After taking a two year break, I’m back to studying philosophy! Which this one is very personal to me, because Descartes has been my all-time favorite philosopher, and I’ve been waiting years to write this.
Why I study Philosophy.
I had this idea a while back that I think it would be very useful to go back and deeply study a handful of philosophers. I had taken a philosophy course in college and absolutely loved it. But I soon realized that I only had a recall understanding of these philosophers and not an active understanding of them. If someone were to ask me “What were Plato’s ideas?” “What was The Republic about?”, I realized I couldn’t actually answer those questions. That was when I had the idea of going back and studying the philosophers, but study until I actually understood their ideas. I wanted to build an arsenal of different lenses of how to look at reality.
I wanted this arsenal, because I’ve come to realize how circular logic plagues much of our guiding principles and beliefs. We make decisions that make sense in our head, but we haven’t put the work into the principle that is guiding that decision. Rather, our decisions are based on our selfish desires or a passed down rule that we’ve never properly educated ourselves on the parameters of such a principle. This lack of observation makes us prone to serious error, and even with good intentions to cause great harm to others. I wanted to be able to help others, and minimize the intentional and unintentional harm I cause others.
This background is actually relevant for this post, as I was inadvertently applying a Cartesian rationale here, which I’ll explain more later.
This post is broken up into three categories:
- Short Summaries
- Expanded Thoughts
a short summary section that presents the short answers that are basically the Sparknotes version of the post. Then the main post that breaks down the concepts in a more guided educational narrative to better understand the concepts. Then finally an application section to show how these principles can be used in everyday life.
Who was Rene Descartes?
Rene Descartes was a French philosopher and mathematician, who lived from 1596 to 1650. He is regarded as the philosopher who ushered western thought from ancient philosophy to the modern era of philosophy through his works in Meditations on First Philosophy and Discourse on the Method. His most famous phrase is: “Cogito ergo sum.” Which means: I think, therefore I am.
What is Cogito Ergo Sum?
“I think, therefore I am.” it’s a statement he made in his book “Meditations on First Philosophy.” In this book, he was trying to find true knowledge that was purely self-evident and not subject to belief. He wiped the slate clean of all reality, due to the possibility that he might be living in something like The Matrix, where nothing he observes is actually real; there might be some evil being that is deceiving him or maybe it’s all one huge dream. But then he realized no matter what, in order to be deceived, he must exist in some capacity. He doesn’t know if he really has a body or anything else, but he must exist as some form of thinking thing since he does have thoughts, and thoughts can’t exist without there being a thinker.
What Were His Mathematical Contributions?
His most famous invention is what is now called the Cartesian Coordinates. He discovered that you could link geometry to algebra through a visualized two dimensional plane (can be three dimensional as well). This is what all graphing calculators are based on. He also was the first to use exponential notations in form of powers on numbers and variables, such as 10^3 being a substitute for 10 x 10 x 10.
What is Mind-Body Dualism?
In Descartes’s meditations, he concluded that he was a thinking thing, and this was distinctly different than the physical body he observed in the mirror. The “he” that was reflecting on his own thoughts must not be a physical thing, and is separate from the physical body. If his mind is not physical, then maybe the mind is just another word for soul, in that the mind and soul are the same thing.
Rene Descartes was born in 1596 in Haye en Touraine, France, which has now been renamed after him as the city of Descartes. His mother died soon after he was born, and his father was a lawyer that was part of the French Parlement of Brittany. He received a high quality education, but became disgruntled with his level of knowledge after graduating, since he felt like he was left with more questions than answers. In somewhat a Socratic mindset, he became acutely aware of his lack of knowledge, primarily in identifying how guiding principles that were handed down to him were still prone to error.
He then concluded that if he was going to gain the level of knowledge he desired, he wasn’t going to find it in a classroom, in a passive form where a collective group of individuals give him incomplete sets of principles. Rather, he was going to take an active role in learning and let his interaction with the world be his classroom. So he joined the army as a volunteer engineer as his ticket to travel across Europe.
On November 10th, 1619, Descartes (now 23 years old) was stationed in Bavaria when he had a series of dreams that changed his life. (Note, this was recorded in a book that Descartes wrote, called Les Olympiques, but no copies have survived. This story is survived by the biographer Adrien Baillet who wrote a biography of Descartes in 1691).
