Up ]


Rene¢ Descartes (1596-1650) was born in France, educated in high school by the Jesuits before his entry into the University of Paris, where he did well while enjoying the recreations of student life—tennis, horseback, swordsmanship, gambling, affairs with Parisian women.  Bored with such activities, he sought solitude at age 21, then joined an army as a bystander (first the Dutch army, then the troops of Duke Maximilian of Bavaria).  After persistent, intense seeking for truth, he experienced a day of mystic illumination on November 10, 1619, followed by a night of three memorable dreams: (1) Being disoriented, blown around, he wanted to return to a chapel but unable to do so, in terror of the future, sensing time as a sequence of isolated moments with a chasm separating each moment.  He awoke in fear of an evil spirit.  After two hours of reflection and prayer, concerned with the sin of pride (about searching for truth so independently of all traditional authority.  (2) In the next dream he heard a loud and piercing sound which he took for a thunderbolt.  He awoke, frightened, then reflected and achieved an enhanced experience of God’s love and goodness.  (3) The third dream reconciled his idea of (i) a total science (mathesis universalis, his previous passion, comparable to the idea of a completed physics and cosmology pursued by some scientists today) with (ii) a divine wisdom that would transform it from something abstract, lifeless, and intellectual to an integral activity of man in loving and harmonious fellowship with God; and this would be his vocation.

At age 26 he returned to Holland, then went to France and Italy, returning to Paris, spending half the day in bed thinking and two to fours hours a day writing.  For solitude in his research, he went to Holland at age 33 and stayed 20 years—in 24 different residences.  He was modest, gentle, courteous, sober, and frugal.  In 1634 he has a child, Francine, with a household servant, Helen.  When Descartes confessed being a father, he accepted humiliation and vowed to live in humility and celibacy.  The daughter died in 1640; to Descartes’ anguish, his medical knowledge could do nothing to save her.

In 1633 the Vatican condemned Copernicanism and put Galileo under house arrest.  Descartes revised his Discourse on Method (1637) to conceal his heliocentrism.

            Descartes was popular at the courts.  He became friends with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia (when he was 47 and she was 24), with whom he had an active correspondence and a few conversations.  She was an outstanding student, critic, and friend.  Queen Christina of Sweden also became interested in Descartes, criticizing his mechanical interpretation of animal life with the remark that she had “never seen her clock give birth to little clocks.”  She prevailed upon a friend of Descartes, the French ambassador, Chanut, to persuade Descartes to come to the Swedish court.  Christina wanted her lessons at 5 a.m., and Descartes—frail in health since childhood—trudged through the winter to oblige her.  The Lutheran court was jealous of Descartes and the physicians may have hastened his death when he became ill in 1650.


            Descartes envisioned a tree of wisdom with its roots in metaphysics (philosophy), physics for the trunk, and all the other sciences as the branches, especially medicine, mechanics, and ethics.



You are to set forth, first, Descartes' view, then your own thoughts on these questions.

On the Discourse on Method

 1.  Is learning satisfying if it does not provide sturdy knowledge?

 2.  What methods help secure progress in knowing?

 3.  Is there a single method for every question?

 4.  Knowledge claims carry assumptions.  Which assumptions seem particularly important?      Why do these seem important?

 5.  What can we do in trying to justify our most basic assumptions?  How far can we go in justifying them against a radical skeptic?

 6.  Can natural science totally explain the mind and its achievements?  If not, how can we possibly combine reflective, phenomenological (phenomenology=experience-ology) accounts with biological accounts about brain processes?


On the Meditations

 7.  What is the most convincing aspect of the proof for the existence of God in Meditation III?    

 8.  What is the least convincing aspect of this proof?

 9.  Is there a better proof?

10. If no proof is adequate, must a religionist give up believing in God?


Discourse on Method

Church condemnation in 1633 of the heliocentric idea of the solar system led Descartes to revise his Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking Truth in the Field of Science.  After the Discourse was published in 1637, Descartes' fame as a scientist and philosopher circulated widely.  Here are summaries of the six parts of this work. 

