The challenge that presented itself was which of the 3 realms of being took priority. For the humanists it was man. For the reformers such as Luther it was God. Finally, for philosophers such as Descartes and Hobbes it was nature. Placing nature as ontically first and the developments that took place because of this prioritization we had argued is the modern project.
In this video we will cover Rene Descartes and his mission. But before we can jump into this topic we should first take a moment and consider the staggering consequences of the nominalist revolution as it played itself out in the political sphere; namely, the Wars of Religion that shook all of Europe. The religious wars started in 1524, merely 7 years after Luther’s criticisms of the Catholic Church began. The wars lasted for 124 years finally coming to a close in 1648. These wars were the bloodiest conflict in all of European history per capitl even exceeding the first two world wars. Where it is estimated that around 10% of the German population was annihilated in World War 2, the religious wars claimed an estimated 30% of the German population at the time.
These wars included the German’s Peasant war of 1524 to 1525; the battle of Kappel in Switzerland in 1531; the Schmalkaldic War from 1546 to 1547; the Eighty Years War from 1568 to 1648; the French Wars of Religion from 1562 to 1598; the Thirty Years War of 1618 to 1648; and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms of 1639 to 1651.
These wars saw the creation of the various religious sects such as Lutheranism, Calvinism, the Anabaptists, Presbyterianism, the Anglican Church, as well as movements like the Counter-Reformation, the inquisition, and the Jesuit order.
Rene Descartes was born in 1596 and died just as these wars were coming to a close in 1650. Descartes lived during the height of these wars and saw what they were doing to the European continent. In his earliest philosophical attempts Descartes wrote in 1619 that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” We will come to understand why he said this as this video progresses. But Descartes project was fundamentally one of science. His goal stated in a letter to a friend goes as follows:
What I want to produce is not something like Lull’s Ars Brevis, but rather a completely new science, which would provide a general solution to all possible equations involving any sort of quantity, whether continuous or discrete, each according to its nature.
Now, we are normally prone to think of modernity as a secular age, and to think of Descartes in particular as one of those most responsible for the rejection of religion. But then how can we make sense of Descartes’s claim that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom? Well, as we have said earlier, the nominalist God is terrifyingly unknowable and omnipotent.
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It was this God who appeared in such a horrifying manner to Descartes in the wars of religion and who also opened up the possibility of a new wisdom.
But how was this new wisdom to be constructed? Well, what I hope to achieve in this video is to show how Descartes directed his project in setting up a new wisdom against this terrifying nominalist God, a bastion that could provide not only individual certainty and security, and not only mitigate the incommodities of nature, but also bring an end to the religious and political strife going on in Europe.
Descartes aimed to achieve this and make man master and possessor of nature by developing a mathematical science that could provide a picture of the true world underlining the phenomena. Also, while Descartes drew upon many of the prevailing resources in the humanist tradition that had been in development since the 13th century, and particularly on Hermeticism, he ultimately established his foundation on a very different ground than that of humanism.
Like most humanists Descartes asserts the independence of the human will and the capacity of man to make himself master of nature by coming to understand and manipulate nature’s hidden powers. In contrast to humanism, Descartes grounds human freedom not in the power of the individual will but in the fact our will, like the will of God, is infinite. Indeed, it is this understanding of infinity that is essential as the foundation of his science. In this respect, Descartes’ science rest in an almost paradoxical way on the God he both fears and worships.
- Descartes Influences
Let us take a quick look at some of Descartes earlier influences. He was brought up in a Catholic family of lawyers and Judges and was expected to follow suit. He was sent off to a Jesuit school in 1606. Now, the Jesuits were an order that was set up by the pope to explicitly fight, on intellectual grounds, the thought coming out of the various protestant movements. It is important to note that for all intents and purposes all the sects that emerged out of the reformation were heretics. Descartes would have become familiar with nominalist writings from his education in this school. Later in life, around 1618, Descartes encountered a group referred to as the Rosicrucians. The Rosicrucians were modeled on the Jesuits but were set up to directly oppose the Jesuits. The Rosicrucians were heavily influenced by Hermeticism.
