1 Descartes writes, I will devote myself sincerely and without reservation to the general demolition of my opinions (Descartes 1996, p.12). Why would anyone want to do such a thing? Would it be reasonable to do so? by Gerhard Schuhmacher In the First Meditation of his work Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes ( ) writes I will devote myself sincerely and without reservation to the general demolition of my opinions (Descartes 1996, p.12). Questions arise as to why anyone would want to do such a thing and whether it would be reasonable to do so. This essay will attempt to answer these questions by firstly looking at the external context of Descartes work, the reason why he believes it is necessary to embark on his project of attempting to provide the sciences with a new indubitable foundation, the reasons why anyone else may want to follow in Descartes footsteps, the rationale of his methodology for conducting the inquiry and then discuss the issues which arise from it as well as whether it would be reasonable for anyone else to adopt it. It will further examine whether Descartes achieves the aim of his project by having a brief look at, and discussion of, his proofs of the existence of God to determine whether it is reasonable for him to utilise this methodology. This will lead to the thesis that although Descartes may not have been, strictly speaking, successful in achieving his aim of setting the sciences on a firm footing, he set the sciences on a different footing in that true knowledge can now be acquired by reason rather than from the senses which not only enables him to get on with science but the emerging modern societies in general. Metaphysics or first philosophy (as it was originally called by Aristotle) refers to enquiries into the nature of reality, the world and God (Grigg 1989, p.15). The French philosopher, René Descartes ( ), writes in the First Meditation of his epistomological work Meditations on First Philosophy I will devote myself sincerely and without reservation to the general demolition of my opinions (Descartes 1996, p.12). Questions arise as to why Descartes, or for that matter anyone, would want to engage in such activity and whether or not it would be reasonable to do so. The origins of Descartes motives can be found in the external context of his work, namely his personal experience that some of the common sense beliefs, which he held since childhood, have proven to be incorrect (Descartes 1996); his desire to resolve the perceived crisis in the sciences by setting science upon a secure and lasting foundation (Grigg 1989, p.70) and his reaction to scholasticism, the dominant philosophical framework of his time. Descartes (1996) objects to the common sense view which has at its core the naïve principle, namely that whatever... [one has] up till now accepted as most true... [one has] acquired either from the senses or through the senses (p.12). In Descartes experience, the senses are not always reliable in that they are quite passive and [only] report... appearances (Gassendi 1984, p.230). For instance, a square tower may be perceived to be round from a distance (Gassendi 1984) with the resultant error or falsity... [being] in the judgement of the mind (Gassendi 1984, p.230). In fact, Descartes (1996) provides a number of reasons why there is not one of... [his] former beliefs about which... doubt may not properly be raised (pp.14 5), namely that... they have sometimes deceived him and we should not trust things we have been deceived by... [;]... he may be mad and merely imagining what he thinks he sees and believes... [;]... he may be dreaming... [;]... there may exist a God who causes him to experience a world that does not exist and to have beliefs that are not true (Grigg 1989, p.21). Because Descartes also notices that there is a constant temptation for him to accept common sense beliefs, which are likely to be true but as yet have not been proven to be true (Grigg 1989), despite consciously trying to withhold assent from such beliefs (Descartes 1996), he concludes that something, which he calls a
2 malicious demon, may be continuously trying to deceive him. The perceived unreliability of the senses and the knowledge acquired from or through the senses (Descartes 1996) poses a problem for the sciences. Science was to make the world and its truths intelligible... [in that] from universal first principles concerning essence and cause and the true being of things one was to deduce the effects and their reasons, making intelligible the variety of general phenomena present to us. The first principles were to get at the very core of truth (Hacking 1980, p.176). With the sciences previously having accepted evidence from the senses (Grigg 1989, p.21) as a basis for inducing first principles and the senses now being judged to be unreliable, the