Guide to star trek

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Star Trek is a Paramount Trademark
Copyright Dr. Nim Batchelor Jan. 1996
Fans of Star Trek have always recognized the intellectual depth contained in the series. As a fan who is also a trained philosopher, it has always seemed to me that the series' intellectual depth was distinctly philosophical. When this view is combined with the fact that very few viewers have any formal philosophic training, it becomes clear that most viewers are unable to fully appreciate this very rich aspect of the series. This book is written to share with others some of the insights that emerge when watching Star Trek from a philosophical perspective.
Several years ago, I began teaching a college course that I called, "Philosophy in Star Trek". In that course, I introduced students to a variety philosophic themes and thinkers by showing them scenes from Star Trek episodes. The student's ability to relate to Star Trek made it easier for them to understand and relate to some of the more esoteric philosophical points. This book contains many of the insights that have emerged as I taught that class.
In the classroom the primary aim is to teach philosophy. Star Trek is an enjoyable and effective means to that end. However, the primary aim of this book is to help the reader appreciate the philosophical depth that is present in Star Trek. In order to achieve this goal it is clear that I will need to explain the positions of some famous philosophers and to outline alternative perspectives on some important philosophic debates. I will assume throughout that the reader is a Star Trek fan who wants to learn enough about philosophy to be able to more fully appreciate this particularly rich aspect of Star Trek. It is my hope that as a result the reader will enjoy philosophy enough to want to study it further.1
We enter life emersed in a culture. Culture functions, in part, to transmit to its members a narrative that help us first to develop a sense of ourselves and then later to join and sustain a common society. Within any given culture there are usually several more-or-less coherent stories that are competing with one another for the allegiance of the population. Education and enculturation consists, in part, in learning and participating in one or another of these cultural narratives. However, for many of us, there comes a point when we feel that we must subject our culture's narratives to scrutiny and rigorous examination. We feel the need to seriously examine what our society is telling us and to work through its assumptions and to discover its strengths and weaknesses. This process of investigation, discovery, critical examination, creative imagination, and eventually the integration of various elements into a personalized and more-or-less coherent world view is, to many of us, a very important element in the development of our sense of self and of our understanding of our role in society and the universe.2
Humans throughout history have engaged in investigations of this sort. The philosophers that we study are people who have written in insightful or valuable ways about some aspect of their own investigations. Historians of thought have pointed out that such philosophic investigations typically focus on a set of what have come to be called "eternal questions".3
Many of these questions are quite familiar to post-adolescent people. Who am I? Why am I here? What should I do with my life? Is there a God? What is my place in society and in the universe? In addition to these common question, there are others that are just as important that most people don't immediately consider. For example, What is the nature of reality? This is clearly a very broad question that can be divided into several others. For example, What is the nature of ______? (mind, self, morality, time and space, persons). In addition to the question, Is there a God?, there are questions like: If there is a God, does he give my life meaning; and if not, what, if anything, does? What is the relationship between God and organized religion? Then there is the general domain of epistemology which is concerned with the question, What can humans know and how? Ethics is a general field of study that deals with questions like: How should I live my life? What is the good life? What features are present in a good life? What things are valuable? What are the virtues? What is the proper scope of moral concern? How should we treat others and who (or what) counts as an "other" that is to receive this special treatment? What is justice? and What is the proper balance between individualism and community?
If we accept that there are such eternal questions and that every person and culture endeavors to answer them to some degree and in one way or another, then we can suppose that such questions will still be around in the twenty-fourth century. Like us, members of the United Federation of Planets will also be grappling with questions like these. Thus, as we watch Star Trek we can see how they deal with these matters. The contrast between their answers and those preferred by people in our culture will be very instructive.
One of the main benefits of philosophy is its resistance to narrow mindedness and insularity. Philosophy encourages people to question the presuppositions that form the foundations of their world view. It encourages people to consider alternative ways of thinking about themselves. Similarly, one of the primary virtues of literature, and of science fiction in particular, is its capacity to vividly bring to life alternative world views. Star Trek is particularly good at this. It encourages the viewer to broaden one's horizons and to open up our minds to alternative ways of seeing the world. Star Trek lets us see ourselves differently and as a result, it is something more than "mental bubble-gum" which only exercises the mind but does not nourish it in the process. By studying Star Trek we can achieve a better understanding of ourselves, our society, and our place in the universe.
When Gene Roddenberry created the Star Trek universe, he allowed himself the freedom to bring certain conceptions of humanity and our place in the world into question. When we take notice of these alterations, we can more clearly see our own background assumptions. By juxtaposing the Star Trek universe with our own, we can more clearly appreciate the presuppositions that operate in our own world view. In spite of the joy and entertainment that we may get when we allow Star Trek to take our minds into the future, it is important to remember that the intellectual value contained in Star Trek applies to the here and now.
Philosophic investigations of this sort can be viewed as a kind of quest. Like us, members of the United Federation of Planets are also questing. Consider their mission statement:

"Space--the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before."4

Initially it might seem that the Federation is only seeking scientific and cultural information. But I will suggest that their journey yields much much more than just that. The best and the brightest people of that era join this quest for very deep reasons.


Students are sometimes worried that they will have problems with this course because they have never seen a Star Trek episode or movie. Let me assure you that this will not impair your ability to score well in this course. In this version of the text, I have included a transcription of many of the most crucial scenes. Furthermore, many of the episodes that are of philosophic interest will be shown, at least in part, during our class meetings. I have also included several appendii that will help you understand things about Star Trek. I do not doubt that from time to time, there will be comments made in class that will pertain to some specific episodes with which you may not be familiar. When this happens, I will endeavor to fill in the necessary background so that you can everyone can understand the discussion.
Secondly, please join me in recognizing that this text is still very much a "work in progress". I am trying to turn this text into a "trade book". This means that I am hoping to market this material in some form or other to the mass market of readers. Given this goal, I would very much appreciate your feedback. If you have any suggestions at all, please feel free to chat with me about them. I am especially interested in comments regarding any additional references or topics that, in your opinion, deserve inclusion. I would be interested in which chapters you find more interesting or less interesting. Let me know which passages you particularly like or dislike. With the help of my readers I should be able to make substantial improvements on this text.