He dreamt that he was walking down a street when he is confronted by ghosts that frighten him. He turns to run away, but he for some unknown reason his right leg is hurting and walks with a limp. He’s embarrassed that he walks with a limp and tries to play it off. He then sees a college church and thinks that he might find a remedy there, all the while the ghosts are gone but there’s now a heavy wind that is blowing against him. He is later greeted by a friend, who asks him if he could carry a melon from a foreign country to another person. The wind dies down and everyone is walking normally while he still walks with a limp.
This dream is very brief, in that when he doses off again, he hears an explosive sound that he perceives as thunder and lightning that jolts him back awake.
He’s seated at a table with two books in front of him, the first is a dictionary, and the other is a poetry anthology. He starts reading the poetry when he comes across the verse “Which path in life will I choose?” Suddenly a man appears and present him with another poem that has the verse “What is and is not.” Descartes recognizes that verse and says he just saw that somewhere in the poetry book. But when he can’t find it he then opens the dictionary, which he discovers there are pages missing.
Descartes took these series of dreams as divine intervention, and quickly set out to discover what they mean.
The first dream is vivid, but not deep. Mostly Descartes concludes the wind was just an evil genie, which is why God didn’t allow him to be blown away when he set out for the church. If I was to play armchair psychologist, I see the limp as is lack of knowledge, and how he tries to overcompensate it against the pressures of reality. He is self-conscious of it and tries to play it off, and observes that no one else seems to be struggling.
The second dream Descartes took to be almost a literal struck by God, and the Spirit of Truth was now within him.
The most significant dream to Descartes was the third, in that the two verses carry a lot of meaning to him. The first verse he read, “Which path in life will I choose?” is quite self-explanatory, he sees this as that he’s in a critical moment in his life that is going to shape the trajectory of his future. This path that he must choose is then presented to him in the second verse, “What is and is not.” It is his role to discover what is true, and what is not. He must seek true knowledge.
Discourse on Method
18 years after he found his calling in life, he wrote his most famous book “Discourse on Method.” It preceded three other publishings that year, and the Discourse was meant to be more of a preface to explain his rationale for the concepts he wrote in the other books. But his unique perspective of approaching metaphysical questions were so revolutionary that became the primary read of Descartes’. It was a book that was partially autobiographical, that helped set the stage for his approach to tackling difficult questions.
What Descartes had concluded was that he was onto something with the frustrations of his youth. His strength in math oriented his perspective of knowledge that it should be concrete and unmoving. But when he observed all the “knowledge” that people had, most of it was just regurgitated belief narratives. This led him to the standard that knowledge must be self-evident. This isn’t exactly like Socrates’ standard that you must be able to explain what something is in all cases in order to have knowledge of that particular thing, but what Descartes is saying is that you should be able to derive the answer through your own experience, and likewise, so should anyone else. Or in other words, if you have knowledge of something, others should be able to arrive at the same answer after following verifiable steps, which don’t have to exactly be the same as your own.
For instance, if I were to say “a watermelon is heavier than an apple” I could arrive that answer by using a scale that shows how many ounces each weighs, with observable numbers being the data used as a reference. But someone could also come up with that answer by a different set of principles, such as by using a balancing scale and put each object on either side of the scale to see which one dips and which one rises. That person may not tell you how many ounces each object is, but used a different method to the same observable answer.
He then designed four rules for the method of acquiring knowledge that is commonly known as the “Cartesian Skepticism.”
- Never accept anything as true if you don’t have evident knowledge of it. That is, you need to rid yourself of ANY preconceptions, and only accept things that are “clear and distinct” that you have no doubt to be accurate.
- Break down problems into smaller, divisible parts, and tackle each part incrementally. Like in math, when you use the FOIL method of multiplying binomials.
- Similarly, once you’ve broken the problem up, work your way up from easiest to most difficult. Build a foundation of small solid facts that help aid you in tackling the more complicated elements.
- Review to make sure of no logical errors. Or as in working with math problems: check your work.