Now, Hermeticism is a religious, philosophical and esoteric tradition based primarily upon the writings of Hermes Trismegistus. I don’t want to get into great detail as to what they believe but one of the key ideas in Hermeticism is that there is one true theology that serves as the basis of all religions and was given by God to man back in antiquity. Hermeticists typically believe that all religions stem from the same revelation given by God in some distant past. Descartes met some men who were attracted to this order and was very much taken by them, their goals, and their retired way of life. The Rosicrucian project was laid out in two manifestos; The Fame of the Order of the Rosy Cross, and The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz published in 1616.
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As a side note, the vocalist of Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson, put out a solo album in 1998 called The Chemical Wedding which is loosely based on this Rosicrucian work. It is an amazing album and if you listen to it, you will get exposure to a lot of symbolism that takes on a much deeper meaning when you are familiar with Hermeticism.
But anyways, the Rosicrusians were essentially Hermetic thinkers who sought to understand the hidden order of nature in order to gain power over it. Agrippa, for example, wrote in 1655 that “a magician is defined as one to whom by the grace of God the spirits have been given knowledge of the secrets of nature.” In a way, a scientist was indeed a magician though this would be seen more clearly in the alchemical tradition. But more specifically, the scientist was not a sorcerous but a theurgist. Now, sorcery gives a man power over the natural world through pacts with demons while theurgy gives a man powers over the natural worth through the grace of God. So yes, in a way, Descartes was attracted to the Rosicrusians because he wanted to be a wizard. And honestly, who could blame him? Who does not want to be a wizard!
Now, Hermetic thinkers divided the world into thinking substance and extension and sought to prepare themselves for the revelation of the hidden truth that lies in incorporeal substance by banishing the deceptions of the world from their minds. They believed themselves to be aided in the pursuit of these truths by Olympian spirits who cleared away the shadows of the world that surrounded all things. Nature, however, did not in their view deliver up secrets without a struggle but had to be tortured and even torn to pieces to discover the truth. Hence they recognized the need for scientific instruments.
Moreover, nature in their view could be understood not in ordinary language but only by the application of mathematics. The goal of such knowledge for them was not personal gain but the fundamental improvement of humanity by the prolongation of human life and the elimination of want and disease. The Rosicrusians had 6 explicit rules.
1) To deliver medical care without charging a fee
2) To wear no distinctive clothing
3) To meet one another once a year
4) To look for a worthy successor
5) To use the letters C.R. or R.C. as their seal and mark
6) To keep the fraternity secret for 100 years.
Now, anyone who is even remotely familiar with Descartes can clear see the massive influence these men had on him. Their division of reality into thought and extension is almost verbatim to Cartesian Substance Dualism. The goal of clearing the mind of deception is also evident in Descartes notion of the deceiver God and of course mathematics as the language of nature is clearly part of Descartes project. But the best part is for me is still that Descartes was a math geek who wanted to be a wizard. Also, Descartes never married though he did have a daughter that died at age 5 so we can safely elevate our math nerd wizard to honorary MGTOW status.
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Now in 1619 Descartes began his serious thinking towards a new basis, a new method on which he could base his science. Of course, due to the colorful nature of Descartes this method naturally came to him in dreams; 3 or so based on Descartes journal. It has been argued by some that Descartes may have made up this dream story in case someone was to find his journal and accuse him of holding heretical thoughts. However, it is not particularly important if his ideas came to him in a dream or not. Descartes desire for this new method was anchored in some criticisms he had towards the Rosicrusians, believing that their thinking was still too muddy to lead to the stated goals.
Now, another thing that troubled Descartes was the skepticism of the libertines. Of the various ideas of science that were floating in the intellectual circles, there was a thread that advocated for a probabilistic approach to science. This was not good enough for Descartes. For Descartes, the method of science had to yield truth with 100% certainty.