At the end of the episode Ship in a Bottle (TNG), Professor Moriarty and Countess Regina Barthalomew (two holodeck characters) are fooled into believing that they have successfully been transported off the holodeck. They believe that they have been given real substance in the real world. This deception is accomplished by programming a simulation of the Enterprise and its shuttle bay into another holodeck. The professor and his Regina are simply transferred from one illusory world to another. The program is then downloaded into a small box which has sufficient power and programming to allow the characters to live out the remainder of their lives completely unaware of the true nature of their situation. Once professor Moriarty is secure in his prison, the crew of the Enterprise reflects on this situation. The scene concludes with this exchange:
Lt. Barclay:. . .This enhancement module contains enough active memory to provide them with experiences for a lifetime.
Capt. Picard:They will live their lives and never know any difference.
Lt. Cmd. Troi:In a sense, you did give Moriarty what he wanted.
Capt. Picard:In a sense. But who knows, our reality may be very much like theirs and all this (gesturing around at the room) might just be an elaborate simulation running inside a little device sitting on someone's table!
Picard's final quip raises an eery possibility. Is it possible for you to know that your life, your world, your reality, is not just some elaborate illusion? We all grow up thinking that we are firmly in touch with the only reality that there is. Furthermore, we are confident that our mental faculties are up to the task of giving us accurate and reliable information about that reality.
But precisely what is the nature of our reality? Can we be confident that there is only one reality? Is the assumption that our mental abilities can provide us with knowledge of the full extent of reality really all that safe an assumption?
For several millennia Western philosophers have been trying to grapple with such questions. Some of the greatest minds in the history of philosophy have struggled with these issues. In the remainder of this section, I will use assorted Star Trek episodes to explain how various philosophers have dealt with these problems.
One aspect of the Enterprise's mission is "to seek out new knowledge". But surely this quest is about something more than merely increasing the size of their data base. It seems to me that, at least in part, these explorers are out to refine their understanding of the human condition. That is, they want to increase their experiences, to broaden their access to aspects of reality that may not be initially apparent, to appreciate the scope and limits of the human mind. It is evident that Roddenberry's universe was designed to permit a much larger range of experiences. It exaggerates contrasts and we encounter much stranger phenomena. But their quest is sufficiently similar to ours to be instructive. Their quandaries are frequently enough very much like ours. Thus, their quest can provide us with insights into and perspective on our own.
Over the years, this quest for knowledge gave rise to a primary field of philosophy. Philosophers refer to this quest for knowledge as "epistemology" (strictly--the study of knowledge). This domain of philosophy is primarily concerned with questions like:
--What is knowledge?

--What can humans know?

--How can we know it?
Unlike "Q" or God, humans do not have perfectly reliable senses, pure reasoning, or infinite minds. Our many limitations give rise to the specific concerns of epistemology. The question, "What can we know?" is concerned with the various KINDS or CATEGORIES of knowledge which are possible for human beings. Most theorists suggest, for example, that there is a fundamental difference between empirical knowledge and mathematical knowledge.5 Accordingly, the question "What can we know?" is asking, "Can we have empirical knowledge?", or alternatively, "Can we have knowledge that is not ultimately derived from experience?" What credence, if any, should we give to mystical experiences or to claims of divine inspiration? How should we evaluate claims of ESP or other non-empirical sources of knowledge? What account can we give for the fact that we are so certain about mathematical truths like 2 + 2 = 4 ? Or should we perhaps--following the suggestion that Picard makes in the above quoted scene--join with the skeptic who maintains that, in spite of appearances, we do not actually have knowledge of any kind?

Platonic Idealism
I will begin by discussing the approach to this issue that was taken by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 B.C.). Plato taught philosophy in ancient Athens and his philosophy comes to us in the forms of philosophic dialogues that survive to this day. Plato's ideas are extremely important to the history of Western civilization. Indeed, the twentieth century philosopher Bertrand Russell once said that "The total history of philosophy is little more than a footnote to Plato's thought."6
In the few centuries before Plato, there were other philosophers whose ideas set the scene for Plato's thought. In this period, there were skeptics, naturalists, and subjectivists. The skeptics took note of the fact that our senses sometimes provide us with conflicting evidence. Furthermore, they reasoned, once something has shown itself to be unreliable, we cannot fully trust it ever again. For example, we sometimes experience mirages, sometimes when we are ill we can't taste accurately, and there are times when we cannot clearly distinguish whether something is hot or cold. This last problem can be vividly seen in the cruel trick that my scout troop once played on a set of young boy scouts. As an initiation ritual, these young kids were told that they were going to have their backs branded with a burning stick from the campfire. They were laid face-down on the ground with their shirts off and then a glowing stick was brought close enough to their skin that they could feel the heat radiation. Their skin was then touched with an ICE CUBE!! They screamed in terror thinking that they had really been branded. For a crucial moment, the kid's senses failed to provide them with an accurate report about their reality. This point is taken to its extreme with the phenomenon that we call hallucination. Consider for example the following passage from Shakespeare's Macbeth:
Is this a dagger which I see before me,

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee!

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

To feeling as to sight? or art thou but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?7
The skeptical perspective is based on an argument like this:
(Premise 1) Each of our five senses are sometimes unreliable.

(Premise 2) Anything that has once proven to be unreliable cannot ever yield knowledge.

(Premise 3) There is no possible source of knowledge other than our five senses.

(Conclusion) Therefore, human beings cannot have knowledge.

