Somewhere Atop the Ivory Tower 2

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“Two Hands”

(Descartes had sent out an inquiry, regarding a thought experiment he had about knowledge of the external world. Three philosophers have responded to him during office hours.)

Moore: Mr. Descartes, about your inquiry.

Descartes: The one about the two hands, no?

Moore: Yes, about that. I don’t see the problem. (Descartes glares at him, confused) Look, here’s my hand. And here’s my other hand. They’re apart from each other. This is all the proof I need for the external world to exist!

Descartes: Aye, but HOW do I know that the world exists?

Moore: Because I can see them? Duh.

Descartes: (rubs his temples out of frustration) Don’t bore me with such common claims, without any evidence as to why. Go join the trash below. (Exit Moore. Enter Berkeley.) Ah, old friend. Have you got an answer to my inquiry?

Berkeley: Why of course. See my hands? I know they’re here because I can see them. But once I fall asleep or lose consciousness, I no longer am aware that they exist.

Descartes: Yeah. I know.

Berkeley: So that means that in those moments where I am not aware of them, my two hands don’t exist!

Descartes: Wha– how did you… then how do you explain how your two hands happen to be there once you wake up?

Berkeley: Why that’s simple. Because God can still see them. That means I can be confident that my hands will still be there, even when I’m not conscious of them. After all, a higher being is always watching them.

Descartes: Uh huh… so what would happen if at some point God stops looking, even for a split second?

Berkeley: Look. You’re a man of faith too, right?

Descartes: Well, sure.

Berkeley: Then you would know that it would be impossible for God to stop His gaze upon everything at once. He is omnipotent, after all.

Descartes: Okay, but how do you know that? Wouldn’t saying that something is impossible for God mean that He is no longer omnipotent?

Berkeley: Well…

Descartes: So in the case that God stops looking at your hands, and no one else is around to notice them, how do you know that they’re still there?

Berkeley: Look, they’re not there unless they can be seen, okay? Geez, someone like you should know that God is above any of our concerns!

Descartes: Mr. Berkeley, with all due respect. I believe in God, and I believe that God is good, and above all, omnipotent. But to say that He is incapable of doing something, including something as simple as breaking His gaze on your hands is rather insulting to your vision of God.

Berkeley: You’re just a man of little faith then!

Descartes: . . . . If you’re not going to take this inquiry seriously, get out. (Exit Berkeley. Enter Lehrer) Now who are you?

Lehrer: Oh come on, you didn’t bother asking G E Moore who he is, but you have to ask of me?

Descartes: Who?

Lehrer: Eh, never mind. About those two hands… you see these? I don’t even know that they’re there.

Descartes: . . . Come again?

Lehrer: Yeah. How do I even know that they exist? I’ve never had proof that anything I see is in fact there. I don’t even know that you’re talking to me, or that we’re somehow atop some kind of tower.

Descartes: Are you serious?

Lehrer: Hell, how do I even know that I don’t know any of this? Maybe a demon put all these thoughts in my head, to trick me into navigating an illusion of a universe.

Descartes: But surely you have acted as if you knew that your two hands existed. Only crazy people think that their hands don’t exist even when they can clearly see them.

Lehrer: Yes, but maybe that’s what the demons want you to believe. Isn’t that right?

Descartes: Hmm… (Descartes scribbles a few notes on a piece of paper and hands it to Lehrer) here are the key points to my first and second meditations. Read them again, and study them well.

Lehrer: Okay, but–

Descartes: And if you’re really that committed to skepticism, go ahead and walk off the top ledge of this tower. There is a special place in Philosopher’s Hell, just for you.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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