Descartes' Evil Genius
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Evil Genius

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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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).
The evil demon, also known as Descartes' demon, malicious demon[1] and evil genius,[2] is an epistemological concept that features prominently in Cartesian philosophy. In the first of his 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes imagines that an evil demon, of "utmost power and cunning has employed all his energies in order to deceive me." This evil demon is imagined to present a complete illusion of an external world, so that Descartes can say, "I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses, but as falsely believing that I have all these things."
The Evil Genius argument is the best possible skeptical argument—the evil genius is all-powerful and so can generate doubt about anything for which it is possible to generate doubt about.  The argument works for propositions about complex objects as well as propositions about simple objects.

Still the Evil Genius argument cannot generate doubt about my own existence or the fact that I am thinking.  Not even an all-powerful evil genius can make me think that I exist when I do not exist.  This would require making me exist and not exist at the same time, which is impossible.  And not even an all-powerful evil genius can make me think that I am thinking when I am not thinking.  This would require making me think and not think at the same time, which is impossible.
Descartes’ method of radical doubt goes further since it may be possible that even our consistent, wakeful experiences are an illusion. To help us engage in radical doubt, he poses a thought experiment: Imagine that a powerful evil genius has tricked us into thinking that everything we perceive is true. However, it’s all really just an illusion. The contemporary analog of this thought-experiment is the film The Matrix, where people think they are living in the real world, when, in fact, all their sensory input is being controlled by a computer.
Descartes would say that we cannot rule out that we are not in a simulated reality. Descartes’ method of radical doubt presents us with an argument for certainty. It goes like this:
The evil demon argument is a radicalisation of the dreaming argument: Descartes asks us to imagine an all-powerful mind that is constantly deceiving us, so that whatever we believe, it turns out to be false. If we cannot rule out that we might be the victims of such a scenario, we cannot, it seems, know anything.

Ever since Descartes’ evil genius first made us wonder whether we might not be trapped in an undetectable global illusion, epistemologists have sought ways of resisting the radical sceptical hypothesis that knowledge of the world might be impossible. In contemporary discussion, the idea of an evil genius who is systematically tampering with our beliefs has given way to a more ‘modern’, ‘sci-fi’ scenario: how can we be sure that we are real persons interacting with an actual, ‘external’ world rather than mere brains-in-a-vat hooked up to a super-computer that is feeding us experiences as of an ‘external’ world?
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