You can think of the first premise as suggesting that our senses are like a faulty thermometer. If you have a thermometer that is not providing you with accurate readings in some situations, can you ever again really trust that it will give you a reliable reading? Likewise, since our senses sometimes give us unreliable information, can we ever really trust them again?
This skeptical argument was challenged by the naturalist philosopher Democritus (460-360bc?), who argued that our senses are not the only source of knowledge. Now you might ask yourself, "What, if not our senses, might be an alternative source of knowledge"? Democritus agreed with the skeptics that our senses are an inadequate form of judgment. But the faculty of reason can, he maintained, provide us with genuine knowledge. He claimed that there is an order to things that is hidden from our immediate sense perceptions. Furthermore, he maintained that this hidden order is something that we can know through the functioning of our reason. He claimed that this hidden order is superior to the apparent order.
Democritus' faculty of reason functions very much like Deanna Troi's empathic capacity. Troi is able to acquire accurate information about the world solely through the functioning of her mind.8
Protagoras (485-415bc?), on the other hand, disagreed with both the skeptics and the naturalists. Protagoras was a subjectivist who argued that there is no such thing as objective truth. He denied Democritus' claim that reason could be the source of objective knowledge. But at the same time he did not support the skeptics pessimism. Both naturalist and skeptics assume: (1) that how things really are is how they are objectively, and (2) that what is true is true objectively.
Protagoras resisted both of these assumptions. Protagoras defended the notion that man is the measure of all things. This is essentially the claim that there are no objective standards or facts. Instead, he maintains that human conventions provide the standards that determine what is true.
Taken together, these pre-Socratic thinkers provide the intellectual context for Plato's work. In his dialogue Theaetetus, Plato argues against Protagoras' subjectivism. Plato points out that there are some ideas--like existence and non-existence, likeness and unlikeness, sameness and difference, unity and number--that we know independently of any sense experience. He points out that there is no sense organ through which we can know these concepts and he concludes that "the mind in itself is its own instrument for contemplating the common terms."9 He goes on to state that, "The mind contemplates some things through its own instrumentality."10 In this respect, Plato's views resemble those of Democritus.
Plato then confronts the skeptic's claim that the unreliability of our senses precludes the possibility of knowledge. He does this by offering a distinction between perception and knowledge.11 According to Plato, "knowledge does not reside in the impressions, but in our reflection upon them."12 This reflective "judgment" is distinct from the immediate sense impressions that might be reliable or not. Based on this point, Plato concludes by defining knowledge as "true judgement."13
Plato acknowledges that physical objects are the objects of sense perception and that sense perception does not yield knowledge. However, is spite of this, Plato is unwilling to admit that we cannot have knowledge. He reasons in the following way: Since physical objects can not be the source of knowledge, there must be some other source for knowledge and that source must have it's own proper objects. But what are these objects of knowledge?
In order to answer this question, one must first understand Plato's theory of the forms. Essentially, the Forms are abstract entities. A form is that thing which things that go by the same name have in common. For example Plato points out that there are many good things and many beautiful things and he asks, What do all good things have in common? What do all beautiful things have in common? His answer is "Goodness itself or Beauty itself and so on. Corresponding to each of these sets of many things, we postulate a single Form or real essence, as we call it."14
When this theory of forms is in play, it is clear that the physical objects that we see are not the objects of thought or knowledge. According to Plato, the Forms are the true objects of thought and knowledge. Plato maintains that: (1) it is our soul that has knowledge, (2) it knows by fixing its gaze on the forms, and (3) knowledge is had only when the forms of our thought are irradiated by truth and reality.
Plato argues for what can be called the two world hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, there is: (1) "the world of appearance" which is our ordinary world of things and people, and (2) "the real world" of the forms. It is crucial that one recognize that Plato's use of the term 'real' differs from our common use of that term. For Plato, the real world is the world of the Forms. The world that you and I call 'real' is, for Plato, the world of "becoming" or the world of "appearances". These points are exemplified in the following passage:
Apply this comparison, then, to the soul. When its gaze is fixed upon an object irradiated by truth and reality, the soul gains understanding and knowledge and is manifestly in possession of intelligence. But when it looks towards that twilight world of things that come into existence and pass away, its sight is dim and it has only opinions and beliefs which shift to and fro, and it seems like a thing that has no intelligence.15
Plato relies on his two world hypothesis in order to explicate his theory of knowledge. This is manifest in Plato's famous allegory of the divided line.16
You have to Imagine, then, that there are two ruling powers, and that one of them is set over the intellectual world, the other over the visible. I do not say heaven, lest you should fancy that I am playing upon the name (ovpavos, opatos). May I suppose that you have this distinction of the visible and intelligible fixed in your mind?
I have.
Now take a line which has been cut into two unequal parts,and divide each of them again in the same proportion, and suppose the two main divisions to answer, one to the visible and the other to the intelligible, and then compare the subdivisions in respect of their clearness and want of clearness, and you will find that the first section in the sphere of the visible consists of images. And by images I mean, in the first place, shadows, and in the second place, reflections in water and in solid, smooth and polished bodies and the like: Do you understand?
Yes, I understand.
Imagine, now, the other section, of which this is only the resemblance, to include the animals which we see, and everything that grows or is made.
Very good.
Would you not admit that both the sections of this division have different degrees of truth, and that the copy is to the original as the sphere of opinion is to the sphere of knowledge?
Most undoubtedly.
Next proceed to consider the manner in which the sphere of the intellectual is to be divided.
In what manner?
Thus: There are two subdivisions, in the lower of which the soul uses the figures given by the former division as images; the inquiry can only be hypothetical, and instead of going upward to a principle descends to the other end; in the higher of the two, the soul passes out of hypotheses, and goes up to a principle which is above hypotheses, making no use of images as in the former case, but proceeding only in and through the ideas themselves.
I do not quite understand your meaning, he said.
Then I will try again; you will understand me better when I have made some preliminary remarks. You are aware that students of geometry, arithmetic, and the kindred sciences assume the odd, and the even, and the figures, and three kinds of angles, and the like, in their several branches of science; these are their hypotheses, which they and everybody are supposed to know, and therefore they do not deign to give any account of them either to themselves or others; but they begin with them, and go on until they arrive at last, and in a consistent manner, at their conclusion?
