Descartes introduced his evil genius doubt in his first meditations. His hypothesis consists of the belief that a supreme being, labeled the “evil genius” or “evil demon” could be maliciously controlling and creating in our minds an illusion of the world as we know it. A complete fabrication that would negate the simplest truths as well as our sense data.
His initial goal is to find a way to question the unquestionable; what we view as absolute truths like a simple addition or substraction, what seems to be true and tested could be false because of this powerful and cunning genius. Descartes uses his evil demon argument on his quest to find truths that are unshakably true; that is, that have absolutely no doubt to them. His conclusion is that the only statement that can be unshakably and undeniably true is “I am, I exist”. Which is to say that if we are capable of having thoughts about our existence then we must exist in some way.
Even if an evil genius is maliciously pumping information and illusions about the physical world that we live in, if I can think about my existence then I must exist in some way, wether it be in this world or in the evil genius’s world. I believe that Descartes’s evil genius argument is successful at its goal is to isolate what is absolutely and undoubtedly true. Descartes felt that during his lifetime many things he thought to be true turned out false over the years. Therefore he felt that he needed to use every kind of skepticism to bring any possible doubt to what we believe about reality.
If there was even an ounce of doubt the statement had to be treated as false and so started his mission to find absolute truths. This argument still holds to this day, things we though we knew for certain 100 years ago, we now know to be false. Therefore it is absolutely necessary to bring to light any possible doubts or limitations an argument could have. The evil genius doubt is a very powerful tool of skepticism because it can eliminate in one fell swoop almost everything that we think to be true.
The argument puts in question things that seem most evident: the addition of tree and four is always seven for example. It seems impossible that such a transparent truth be false, unless, someone was creating in our minds the concept of mathematics and arithmetic. Some people argue that concepts such as pure mathematics cannot be “created. ” That two plus two would be four no matter what world you would live in. Well, if I am to believe that the reality that I live in is a fabrication then I must also question my cognitive ability.
I must assume that I may not be capable of understanding more complex concepts. If I can entertain the fact that there are known unknowns, like the existence of an evil genius, then I should also entertain the fact there are unknown unknowns, things that we don’t know that we don’t know. But if such a powerful being is creating our reality then what then can we know to be true? Well we can assume that since we are pondering about our existence then we must undoubtedly exist. If a devious being is creating my reality then there is no doubt that he must be stimulating something.
The “brain” must be embodied in some way in the evil genius’s world. One of the most common and popular modern example of the evil genius argument is the Wachowski brothers’s film trilogy: The Matrix. The premise of the film is that a world of machines are creating a false reality called the matrix into the minds of human beings in order to harvest energy from them without their knowing. In this example the evil genius would be the machines pumping information into human beings making them think they are living an alternate life in a different world.
In this case the “real” world consists of humans just as in the “false” world. There is no reason to believe that we are physiologically equal in our world then in our evil genius’s world. The brain could be embodied in many different ways but we must believe that the mind exists. Cogito Ergo Sum: I think, therefore I am. That was Descartes conclusion. A statement that to our capacities is undeniable. The evil genius argument is the tool that helped narrow down what we can hold to be absolutely true.