Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Descartes:The Father of Modern Philosophy



Philosophy had gone to sleep and no philosopher contributed to any new idea since Aristotle.Rene Descartes indeed was the man to wake up philosophy once again. Descartes was born in 1596, south of Tours in France. Descartes  prepared for life as a lawyer but quickly saw that it wasn't for him. He became a soldier and then something of a wanderer, mixing with people of diverse ranks and temperament. He experienced many testing situation while being with these people, he got into gambling debts and even fought a duel over a romantic connection. After gaining much experience and excitement from life he sequestered himself in Holland for many years where he pursued mathematics, science and philosophy. His work in mathematics and philosophy is of supreme importance. Among other contributions his most important contribution is in analytical geometry. 

The culmination of his efforts is a large treatise called The World , which lays out a general system that Descartes hoped might supersede Aristotle's physics and metaphysics. Among other things it defends heliocentric view of solar system. But just as he was about to publish this work Galileo came with the same view but with great reluctance and so Descartes put the project on hold. Instead he started to publish parts of The World, these parts of his treatise later were known as Discourse on Method. The book proved to be successful not only among  theologians, scientist but also everyday people. People were right there with Descartes in his search for truth. Carefully reasoning  his methods while his model is  mathematics Descartes identified four rules for the direction of thought:

1. 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 judgment than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all grounds of doubt.
 2. To divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.
 3. 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.
 4. To make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.

Four years after producing Discourse on Method  Descartes published Meditation on First Philosophy. This book was meant for theologians and men of letters. The book was an attempt to begin afresh by blasting away everything and starting from scratch.


Portrait of Rene Descartes


Descartes’ Meditations are divided into six parts, each of which is numbered and titled according to the subject matter it discusses. 

The first part, labeled “Meditation One: Concerning Those Things That Can Be Called Into Doubt” discusses his view of how to build a rational philosophy from the ground up. According to Descartes, we cannot go through life with whatever views we adopted in our youth and only change them when they begin to fail us. To do so would prevent us from establishing “anything firm and lasting in the sciences” .Instead, we must begin by doubting everything we have learned over the course of our lives until we find a proposition that it is impossible to doubt. Then we must build everything we believe in the future only on what can be proven to be a logical consequence of that proposition. This way we will be certain that everything we believe is absolutely true.However, Descartes’ view of what constitutes “something that it is impossible to doubt” is problematic. Descartes does not believe that those things which are directly perceived through the senses are self-evident. Instead, he concludes that even these must be called into doubt. His argument for the position that the senses can be doubted is that we cannot ever be sure that we are not dreaming, and therefore we cannot know that what our senses are telling us is actually the truth .One could respond to Descartes’ argument by saying that dreams simply do not look or feel the same as reality and it is quite easy to tell them apart. Although Descartes does consider this as a possible rebuttal to his argument, he ultimately concludes that it fails by saying “As if I did not recall having been deceived on other occasions even by similar thoughts in my dreams!” .He seems to think that he has settled the matter at this point. However, it is unclear why he thinks so. Most of us have had dreams in which we have considered the idea that we might be dreaming. If we think back to those times, there were always clues that led us to think such things. Dreams contain a “dream-like” quality that is fundamentally different from waking life. When we are awake, such a quality does not exist and we find ourselves never seriously considering the idea that we are sleeping. As such, Descartes’ argument for the idea that we might be dreaming (and therefore that our senses may not be reliable) is unconvincing.

Nevertheless, Descartes continues with his argument in “Meditation Two: Concerning the Nature of the Human Mind: That It Is Better Known Than The Body.” In this part, he considers whether it is possible to doubt his own existence. After pondering this idea, he concludes that he cannot doubt his own existence since the fact the he is considering whether he exists or not is proof that he does in fact exist. If he did not exist, he could not wonder whether he exists or not. This consideration, along with the idea that the senses may not be reliable, leads Descartes to conclude that we can be more sure of our existence as a thinking being than we can of our existence as a body.


Descartes continues in “Meditation Three: Concerning God, That He Exists”, where he finally gets to the issue of the existence of God. His argument for the existence of God rests on the idea of “perfection”. According to Descartes, it is impossible for anything more perfect to come from anything less perfect. He also states that he has in his mind the idea of  something “infinite, independent, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful, and that created me along with everything else that exists---if anything else exists” .He calls this idea “God”. He then argues that both he and all the ideas he gets from the senses are finite, whereas God is thought of as being infinite. He then concludes that something that is infinite is more perfect than something that is finite, and therefore could not have come from him or the senses. As such, the idea of  “God” must have come from God himself and therefore God does in fact exist. It unclear at this point exactly why Descartes thinks he has a valid argument. Why is an “infinite” being more perfect than a finite one? And what is “perfection” supposed to be exactly? Normally, we say that something is “perfect” in regards to some purpose for which it could be used. We may say that an axe is perfect for chopping trees or a shopping cart is perfect for holding groceries. But what is Descartes talking about when he says that the concept of God is “more perfect” than the concept of himself?  Descartes does not deal with this question adequately. Another argument that Descartes does not adequately deal with is the issue of whether it is really possible to think of an “infinite, supremely intelligent, supremely powerful being.” He states that he has such an idea in his mind. However, he then admits that he does not understand the infinite but that “the nature of the infinite is such that it is not comprehended by a being such as I, who am finite” .It is unclear exactly how our minds are supposed to contain an idea of something that Descartes admits is incomprehensible.The final three meditations rely on the first three in order to reach their conclusions, and so they are less important than the first three in understanding Descartes arguments. Nevertheless, I will summarize them below.

In Meditation Four, Descartes considers the problem of error. Why would God create human beings that are capable of error? Why not make us perfect and incapable of ever being wrong? His answer is that “there is no reason to marvel at the fact that God should bring about certain things the reasons for which I do not understand” .He also argues that there may be some purpose “in the universal scheme of things” to making human beings capable of error .In addition, he states that our errors are caused by the fact that our will extends further than our understanding.

In Meditation Five, Descartes makes a further argument for the existence of God. He states that God is a “supremely perfect being” and that a supremely perfect being cannot be thought of except as existing, since if it did not exist it would lack perfection .This argument suffers from the same flaws as the arguments in Meditation Three, since it relies on the idea of “perfection” and on the idea that a “supremely perfect being” can really be thought of.

In Meditation Six, Descartes argues that we can be sure that material things exist since God would not deceive us about it. In addition, he argues that since we can understand our own mind without understanding or even believing in our bodies, this means that the mind and body are distinct and that the mind can exist without the body.

The end result of this series of meditations is that Descartes reaches the conclusion that the existence of the external world can only be justified by first justifying the existence of God, and thus we can be more sure that God exists than we can that the external world exists.

Descartes says that he used to think of himself as man, as being made up of flesh and bones and having a body. He also thought of himself as having feelings and thoughts, and these he attributed to his soul. But if he thinks about the demon , can he be sure that are these things really 'in' him, genuinely part of his nature? Descartes introduces to philosophy what has become known as Cartesian dualism, the view that mind and body are two different kinds of substances. Descartes argues that causes have to have at least as much reality in them as the effects they produce. So how could something imperfect create something perfect? There is not enough 'reality' in the imperfect cause to create something as monumentally real as perfection. So a finite being like himself couldn't have created the idea of perfect being. Descartes is led to the thought that God must exist.

The existence of God, a good God who is not a deceiver  does a lot of heavy lifting for Descartes. If he is created by God, then he knows that God would not set him up to go systematically wrong when he applies his mind to a problem. On this basis of this foundation and rationalist method Descartes thinks that humanity needs to only get on with piling up the truths about world.

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