Rene Descartes – The Seeker

Descartes the Seeker

Descartes states that the mathematical sciences “contain some measure of certainty and an element of the indubitable”(Meditation 1).  Mathematics does not prove the existence of material objects, instead it proves the conceptual existence of things that do not rely on sensory perception.  The triangle we can imagine is as real as the ideas we can have.  Neither rely on a tangible world to exist.  Mathematical logic therefore supports the assertion that thought proves ones existence as a thinking thing.

Rene Descartes


As a tool for determining the factual truth of something, mathematics provides some framework for how one can conceive of things.  For instance, a chair.  A chair can exist in my mind much like a triangle can exist in my mind.  My senses can seem to collect data about chair that seem to reinforce or fine-tune my idea of chair.  To Descartes the addition of sensory data is a weakness in the proof.  Why?  Because sensory data relies on already formed ideas of what the senses are capable of, and it ties perception to physical organs of which we have no proof of existence.
If we are to begin to apply Descartes methods for determining reality we must, as he did, begin with certain steps, namely, we must call into doubt all things in the world.  This is not the same as saying nothing is real, it is simply applying a layer of doubt to everything.  In doing so I may quickly conclude, like Descartes did, that my ideas are indeed real.  Not real in the sense that they can be touched or “sensed” but real in that they are not-nothing.  This is an exciting conclusion because it leads one right to the next logical conclusion: something cannot come from nothing.
If I accept the premise that something cannot come from nothing then I can feel some comfort that my ideas may well be real.  It is almost silly to even consider that simply by the act of considering, or accepting, or taking comfort, I am proving my own existence.  Yet, such ideas and thoughts must come from something.  In the simplest terms I can thereby conclude that the ideas come from ME.  I authored the idea and I am ME.  I can’t say much about ME with certainty (using this method) because so much of the data ME has in storage has come from sensory perception and, even more dubiously, from the output of other beings of which I have no proof of existence.
Descartes starts to apply the arguments for God when he reaches the point in which an ultimate source is required – some source from which ME sprung.  Since he cannot say with certainty that other beings do in fact exist (beings that could have given him bad data from their own sensory perceptions) he is left only with SELF and something else.  While he explores the idea of something else he ultimately reverts to a Christian idea of God.
I personally believe that God does exist, but I don’t have any scientific or logical proof.  Descartes undoubtedly felt this way as well.  He ‘believed’ that God exists[1]but he could not create a satisfactory scientific formula to ‘prove’ God exists.  His entire undertaking in the “Meditations on the First Philosophy” seemed to be to prove, using reason, that God exists.  I conclude that Descartes failed to prove this.  He began the journey, reached an impasse (namely the circular argument wherein HE as thinking thing uses clear and distinct thought to prove God exists, and yet God is also the author of HE – so which came first?) and decided to make an argument that his contemporaries might find appealing.  Since ideas have causes that are greater than the ideas themselves, HE cannot be the source of the idea of God since the idea of God represents a thing greater than HE, eternal, immutable, infallible.
Certainly this well-packaged “proof” is not the kind of argument that would get him excommunicated or burned as a witch[2], in fact, it’s the kind of argument the church might be happy about because it assigns God some of the same fundamental properties that the church does.  But it is also not the kind of argument that would satisfy the rational thinker who, all his life has been waiting for proof of God’s existence as a final cure for that unspeakable pain brought on by the recurring doubt in that same existence.
Nonetheless, Descartes formula for doubting-then-proving has merits.  He uses it for instance to posit that bodies may be real, that is, they may have ‘extension’.  To prove this he calls back to the idea of the flawed data collected from the senses/body showing that there is a distinct difference between the non-corporeal soul from which ideas spring forth and the vessel of the body with its dependence on relationships with space and other objects.  What, after all, would sensory data be for but to maintain the sanctity of the body in an environment of some sort?  Of course, based on his first principles, such conclusions about the difference between soul and body could all be made up in his mind, except of course that this is unlikely since God (who is infinite, and infinite equals good) would not, as a good entity, deceive him so.  I felt comfortable with the argument for soul and body being separate entities, until Descartes added that God would not deceive and therefore it had to be true.
The attainment of true knowledge is a worthy pursuit.  It’s treasure may be the one thing that all people would enjoy equally and in common.  Applying mathematics as proofs for the seemingly abstract genesis of thought appears sound.  However, because we live (or perceive to live) in a thriving universe filled with every possible kind of object and because reliable perception of the fine details of objects might spell the difference between a successful interaction with the environment and a failed one, humans crave a unifying formula that proves that everything we undergo in the trial of life in the physical world is worthwhile.  If the seemingly physical world is just our own imagination and we are indeed only “thinking things” then why would we imagine pain, suffering, slavery, disease, or death at the hands of the elements?  While we also seemingly imagine wonderful things like sex, pizza, blue skies and music, why, if our imagination created our reality, would we pollute that good landscape with bad features?
Descartes considers this too, and in his conclusion he points to perspective.  I could look at one event in my life as having been bad, like the Alzheimer’s disease that my grandmother suffered with until her death.  Taking this one string of events alone, it is very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to find something good in it.  Descartes’ point, which is less of a proof of something and more of a bandage to ease mental suffering, is that this event or string of events might have some good and ultimately satisfying purpose if only we could see it from a broader perspective.  However, since we seem to be thinking things that are subject to the laws of time we cannot see the beginning, middle, end, and consequence of anything all at once.  Therefore we must have faith in the God that we “ought” to believe in that there is a purpose for things that seem hurtful or bad and that purpose will ultimately lead to good.
What if we apply that reasoning to the difficult question of the native American in the 16 – 17th century?
In Descartes time, the New World had been discovered, and in that new world were natives, and many believed these natives to be natural slaves.  Being incapable of self governance and of living in anything but barbarism it was comfortably concluded that they were meant to be slaves, that their lives as individuals did not have the same value as those who were justified to be the masters of them.
If Descartes ever said anything about the native Americans I am not familiar with it, but by applying his method I could guess at some of his conclusions.  I come up with three possibilities:
  1.            While to the civilized person the idea of natural slavery might seem unappealing, it is worth taking a step back and trying to see it as a part of a greater plan for the universe.  In such a plan it may not be unappealing but rather of vital importance to some greater good.
  2.             Since this “new world” is not intimately known to me I cannot say that I have clear and distinct ideas of its properties, and less so of any being said to dwell therein, so I cannot draw a conclusion that would resemble truth; I have inadequate information and therefore abstain from judgment.
  3.             If I am a thinking thing and in so-being conclude that I EXIST, then do these native American people not also think and therefore exist?  And if they exist do they not do so, as do I, by the grace of God who is the infinite author of existence itself?  Are they reasoning beings from whom valid arguments against their enslavement may be made?  If these questions are answered in the affirmative then and only then we might begin to consider whether we can think of them as natural slaves, fellow countrymen, great thinkers or for that matter, anything else at all.
  4.             Another, less likely response would be Descartes throwing a book at whoever disturbed him with this question.


