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From Meditation I by René Descartes

I’m teaching a survey course of Western Philosophy this term, and I’ve taken a new interest in Descartes. Readers of Walker Percy are familiar with his antipathy towards M. Descartes, but I confess to liking him the more I learn about him. Some of this is certainly because Descartes is an important figure – perhaps the important figure – in a fundamental shift in Western Philosophy widely known as the “Epistemological Turn” – epistemology being one of my own favorite philosophical subjects. As the name implies, the fundamental change is from a philosophical outlook that has metaphysics at its core to a philosophy in which knowledge is central (I sometimes wonder whether we haven’t been in something of a “Linguistic Turn” since Wittgenstein, not to mention Chomsky and, yes, writers such as Percy).

For those interested in reading a positive overview of Descartes and the revolution he wrought with his Method, go here.

Like that other great French thinker Pascal, Descartes was also a mathematician, which is why he prefaces the development of his method of inquiry and doubt with the plausibility of truths of arithmatic and geometry as axiomatic.

For whether I am awake or asleep, two and three together always form five, and the square can never have more than four sides, and it does not seem possible that truths so clear and apparent can be suspected of any falsity or uncertainty.

Interesting to note as well that the philosopher known for his “Method of Doubt” was a devout Catholic. More specifically, a devout Catholic educated by Jesuit, as the following passage clearly reveals:

Nevertheless I have long had fixed in my mind the belief that an all-powerful God existed by whom I have been created such as I am. But how do I know that He has not brought it to pass that there is no earth, no heaven, no extended body, no magnitude, no place, and that nevertheless [I possess the perceptions of all these things and that] they seem to me to exist just exactly as I now see them? And, besides, as I sometimes imagine that others deceive themselves in the things which they think they know best, how do I know that I am not deceived every time that I add two and three, or count the sides of a square, or judge of things yet simpler, if anything simpler can be imagined? But possibly God has not desired that I should be thus deceived, for He is said to be supremely good. If, however, it is contrary to His goodness to have made me such that I constantly deceive myself, it would also appear to be contrary to His goodness to permit me to be sometimes deceived, and nevertheless I cannot doubt that He does permit this.

Here, it seems to me, is where he really “goes Jesuit”. I picture him with one finger on his chin, his gaze turned towards the sky:

There may indeed be those who would prefer to deny the existence of a God so powerful, rather than believe that all other things are uncertain. But let us not oppose them for the present, and grant that all that is here said of a God is a fable; nevertheless in whatever way they suppose that I have arrived at the state of being that I have reached whether they attribute it to fate or to accident, or make out that it is by a continual succession of antecedents, or by some other method since to err and deceive oneself is a defect, it is clear that the greater will be the probability of my being so imperfect as to deceive myself ever, as is the Author to whom they assign my origin the less powerful. To these reasons I have certainly nothing to reply, but at the end I feel constrained to confess that there is nothing in all that I formerly believed to be true, of which I cannot in some measure doubt, and that not merely through want of thought or through levity, but for reasons which are very powerful and maturely considered; so that henceforth I ought not the less carefully to refrain from giving credence to these opinions than to that which is manifestly false, if I desire to arrive at any certainty [in the sciences].

And here is the next paragraph, which seems to me crucial to the idea of epistemology: “since I am not considering the question of action, but only of knowledge.”

But it is not sufficient to have made these remarks, we must also be careful to keep them in mind. For these ancient and commonly held opinions still revert frequently to my mind, long and familiar custom having given them the right to occupy my mind against my inclination and rendered them almost masters of my belief; nor will I ever lose the habit of deferring to them or of placing my confidence in them, so long as I consider them as they really are, i.e. opinions in some measure doubtful, as I have just shown, and at the same time highly probable, so that there is much more reason to believe in than to deny them. That is why I consider that I shall not be acting amiss, if, taking of set purpose a contrary belief, I allow myself to be deceived, and for a certain time pretend that all these opinions are entirely false and imaginary, until at last, having thus balanced my former prejudices with my latter [so that they cannot divert my opinions more to one side than to the other], my judgment will no longer be dominated by bad usage or turned away from the right knowledge of the truth. For I am assured that there can be neither peril nor error in this course, and that I cannot at present yield too much to distrust, since I am not considering the question of action, but only of knowledge.

Hopefully you’re still reading. Here at the end of Meditation I is an extraordinary paragraph, in which he puts forth the nightmarish idea of his “evil genius”. Reading this now, it’s hard for me not to see this as the ideal of such luminaries as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris – the list just keeps expanding. And yet it was written by a devout Catholic, as the epitome of the skepticism he believed to be just one component of his Method. The history of philosophy goes on, of course, but if we believe truth to be timeless – the claim of God’s existence or God’s non-existence, for example – than it seems to me that Descartes has a profound insight into something fundamental about the nature of believing and doubting, and yes, the relation of these claims to truth.

I shall then suppose, not that God who is supremely good and the fountain of truth, but some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole energies in deceiving me; I shall consider that the heavens, the earth, colours, figures, sound, and all other external things are nought but the illusions and dreams of which this genius has availed himself in order to lay traps for my credulity; I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses, yet falsely believing myself to possess all these things; I shall remain obstinately attached to this idea, and if by this means it is not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of any truth, I may at least do what is in my power [i.e. suspend my judgment], and with firm purpose avoid giving credence to any false thing, or being imposed upon by this arch deceiver, however powerful and deceptive he may be. But this task is a laborious one, and insensibly a certain lassitude leads me into the course of my ordinary life. And just as a captive who in sleep enjoys an imaginary liberty, when he begins to suspect that his liberty is but a dream, fears to awaken, and conspires with these agreeable illusions that the deception may be prolonged, so insensibly of my own accord I fall back into my former opinions, and I dread awakening from this slumber, lest the laborious wakefulness which would follow the tranquillity of this repose should have to be spent not in daylight, but in the excessive darkness of the difficulties which have just been discussed.

Comments

  1. Just couldn’t manage it. Like Ahmedinejad, I am exhausted. Hopefully later in the week and after a good night’s sleep.

  2. almostgotit says

    Philosophy always challenged me. I assume it is just the flip-side of geometry, which I liked, but the shorter problems were always the ones I liked best.

    (no one ever seems able to read my longer posts either, sigh. Don’t think about it too much — e.g. “LOL CATZ” — or you will get very depressed. Which sharpens the mind at least, apparently…)

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