2 Day 1: A Dream & A Method
Chorus: The sunrise finds a day divided and uncertain. The brisk, unseasonably cold air never recedes from the onslaught of the brilliant sunlight. Every now and then a distinct cloud is blown across the sky, dancing and swirling upon itself. Treetops gently sway, and flags whip and wave, slaves to gentle blusters and frenzied zephyrs alike. This morning finds Socrates X on a pedestrian bridge that spans a commercially dense strip of street that stretches East and West, as a few bleary-eyed students shuffle past on their way to start their day, and a few others — students or otherwise — trudge home to bring theirs to a close.
Early birds complain, and early traffic whines and coughs. As the morning crawls, empty buses and trolleys slowly begin to fill, and the increasingly immediate encroachment of light seems to summon blossoming and frenetic activity. Hatch approaches Socrates X out of this fog of anonymity with a greeting and a question.
Socrates X: It is good to see you, too, Hatch. I was enjoying the sunrise, actually. It was truly breathtaking, like finding an unexpected pattern in what was apparently only chaos. It reminded me of a dream I had the other night. Do you have a few minutes? [Hatch nods as he lights a cigarette] Great! Here is the dream:
The Paradox of Cartesian Doubt
Chorus: There are days that last but seconds, and those that capture months. But the most compelling of them all is the one that lasts a day, second for second, minute for minute, hour for hour. How many days in a single life do words that question the passage of time not cross the mind, either on stage or in the background? Where did the time go? Time flies by or challenges the snail’s crawl. Forever relative, a moment has significance only to the events and objects that cling to it with a shrill dread of annihilation. And every moment is extinguished as it passes onto the next, eternally lost. When a day like today comes around, a day that promises to teach so much as it slowly winds through lives and minds, our friend Socrates X cannot help but seek out truth, find a second in a second, a minute in a minute, and an hour in an hour. He is sitting on the grass in a small, secluded and shady park, in the early afternoon. Sunlight reaches most of the few other patrons, walking with their dogs, jogging with each other, otherwise oblivious to wise, old Socrates X, who sometimes watches them, sometimes the trees, or birds, or ants. One young man hurries across the park, heading straight for his mentor, calling his name as he gets close.
Socrates X: Well, hello my friend. How does this fine day find you, René?
René Descartes: Very well, Socrates X, very well indeed. I have an exciting topic to talk over with you. Would you like to get some breakfast?
Socrates X: Heavens, René! Breakfast was hours ago. Could you do instead with a late lunch?
René: Of course, of course. I’ve been sleeping in lately. I’ve found it amenable to my studies.
Socrates X: I understand. I have always preferred discourse, but there must be many routes to wisdom, certainly at least two. Lead the way René, towards the agora, and let me in on your secret.
Chorus: The two friends walk to a pub, Descartes talking the entire way. He tells Socrates X of his work, on an idea that he had several days earlier. He tells Socrates X about a work he calls Deep Thinking and Meditations, and of his attempt to secure a foundation of certain knowledge on which empirical inquiry — all inquiry, really — could be built. He tells Socrates X about a new method, a method of doubt he calls it, that promises to do just this.
Socrates X: Most impressive, René! Your insight and imagination are above reproach, but I am uneasy — or should I say uncertain? — about some of what you propose. I understand the need to question the senses. They are often misleading, the famous example being a straight stick looking bent when half immersed in water. That reminds me: Did I ever tell you, René, about my desire to find or make a bent stick that looks straight in water? It’s an interesting question, how this twist might affect us.
René: (Laughing) I imagine it would be startling. But it would still indicate the frailties of the senses. Is it not better to assume them false?
Socrates X: To achieve what exactly? If any knowledge is gained from this, it would be only on account of this.
René: I’m not sure that I understand. By accepting that our faculties of perception are limited — or, more precisely, our judgments about perceptions — and that we can be mistaken, we are more able to see only what is certain. And once we accept that everything we experience, save our thoughts and the laws of logic, might be chimerical, we are better suited to ferret out only the clearest and most distinct ideas. Is this not an advantage, rather than a fault?
Socrates X: It seems so. But I’m afraid that this analysis is flawed. Perhaps we can talk about the Evil Genius which you mentioned. He is supremely powerful, is he not?
René: Yes, powerful enough to make everything seem as it now seems.
Socrates X: So what restricts his power such that he cannot create in you ideas that, to you, seem clear and distinct? Perhaps he is mad, and his mind is split into two parts, one that calls himself “René” and fancies himself to be a thinking thing onto himself, and another that supplies — forces, even — these false ideas onto the former.
