E. Daniel Miller
Intro to Philosophy
Rene Descartes once said “it were far better never to think of investigating the truth at all, than to do so without a method” How did he come to this thought? Well, Descartes is most notably called “The Father of Modern Philosophy”. Why is this? Up until his revolutionary ideas, even though there were many advances in science, philosophy, and so forth, the culture of societies (primarily in Europe) were mainly ruled by the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Even though there were some shifts happening with the church prior to Descartes (Martin Luther, for example), which gave the common person a more personal relationship with God, it still was commonly accepted that man was to serve God by serving the church. In philosophy, the discussions and ideas were predominantly metaphysical, concerned with issues such as the ideal society and Truth and God.
Descartes was a devout Catholic, but was interested in science, mathematics, and philosophy since his early years. In his time, the distinction between science and philosophy was not clear. His interests in these disciplines made this confusion intolerable for him. This led him to observe and experiment for himself. In his studies, he soon discovered that many of the writings and ideas of his predecessors had many errors. Thus, he came to a radical conclusion; let’s throw out everything we know about everything and start anew, and with this fresh beginning, let’s build a system/method of knowledge based on ideas whose truths can be clearly and distinctly known. Let’s do this by studying the process of thinking. This conclusion alone was revolutionary because he shifted the authoritative guarantor of truth from God to Man. The traditional concept of “Truth” implied external authority, while Descartes’ “certainty”, relies on the judgment of the individual man. This was the beginning of a new age for man, in which man makes his own laws and reality, instead of being a servant to God. This is why he is called “The Father of Modern Philosophy”.
So Descartes set out to come out with a method. He believed that reason was the primary source of all knowledge, superior to sense knowledge, thus giving the rise to rationalism. Rationalists argue that only reason can distinguish reality from illusion and give meaning to experience. Descartes gives the example of the “Wax Argument” to demonstrate the limitations of the senses. In his argument, he tells us that his senses give him the characteristics of the piece of wax, such as the shape and texture of it. But when he brings the piece of wax near a flame, the characteristics of it completely change; his senses tell him that it is something else. In order to know that it is still the same piece of wax, he has to put aside his senses and use reason to properly grasp the nature of the wax. He is quoted as saying, “And so something which I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind”.
In this way, he proceeds to create a system of knowledge, in which perceptions are unreliable and instead must use deduction as a method to create a foundation for knowledge. He believed that a mathematically precise method was the only reliable way to discover the truth about the universe. This is where he designed what is famously known as “methodic doubt”. We can think of this as a process of elimination. This is the strategy where in contrast to certainty, you deliberately doubt everything it is possible to doubt in the least degree so that what remains will be known with absolute certainty. In other words, when doubt decreases, certainty increases.
Now, before I get ahead of myself, I mustn’t forget an essential part of Descartes’ research. So far, one might argue, if Descartes thinks his perceptions are unreliable, how do we know that he knows his thoughts aren’t? Has he considered the idea that he may not even exist completely? This is where I introduce arguably what he’s most known for, his quote, “Cogito Ergo Sum” aka “I think, therefore I am”. This argument entails that the fact of himself being skeptical of himself, requires a being to be skeptical, therefore he exists. Essentially, he thinks, therefore he exists.
He considered the possibility of his perceptions and existence of being part of a dream, a deception by an all-powerful entity which he called “The Evil Genius”. With his argument of “I think, therefore I am”, he, at the very least proved a person’s self-awareness. But he discounts the idea of an “Evil Genius” by arguing that only a being such as God would have created the reasoning mind to seek and know the truth. In addition, he believed that if he could rationally verify the existence of God, not only would he disprove the possibility of an “Evil Genius”, but he would also be able to bridge the gap between religion and science and between the imagination and reality. He established the existence of God by saying that the only way an imperfect and finite creature as himself could get the idea of an infinite and perfect being is by one source only: God. Not only is God a perfect being, but the idea of God is also a “perfect idea” and the only way to get the idea of perfection if only from a mind more perfect than ours. This is Descartes’ ontological argument.
In the end, Descartes reconstructs his argument about perceptions. Now that he proved the existence of God, he was able to reason that not only are his ideas of mind sound, but his ideas of body are as well. He has a clear and distinct idea of both mind and body, but because they are neither innate nor known to be true with deductive certainty, the only way they could have originated was if there was a God. And because God is not a deceiver, he knows his ideas of mind and body to be clear and distinct. Therefore, he can rely on his perceptions.
In conclusion, I undeniably recognize his genius, even though we might take a lot of his ideas for granted in this day and age. I completely agree with the fact that we should be “thinkers” and not “memorizers”, and to do that, you should have a systematic, structured, and methodical way of analyzing information to achieve the truth, whatever that may be. Similar to him, I find misinformation to be annoying, even irritating sometimes. We can take the media as an example. I think that most of us know that a lot of media is based on sensationalism (aka yellow journalism) and inaccurately portray interviews and events. Not to flatter myself, but I was once interviewed and was inaccurately portrayed. But it is possible to find the truth, or at least almost close to it, by similarly using the same method as methodical doubt. Maybe not in the same sense as the mind and body as Descartes did, but we can use the same method with this example and almost anything else. I believe this is important because by doing this, you can rule out and eliminate what isn’t true and with what is remaining, what you know for certain, can make informed decisions. This can influence anything from as small as browsing reviews for products to something as being as choosing a candidate in an election.
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