Now, the efforts of developing his new method can be found in a work Descartes started but never finished in 1628 called “Rules for the Regulation of the Mind”. Descartes did not finish this work because he began to reflect on the metaphysical and theological assumptions of his science and saw problems posed for it by the idea of divine omnipotence as it appears in nominalism and in the theology of Luther and Calvin. Descartes’ original idea of an apodictic science rested upon the eternal truth of mathematics. If God was omnipotent, however, such truth could not bid God. Indeed, God must have created them and in principle he thus could uncreate them. No necessity impelled God to create eternal truths, and they could have been created other than they are. This realization led to a skeptical crisis and to Descartes formulation of the astonishing theory of the creation of eternal truths, which undermine his original idea of a universal science.
The goal of Descartes’ scientific project was to make man master and possessor of nature and in this way to prolong human life, to eliminate want, and to provide security. He thus had a decidedly this-worldly goal. His science seeks to employ theory in the service of practice and to ground all thinking and action in certainty. The aim of this thinking is thus not contemplation but action and production, turning the world to human use.
Now, the fundamental principle and foundation of Descartes’ science is cogito ergo sum. This is the thought that he believed everyone or nearly everyone could experience if only they followed the path he had in mind. This is the basis of all Cartesian wisdom, and the Archimedean point on which he believes humanity can stand to move the world. This principle, however, can only be understood if we understand Descartes’ transformation of metaphysics. As such we need to now look at Cartesian metaphysics.
Certainty is a key to Descartes metaphysics but he does not mean the certainty of perception but the certainty of thought. This is what Descartes has to say:
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All knowledge is certain and evident cognition. Someone who has doubts about many things is no wiser than one who has never given them a thought; indeed, he appears less wise if he has formed a false opinion about any of them. Hence it is better never to study at all than to occupy ourselves with objects which are so difficult that we are unable to distinguish what is true from what us false, and are forced to take the doubtful as certain; for in such matters the risk of diminishing our knowledge is greater than our hope of increasing it. So, in accordance with this rule, we reject all such merely probable cognition and resolve to believe only what is perfectly known and incapable of being doubted.
Without going too much into detail, we can find that Descartes anchored certainty in intuition. However, Descartes came to doubt that intuition could provide the foundation for his science because he saw that the idea of divine omnipotence called into question the infallibility of intuition. If intuition is not certain, then the mathematical science that Descartes seeks to establish can be no better than the probabilistic science he wants to replace. If there is no certain ground, no fundamentum absolutum inconcussum veritatis, then we cannot truly know anything and are thrown again into the arms of the skeptics.
In order to ground his science, Descartes consequently had to confront skepticism, and confront it not merely in its ancient Pyrrhonist form derived from Sextus Empiricus but in the form derived from nominalism that calls into question our capacity to know even the most certain things.
Let us now turn to Descartes work entitled The Meditations which is in a way very similar to his earlier work of the Discourses.
The First Meditation retraces the path of doubt delineated in part 4 of the Discourse. Descartes lists the traditional sources of doubt drawn from ancient skepticism, illusions of sense, madness, and dreams, and concludes that while these might call into question the truths of physics they do not call into question the truths of mathematics. The ultimate source of doubt in the Meditations, however, is not simply the possibility of human error but the possibility that we are deceived in an irremediable way by an omnipotent God.
Such a God may have created us so that we necessarily misperceive the world, or he may have created the world such that we are continually misled, or he may even interfere with our minds or intervene in the order of nature to deceive us in an ad hoc manner. The mere possibility that such a God exists is sufficient to call into question the apparently most certain truths, that is, mathematical intuitions. In this light, the whole of Cartesian science might rest on a faulty foundation.
The fear of God, of this omnipotent God and the skepticism that his very possibility engenders, thus reappears in the Meditations as the beginning of wisdom.