Yes, he said, I know.
And do you not know also that although they make use of the visible forms and reason about them, they are thinking not of these, but of the ideals which they resemble; not of the figures which they draw, but of the absolute square and the absolute diameter, and so onthe forms which they draw or make, and which have shadows and reflections in water of their own, are converted by them into images, but they are really seeking to behold the things themselves, which can only be seen with the eye of the mind?
That is true.
And of this kind I spoke as the intelligible, although in the search after it the soul is compelled to use hypotheses; not ascending to a first principle, because she is unable to rise above the region of hypothesis, but employing the objects of which the shadows below are resemblances in their turn as images, they having in relation to the shadows and reflections of them a greater distinctness, and therefore a higher value.
I understand, he said, that you are speaking of the province of geometry and the sister arts.
And when I speak of the other division of the intelligible, you will understand me to speak of that other sort of knowledge which reason herself attains by the power of dialectic, using the hypotheses not as first principles, but only as hypothesesthat is to say, as steps and points of departure into a world which is above hypotheses, in order that she may soar beyond them to the first principle of the whole; and clinging to this and then to that which depends on this, by successive steps she descends again without the aid of any sensible object, from ideas, through ideas, and in ideas she ends.
I understand you, he replied; not perfectly, for you seem to me to be describing a task which is really tremendous; but, at any rate, I understand you to say that knowledge and being, which the science of dialectic contemplates, are clearer than the notions of the arts, as they are termed, which proceed from hypotheses only: these are also contemplated by the understanding, and not by the senses: yet, because they start from hypotheses and do not ascend to a principle, those who contemplate them appear to you not to exercise the higher reason upon them, although when a first principle is added to them they are cognizable by the higher reason. And the habit which is concerned with geometry and the cognate sciences I suppose that you would term understanding, and not reason, as being intermediate between opinion and reason.
You have quite conceived my meaning, I said; and now, corresponding to these four divisions, let there be four faculties in the soulreason answering to the highest, understanding to the second, faith (or conviction) to the third, and perception of shadows to the lastand let there be a scale of them, and let us suppose that the several faculties have clearness in the same degree that their objects have truth.
I understand, he replied, and give my assent, and accept your arrangement.
In the "world of appearances" there are two kinds of perception. There is the lowest kind of perception which consists of seeing the reflection of things in, for example, water or in a mirror. Then there is the next level of perception which is the perception of physical objects. The first, Plato calls "imagining" and the second he calls "belief." Above the line that separates the "real world" from the "world of appearance", there are also another two kinds of perception. The perception of the lower forms is what Plato calls "thinking." The perception of the higher forms is what Plato calls "intelligence." Thus, for example, with respect to my dog Fido, Plato would say that there are four levels of perception. First, and lowest, is my seeing Fido's shadow. Second, I see Fido. Third, I apprehend the form "Dog". Finally, I apprehend the form Good.
According to Plato's divided line, Forms are the true objects of knowledge and they are known through the intellectual soul. Furthermore, his account includes the view that the world of physical objects is not the real world. The physical world is the world of becoming, the world of decay and change, the world of appearance. The world that is, according to Plato, the real world is the world of the forms. The Form world is the world of being, not becoming. It is the world of permanence and eternal constancy. Just as 2 + 2 = 4 is eternally true and never changing, so too are all of the forms.
It is crucial to realize that this division is, for Plato, normative and/or evaluative. That is, according to Plato, the form world is good and the world of becoming is evil.
This view has been transmitted in innumerable ways throughout our culture. For example, the Christian conception of heaven owes a lot to Plato's Form world. It also contributes to the idea that the soul is good and the body is bad. Thus, for example, the life of the mind is praised, whereas the pleasures of the body are condemned. This might, in part, explain why so many of us delay and feel guilty about our first sexual experience. The implications of this idea are endless--think of some yourself. . .
Finally, Plato brings all of the above together in his justly famous "ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE", which I will now quote at length.
AND now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open toward the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionetteplayers have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
I see.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
Yes, he said.
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
Very true.
And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passersby spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
No question, he replied.
To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
That is certain.
And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look toward the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned toward more real existence, he has a clearer visionwhat will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name themwill he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?
Far truer.
And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?
True, he said.
And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.
Not all in a moment, he said.
He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?
Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.
He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?
Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.
And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellowprisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity him?
Certainly, he would.
And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer,
"Better to be the poor servant of a poor master," and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?
Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.
Imagine once more, I said, such a one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?
To be sure, he said.
And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable), would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if anyone tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.17
No question, he said.
This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prisonhouse is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upward to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressedwhether rightly or wrongly, God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.
I agree, he said, as far as I am able to understand you.
Moreover, I said, you must not wonder that those who attain to this beatific vision are unwilling to descend to human affairs; for their souls are ever hastening into the upper world where they desire to dwell; which desire of theirs is very natural, if our allegory may be trusted.