The Clear and Distinct Dilemma:
That seems like a pretty straightforward and obvious concept, but let’s go back to the weighing issue. How do we know that a watermelon is heavier? In the first example, it was by a scale saying it had more ounces of weight, but how do we know that scale is correct? Can something else be the cause for a scale producing a higher number? What is weight anyways?
We soon realize that the simple answer of the scale is built upon numerous beliefs that we’re taking for granted, and don’t actually know if he watermelon is heavier. But not only that, if we continue down that path, we ultimately fall to the pit of realization that we don’t even know what is reality.
Down The Rabbit Hole
This is exactly the issue that Descartes ran into in developing this system. He demonstrates his method of skepticism more thoroughly in his later book called “Meditations on First Philosophy.” While the Discourse on Method is most famous, it is the Meditations that is the most powerful book, as it walks the reader through the application of his philosophical journey.
The Meditations is written as a six-day journey in isolation as he walks through his method of skepticism to arrive at verifiable truths, which takes place over a series of six meditations.
In the first meditation, he starts the exercise of dismantling all of us beliefs, so he can start working on the small foundational pieces to build up his knowledge. He first starts observing his present state, that he’s sitting in a chair as he observes men with hats walking by his window outside. But then he starts wondering, how do I know that is what I’m seeing? How do I know what he sees outside are actually men under those hats? Could they actually be robots instead? How would he know? In fact, how does he know he’s actually sitting in the room right now? He can see his reflection in the window, but has his physical senses ever betrayed him? When he thinks about it, he recalls that when he puts a stick into the water, the part that is submerged appears to be bent, when it appeared to not be prior to being in the water. So how can he trust his physical senses?
The more he thinks about it, he wonders if he can trust that he’s actually even awake, since he’s certainly had a dream before where he thought it was real, so how does he know he’s not dreaming right now? Maybe his whole life is a dream, how would he know? What if this was just some crazy inception experience where he’s been living in a dream world for years, but in reality what his whole conscious life experience has just been part of a dream.
But that’s not all, he starts contemplating further that if he can’t trust his senses, and he can’t trust that he’s awake, so how does he even know he even has a body. Perhaps he’s living in The Matrix, and everything he “sees” is just an illusion that some great manipulator is orchestrating. What if this manipulator has created this whole fake reality and Descartes doesn’t even exist at all?
Cogito Ergo Sum
Descartes has now hit the bottom of his line of questioning. He can’t prove that people outside are really people; he can’t trust that he’s awake; he can’t trust his senses, and he can’t trust that he even exists. There is nothing and he is nothing.
In the second Meditation, he continues to think about the possibility that he doesn’t exist. How would this manipulator deceive this nothingness to believe it had a physical body, with senses and perceive of other physical beings also in existence? Something doesn’t add up. In the Matrix, Neo was living in a dream world, but the reality was that he was still a being that existed. It was only his mind that was being deceived.
Descartes then arrives at the contradiction, that nothing can’t be deceived it is something. I can’t create a vacuum in space, and convince that empty space that it is something. In order to be deceived, he has to exist in some capacity. That is when he makes the concluding statement: “Cogito ergo sum” which means, “I think, therefore I am.” The fact that he has thoughts validates his existence, because there can’t be thoughts without a thinker.
It’s a logical technique of working backwards to a definition. Like the definition of a “Community”: a unified body of individuals. You can have individuals, but it’s a community until there is some kind of connection between them. Likewise, you can’t have a community unless you have individuals to be unified. I cannot say I have a community of anti-Mr. Pibb advocates, with the premise that Mr. Pibb is a perversion of the heavenly Dr. Pepper if I am the only one. There may be other rational people that would agree with me, but also it would not be a community until these individuals connect with me in some capacity on this cause.
The Archimedean Point
Descartes has finally done it. He has finally found something that he can know for certain without a doubt. He now knows that he exists, and that he’s a thinking thing. He has yet to prove anything else, but this is a pillar that he can start to build around.
This is what Descartes calls his Archimedean Point. Archimedes was the one who famously claimed that he could lift the whole earth if he had a long enough lever. With this one certainty that he has about reality, it is the lever that’s going to help him lift his entire world.