core evaporates, turns into a mere sham, a cryptogram of falsehoods (Hacking 1980, p.176) and there is a need to establish a new indubitable foundation for the sciences. Descartes project is also a reaction to scholasticism, the dominant philosophical framework of the early seventeenth century, which essentially [had developed since the thirteenth century] from a fusion of the philosophy of Aristotle... and the doctrines of the Christian church... [in that there] was the need to reconcile the claims of faith and reason (Cottingham 1986, p.5). Scholasticism was characterised by powerful techniques of argumentation and analysis (Cottingham 1986, p.5) which was cited by Descartes as not getting at the truth in that by the early seventeenth century, proponents of scholasticism can be seen to be more concerned with scoring points in debates and being in tune with the opinions of authorities rather than trying to get to the truth (Cottingham 1986). Because the senses are not always reliable and the methods hereto used to establish the first principles appear now in hindsight to be deficient in that they have relied on sensory information, this casts doubt on all hereto held beliefs and reduces truths to mere opinions and Descartes proposes that it is therefore necessary to begin again at the foundations (Grigg 1989, p.21). In order to get to the truth and provide certainty in science, Descartes believes that it is necessary for him, at the outset, to engage in what has been described as radical scepticism (Grigg 1989) with the aim to present the strongest possible case for its proponents in order to put any theory that may follow and contradict scepticism beyond doubt and argument. Scepticism, dating back to the Sophists of Ancient Greece (Guthrie 1987) held that we can never really be certain about anything (Charlesworth 1989, p.8) and that it is therefore doubtful whether absolute knowledge is attainable (Guthrie 1987). Varieties of... scepticism were still fashionable when Descartes wrote the Meditations (Popkin 1964 cited in Cottingham 1986, p.34). However, Frankfurt (1987) asserts that it is not valid to call Descartes methodology an exercise in scepticism in that the general suspension of assent is a normal and appropriate initial step in any inquiry that purports to be systematically rational (p.17). In support of this claim, Frankfurt (1987) compares Descartes methodology to that of a mathematician who, although he is not doubting that 2+2=4, does not include this equation in a system of arithmetic he is trying to develop until it is proven. Descartes himself is not a sceptic in that the general demolition of... [his own] opinions (Descartes 1996, p.12) is merely a means for him to establish the truth and for setting science upon a secure and lasting foundation (Grigg 1989, p.70). In fact, Descartes interest in metaphysics ceases and his work as a scientist begins once he believes that he has achieved his aim (Grigg 1989). While from Descartes perspective, his course of action appears warranted, the question arises why anyone else would want to reject, or at least suspend, their former beliefs. A general suspension of one s beliefs, as a necessary initial step in any sound inquiry (Frankfurt 1987), appears not to be the only valid reason why anyone would want to engage in such activity. The uncertainty in the sciences of the early seventeenth century can be seen to be a result of its own success in that many new ideas evolve which are outside the existent philosophical frameworks of the time (Gaarder 1994). Amongst these developments is a shift... [in the]... notion of the self (Taylor 1975, p.6). While in the pre modern (including the medieval) world view, humans are not fully adult (Taylor 1975, p.5) in the sense that meaning is contained in a cosmic order and there is a need for humans to attune themselves to this cosmic order (Taylor 1975), linked with the emerging modern mechanistic world view and the sciences which give rise to it is the notion of an emancipated self which is self defining and bestowing meaning upon a now disenchanted and essentially meaningless material world. As humans are now able to work freely upon nature (Taylor 1975), theories of knowledge are needed to account for the existent as well as these new ideas (Gaarder 1994). Adopting a similar methodology to that of Descartes may once again be thought necessary if there is a perceived uncertainty regarding the foundation of science. Some philosophers claim that we are now on the verge of the post modern world view (Hobson 1995). Julia Hobson s view of the self (1995), which she claims is in keeping with the post modern view, is fragmented as opposed to whole. It is similar to an actor taking on different roles depending on the social role the individual finds him/herself in at a particular time and place.