Yes, very natural.
And is there anything surprising in one who passes from divine contemplations to the evil state of man, misbehaving himself in a ridiculous manner; if, while his eyes are blinking and before he has become accustomed to the surrounding darkness, he is compelled to fight in courts of law, or in other places, about the images or the shadows of images of justice, and is endeavoring to meet the conceptions of those who have never yet seen absolute justice?
Anything but surprising, he replied. Anyone who has commonsense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind's eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees anyone whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light. And he will count the one happy in his condition and state of being, and he will pity the other; or, if he have a mind to laugh at the soul which comes from below into the light, there will be more reason in this than in the laugh which greets him who returns from above out of the light into the den.
That, he said, is a very just distinction.
But then, if I am right, certain professors of education must be wrong when they say that they can put a knowledge into the soul which was not there before, like sight into blind eyes.
They undoubtedly say this, he replied.
Whereas, our argument shows that the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being, or, in other words, of the good.
Very true.
And must there not be some art which will effect conversion in the easiest and quickest manner; not implanting the faculty of sight, for that exists already, but has been turned in the wrong direction, and is looking away from the truth?
Yes, he said, such an art may be presumed.
And whereas the other socalled virtues of the soul seem to be akin to bodily qualities, for even when they are not originally innate they can be implanted later by habit and exercise, the virtue of wisdom more than anything else contains a divine element which always remains, and by this conversion is rendered useful and profitable; or, on the other hand, hurtful and useless. Did you never observe the narrow intelligence flashing from the keen eye of a clever roguehow eager he is, how clearly his paltry soul sees the way to his end; he is the reverse of blind, but his keen eyesight is forced into the service of evil, and he is mischievous in proportion to his cleverness?
Very true, he said.18
To summarize: Plato is an IDEALIST. He maintains that humans can have knowledge. This is possible because he maintains that ordinary physical objects and the sense experiences that they give rise to are not, properly speaking, the true OBJECTS of knowledge. The are, strictly speaking, less real than the real objects of knowledge. Plato maintains that "ideas" or "forms" are the proper objects of knowledge. He argues that these Forms exist in a non-sensible Form-world and that the human mind (independently of our five senses) is capable of knowing the forms. By relying on the distinction between appearance and reality, Plato argues that the world of sense experiences is only appearance and that the form world is "reality". I can't stress this last point enough--Plato is saying that the Form world is the REAL world and that this world (the one that you and I think of as physical reality) is only an illusion.
There are three Star Trek episodes whose story lines involve ideas that are strikingly parallel to the ideas contained in Plato's allegory of the cave. In the episode Elementary, Dear Data (TNG), the ship's computer generates the holodeck character Professor Moriarty. But unlike all other holodeck characters, this one is conscious, i.e. he is aware of himself as a conscious being. Initially, he is unaware of the true nature of his surroundings. He believes that he is in 19th century London. But as he explores the ship's data base, he comes to understand that his existence is limited to a false and artificially created world. Like the released prisoner in Plato's allegory of the cave, Moriarty comes to understand that his world is a mere illusion and that there is a world beyond the one of his immediate impressions and that it has a superior reality. According to Plato, we stand in relation to the Form world in the same way that Moriarty stands in relation to the world occupied by Picard and Data.
This story line is continued in the episode Ship in a Bottle (TNG). This episode is, in my opinion, one of the most philosophically interesting of all the Star Trek episodes. This episode combines an illustration of the distinction between appearance and reality with a continuation of the parallels to Plato's allegory of the cave. It is a complex web that is a constant play on the Platonic themes that we have been considering. In this episode, Dr. Moriarty goes to tremendous efforts to achieve existence off of the holodeck.19
Finally, the parallels to Plato's allegory of the cave are clearly evident in the episode Homeward (TNG). In this episode, Whorf's brother, Nicholi, is working with a tribe of people who are living on Boraal III--a planet that is soon going to die from an environmental disaster. Rather than standing by and watching the Boraalans die, Nicholi violates the prime directive and transports them onto a holodeck scene that looks exactly like their home world. This transfer is done when they are asleep and they are completely unaware of the shift. Once inside of the holodeck, they are in a situation precisely like that of Plato's prisoner's.
At one point in the episode, a Boraalan named Vorin discovers a holodeck portal and he walks right onto the 24th century starship. At this point, Vorin is just like Plato's released prisoner who is discovering a radically different (and superior) reality. Captain Picard explains to Vorin that if he goes back to his people he will be unable to tell them about the Enterprise because: (1) they would not believe him, (2) it would not be in their best interest, and (3) they might resent his knowledge and kill him. On the other hand, Picard offers him the option of continuing to live on the Enterprise. In the end, Vorin commits suicide instead of returning to his people. He would rather die than to live in the cave without being able to tell what he knows.
Plato's two world hypothesis emphasizes the distinction between appearance and reality. This distinction is a common theme in literature and it is also the centerpiece of many Star Trek episodes. For example, it is highlighted in the original pilot to the series, an episode which was later entitled The Menagerie (TOS). In that episode, the inhabitants of Talos IV have the ability to manipulate the minds of the Enterprise's crew. They can deceive humans into thinking anything at all. We see an example of this when the crew uses a boosted phaser to cut away a door in a mountain face. The Talosians make the crew think that they have failed when in fact they have succeeded. This is a clear instance of a divergence between reality and appearance.20
Plato's belief that the Form world is superior to the world of becoming is reflected in many of our common attitudes. Consider the following scenario. Suppose that holodeck technology were a reality today21 and that you had inherited a vast sum of money. Would there be anything wrong with your spending ninety-five percent of your time on a holodeck?22 If so, why--exactly--would it be wrong? Consider the following exchange between two friends.
Bill:What are you doing with yourself these days now that you have inherited all of that money?
Beth:Well I've been spending most of my time on my new holodeck. It's great. In fact, I'm planning to spend maybe five or six years in there.
Bill:You can't do that!!
Beth:Why not?
Bill:Well, for one thing, it is an entirely artificial life. It's unreal. You can't live a good life out of contact with what is real.
Bill's reaction depends on an assumption that is quite common in our culture. It might roughly be expressed as something like:

