remarks, I “am finally compelled to admit that there is not one of my former beliefs about which a doubt may not properly be raised” (Med. 1, AT 7:21, CSM 2:14f).
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