This possibility leads Descartes to the methodological hypothesis of an evil genius who continually deceives us. This assumption, he argues, will prevent him from falling into error by treating as false anything that is dubitable. On the basis of this assumption, he is then able to determine that the external world and all the abstract entities (and truths) of mathematics are dubitable.
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Science is thus impossible, and Descartes is forced to wonder whether he himself is anything at all. As he puts it at the beginning of the Second Meditation, “I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist?”
There are two traditional answers to the skepticism that Descartes considers and rejects at the end of this path of doubt. The first sees faith as the answer to skepticism. This is the path of piety. This solution was employed by reformist Luther who proclaimed in his debate with the humanist Erasmus that “the Holy Ghost is not a skeptic.” While Descartes does not deny that faith may in some sense be an answer to skepticism, he argues that faith of this sort cannot provide an answer to the skeptical doubts he raises. Descartes notes that it is not contrary to God’s goodness to allow him to sometimes be deceived, so it cannot be contrary to God’s goodness that he always be deceived. Sheer faith in God cannot alleviate these doubts because it is God himself who is the source of these doubts, and the more powerful one imagines God to be, the easier it is to imagine the possibility that he can deceive us.
The second potential answer to this form of doubt is atheism. If there is no God and everything occurs simply by an endless antecedent necessity, it would seem that such radical doubt would be impossible. Descartes suggests that such a materialist notion cannot resolve the problem because the possibility that we are accidentally constituted in such a way as to be continually deceived about the nature of the world is even greater than the possibility that God deceives us. For Descartes whether we follow the path of faith that relies on God or the path of experience that depends on man, we cannot provide the foundation for science.
The skepticism that bedevils Descartes both in part 4 of the Discourse and at the end of the First Meditation is resolved by his fundamental principle. He concludes in the Discourse that in attempting to think everything false, he recognized that in so doing he who was thinking this had to be something, and thus articulated his famous principle, “I think, therefore I am.” This conclusion takes a slightly different form in the Meditations, where he writes that “this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind.”
This resolution, this proposition becomes what would later be referred by Kant as a synthetic a priori truth or as Descartes describes such truth: “We cannot doubt them unless we think of them, but we cannot think of them without at the same time believing that they are true. . . . Hence we cannot doubt them without at the same time believing they are true, that is, we can never doubt them.”
In more recent terms, the statement of “Think Therefore I am” is what is termed as a basic belief. Basic beliefs are in a way self-evidently true and are the beliefs that terminate a regress of justification of a true belief as part of a foundationalist epistemology. Now, this may sound like a word salad to you but if you want a highly detailed exposition of foundationalism and where Descartes cogito ergo sum fits in then check out my video entitled Epistemology: Foundationalism and Coherentism.
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But for now, let us take a look on how Descartes defines thinking. In the Second Meditation Descartes asserts that a thing that thinks is a thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, imagines, and senses. In the Third Meditation he characterizes himself as a thinking thing who doubts, affirms, denies, knows a few things, is ignorant of many, loves, hates, wills, desires, and also imagines and senses.
Descarte asserts that thought includes everything we are immediately conscious of and falls into four general categories, will, understanding, imagination, and sensation. In the Principles, he argues that thinking is divided into two modes: (1) perception or the operation of the intellect which includes sensation, imagination, and the conception of things purely intellectual, and (2) action of the will that includes desiring, holding in aversion, affirming, denying, and doubting. Finally, in the Passions he argues similarly that there are two basic functions of the soul, its actions and its passions. Only those passions that originate in the body are in his view passions properly speaking; those that arise in the soul are both actions and passions and take their name from the nobler former capacity.
For Descartes, judgment is the combination of two different mental capacities, will and understanding. Understanding is more passive, and the role of will much greater. Through will, for example, the understanding becomes active as perception. Will stimulates the brain to form images as an aid to understanding. Thinking for Descartes is thus a form of willing.