Reality is more valuable than unreality.

This principle--which I will call the "real-is-valuable" principle--can also be seen in the fact that we might criticize someone by commenting that they are "out of touch with reality".

The "real-is-valuable" principle is clearly accepted by Professor Moriarty in the episode Elementary, Dear Data (TNG). Once he understands that his existence is less real than that enjoyed by Data and Captain Picard, he immediately wants to have the other form of existence. And at one point Dr. Moriarty fervently asserts, "I want my existence. I want it out there just as you have yours." He wants to exist beyond the holodeck in part because he is accepts the notion that "real" existence, i.e., existence outside of the holodeck, is better than or more valuable than an "unreal" existence? But is this assumption warranted?

Notice for example that in Plato's case the pull of the "real" means that the returned prisoner will spend the remainder of his life trying to remember and understand the nature of what he saw outside of the cave. He will not care much at all about the things in the cave. Interpreting shadows on a wall will not interest him in the least. Translated into our life and playing along with Plato's understanding of matters, this implies that once you get a taste of the TRUTH, once you gain insight into the essence of things, you can't really go back to the mundane. Science is like reading shadows. Business is trading shadows. You must become a philosopher and engage with the real.
On the other hand, there are several reasons why we might want to be suspicious of the "real-is-valuable" principle. Consider, for example, the episode Shadowplay (DSN). In this episode, Odo and Dax are working to solve the mysterious disappearances of some people when they discover that the villagers are holographic projections and that the disappearances are the result of a malfunction in the holographic generator. Odo tells the villagers the truth about the nature of their existence and then he tells them that he needs to shut off the holographic generator in order to repair it. They allow him to proceed with the repairs. When the machine is turned off, Odo and Dax are surprised to discover that one of the villagers, a man named Reregan, is not a hologram. He says, "Don't look so surprised. I'm as real as you are." Reregan explains that thirty years ago after he fled Yadera Prime as Dominion forces invaded he came to this planet and programmed the hologenerator to project a village in which he could live complete with a set of villagers with whom he could interact. Their conversation continues:
Reregan:I've watched the people marry, have children, grow old and sometimes I even forgot that they were holograms. But it's over. It's over. And I would appreciate it if you would take me back to Yadera Prime.
Odo:But . . . what about the villagers? What about your granddaughter?
Reregan:She's not real.
Odo:Technically, I suppose that you're right. Maybe by our definition Teah is not real. Her memories are stored in a computer; her body is made up of omicron particles. But who's to say that our definition of life is the only valid one. I'm sure if you asked her she'd say she was real. She thinks. She feels.
Reregan:She only seems to. It's all an illusion. . . an illusion I created.
Odo:Well you said that you created the village thirty years ago. Teah is only ten.
Reregan:I designed the program so the villagers could have children if the wanted to.
Dax:Then Teah's personality is a combination of her parents personalities. . .
Odo:Just like a real child. You had nothing to do with it.

Reregan: But she is still a hologram.

Odo:Maybe. But I saw the way that you held her hand when she was sad. I saw the way that you tried to comfort her when she was frightened.
Reregan:I didn't want her to get hurt.
Odo:If she is not real, what does it matter?
Reregan:It matters. It matters to me.
Odo:Why should it matter to you if a hologram cries?
Reregan:Because I love her.
Dax:And she loves you.
Odo:Don't you see. She's real to you. And she's real to me too. They're all real and you can't turn your back on them now.
Initially, Reregan accepts the "real-is-valuable" principle. This principle supports his initial thought that since the holographic characters are unreal, they do not have any value. Odo, however, challenges this line of reasoning and the principle upon which it rests. Ultimately, Odo is able to convince Reregan that there is much more of value in his life with the villagers than he originally supposes.

Similarly, consider the episode The Inner Light (TNG) in which a probe from the planet Kataan causes Picard to have the experiences of an entire lifetime in the span of 25 of our minuets. As Kamin, Picard lives out a life in which he is married to Eline, has children, studies the environment, engages in politics, and learns to play the flute. All of these experiences are "artificial". They are nothing more than mental fabrications. The people and the culture that these images represent have been dead for centuries. Yet, when he wakes up, Picard is clearly very moved by the experience. Furthermore, it is evident that in spite of its "unreality", Picard cherishes the experience. From this case, it seems clear that "unreal" or artificial experiences might be valued subjectively. They might even be said to be intrinsically valuable to the person who experiences them.