3 Central to her views is the notion that knowledge is attached and inseparable from the individual (Hobson 1995) and that knowledge has to be viewed in the context of the individual s world view as well as the individual s cultural and social self. Should the claim that we are on the verge of a new world view be true, it nevertheless remains unclear whether this will result in a perceived uncertainty regarding the foundations of science. Given the above, an examination of Descartes methodology appears not only warranted from the perspective of an historian of ideas and those interested in methods conducive to systematic inquiry but is also topical as we appear to approach the end of the dominance of the modern mechanistic world view and the question arises whether or not it is reasonable to engage in a general demolition of... [one s] opinions (Descartes 1996, p.12) in order to produce a new philosophical framework. Descartes (1996) provides the famous basket of apples analogy in support of his claim that it is necessary to withhold assent from his previous beliefs until they are proven to be true. Descartes (1996) asserts that in order to separate the sound apples in a basket from rotten apples, one has to first empty the basket completely and then inspect each of the apples carefully, and only put those back into the basket which are sound. Similarly, when one suspects that some of one s beliefs may be false, a sound methodology, according to Descartes, is to firstly reject all... [one s] beliefs together in one go, as if they were all uncertain and false... [and] then go over each belief in turn and re adopt only those which... [are recognised] to be true and indubitable (Descartes 1996, p.63). However, Grigg (1989) points out there are at least two potential problems with Descartes position. One is that in accepting only those beliefs where there is no possible room for doubt (Grigg 1989, p.22), the case in favour of the sceptics may become so overwhelming that it leaves no room for any theory of knowledge (Grigg 1989). The other is that by subjecting all one s opinions to critical scrutiny (Grigg 1989, p.22) it may become impossible to judge whether a claim is true or false because in order to judge something to be true or false, one must hold that some things are true (Grigg 1989). While the rationale of Descartes method appears to be sound at first glance, an immediate practical difficulty arises in that Descartes, contrary to his claims, cannot even temporarily dismiss all of his beliefs in order to carry out his metaphysical enquiry because doing so would make such an inquiry impossible. In particular, he cannot dismiss his belief that he is not a madman. In his First Meditation, Descartes dismisses the idea of being a madman out of hand by saying that it would not be reasonable for him to entertain it (Frankfurt 1987, p.37). To entertain such a thought would jeopardise his whole project in that nothing coming from somebody who is mad can be certain as s/he is unable to distinguish properly between reasonable and unreasonable judgements (Frankfurt 1987, p.37) and therefore Descartes could not reasonably expect to resolve his doubts (or anything else) in the course of his inquiry (Frankfurt 1987, p.38). In Descartes defence, Frankfurt (1987) asserts that Descartes makes a provisional assumption that he is not a madman which, if his enquiry is successful, will be proven to be right or, if unsuccessful, will lead Descartes to entertain the thought that he may, in fact, be a madman. However, Frankfurt s explanation (1987) appears not to be entirely convincing in that it appears to contradict Descartes s basket of apples analogy whereas Descartes (1996) clearly talks about emptying the whole basket. Presumably, Descartes believes it is self evident that he is not a madman in that he distinguishes himself in many characteristics from a madman with the most essential being that he can distinguish properly between reasonable and unreasonable judgements (Frankfurt 1987, p.37). Further, Descartes has no evidence from fellow contemporaries that they consider him to be a madman in that, although he is largely living as a hermit, contemporaries including royals such as Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia and Queen Christina of Sweden (Cottingham 1986), are keen to engage in philosophical discussion with him. As we have seen, Descartes considers his methodology the most appropriate to achieve his aim of establishing a secure and lasting foundation (Grigg 1989, p.70) for science. If we accept the argument that the general suspension of one s beliefs is a necessary initial step in any systematic inquiry (Frankfurt 1987) then whether or not it would be reasonable to engage in such activity would solely depend on the rationale of the methodology and would be independent from the purposes and consequences of an inquiry. However, using Descartes project as a paradigm, an examination of the rationale of the methodology itself for the purpose of establishing whether it would be reasonable for Descartes to engage in a rejection of his former beliefs (Descartes 1996) remains insufficient without also examining whether Descartes, utilising his methodology is successful in establishing a foundation for science which is beyond any doubt. In Cartesian terms the whole becomes unreliable if doubt can be cast on any of its parts in that once the foundations of a building are undermined, anything built on them collapses of its own accord (Descartes 1996, p.17). Therefore, turning Cartesianism against itself, a failure of Descartes project would be indicated if doubt can be cast on any part of the Cartesian system. Descartes provides two proofs for the existence of God
