Saturday, February 8, 2014

René Descartes - Discourse on Method

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.


Suko said...

Very interesting post about Descartes, who is called the Father of Modern Philosophy (according to Wikipedia). It would be difficult to even scratch the surface of this essay, but you've done a good job in spite of the profundity of this work. The ideas about perfection that you mention here remind me a bit of Plato's forms (which I studied in ancient philosophy, many years ago) and which were both pure and abstract.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - As I tend to do I really just tried to focus on a point or two that I found interesting.

I think that you are correct I do believe that Descartes concept of a perfect God was heavily influenced by Plato's concept of the Form of Perfection.

James said...

Thanks for a well-reasoned exposition of Descartes' famous Discourse. His influence was immense as demonstrated, in part, by the responses of other philosophers in his own time, like Hobbes and Spinoza, and subsequent thinkers.
I share your views about his "proof" of the existence of God for reasons including your valid point about perfection. But I enjoy being reminded of the thinking and importance of Descartes' seminal mind.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Indeed his influence cannot be overstated on philosophy as well as popular theology and thought. I personally a few folks who currently espouse the perfection and God theory. On the other end of things he certainly had an impact upon scientific thinking.

I want to get to Hobbes and Spinoza. I figured that it was best to read Descartes first!

Guy Savage said...

Brian: someone at work showed me a religious pamphlet that was shoved into their hands. It contains an argument which proves the existence of God that is one of the most deranged things I've ever read. At least D. put some serious thought into it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - Though not a believer myself, I really appreciate these reasoned arguments.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I read Descartes years ago. Your fine review reminds me that I need to read it again.

I thought Descartes' argument that one can't say they disbelieve in God because of a lack of proof was valid because nothing can be proven.

He states that everything we believe in is based on the axiom that matter is real and not a hallucination. The only thing we know for certain is that because we think, we know we exist.

In the matter of perfection I believe that Descartes was speaking-at least in one respect- of morals. Every culture has a moral code. Our laws are based on a moral code i.e. "don't kill", "don't steal" "don't defame (bear false witness") etc..Even if a culture doesn't abide by this (tribal cannibalism, for instance, or child sacrifice) we know it's wrong. That culture is a perversion of what is right and just.

When people argue that they can't believe in a God because of all the suffering in the world, they need to ask where their sense of wrongness about this comes from.

I agree with Descartes, we know we're imperfect (if we're honest we know this) but how can we know it, unless there is a paradigm of perfection by which to compare? Something inside us says this should not be. But if it's all we've ever known, how can we possess the idea of something better?

Needless to say I agree with Descartes on this point.

Thanks for your fair and thoughtful commentary, Brian. Have a good day. I look forward to your next post.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - thanks for your insightful comment.

I agree that there is an inherent sense of right and wrong, morals and justice in us. I would argue that this sense in inherent in our Genes. It is one of the things that increases our chance for survival by facilitating cooperation as well as providing a set of rules that help us interact and work together in order to promote this survival.

I would just add two things. This particular argument, is not an argument that God does not exist, just that morality and fairness are the by product of natural processes.

Second this is not just a clinical and cold argument. This sense of morality inherent though the work of our Genes is a wonderful thing. It is one of the things that gives value and meaning to our individual lives as well as to humanity as a whole.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Well done, you have done a great job of explaining what is obviously a very profound essay. Though not a particularly philosophical myself I know this post will prompt much discussion between me and my husband who is.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy - I think that this sort of stuff is the material that great conversations are made of!

JaneGS said...

Challenging reading--reminds me of my college days. I really enjoy reading your posts and your approach to reading and the topics you choose to delve into.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Thanks for the good word!

Over the past few years s I have read a bit more of the challenging stuff it has gotten much easier. I really love delving into these writers' works and exploring their ideas.

The Bookworm said...

Wonderful post Brian. I do think that the ideas that philosophers like Descartes do make for fascinating discussions.

The Bookworm said...

*of philosophers

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida. Indeed even when I disagree with them, pondering and discussing the contentions of these thinkers is enlightening and fun.

Unknown said...

Isn't it interesting how the thoughts of one man can have such a profound impact on philosophies that are taken for granted centuries later? I shall have to re-read some of Descartes's works in closer detail when I finish my current studies of Jesus and the New Testament.

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.

In The Meaning of Jesus, Marcus Borg calls this dichotomy between faith and logic the "secular worldview" and suggests that this worldview will be only transient. We've gone so many centuries taking for granted that faith does not defy logic that he's confident this philosophy won't last. That some day people will look back on it as "quaint." Only time will tell!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - I sometimes wonder if culture, thought and society would have developed differently if these thinkers had been different. Perhaps the way things went in these respects is inevitable.