These counter examples are sufficient to make us wary of an all out acceptance of the "real-is-valuable" principle. Nevertheless, there is still something wrong with spending all of one's time on a holodeck. But, as the examples above show, merely asserting that something is "unreal" is not sufficient to establish that it lacks value or that it necessarily has less value than any alternative simply because that alternative is grounded in our more common reality.
Plato clearly believes that "knowledge of the forms" is superior to "belief about physical objects". This can be seen in the fact that, according to Plato, the prisoner who returns to the cave is better off than his companions. This idea is widely accepted in our culture. We don't talk about this matter by making reference to forms. But it is widely accepted that knowledge is better than opinion or ignorance. However, this is not true in all cases. Consider, for example, the following scenario. A psychiatrist is asked to cure a death row inmate of his mental illness. The state hires the psychiatrist because the law mandates that the state cannot execute a person who is not sane at the time of the execution.23 In this case, it seems clear that, at least from the point of view of the inmate and the psychiatrist, it is better not to have an accurate grasp on reality. If this is so, then it seems that there is a problem with Plato's "real-is-valuable" principle.
Similarly, there are some situations in which a person may be entirely reasonable in their desire NOT to have some knowledge. For example, let's suppose that a person's family history indicates that they might be at risk for developing Alzheimer's disease. There is a test that you can take that will tell you whether or not you will eventually develop the disease. It is not bad to say that you do not want to know this information. And if this is correct, then--contrary to what we might expect Plato to say--it seems that there are at least some cases in which a state of ignorance is preferable to a state of greater knowledge.
There is a Star Trek episode that deals with precisely this sort of issue. Plato's approach seems to imply that a person ought to want the broadest range of knowledge that is possible. Furthermore, it is implicit that any form of self-deception is anathema. This commitment is put to the test in the episode Inheritance (TNG). In this episode, Data discovers that Dr. Juliana Soong Tainer, the person who claims to be his "mother", is herself an android. Juliana was once a biological person. But when she was about to die, her husband, Dr. Noonian Soong, transferred her mind into the positronic neural net of an android body. Dr. Soong programmed her to shut down--i.e., to faint--should she ever come close to discovering the truth about her condition. When she breaks her arm off in a fall, she falls unconscious. During a repair effort, an information chip is discovered. When this chip is played, Data ends up interacting with an image of Dr. Soong. At one point Data asks him, "Then you never told her the truth?" Dr. Soong says, "Why? There was no reason for her to know. I wanted her to be happy". Later Data says,
Data:If she recovers and learns that she is an android. . .
Dr. Soong:She doesn't have to know. Now I designed her to shut down in the event that the truth was discovered. When you ... you put that chip back in she will wake up and remember nothing. All you have to do is to make up some excuse about what happened to her.
Data:Then you do not believe that she should know the truth?
Dr. Soong:Truth. Truth is . .. in every way that matters she is Juliana Soong. I programmed her to terminate after a long life. Let her live out her days and die believing she was human. Don't rob her of that son. Please.
[ The scene changes to the briefing room]
Data:It seems that I must make a decision. Whether to tell Dr. Tainer that she is an android or to withhold that information from her. I do not know what to do.
Dr. Crusher:Why was Dr. Soong so adamant that she not be told?
Data:He seemed certain that if she knew it would preclude the possibility of her being happy.
Picard:Data, what do you think?
Data:I am not certain. I understand why my father felt as he did. But his wishes are not necessarily paramount. I am more concerned with what would be best for her.
Dr. Crusher:Wouldn't she be better off knowing the truth . . . dealing with the reality of her existence?
Troi:I don't think so. She's believed she's human all of her life. The truth might be devastating to her.
Picard:Data . . . there might come some time in the future when she would find out anyway, another accident perhaps. Maybe it would be easier for her if she learned the truth from you.
Dr. Crusher:I can tell you that if I were in her place, I would rather be told by my son than by some stranger.
Data:I find that I am having difficulty separating what would be best for her from what would be best for me.
Troi:What do you mean?
Data:If she knew she were an android, we would have something to share. I would no longer be alone in the universe.
Troi:I know how much that means to you, Data. But at the same time, by telling her you're robbing her of the one thing you've wanted all of your life. . . to be human.
Picard:If's a difficult choice. . . you must do what you think best, Data. But whatever you decision you make, we will support it.
Data then faces the choice of whether or not to tell his "mother" the true nature of her existence. Plato would argue that living her life in ignorance of her "true" nature is artificial or "unreal" and is therefore not to be preferred.
After the discussion quoted above, Data decides NOT to tell her the truth about her condition. Data's decision to leave her in a state of deception supports the view that living in a state of partial ignorance does not necessarily preclude happiness or the possibility of living a valuable life.
To this point, our quest for knowledge and understanding has led us to consider a range of ideas that are really quite different from those with which we are most familiar. Indeed, Plato's ideas might seem more strange to you than some of the things that are encountered by the Enterprise. It seems to me that the most important lesson to be learned here is that you should not be too quick to think that your own conception of how things are is correct. When Shakespeare has Hamlet say, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy",24 he is offering the warning that we should not too quickly settle on our first impression of how things are. There are many different views about the nature of reality and there are many different views about just how and how well the human mind can grasp that reality. Plato's views are valuable to us in that they provide us with a perspective that is different from the one that we commonly hold. If nothing else, his views can be the catalyst for raising some very interesting questions. In the chapters that follow, we will see other such theories.