By finding this one certainty, it’s like playing Wheel of Fortune and getting the first noun identified. He can now use that one fact to shape the next steps moving forward. He started with the simplest fact he could identify, and now he can start incrementally answering more complex questions, just as his rules 2 and 3 state.
The Existence of God.
Descartes needs to put the next foundational pillar into his perception of reality. He knows he exists, but now he needs to find the causal source of his existence.
He first wonders how can he imagine a being that is omnipotent, when he himself is not that. Is it possible for him to simply imagine it when nothing of the sort exists? He then realizes that ideas can’t just simply come from nothing, but have to be based in some sort of reality. Imagination can reassemble things that are real to create something that only exists in the mind, like a Griffin. A Griffin is a mythological creature that has the head and wings of an eagle, and the body of a lion. We can perceive that in our minds because each of those components exists in reality, and we just assembled them together in our minds.
But something else is happening here with this rationale, in that if something can’t come from nothing, and if he has thoughts about something, it has to exist in some form. There’s a causal relationship to thoughts. If we can perceive an effect, then there must be a cause that is real, based on the same logic that something can’t come from nothing. If he exists, then there has to be a cause to his existence. He has an idea of God, a being that is all-capable, which the idea of perfection has to come from something that is real, since he can’t just make up the concept of perfection. Thus there must be something that is perfect in existence.
Let’s break this down into simple steps:
- He starts off by saying that he has the idea of an infinitely perfect being.
- There has to be a cause to the effect of his existence and to his thought.
- This true because something can’t come from nothing.
- He then reflects on that he is not perfect, thus he cannot be the cause of the idea of perfection.
- There must be something that exists outside of him that is the cause of his idea of perfection.
- Therefore God must exist.
The Existence of Material Things
Once Descartes has clear and distinct facts that there is existence beyond him as a thinking thing, he continues to work piece-by-piece to arriving at the acceptance that there are physical things.
He thinks about the concept of a triangle, and the geometrical properties it possesses. How can there be a principle that an object with three points can not only be perceived, but could perceived accurately with incomplete data? The principle that the sum of the three angles equals 180 degrees also allows one to perceive the angle of a third angle by having the angles of only two.
How can he perceive such a principle? He then thinks about what if he did not exist, could the concept of a triangle still exist? He again uses the logic that he does not have the capacity to will that into reality, which must mean that it must exist outside of him.
He realizes that this form of information is not imagination, but discovery. He can discover a triangle from observation or from calculation, but he is not creating the triangle.
To give an example, let’s go back to the Griffin, it has the head of an eagle, but the body of a lion. Imagine if you were to encounter one, would you think you would be its prey because it has the body of a lion, or would its hunting practice be more focused on fish due to having the head of an eagle? You’re going to have to create an answer, because Griffins don’t exist in reality, but only in our minds. The answer we come up with is not ultimately based on an external reality such as biology.
We create the answer of hunting practices of Griffins, but we aren’t creating the answer of a triangle. Therefore the existence of triangles is based on something beyond him, and if it has the capacity of existing in material form then other objects can exist materially as well. Which then allows him to accept that it is perfectly possible that he is actually in a room, sitting in a chair, and looking out a window with people walking by. These all can exist in reality, and he is sure of that.
One of the other aspects that Descartes is famous for is that through these meditations, he ends up making the distinction between him as a thinking thing, and the external world around him.
He knows that he exists, and that God exists, but what does it mean to be a thinking thing, and is that different than being a physical thing? What he comes up with is another set of logical progressions that can be seen like this:
- God exists and is omnipotent.
- God has the capacity to create material things and immaterial things.
- I know I exist at least as a thinking thing, which can exist without a material essence.
- But I also know I exist materially as well.
- Since God has the capacity of making the two aspects of me, I must exist both as an immaterial thing AND as a material thing.
Descartes then concludes that this immaterial essence must be what is considered the soul, and how the soul can occupy the body. The body is bound to the material existence, while the soul is bound to the immaterial existence.
The Reason To Prove God
Much of what Descartes is doing is to build a solid foundation for understanding, but a lot of it centers on God. This is partially due to the logical progression of finding an external source to validate the existence of things beyond himself, but it was also a diplomatic strategy as well.
