I am reading through some of the major works of René Descartes. His Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences, of which I read the John Veitch translation, is a seminal essay that is commonly read by those studying philosophy the world over. In terms of understanding Western thought and culture, this is an essential work. Despite its integral nature, it still yields a few surprises.
In the treatise, Descartes sets out to ascertain the great truths in the universe. In order to accomplish his endeavor, he examines the best method for one to reach critical conclusions.
Though a relatively short work, Descartes’s ruminations are extensive and multifaceted. He first starts off dispensing with, at least temporarily, all preconceived ideas, including our basic assumptions about life. Included among the discarded ideas are philosophic, theological and scientific views espoused by the great minds of history.
On the issue of philosophy, Descartes writes,
“Of philosophy I will say nothing, except that when I saw that it had been cultivated for many ages by the most distinguished men, and that yet there is not a single matter within its sphere which is not still in dispute, and nothing, therefore, which is above doubt, I did not presume to anticipate that my success would be greater in it than that of others; and further, when I considered the number of conflicting opinions touching a single matter that may be upheld by learned men, while there can be but one true, I reckoned as well-nigh false all that was only probable”,
Descartes then proceeds to build up a belief system, supposedly rejecting any thoughts that can be doubted in any way. He contends that the only truths that he will accept are those that he can prove through experimentation and reasoning. He starts with his famous proposition of Cogito ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am,” by which he establishes that his mind exits. He builds up from here. Through a chain of reasoning, the famous philosopher goes on to prove, in his view, the existence of a perfect God. The work concludes with the championing of scientific experiments as the only way to reach additional universal truths.
There is so much here that I think one could devout years to the study of this essay. It has had a profound impact upon the modern world. Many of our notions about skepticism, the scientific method, thinking for one self, as well as theological ruminations can be traced through this work. Though Descartes did not invent all of these ideas, he expressed and organized them in a way that helped set the tone for their dissemination throughout our culture. Variations upon this approach have reverberated down the centuries and have played a key role in shaping both the scientific method as well as modern thinking and discourse employed by people with enormously diverse belief systems.
One of many things that I find of great interest here is how Descartes’s view of God flies in the face of the entire “faith must be opposed to reason” mindset. Of course, the supposed dichotomy between faith and science is a legitimate point of inquiry and an interesting take upon human ideas. However, it is but one way to look at these ideas. Perhaps as a result of simplistic films, television shows and books, our culture seems inundated with the idea that reason in opposition to religion is the only way to examine these issues.
Such a conflict does not exist in Descartes’s worldview. This philosopher helped to invent the modern skeptical, rationalistic worldview. However, he also finds that the existence of the Supreme Being to be eminently provable from the point of view of a rational mind.
Descartes’s reasoning in respect to God is complex. I cannot really do it justice in a single blog post. An oversimplification of it starts with the idea that humans are imperfect. We have an understanding of perfection, however. Such a comprehension of true perfection could only exist if there was a truly perfect Being who created us. We need such a perfect Being to compare ourselves to, otherwise we could not even have a concept of perfection.
He writes about the idea of perfection inherent in our minds,
“But this could not be the case with-the idea of a nature more perfect than myself; for to receive it from nothing was a thing manifestly impossible; and, because it is not less repugnant that the more perfect should be an effect of, and dependence on the less perfect, than that something should proceed from nothing, it was equally impossible that I could hold it from myself: accordingly, it but remained that it had been placed in me by a nature which was in reality more perfect than mine, and which even possessed within itself all the perfections of which I could form any idea; that is to say, in a single word, which was God”
There is much more to this line of reasoning for the reader to discover.
I do not agree with Descartes’s logic for various reasons. My big quibble would be that the concept of “perfection,” while a vital human idea, is not something that is actually built into the universe. Despite its extremely important value within human thought systems, it is not really “real” on a certain level. Furthermore, there is no actual objective concept of “perfection.” Finally, even if there was a reality to the “Form” of perfection, it seems a trick of semantics to assert that an imperfect mind could not imagine true perfection, even if such true perfection did not actually exist in the form of a God.
With that said my objection to Descartes’s reasoning is not my primary point. To the contrary, I admire this philosopher’s methodology. I am somewhat understanding of an assertion that God exists based upon a thoughtful approach to reality such as this. Though I disagree with him, Descartes’s theory on a deity is based upon a systematic search for the truth. Especially in our age with its profusion of stories that only seem to be capable of approaching this issue from the perspective of reason and belief in God as irreconcilable enemies, Descartes’s alternate view is eminently refreshing and due much respect.
No doubt, readers will take all sorts of things from this work. My point about faith and rationality is only one of many peaks in a very, very large iceberg. This work is a stimulating and essential read for anyone who seeks to understand some great thinking of the past as well as how our modern world came to be.