1.  Descartes became disillusioned with existing “learning.”

2.  He finds a new method for himself

3.  . . . and adopts practical principles as well (avoiding extreme skepticism)

4.  The philosophic foundation for science is the basic certitude: I think, therefore, I am.  This truth stands up even to radical skeptical doubt.  On this basis, one can prove the existence of God—who guarantees the truthfulness of our most rationally perfect intuitions and deductions.

5.  The new science of mechanics embraces all the human body and mind except reason.

6.  Descartes has not fully set forth his method and results.  One must use deduction as far as possible . . . and then experiment.

            The second part of the Discourse gives four principles of method:

1.  Never to accept anything as true unless I recognized it to be certainly and evidently such . . . .

2.  Divide each difficulty into as many parts as possible . . . .

3.  Think in an orderly fashion (and imposing order if necessary), beginning with the simplest things.

4.  Always make enumerations so complete and reviews so general, as to be certain nothing is omitted.



The Meditations on First Philosophy

Here is a very simplified picture of the train of thoughts in The Meditations on First Philosophy (1642).

1.  I can doubt and refuse to make use of judgments about (a) corporeal things and (b) mathematical truths or truths about particular essences.

2.  "The proposition 'I think, I am,' is necessarily true every time I conceive it or pronounce it in my mind."  (To think, for Descartes, includes the full range of acts of mind, including affirming, denying, willing, imagining, and perceiving.)

3.  The criterion of truth is perfect clarity and distinctness; and this criterion can be relied upon because God, the perfect source of (a) the mind and (b) what the mind strives to know, must exist as the sufficient cause of our positive idea of a perfect being; and God, a perfect being, cannot be a deceiver. 

4.  Error arises when the will affirms a judgment that is not fully clear and distinct to the intellect (and God's enabling such errors to arise is due to God's wise provision for our practical needs).

5.  We can know truths about essences (and therefore the essential connection of essence and existence in God, the truths of mathematics, and the truths of physics insofar as physics is a deductive system that presupposes nothing about actual, factual, existing, extended objects).

6.  And we can know that corporeal things exist (since our experience of movement, hunger, and pain is best explained as the experience of a being whose soul (mind, thinking substance) is, though radically different from the body (extended substance), united with the body in this life).  Nor are we dreaming, since our experience has a coherence that dreams do not have with other parts of our experience.



    Here is a summary of the reasoning at the beginning of Meditation III.



Here is one summary of the Meditation III proof for the existence of God.


My idea of God (supreme creator, eternal, infinite, omnipotent, omniscient) comes from one of three possible sources:

1.  It comes from some object in the world outside of me—but no such things have the infinity and perfection referred to in the idea of God (the “objective reality” of the idea).

2.  It comes from myself –but I’m imperfect.

3.  It is innate (inborn; this will eventually mean placed in me by God).  God must be the source of my idea of God since the cause of my idea must have at least as much reality (“formal reality”) as the effect.


Technical terms:

    The formal reality of a thing is the reality it has just because of the kind of thing that it is.  Stones, plants, animals, human beings, and higher beings if there are any have different degrees of formal reality (at least according to a long tradition of Western thought).  Any idea has a certain formal reality just by being an idea in the mind.

    The objective reality of an idea is the (assumed) reality of the object to which the idea refers.  The objective reality of the idea of God is greater than the objective reality of the idea of a stone.

    Descartes' key premise is that the cause of an idea must have at least as much formal reality as the objective reality of the idea which is the effect of that cause.  If this premise is correct, then his conclusion follows that God exists (and no scholar that I know believes this attempted proof succeeds).



Here are a few objections to Descartes' proof for the existence of God.

1.  An idea of perfection is not a perfect idea; he asserts the first (no rational person would deny that we have an idea of perfection), but for the proof to work he needs the second (a perfect idea of perfection, which David Hume [Scottish skeptic, 1711-1776], for example, denies, claiming that our idea of perfection is just an extension of our ideas of good qualities in finite beings).

