Monday, August 17, 2009

The Omnipotent Deceiver

In this post I will begin to touch on the difficult subject of how to reconcile faith and science, and I'd like to begin by talking about 17th century philosophy. I know it seems a bit strange, but please bear with me.

Specifically I would like to talk about the concept of an omnipotent deceiver as it is presented in Rene Descartes' famous work, Meditations on First Philosophy, written in 1641. Even if you've never read anything by Descartes I'm guessing you are probably familiar with the concept. The omnipotent deceiver is a hypothetical person who is supremely powerful and intelligent. They are able to confuse a person's senses and thoughts so that that person can no longer be certain of anything. Anyone who has seen the film, “The Matrix” has a good idea of how that might work.

When Descartes tells the tale, however, the deception is perfect. There is no Morpheus to tell you you're dreaming and no blue pill to wake you up. There is no way for the subject to know that what he experiences isn't actually real. It is an intriguing idea and it forms the basis of Descartes' arguments in “Meditations.”

I want to talk about where I believe Descartes may have gotten this strange idea, assuming that he didn't have access to twentieth century science-fiction blockbusters of course. In “Meditations” he brings up this concept as a device to push skepticism as far as it will go. It might just be a contrived thought experiment used to advance the argument, but I believe that this concept is drawn from the life experience of Descartes himself.

Before “Meditations” was published Descartes had been working on a scientific text that, among other things, argued that the earth revolves around the sun. Descartes decided not to publish this text when, in 1633, Galileo was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church for publishing a work that argued that the Earth does indeed revolve around the sun.

At the time of Galileo's trial, Descartes was a Catholic living in a protestant country. He had enough faith in Catholicism not to convert despite the persecution he faced. At the same time he was intelligent enough to know that the evidence supported the idea that the earth goes around the sun. Given that the ruling caused Descartes to set aside four years worth of work I think it's fair to say that it had some affect on him.

What if Descartes had stopped to consider the possibility that the church was right, that despite all evidence to the contrary the earth holds still and the sun revolves around it? Descartes might have considered that God was actually a mighty deceiver who is able to provide false visions that lead men to false conclusions, not only about the heavens, but also about the very ground they stand upon.

In “Meditations” Descartes struggles with the idea that God Himself might be an evil deceiver. When we read the book in this light, the omnipotent deceiver is more than just an unusual thought experiment. It illustrates the core problem of believing that God conceals the truth from us instead of revealing it to us. The problem is that no knowledge is certain, so it is impossible to truly believe anything.

Descartes argues that because God is good we can trust that he will not deceive us. For Descartes belief in God forms the basis for a rational, scientific investigation of the universe instead of acting as an obstacle to such investigations. I, for one, think it's a belief that the church should embrace. You can let me know what you think in the comments below.


  1. This is a very interesting point about Descartes. I've never had a chance to read his work, (which is probably due to the fact that I've never forgiven him for Cartesian coordinates) but who doesn't know the famous saying "I think therefore I am."? I, like Descartes, have had similar musings about the nature of reality, though luckily enough I my musings were informed by sci-fi movies, namely "The Matrix", and perhaps more importantly "Dark City."
    In the end I am forced to come to the same conclusion that Descartes did, that there is an objective reality which I interact with, and that scientific exploration of this reality is worth while. Though my conclusion does not come from the same direction as Descartes, he believes in reality because he believes in god. I believe in reality because I have no evidence to the contrary. I resign myself to the fact that if there is indeed an "Omnipotent Deceiver" and it is perfect, then there is nothing I can do about it. No blue pills, no red pills, only the reality I am confronted with.

  2. "Dark City" is actually probably a better example of what Descartes was talking about because the aliens mess with your mind so even your memories and thought processes are questionable. Of course, more people have seen "The Matrix" so I went with that example.

    You really should read "Meditations." It's very short and readable. It's the origin of the idea "I think therefore I am," although he doesn't use that exact phrase.

    I'd tell you why Cartesian coordinates are super important, but I have a feeling you've heard that rant before. The thing I have trouble forgiving him for is Cartesian dualism, which I might discuss in a future post.

  3. I added some links to wikipedia in case you want to look up more information about anything.

  4. I do understand the importance of the coordinate system. I just remember one very painful day in calculus I was thinking, "without coordinates I would never have to figure out this stoopid sum function to describe a sine wave..." I still don't know why I was in that class (or what those functions are called). But I definitely recognize the importance of Descartes work, and what the great thinkers of the enlightenment brought to our understanding of the world.