To give a bit of historical context, while Descartes was working on concepts that emphasize the use of logic over belief, Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church and was ultimately sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. This was due to his published evidence that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than being the center of the universe. Galileo tried to argue that his findings didn’t invalidate the Bible, since not everything in scripture is meant to be taken literally.
Descartes realized that since the very premise of his method was to completely circumvent belief, he could be accused of heresy for advocating against the concept of faith. In order to publish his work and not to be arrested, he had to find a way to make his logical arguments in some way validate Christian belief, while still developing his method of arriving at clear and distinct facts. Descartes chose a route of intertwining his method with belief, and made it explicit that we can have a clear and distinct understanding of God’s existence. We operate on the basis of factual understanding, and we use faith to fill in the gaps.
Applying Descartes’ Philosophy
In the intro, I talked about my motivation for studying philosophy, and that the basis of it was inadvertently rooted in a Cartesian philosophy. You may have already picked up what that is, but let’s go back and look at my rationale. I became concerned with circular logic; that we create certainty from things that are based on itself with no external validation. We see that especially now in America, where there are two primary ideological camps, and they have their own built-in input filter. If news comes out involving the use of a gun, or a racial minority, both sides will filter all inputs through their filter with no deeper reflection. Each side will be sure of their stance on the issue, and can even cite info to support their claim, but it becomes purely a circular logical loop.
We’re all certain that we’re the ones with the facts, and it’s the other side that is being illogical, but we’re trapped in our own framework of thinking. Going back to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we’re all chained up against the wall and have mastered the patterns on the wall. Everyone else on the wall can agree with what we see and further emboldens our belief, but what can’t even perceive is that we’re all just chained up. So in a way, I was running into the same issue as Descartes, in that we’re operating on faulty frameworks for understanding reality and seek to find methods to establish firm foundations.
How then do we apply Descartes’ philosophy? I think the main take away with Descartes is seek deeper foundation by applying Descartes methodological scepticism format:
- Accept only things that are “clear and distinct” that you have no doubt to be accurate even after deeper inquiry.
- Break down problems into smaller, divisible parts, and tackle each part incrementally.
- Once you’ve broken the problem up, work your way up from easiest to most difficult. Build a foundation of small solid facts that help aid you in tackling the more complicated elements.
- Review to make sure of no logical errors. Or as in working with math problems: check your work.
But I think ultimately, what Descartes was about is not to assume you are in the right. Beliefs are misleading and when you’re in the middle of it, it can all make sense, but without the right tools in place, your faulty foundation leaves you prone to make thoughtful decisions that ultimately go against what your intention was.
We can look at the high incarceration rate, and make a quick conclusion that the issue is that kids don’t know how bad prison is. We build that as our foundation and say if only kids know how bad prison is, they won’t do bad things that will cause them to end up in prison. We then create a program called “Scared Straight” where at-risk youth get to visit a prison and observe how bad it is. What we didn’t realize is that ignorance wasn’t the cause of crime, and all we did was inform the kids that prison is not an option for them. When they are to commit a crime now, they are more likely going to engage in more extreme measures of resisting arrest because they don’t want to go to prison, which results in more harmful ends.
Cartesian Skepticism can be used to question the belief that ignorance is the cause of crime. We can then take a step back, evaluate the issue, break it down into pieces and incrementally work towards a solution. We don’t necessarily need to go all the way back to questioning existence, but we can go back to why are these kids at-risk? What are they seeking that causes them to violate established laws? We can then work from there, piece by piece to address these issues.
To be a Cartesian Skeptic, it is your responsibility to question your stance when it comes to interpersonal conflict. When there is an issue, you shouldn’t find the first hole in the other’s argument, but to reflect on why it is that you believe you are right. As you step back, you need to look at the macro issue and build up the issue incrementally, which will also cause you to reflect on why the other believes what they believe. The more you seek to understand, the more empathy you produce, which will help you to resolve the issue better as you can be more certain of the foundation each of you are basing your arguments on, and also that you have a better understanding of where the other is coming from and what they seek. Which you’ll realize that many of the issues between each other are never based on the issue at hand, but are rooted in some other deeper issue that you’ll only discover when you step back and evaluate the foundation.