2.  There are problems with the principle that the cause needs to have at least as much reality as the effect. 

i. Even if the principle is true, Descartes uses it as part of the context of medieval tradition that he has not doubted and denied. 

ii. His reasoning in support of this principle depends on an appeal to “the light of nature”

 iii.  The principle may need to presuppose the existence of God to handle the alleged counterexample of evolution (where the less perfect, seemingly without relying on the handiwork of any divine Designer, gives rise to the more perfect).

3.  The apparent force of Descartes’ argument relies on the fact that the “idea” of God that he is contemplating is not merely an intellectual idea on which any thinker, religious or not, can agree to stipulate for the purposes of discussion.  His “idea” of God is laden with the powerfully luminous qualities of value and conviction which have grown in Descartes’ mind because he has been a sincere religionist for many years. 

4.  Perhaps the only proof possible for the existence of God is the conviction of personal experience, not an intellectual line of reasoning—which either assumes too much or proves too little (just as, if we try to prove the validity of our perceptual awareness of our material surroundings or the validity of our ethical intuition and reason, we assume too much and prove too little).


Descartes' philosophy of science includes the following ideas. 


[Note: in the following section I do not merely summarize Descartes' view.]

            The mind-body problem.  Once you start talking about the mind and the body, the question naturally arises how they relate or interact.  On the one hand, we have the sense of ourselves and others as individuals, as more or less unified beings, as persons.  We don’t experience ourselves in pieces, and we don’t want to live with a fragmented view of what it means to be a human being.  Nevertheless, we know something of what the mind is like (and it also includes its own experiences of bodily life) and something of what the body is like (in part as known from outside in observation and science). 

            The materialist solution.  Some people are materialists, who view human beings as basically physical beings.  The events that we speak of in mental terms are really just (nothing but) brain events described without reference to neurophysiology.  They criticize thinkers such as Descartes as dualists,  who propose the incoherent notion that the mind and body are substances of radically different kinds, metaphysically speaking.  If mind and body are so different, how can they interact?  Since dualists cannot explain the interaction (satisfactorily), their theory is incoherent and must be abandoned.

            Descartes’ dualism briefly put and briefly criticized.  Descartes said that the interaction of the mind and body takes place in the brain, specifically in the pineal gland (see The Passions of the Soul, ##30-35, pp 306-09).  Some people dismiss this account, since they regard the living neurons of the brain as simply material and say that Descartes does not solve the problem of mind-body interaction at all merely by specifying a part of the brain where the interaction takes place.  Another criticism is that dualism leads to an unhealthy contempt for the body.

            A defense of dualism.  In fact there may more to say on Descartes’ behalf than this.  If the life in living cells, enabling them to be sensitive, is more than merely matter, if brain cells have the capacity to respond to the most basic level of mind, then it is inadequate to hold a materialist account of the neurons of the nervous system.  If the mind can span the spectrum from the level of spiritual receptivity to the level of the capacity to affect the network of neurons, then we see a phased, close metaphysical approach to making the interaction intelligible.  Mystery remains, but it is more important for an account to be faithful to the different dimensions of reality than to suppress one or more dimensions because the resulting account does not satisfy certain narrow standards of explanation.

            As Descartes and Plato agreed, in this life the mind and body are intimately intertwined.  Both Descartes and Plato believed in the prospect of life after death, the survival of the soul after the body can no longer support life.  Part of their problem was to fail to differentiate the mind (which interfaces sensitively with the body) from the (potentially) immortal soul, which is of a different metaphysical order.

            It is indeed important to think the unity of the human person, and one need not abandon the mind-body distinction to do so.  There are several factors that contribute to our unity as persons.  The personality (as conceived by Berdaiev) is unique and constant through change.  The spirit nucleus (if there is one) is a unifier.  The mind is a unifier, synthesizing a continually updated understanding of things; and the mind is where we make those decisions of will that can unify the many dimensions of the entire personality system.

            What do you think about this problem?  What dimensions of reality are involved in the human being?  If there are more than one, how do they relate?  What variety of views do we find in today’s diverse culture?  What sorts of affirmation are we prepared to make?  For a feminist critique of Descartes, see this summary of Susan Bordo's 1985 article, "Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as Crystallization of Culture."