I am not a person of faith, however, I have come to realize that some very logical and intelligent folks are believers. Furthermore I also recognize that everything that I believe in is not based upon absolute logic and the scientific method. With that said I think that faith will always be challenged by reason on some levels. Many my fellow folks without faith contend that reason will eventually overwhelm a belief in God. I think that me be a bit patronizing. I think that here will always be alternate viewpoints.

Unknown said...

Many my fellow folks without faith contend that reason will eventually overwhelm a belief in God.

Ah! Not only is such thought patronizing, but it COMPLETELY underestimates the "longing for something more" that comes naturally to humans. Whether you believe that these are useless psychological archetypes that H. sapiens evolved (sort of like the appendix of the mind), or whether you believe there actually IS a God, it's hard to ignore the overwhelming evidence that this human longing has existed throughout recorded history, and most likely before history as well.

Brian Joseph said...

Real good points Rachel

I would just add that the longing for something more can take on different aspects. Just one possibility I would like to see humanity reach a sense of common purpose aimed at a combination of compassion and empathy with a realization that we are the embodiment of a conscious Universe that is learning and exploring.

Anonymous said...

Great post, especially about such a work. I've never read it, although I have studied passages in philosophy classes.
I'm not religious and I'm always baffled when I see great scientists who are also firm believers. There's something instinctive about religion that defies reason.


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - As I think you know I am doubtful about the existence of God. There are those however who do seem to make a reasoned contrary case. Descartes was very much among those.

Caroline said...

I haven't read him since my universitiy days. Many of the great French philosophers of the Age of Reason were Deists like Voltaire. Anti-clerical but still religious,
People often mix up religion with the church. the thinkers weere fed up with the church, not necessarily with spirituality. I've been brought up in the spirit of Descartes and Voltaire. It never excluded the belief in the trascendental.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Though I am familiar with his beliefs via second hand knowledge, I really need to get to Voltaire as well as many other Age of Enlightenment philosophers.

Likely because he was earlier, my understanding is that Descartes was firmly Catholic.

So many books, so little time said...

For me this would be quite a challenging read I think. You have done well to get through it and break it down into a way that someone like me can comprehend it.

I am reading a lot of textbooks for my studies just now so find anything other than straight fiction challenging, which I think this would be.


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - I would say that if you are able to surmount textbooks this would not be too bad. On the other hand after reading so many textbooks I can definitely understand why you would want something lighter.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - I would say that if you are able to surmount textbooks this would not be too bad. On the other hand after reading so many textbooks I can definitely understand why you would want something lighter.

Maria Behar said...

This is a very well-analyzed review of a very profound work written by a philosopher, who, as you've stated, has had an immense influence on our modern culture.

I must confess to never having read any of the works of Descartes. I only know of him from the excellent book, "The Story of Philosophy", by Will Durant.

I am now very much interested in reading "Discourse on the Method", since the whole argument of "faith vs. reason" totally fascinates me! It's very significant that Descartes did not see a conflict between these two spheres of human life. A little digression: I wonder if Richard Dawkins has ever read this particular book....

As you stated in your review, one post is not enough to do justice to this important book. So I sure hope you will give us more insights into Descartes's methods if philosophical inquiry.

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this book. Thanks for sharing them!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - I must check out "The Story of Philosophy".

I would guess that Dawkins is at least familier with Descartes. I have read a fair amount of Dawkins and he is actually fairly well read, including religious texts. I think that Dawkins problem is an inaate hostility to anyone he disagrees with philosphily.

Maria Behar said...

You know, I haven't had the dubious pleasure of reading Dawkins, but from all the comments I've read about him, he sure sounds like a VERY unsavory character.

You can certainly disagree with someone in a very diplomatic way. There's no need to be so hostile. Besides, if anyone truly believes that their own philosophical position is the right one, why would they get so upset when someone else disagrees? Perhaps DAwkins has some gnawing doubts about his own position. Hmmm.

Anyway, maybe I'll check out one of his books, at some point in the future. And I mean "check out" literally -- from the library.

As for Descartes, he, being a perfect gentleman (from what I know of him) does deserve to join my personal library. Lol.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - I totally agree that Dawkins is often out of line. In my opinion this really disqualifies him from serious conversation. Dawkins does rail against acts and speech by religious folks against non believers and believers alike that indeed justify condemnation.However, he goes much further and tends to be acerbic against almost everyone who disagrees.

I find that the late Carl Sagan had a similar worldview. Sagan however was very respectful of contrary views and even when he was arguing against them. David Grinspoon seems to be trying to fill sagan's shoes with at least some success. Grinspoon actually has taken Dawkins' hostility to task in his Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life.

The Selfish Gene was actually a brilliant book. Interestingly he wrote it when he was younger and the original version lacks the acerbicness. In the updated version of the book his added notes and chapters show some of the unnecessary combativeness.