Descartes’ fundamental principle is often understood as self-consciousness or subjectivity. What Descartes means by self-thinking, however, is quite different from the ordinary notion of self-consciousness. Thinking for Descartes is clearly reflexive. Descartes writes: “I have demonstrated that the soul is nothing other than a thing that thinks; it is therefore impossible that we can ever think of anything without having at the same time the idea of our soul, as of a thing capable of thinking all that we think about.” Earlier notions of self-consciousness, however, all imagined that the self that consciousness was conscious of was somehow an object like the other objects in the world, that is, that I am conscious of myself in the same way that I am conscious of, say, a chair.
Descartes does not think that we are self-conscious because we have ourselves as our own object. For Descartes, everything that we know is known only when it is perceived, transmitted to the brain, and represented upon the screen of the imagination by the will. The sensed object in this way is transformed into a mathematical line or form on a coordinate system, which Descartes refers to as extension. Thus the world only truly is when it is represented rather than sensed or imagined, that is, only when it is factual in a literal sense as something made or constructed. This construction of the world is its representation or objectification. This representation, however, is always a representation for a subject, always only in thinking.
Thinking as representing is thus always a representing for a subject. The subject is that which is established or thrown under the object, that is, that which is thrown off or before us. Consequently, the subject is necessarily posited or willed in every act of thinking. Every act of thinking is thus also a self-thinking, or to put the matter in a later vocabulary, all consciousness is self-consciousness.
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Descartes’ solution to the problem posed by the omnipotent God thus leads to a radically new vision of what it is to be a human being.
A human being for Descartes is a thinking thing (res cogitans). A thinking thing, however, is a representing, constructing thing, and is especially always a self-representing or self-positing thing. The Cartesian human being is thus at its core a self-positing, self-grounding being. Man in this way ceases to be considered the rational animal and instead is conceived as the willing being.
The attainment of certainty is not an act of the intellect or understanding but an act of the will. Certainty for Descartes arises when we can no longer doubt. Doubting as a form of willing is thus the means of reaching certainty, the foundation of Descartes’ universal science. The heart of Descartes’ fundamental principle is the recognition that doubt, as a form of negation, cannot negate itself, that such a negation is in fact a negation of negation and thus a self-affirmation. In this way the will constitutes itself as a self and thus as the foundation upon which everything can be established.
Descartes’ fundamental principle, ego cogito ergo sum, seems on the surface to guarantee only the existence of a self that thinks. But how can we know anything other than this?
According to Descartes, the fundamental principle is not only true; it is the standard of all other truth. That is to say, for any other judgment to be true, it must be as clear and evident as the fundamental principle. On the surface, it is difficult to see how other judgments could attain such clarity and evidence. But if we look a bit deeper, it becomes clear that other judgments can be true only if they are derived from this principle. The truth of Cartesian science depends on the truth of mathematics and the truth of mathematics is called into question only by the possibility of an omnipotent deceiver. Therefore, if it is possible to show on the basis of Descartes’ fundamental principle that there cannot be such a deceiver, the truths of mathematics will be irrefutable and the apodictic character of Cartesian science will be guaranteed.
But how is it possible to demonstrate on the basis of the fundamental principle that God is not a deceiver? Or to put the matter in somewhat different terms, how is it possible to tame the irrational God of nominalism and the Reformation, and demonstrate that he neither is nor can be a deceiver? Here we turn to Descartes’ ontological argument.
When I look into myself, I find an idea of perfection, but because I have come to understand myself as a finite being who can be deceived, I recognize that I am not perfect and that the idea of perfection cannot come from me. This idea, however, must come from somewhere and that somewhere is God. God must be the cause of this idea. God therefore exists and is perfect. The idea of God, according to Descartes, is thus innate in us and follows from the fundamental principle. If, however, God is perfect, then he never deceives us, because all deception is the result of some lack. Consequently, God is not a deceiver, and if God is not a deceiver, the truths of mathematics are certain.