Cartesian Rationalism
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) worked during the period of transition between the Middle Ages and the modern world. In fact, Descartes is frequently referred to as the first modern philosopher. Descartes understood and supported the development of the methods of natural science. Indeed, much of Descartes work can be seen as an attempt to establish a firm foundation for the natural sciences. Science needed the firm foundation in reason because the Church was not at all happy with the idea that mankind could acquire knowledge independent of Divine revelation and at that time the Church still held considerable power. But Descartes was not anti-religious. Rather, he sought to separate science from religion. That is, he sought to protect science from religion while at the same time to protect religion from science.
Like Plato, Descartes wanted to rely on human reason to show that human beings could have knowledge. However, unlike Plato's use of reason, which only yielded knowledge of ideas in the Form world, Descartes argued that reason could provide us with knowledge of this world. What emerged is a view that philosophers call 'rationalism'. Rationalism claims that the human mind, through reason alone, is capable of grasping substantial truths about the physical world. Accordingly, it would follow that rationalism regards natural science as being, at least in part, an a priori25 enterprise. Rationalism differs from Platonic idealism in that it claims that human reason is capable of giving us knowledge of the physical world.
According to Descartes, we arrive at knowledge of things in only two ways. First, through intuition and second through deduction. Intuition does not come from the senses nor from constructions of the imagination, but rather intuition springs from the light of reason alone. Deduction, on the other hand, is a process that gives us knowledge of whatever is entailed by other facts that are already known with certainty. Descartes held that there is in all men a native power which is adequate to know a reality that is itself fundamentally rational. That is, rational beings have what it takes to acquire knowledge of a rational universe. Or, to put it another way, the human mind is an adequate instrument for obtaining knowledge of the physical world. In saying this, however, Descartes was not denying that humans are fallible. We make mistakes. This happens, according to Descartes, because we have many bad mental habits that lead us to false beliefs. But he thought that he had discovered a method by which such frailties could be overcome. Descartes believed that there is an objective, rational order in the world. It is an order that the rational mind can grasp through "clear and distinct" intuitions. Thus, according to Descartes, knowledge involves having a rational insight into an objective and rational world. To use a common metaphor, the mind is like a true mirror that can accurately reflect reality.
[Like the truths of geometry,] all things, to the knowledge of which man is competent, are mutually connected in the same way, and that there is nothing so far removed from us as to be beyond our reach, or so hidden that we cannot discover it, provided only we abstain from accepting the false for the true, and always preserve in our thoughts the order necessary for the deduction of one truth from another.
As this passage indicates, Descartes' epistemology was heavily influenced by mathematical demonstrations like those found in geometry. For example, in geometry if you begin with axioms that you know with certainty are true, then you can use reason to deduce additional truths that you can also know with an equal degree of certainty. Geometrical demonstration served as the model for Cartesian epistemology. According to the model one must start with things that one knows with absolute certainty and nothing else. That is, one must exclude from one's initial set of axioms anything that might possibly be wrong.
Discourse I
I was especially delighted with the mathematics, on account of the certitude and evidence of their reasonings; but I had not as yet a precise knowledge of their true use; and thinking that they but contributed to the advancement of the mechanical arts, I was astonished that foundations, so strong and solid, should have had no loftier superstructure reared on them. On the other hand, I compared the disquisitions of the ancient moralists to very towering and magnificent palaces with no better foundation than sand and mud: they laud the virtues very highly, and exhibit them as estimable far above anything on earth; but they give us no adequate criterion of virtue, and frequently that which they designate with so fine a name is but apathy, or pride, or despair, or parricide.
Discourse 2
Among the branches of philosophy, I had, at an earlier period, given some attention to logic, and among those of the mathematics to geometrical analysis and algebra,  three arts or sciences which ought, as I conceived, to contribute something to my design. But, on examination, I found that, as for logic, its syllogisms and the majority of its other precepts are of avail rather in the communication of what we already know, or even as the art of Lully, in speaking without judgment of things of which we are ignorant, than in the investigation of the unknown; and although this science contains indeed a number of correct and very excellent precepts, there are, nevertheless, so many others, and these either injurious or superfluous, mingled with the former, that it is almost quite as difficult to effect a severance of the true from the false as it is to extract a Diana or a Minerva from a rough block of marble.
Then as to the analysis of the ancients and the algebra of the moderns, besides that they embrace only matters highly abstract, and, to appearance, of no use, the former is so exclusively restricted to the consideration of figures, that it can exercise the understanding only on condition of greatly fatiguing the imagination; and, in the latter, there is so complete a subjection to certain rules and formulas, that there results an art full of confusion and obscurity calculated to embarrass, instead of a science fitted to cultivate the mind.
Once the axioms are obtained one can, through the careful application of reason, deduce other facts. Descartes' method was analytic in the sense that he sought to break down complex matters into their simple constituent parts. His thought was that we can understand complex matters by first understanding the simple parts and then by paying careful attention to how those parts were joined together.
By these considerations I was induced to seek some other method . . . instead of the great number of precepts of which logic is composed, I believed that the four following would prove perfectly sufficient for me, provided I took the firm and unwavering resolution never in a single instance to fail in observing them.
The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.
The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.
The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.
And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.
Having adopted this method, the challenge then became--finding an axiom or set of axioms that we can know with certainty. But how could we go about doing that?
As the first rule cited above shows, Descartes solved this problem by using what has come to be known as his "method of doubt". Since he wanted to begin his deduction with claims that he knew with absolute certainty, he would treat as false anything that could possibly be doubted.
Descartes was clearly NOT a skeptic, but his quest for axioms required that he begin by doubting or eliminating ALL claims that could be doubted in any way whatsoever. That is, Descartes said to himself, "Although I am sure that knowledge is possible, I want to pretend that it is not. I want to doubt everything that I possibly can so that what remains at the end will be something that we can know with certainty." Descartes realized that this procedure would require that he reject many things that we ordinarily confidently accept.
Descartes argued in the following way. Since your senses are sometimes unreliable, sensory based knowledge is suspect. Furthermore, since you cannot at this moment be sure that you are not dreaming a very vivid dream, you cannot be absolutely certain that things are as they seem to you to be. For these reasons, all sense-based claims are ruled out of the axiom set.
But, Descartes points out even in your dreams animals still have eyes, heads, and hands. Things have color, shape, extension, and size. Perhaps one could argue that we can know that these concepts have application in the world even if we cannot be certain about when and where they apply. Furthermore, whether I am awake or asleep, it is still the case that 2 + 3 = 5 and that a square has four sides. So perhaps these things can be axioms for us.
In response to this suggestion, Descartes considers the following question: "How do I know that God has not brought it about that I am mistaken every time I add two and three together or count the sides of a square?"26 Given the power of the Church, this was a dangerous thing to suggest. Because, as we all know, God is good and surely a good person would not systematically deceive us in this way. On the other hand, God is not the only possible deceiver. Descartes accomplishes the same task with just a bit of creative effort. He continues,
I shall suppose, therefore, that there is . . . some evil demon, no less cunning and deceiving than powerful, who has used all his artifice to deceive me.27 I will suppose that the heavens, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds, and all external things that we see, are only illusions and deceptions which he uses to take me in. I will consider myself as having no hands, eyes, flesh, blood or senses, but as believing wrongly that I have all these things.28
This evil genius could spend his time and energy fooling us about anything and everything. In this manner, Descartes concludes that there is very little that we can know with absolute certainty. But then the question arises: "Does anything remain?" Is there anything that we can know with certainty? Is there anything that can serve as an axiom for science? Descartes concludes that there is.
Many of the points that I have just explained are summarized by Descartes in his Discourse on Method.29

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