4 which appear to be the most crucial parts of his project because, firstly, eternal truth comprising the truths of arithmetic, algebra and geometry... usually [also extending] to the laws of astronomy, mechanics and optics... depend upon the will of God (Hacking 1980, p.172 3). According to Descartes, God could have, for instance, willed a square to have more or fewer than four sides... [and thus] eternal truths are... contingently necessary (Hacking 1980, p.173). Secondly, God guarantees the general rule that whatever... [is perceived] very clearly and distinctly [by reason] is true (Descartes 1996, p.24) upon which the whole Cartesian system rests. In particular, the clear and distinct perception [by Descartes] that he is a thinking thing (Grigg 1989 p.42) in the first instance provides Descartes with certainty of being a thinking thing; having a clear and distinct idea of God enables him to establish that God exists; it allows him to reinstate most of the beliefs he held prior to his inquiry in that he can, for instance, perceive clearly and distinctly the mathematical properties of things such as the length, width, height of objects in the external world (Descartes 1996); and based on perceiving the world as consisting of two distinct substances, Descartes is able to divide the world into a material world of which the human body is a part and the mental world to which the mind belongs (Cartesian dualism), and examine the connection between body and mind. Descartes is acutely aware that without knowing God exists he can never be quite certain about anything else (Descartes 1996, p.25) and he provides two proofs for the existence of God in the Meditations which have been named the trademark argument and the ontological argument. These two arguments for the existence of God, in a sense, compliment each other in that the trademark argument establishes that humans have an idea of God which cannot originate within them but must come from God and the ontological argument looks at the attributes of God which, according to Descartes, include existence thus leading to the conclusion that God exists. Before looking at each of these arguments, it is necessary to have a brief look at Descartes notion of ideas. According to Descartes, an idea or whatever is immediately perceived by the mind (Descartes 1984, p.127) is neither true nor false. Truth and falsity lies in the judgement of ideas when ideas... [in one s mind] resemble, or conform to, things located outside (Descartes 1996, p.26) one s mind. Descartes defines various classes of ideas, namely adventitious, fictitious and innate ideas. Adventitious ideas resemble... things that... [are taken] to be their cause (Grigg 1989, p.42) while fictitious ideas, such as that of a pegasus, have no basis in reality although they combine elements which do exist such as a horse and wings (Descartes 1996). According to Descartes (1996), our idea of God is innate in that it has been placed... [in us by God]... to be, as it were, the mark of the craftsman stamped on his work (Descartes 1984, p.35). Descartes argument that the idea of God is innate has been termed the trademark argument. The trademark argument consists of the premises that firstly, introspection shows that humans have an idea of God which represents him as a being who is eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, etc. (Cottingham 1986, p.50). Secondly, that there is a self evident principle that there must be at least as much <reality> in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause (Descartes 1984, p.28) whereby, for instance, whatever made a particular stone must contain everything contained in that stone (Descartes 1984). Thirdly, that this principle also applies to ideas in that whatever caused an idea must contain all the intricacy which is contained in the idea (Descartes 1984, p.198-9). Fourthly, that humans who are finite and imperfect beings (Descartes 1984) cannot be the originators of the idea of an infinite God leading to the conclusion that God, having all the perfections contained in the idea of God, must exist. Cottingham (1986) points out that the second premise of the trademark argument amounts to an heirloom principle whereby the effect of the cause appears to have inherited a characteristic from its cause. However, this principle is contradicted by examples of emerging characteristics in the effect of a cause such as the sponginess of a sponge cake which was not evident in its ingredients or the emergence of consciousness from nonconscious forces as is being advocated by evolutionary biologists (Cottingham 1986). Further criticisms aimed at the third premise of the trademark argument include that an idea is simply a subjective aspect of... thought rather than an actual object or entity requiring a cause (Cottingham 1986, p.52), thus making the search for a cause superfluous; that the idea of God may not be innate but acquired by convention, that is, passed on from generation to generation; and that we have no idea or image corresponding to the sacred name of God (Hobbes 1984, p.127). It is possible to conclude that, depending on one s point of view, one or more of these objections may appear at least as plausible as Descartes innateness of our idea of God. Descartes second argument for the existence of God is the ontological argument contained in the Fifth Meditation. The ontological argument, adopted by Descartes from St Anselm (Cottingham 1986), is very simple in structure in that it consists of the premises that God is defined as a supremely perfect being... [and]... that
5 supreme perfection implies existence... [leading to the conclusion]... that God exists (Cottingham 1986, p.59). Grigg (1989) points out that Descartes argument relies on the medieval philosophical distinction between essence and existence. For instance, the essence or property of a triangle is that its three angles add up to two right angles but the essence of the triangle only implies its possible existence (Descartes 1996). However, God, who is defined as the greatest being we can conceive (Cottingham 1986, p.60), possesses all perfections including existence and therefore the essence of God necessarily involves existence (Grigg 1989, p.54). God can also not be a deceiver because if He would deceive us, He would be less than perfect (Descartes 1996). The issue here involves whether existence can be a perfection or property of things. Gassendi (1984) maintains that existence is not a perfection in that things which do not exist are not imperfect but rather are nothing. However, Descartes (1984) maintains