The Frenchman Rene Descartes is generally considered the founder of modern Western philosophy. It’s a lofty title, but the magnitude of work he put forth in his life speaks for itself. Western European academics and philosophers at the time of his life (1596–1650) generally rushed to respond to his multitude of ideas, and that formed the backbone of the Enlightenment period of humanity.
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Classic ideas and ancient concepts broken down for the modern age. A non-academic approach to better living and greater happiness. Philosophy doesn’t have to be pointless and boring. If we can cut through the difficult language and roundabout reasoning, we’ll find a treasure trove of knowledge and enlightenment.
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What was his main contribution, for the purposes of this book, on creating a personal life philosophy? Stubborn doubt and adhering to a simple mandate of the pursuit of truth. Oh, and not believing the thinkers who came before him.
Just because something was stated to be true did not mean it was because he was unable to either observe or reason it for himself. You can now imagine why his thoughts left other philosophers rushing to respond—because he upended literal centuries of thought.
And so eventually Descartes became known for his stances on doubt and not believing dogma for dogma’s sake. He required proper examination and analysis; only from there could you be sure that you weren’t building your knowledge on a house of cards.
The following words have sometimes also been used to describe his approach to thought: doubt, skepticism, distrust, and rationalism. All he wanted to do was discover and understand.
You could see this as not trusting in others, but rather, it was his way of gaining a sense of certainty. Without certainty in what we are saying through proof or experience, nothing can be taken as truth. And truth is all Descartes ever wanted.
He suggests that it is pointless to claim that something is real or exists unless we first know how such a claim could be known as a justified true belief. But to say that our beliefs are justified, we have to be able to base them ultimately on a belief that is itself indubitable. Such a belief could then provide a firm foundation on which all subsequent beliefs are grounded and could thus be known as true. But how could we know that those beliefs are grounded and true? It seems like it could devolve into circular thinking, but those final beliefs must be based on what is provable or observable. Essentially, Descartes prompts a chain of asking “But how do you know?” until you can point to a direct experience or real evidence.
Can you think of a highly popular institution that this approach might conflict with, especially with events like the Spanish Inquisition burning people for heresy barely a century past? That’s right: religion, which tends to be based on faith and the very absence of proof, which is an intentional aspect, not a shortcoming.
Although Descartes remained a committed Catholic throughout his life, you can imagine how controversial his writings were for the time. For reference, his contemporary Galileo Galilei was famously found guilty of heresy by the Catholic Church for his views on how the earth revolved around the sun—in 1633.
Ironically, Descartes’ method of doubting was aimed at defending the Catholic faith and using reasoning and logic to confirm the truth of the religion. However, the Enlightenment marked an erosion of the Church’s authority and influence, so perhaps Descartes had the opposite effect that he intended.
This brings us to where Descartes can help inform our life philosophy. He brings together elements of critical thinking, healthy skepticism, and doubt to ensure that we are seeing reality for what it is. Descartes can help us find the truth in everyday life just by shifting our perspective to one of slight doubt. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t be trusting, but simply reserving judgment at first is a powerful weapon in seeking happiness and making fulfilling decisions.
It’s a life philosophy of caution, looking before you leap, and measured decisions. Some others might possess the philosophy of “never saying no” or carpe diem (“seize the day”)—that’s a different matter. You can still do those things, but first understand what the truth of the matter is.
In 1637, he published one of his most important works, including Discours de la method, but he published the main topic of this chapter on seeking absolute truth in 1641: Meditations on First Philosophy.
In it, Descartes discusses how we are able to check our beliefs against reality by essentially the first version of the scientific method. It consists of six meditations (we will only focus on the first three) about the proper method of philosophical reflection, proof, and the conclusions that can be drawn. Throughout, Descartes insists that (1) we can claim to know only that for which we have justification and (2) we must judge our ideas using a method that guarantees that our ideas are correct and justified.
Here’s something of a table of contents for Meditations on First Philosophy:
• Meditation 1: Use the Method of Doubt to rid himself of all beliefs that could be false.
• Meditation 2: Arrive at some beliefs that could not possibly be false and thus must be true.
• Meditation 3: Articulate criteria for true knowledge.
• Meditation 4: Prove that the mind is distinct from the body.
• Meditation 5: Prove the existence of God.
• Meditation 6: Prove the existence of the external, physical world.
As mentioned, we’ll only cover the first three meditations; from the titles, it is probably apparent why this is the case. They are the meditations more directly concerned with finding truth and living life through a lens of critical thinking. The first three meditations work together sequentially through a sort of process of elimination. First, you eliminate falsehoods. Second, you sort through what’s left. Third, you make a judgment based on what you find. It’s a methodical way of thinking that, if applied correctly, allows you to understand the world better.