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Moreover, God has also led me to believe in the existence of external objects and because he is not a deceiver there must be a correspondence between the objects and what is real, or at least it must be possible for me to come to understand the relationship between them through the proper use of my faculties. As a result, not merely mathematics but physics must be possible. God thus guarantees the truth of clear and distinct ideas and belief in God is thus necessary for science, but God himself is guaranteed by the certainty of the fundamental principle.
So what we see here is that Descartes explicitly says that God is necessary for science to have any justification at all. This is a very interesting argument because many people attribute the victory of human reason over God as a staple part of Enlightenment thinking. However, as we have seen in the previous video and in this video, not only in modernity grounded in Theology, but even for Descartes, the father of modern philosophy and considered by many the beginning of the age of science, necessitates God for science to be rationally considered true. This is further reinforced by Descartes earlier rejection of atheism as a viable resolution to the nominalist God.
Clearly the story I have just presented will be somewhat controversial, and indeed Descartes ontological argument itself is considered his most controversial argument. There is a much deeper explanation of how this ontological argument works but I will skip the details for brevity. However, what I will do is point out one consequence that follows from Descartes argument. What Descartes argument ultimately entails of God is that God is indeed not omnipotent. God becomes more like Spinoza’s pantheistic God; pure will or specifically, pure causation.
As Descartes puts it, whether or not God exists, nature operates in much the same way and in either case we must use the same mathematical means to understand it. But how can man compete with God, for the mastery of appearances and the possession of the world? The answer to this is fairly clear: man can only compete with God if man himself in some sense is omnipotent, that is, if man in some sense is already God. The key to understanding this titanic claim that lies at the heart of Descartes’ thought is understanding that for Descartes both God and man are essentially willing beings. Descartes tells us that the human will is the same as the will of God. In his view it is infinite, indifferent, and perfectly free, not subordinate to reason or any other law or rule. It is consequently the sole basis of human perfection.
The difference between God and man, Descartes suggests, lies not in their wills, which are identical, but in their knowledge. Man’s will is infinite, he wants everything and his desires are insatiable, but his knowledge is finite. His power is thus limited by his knowledge.
What is crucial for Descartes is the rational application of the will to the mastery of nature. Descartes believes that his method and universal mathematics will make this possible. Humans are therefore godlike but they are not yet god. To become god, to master nature utterly, one needs Cartesian science. This finally is the answer to the problem with which Descartes began his philosophizing: if the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then wisdom is the means by which the Lord is captured, disarmed, dispossessed, and subsumed within the citadel of reason.
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At the end of my first video on modernity I made the claim that I would make intelligible the modern concepts of reason, science, freedom and progress. Freedom in modernity is the freedom of the human will from God’s will and not ideas of human right or civil rights or anything like that. Progress follows suit from the freedom of the human will. If the human will is infinite then indeed history is an unfolding of human will and not God’s will. As such, we have come to where we are based on human activity and not based on what God willed. As such, when directed, humanity can make progress towards goals it sets for itself as human will is no longer bound by the idea that history is an unfolding of God’s will. This in turn creates a human identity that can be anchored in time. How far has man come in this period or that period etc. Science and specifically the science Descartes has in mind is the vehicle that man’s will ought to use to make this progress, and finally, reason is the foundation on which this science is built off of.
But these developments in thought do have their consequences. The modern project failed after all and the French Revolution stands as testament to this. The apotheosis of man, by man, Luciferianism, has led to nihilism as one enduring legacy that we are still in the grips of today.
Originally I had also wanted to include Nietzsche’s criticisms of Descartes’ philosophy but as this video is already very long, I shall have to parlay those for the next video in the series. What I hope you got from this video is the theological motivations that drove Descartes’ thought. In fact, what you will find is that God never leaves us throughout this series; God is only ever transformed and repositioned.
Thanks for listening.