René: But surely he could not change the laws of logic, of contradiction!
Socrates X: Do not be so impetuous. Perhaps he doesn’t have to. Or, perhaps the laws as you know them are not what they appear to be, or are so much more. For example, your thoughts in this matter seem to presume the principle that if one can conceive of some state of affairs, then it possible, and God could bring it about. Is this correct?
René: Yes, that is a principle I am willing to acknowledge.
Socrates X: Well, I can conceive of a contradiction.
René: Ridiculous! You might as well say a triangle has four sides, or that there are married bachelors!
Socrates X: That is not so. Those are just words strung together, and as such represent nothing. These are likewise never used in discourse. But, it is not meaningless to say that someone is a walking contradiction, or that they have contradictory thoughts.
René: But these are not contradictions in the strict sense. They are but figures of speech, and do not represent a true contradiction.
Socrates X: Granted. Remember, though, that according to the principle you agreed to earlier, if I can conceive of a contradiction, then one is possible, even if I may never be able to directly experience it, and verify whether it is true or not. Is this reasonable?
Socrates X: And, then, is it not acceptable that a representation is equated with a conception? The reason why terms like “four-sided triangle” are nonsense is that they do not represent anything.
René: Yes, that seems correct.
Socrates X: In that case, I will present to you a representation of a contradiction: “P and not p.” To the extent that this phrase is a representation, it is a conception, and to that extent also possible. Thus, to some extent — and we won’t worry exactly how far — God can bring about such a contradiction. And, finally, it is possible that your Evil Genius could be the originator of your thoughts, even the clear and distinct ones.
René: This does seem to be the case. Socrates X, this is quite a turn of affairs. My head is swimming, but there may be more than one reason for that! Please excuse me so that I may refresh my ale, and relieve myself.
Chorus: In Descartes’ absence, Socrates X amuses himself by looking around. Each face that captures his attention betrays a silent ennui, an acquiescence to the inexorable march of time. No one can escape it, can they? he asks himself. I was there with them a mere moment ago, and drifted in that very same stream. His eyes sweep the room and fall upon Descartes, carrying a pint in each hand, walking back to the table. Every second that passes is a second to old Socrates X, a second that holds as much wonder as the ale holds bubbles in its froth.
René: Socrates X, it struck me as I was walking back to the table that we left an untidy thread. You never explained exactly why you think my method is flawed.
Socrates X: Well, René, when it follows from the assumption that all of my experiences — including my memories — may be false, that I must be a thinking thing, this is a conclusion applicable only to this conditional. That is, the conditional, If it is possible for my experiences to be false, then I must be a thinking thing is the only conclusion you are permitted to draw. To go beyond this, to the fact that you are indeed but a thinking thing is not supported.
René: I hadn’t thought of that, Socrates X, but I must admit that you are correct. I cannot immediately see how to patch this vessel you have so deftly poked full of holes. Perhaps because I am too close to the arguments, perhaps because the ale has gone to my mind.
Socrates X: Both are independently sufficient to rob one of the ability to judge the merit of any particular argument. Perhaps you should head home, and get some sleep.
René: I’m concerned that I will forget our talk, and continue on this quixotic quest. But I don’t have much time. In the morning I am off to the war.
Socrates X: My friend, you do have a triple curse. Be it ale, sleep or war, few souls can maintain a focus on such lofty philosophical endeavors. You are destined to lose this time, perhaps forever. Regardless, you need sleep tonight to face tomorrow. We will talk again when you come home.
Chorus: The two friends part company. Descartes will not return to this subject for many years, and will forget this discussion. On his way home, his mind wanders, half-heartedly musing over the Trinity, jumbo shrimp, and many other subjects. Socrates X, alert and clear-eyed, stops next to a small flowerbed to delight in the rounds of a honeybee busily making time to collect her pollen.
Socrates X: That was my dream. There is so much in there to talk about. What do you think, Hatch?
Hatch: Well, SocX, I’m not sure what to think about it, but I gotta run. I work in a little less than an hour. Can we meet for a late lunch?
SocX: Not today, unfortunately. I have several errands to run. I might make it to the P‘s & Q‘s later, but I cannot guarantee that I will be there. No worries! We will pick this up another time. [TBD] Now get to work — you do not want to be late! — and go make hungry people happy!
Chorus: Hatch hurries off as Socrates X glances first up the street, then down, squinting into the bright morning sunlight. The sounds of activity are deafening, and in the chaos, Socrates X finds a rhythm, a melody, a beat.