We’ll go through each of the three meditations in detail.
In his first Meditation, Descartes focuses on distinguishing between what is true and false.
To complicate matters, the fact that you have experienced something does not mean it is true. This is because of our senses, prejudices, biases, or perceptions. Everyone has their own version of truth, but that is not the truth. In order to test whether what we think we know is truly correct, Descartes suggests that we adopt a method that will avoid error by tracing what we know back to a foundation of indubitable beliefs. We have to challenge what we’ve always held to be true and doubt everything we know.
Such a radical flip might seem unreasonable, and Descartes certainly does not mean that we really should doubt everything in our lives, from our names to our heritage. He simply suggests that we should temporarily pretend that everything we know is questionable.
This is called hypothetical doubt, and we should hold such doubt regarding (1) the perceptions of our senses toward our experiences and (2) our reasoning abilities. As Descartes puts it,
But inasmuch as reason already persuades me that I ought no less carefully to withhold my assent from matters which are not entirely certain and indubitable than from those which appear to me manifestly to be false, if I am able to find in each one some reason to doubt, this will suffice to justify my rejecting the whole. And for that end it will not be requisite that I should examine each in particular, which would be an endless undertaking; for owing to the fact that the destruction of the foundations of necessity brings with it the downfall of the rest of the edifice, I shall only in the first place attack those principles upon which all my former opinions rested.
Descartes was the ultimate naysayer and contrarian. So he made the decision that he would no longer hold beliefs that had the slightest amount of doubt surrounding them. Logically, this would lead to knowledge and truth that was absolute. Practically speaking, this would be troublesome at best, but this was the essence of Descartes’ famous method of doubt, the process of which will soon be articulated.
He recognized the impracticality of disavowing all the knowledge he had been taught and even observed (the sky is blue, right?), so he created broad categories of beliefs.
The first category consisted of beliefs that he had learned through his own senses. Surprisingly, he considered that the senses did not impart absolute truth. You can see that the sky is blue; everyone can observe the same thing, right? Not exactly.
All that up to the present time I have accepted as most true and certain I have learned either from the senses or through the senses; but it is sometimes proved to me that these senses are deceptive, and it is wiser not to trust entirely to anything by which we have once been deceived… on many occasions I have in sleep been deceived by similar illusions, and in dwelling carefully on this reflection I see so manifestly that there are no certain indications by which we may clearly distinguish wakefulness from sleep that I am lost in astonishment.
We do not know that what we experience through our senses is true; at least, we are not certain of it. And we cannot tell when our senses are correctly reporting the way things really are and when they are not. So the best thing to do is to doubt whether any knowledge can be based on our sense experiences. Descartes didn’t believe his senses, and this is best exemplified in his analysis of dreams.
In a nutshell, dreams lead to a certain type of experience, yet they do not represent reality. But it is often impossible to distinguish between dream experiences and waking, real-life experiences. Therefore, this experience is not a reliable source of truth and knowledge.
Descartes is not saying that we are merely dreaming all that we experience, nor is he saying that we cannot distinguish dreaming from being awake. His point is that we cannot be sure that what we experience as being real in the world is actually real.
Recall that the second portion of Descartes’ method of doubt involved reason. This is to say that our reasoning abilities cannot always be trusted—this is a self-evident truth as we are always subject to cognitive biases, skewed perspectives, and simple errors. This is what is typically referred to as the demon problem, whereas earlier we had the dream problem.
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 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.
Translation? We can’t be sure that our reasoning abilities are trustworthy, honest, reliable, or correct. Descartes puts forth an argument to prove his point, just like before. If we think about a simple addition problem such as 2+3=5, then there are two possibilities about how we reach the answer. The first possibility is that our powers of reasoning are indeed reliable and sound, and thus we are calculating correctly.
The second possibility is that an evil demon from the depths of the earth is manipulating our brain, and we only come to the conclusion that 2+3=5 because the demon puts that idea in our minds. Here, we come to an answer via deception and a profound lack of correct reasoning.
Thus, we can only trust our sense of reasoning if we can ensure that the second possibility, and ones like it, are never occurring. But that’s not possible. We can’t ensure that our sense of reasoning is reliable or absolute truth—not by itself anyway.
This can be a highly disconcerting notion—to not be able to trust your own reasoning and thought processes. If you can’t trust your senses or thoughts, then in what sense is your view of the world real or accurate? What, if anything, can provide the type of certainty that Descartes so desires? That is the very conundrum Descartes dealt with and strove to fix.