that existence can be a property as long as property... [stands] for any attribute, or for whatever can be predicated of a thing (p.263). While Descartes has an answer to Gassendi s objection, the same does not appear to be the case regarding Cottingham s overload argument which appears to be fatal to the ontological argument. Cottingham (1986) argues that if the ontological argument is applied to fictitious ideas which are overloaded in that, for example, a pegasus is not only be defined as a horse with wings but also as existing (superpegasus), it would lead to the conclusion that such a superpegasus must really exist. Indeed, Descartes (1984) appears not to have considered the possible atheist objection that God may be a spin off (invention) of another human invention, namely language and thus lacking any basis in reality. Although Descartes recognises God as the creator of all things that exist apart from him (Descartes 1984, p.28) and further that the fundamental axiom Ex nihilo nihil fit ( Nothing comes from nothing ) (Descartes 1984 cited in Cottingham 1986, p.49) underlies his principle that there must be at least as much <reality> in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause (Descartes 1984, p.28), Descartes does not further examine the connection between the effects in their totality and their cause which may possibly have provided a firmer basis for the conclusion that God exists. One reason why Descartes proofs of the existence of God appear to be deficient to us may also lie in our conception of what a proof is, which is very similar to that of Leibniz and unlike that of Descartes (Hacking 1980). Hacking (1980) asserts that Leibniz knew what a proof was while Descartes did not, in that for Leibniz, unlike Descartes, a proof actually constitutes the analysis of concepts which in turn determines the truth... [and] moreover... gives the reason why something is true (p.171 2). For Leibniz a proof is computable as it is a kind of mathematical demonstration in that, for instance, a symbolic logic can be applied to a finite number of sentences to establish that a particular theorem holds (Hacking 1980). However, this criticism appears somewhat harsh because many of the concepts which we use today, including that of a scientific proof, were not as well defined in Descartes time as they are today and it is Leibniz himself who significantly contributes to the concept of proof (Hacking 1980). Although Descartes may not strictly speaking have achieved his aim of providing the sciences with a secure and lasting foundation (Grigg 1989, p.70) contrary to his own belief, in that his proofs of the existence of God were (as can be seen from the objections already stated by contemporaries such as Gassendi) never beyond doubt, Descartes contribution to the modern mechanistic world view cannot be underestimated. While the sciences in the early seventeenth century had already moved to a mechanistic understanding of the world, what remained unexplained was how the mind or soul operates and its connection with the body (Gaarder 1994). Cartesian dualism provided the explanation needed. Therefore, it appears that while Descartes may not have been successful in putting the sciences on an indubitable foundation, he put the sciences on a different foundation in that true knowledge was now acquired by reason rather than the senses, which had far reaching consequences in that it not only allowed Descartes to get on with science but the emerging modern societies in general. In summary, in order to answer the questions why anyone would want to to adopt Descartes methodology of engaging in a rejection of their beliefs as an initial step in an inquiry and whether or not it would be reasonable to do so, it is necessary to look at the reasons or motives for utilising this methodology, its rationale and whether utilising it can achieve its aim. For Descartes, the external context of his work consisting of his personal experience that many of his beliefs held since childhood have been shown to be incorrect; the perceived need to get to the truth which is not assured by scholasticism which at the beginning of the seventeenth century is more concerned with scoring points in debates; and the subsequent perceived
6 uncertainty in the sciences, based on first principles induced from sensory information now appearing to be uncertain, provides the impetus for him to utilise this methodology. His basket of apples analogy, while appearing to provide a sound rationale for using this methodology, entails the practical difficulty of not being able to suspend all one s beliefs for the purposes of the inquiry. Also, Descartes appears not to be successful in providing the sciences with a new indubitable foundation in that many objections have been raised since Descartes time against his proofs of the existence of God upon which the whole Cartesian system rests. The most convincing of these objections appears to be the overload argument. While this can be seen to make the whole Cartesian system uncertain, Descartes nevertheless makes a significant contribution in that he provides science with a valuable new foundation in that true knowledge now appears attainable by reason. We may need to follow in Descartes footsteps in any inquiry if we accept the argument that the general suspension of one s beliefs is a necessary initial step in any systematic inquiry (Frankfurt 1987), in which case whether or not it would be reasonable for us to adopt Descartes methodology would appear to be independent from the purposes and consequences of the inquiry. More specifically we may want to suspend our beliefs as an initial step of an inquiry if, once again, the foundation of the sciences appears uncertain as may be the case if a post modern world view emerges. However, using Descartes project as a paradigm, whether or not it is reasonable for us to devote... [ourselves] sincerely and without reservation to the general demolition of... [our] opinions (Descartes 1996, p.12) appears also to depend on whether such an inquiry can provide a new secure foundation for science.
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