If the origin of truth lies somewhere inside of the thinking thing then it certainly is worth the time and effort to come to understand the thinking thing better.  Upon quiet reflection and the application of doubt to all that we accept now as true, it is possible to find those things which we conclude are real, like thought, God, Self, and the universe.  Finding the time to take the conclusions of such self exploration and put them into a form that is shareable with others requires an entirely different body of skill and temperament.  My thanks to Descartes for attempting it.  It is a worthwhile pursuit because the truths at stake are deep at the root of our being.  Or so they appear to be.
For all of my life I have had lengthy discussions with family and friends about the purpose of existence.  It may not have been phrased that way but that was what the core of the discussion was.  In all those discussions and the periods of reflection that followed them, one truth began to clarify.  When I read Descartes Meditations it clarified further.  It being: there is a desire to know why we exist.  To give comfort to that quest we have built up a culture around God and his works.  This God-culture is rich enough that it has given way to theologians, works of art, wars, and systems of governance.  For thinking things the question of God is key to the greatest depths of knowledge.  The flesh-vehicles we travel in seem unimportant in comparison.
This method of Descartes’, if used honestly, and in such a way that it does not become polluted by pre-conceived notions, or by thoughts outside of self, and, if true doubt of the material world around us is indeed possible, then I believe wondrous truths can be attained.
But it knows of this potential and so it has allowed to be created such technologies that cloud and confuse and draw us away from the truth and make quiet introspection virtually impossible.  It trivializes mathematical logic, replacing it with machines that can be logical for us.  It has paved the road for the ceaseless cackling of talking heads on ubiquitous televisions and takes pleasure in the un-silence of the landscape.
I had hoped Descartes could convince me otherwise.  Even he saw the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution coming and growing and giving way to a world no longer compatible with quiet contemplation:
“But as this enterprise appeared to be a very great one, I waited until I had attained an age so mature that I could not hope that at any later date I should be better fitted to execute my design. This reason caused me to delay so long that I should feel that I was doing wrong were I to occupy in deliberation the time that yet remains to me for action.”
The it is not some demon that strives to confuse and confound.  It is far worse.  Itis a collective choice born of the Free Will of mankind.  It is a willful choice to disguise the truth we should chase with this false construct in which we live.  The construct is created to protect us from the real truth, providing in its place a sort of film that provides just enough conflict and just enough resolution to satisfy our inner desires in this “reality” we have created for ourselves wherein we believe many things that are not really true.

[1]“exists” is not a grammatical error.  Though Descartes belief was indeed in the past, the God he believed in is eternal and therefore in a perpetual state of existence.

[2] If I recall correctly Descartes punishment was much worse, he was ignored by the lofty men he hoped to impress.  What can sting a philosopher more than being ignored?

image from Google Creative Commons


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