René Descartes, A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

René Descartes, A Perspective

Who was he? He was a French philosopher and mathematician. He was regarded as the father of modern rationalism. He emerged at the time many things had been falling apart in Europe.

The monolithic authority of the Catholic Church had been challenged by the Protestant Reformation. The power of the Pope in interpreting the Bible was under siege. Martin Luther (1483-1546), who was an Augustinian monk, broke out of the monastery and questioned the Pope on his selling indulgences. Let us not forget that reform had already taking shape within the Catholic Church. However, Luther, who was half Catholic didn’t intend to change the history of Europe by directly taking issues with the Pope. But eventually these things happened any way. John Calvin (1509-64), the French theologian and reformer in Switzerland and Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), who was the Swiss Protestant reformer, both rebelled against the Catholic Church.

The Bible was later translated into beautiful German by Luther so the average people could read it and interpreted it for them. Such a thing, however, never took place for the Hindus in their cast system.

Science being no longer under the Catholic yoke progressed rapidly in the Protestant countries in Europe.

Economically, Europe was in decline.

Aristotelian astronomical discoveries were challenged when the super nova was spotted by Johann Kepler (1571-1630), the German astronomer. This discovery by Kepler occurred for the third time in the history of the world. Prior to Kepler Chinese astronomer had also done the same discovery centuries ago. You see Aristotle had spoken of fixed stars in his lectures on astronomy thousands of years ago. Super nova, however, lasted about a month and then it disappeared, which showed it was not a fixed star. Philosophically there was a period of uncertainty like the time of St. Augustine and even worse. Descartes, however, was no St. Augustine. Augustine was content to respond to the skeptics that at least we have such an experience.

To reach certainty he doubted everything, except the fact that he doubted. Like scrooge he sat in front of his fire place and began the process of doubting. How can we get to the knowledge of the world? If I’m doubting, this means I’m thinking and If I’m thinking, this would mean I am. What a poor way of reaching his existence! Consequently, he came up with ‘Cogito ergo sum’ or (I think, therefore I am). The only thing he can have certainty is his own existence. However, we would like to ask him whether he really came up with the proof of his own existence? From ‘I think’ the premise he comes down to the conclusion that he exists. You see before I say I doubt and since I do, that means I think, so I should be, I have to have some awareness. Don’t you think so? If I didn’t exist, then how could I utter such a statement? Is this ‘I’ really me? Can I identify this “I’ as who I’m? I could say I doubts, thinks, therefore I exists. But can I say I think as me or perhaps another Reality within me is already in existence? What happened to my true Self? What if the source of this awareness in me is beyond even existence and non-existence and all dualities? This consciousness is not our ordinary ‘I’ to be aware of this or that. There must be a pure awareness deep within us of which Descartes was not aware. This could be Aristotle’s pure Form, which was pure actuality and didn’t need matter to reach it. I wouldn’t be able to say ‘I think, therefore I am’, if I were not aware ahead of time. This is what the great rationalists of the past, long before Descartes called the ‘Intellect’. For Buddha this ‘I’ is the same as the self. What is self? It is a combination of body, feelings, perception, disposition, and consciousness. All these five aggregates are subject to change. Descartes argued that many of his beliefs emerge from his senses, or from perception. St. Thomas Aquinas said there’s nothing in the Intellect that is not already in the senses. Platonically this could be interpreted as the realm of Forms and the world reflecting them. However, Descartes was catholic and what Thomas said made more sense to him than Plato. After all Thomas was Aristotelian not Platonist. Nevertheless, Descartes thought the senses can sometimes mislead us. This is where Descartes’ argument reminds us of St. Augustine, who was facing the skeptics of his time. When I sit in a boat and my oars are in the water they look bent, especially in a sunny day. But once I bring them into the boat, they look just fine.

When Kant said that pure reason is limited, this alone should have directed our attention to an unlimited Reason, which is indeed nothing but the same awareness within us. Descartes, thus, regarded the information coming to us from our senses as uncertain and fallible. What about our Intellect?

Descartes argued that it is hard to distinguish between waking life and dream world. An ancient sage once woke up wondering whether he was dreaming of a butterfly or he was in the butterfly’s dream. So this was not a new discovery by Descartes.

Buddha once enlightened realized he was awake. When he was asked about his essence, he answered, his nature was awareness. This implicitly tells us that this world is like a dream. Hindus called it ‘Maya’ or illusion. Maya prevents us from seeing the Reality as it is or as it could be in the resent movie ‘Cinderella’. Movies like ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Twelve Monkeys’ have come close to what Descartes was thinking. Perhaps he was trying to prove the existence of God through ‘Cogito ergo sum’. His use of St. Anselm’s ontological proof of the existence of God has not been successful. In reality he didn’t have to prove the existence of God knowing that the Ultimate Reality is beyond being and non-being. Therefore, it doesn’t even exist. I think he was desperate to find out what was beyond this curtain of illusion or the world. The Persian word ‘Paradisu’ from which the word ‘Paradise’ comes means ‘Parde’ or ‘Curtain’ There’s a curtain hanging between this world and the one beyond not after. So Descartes needed the existence of God in order to prove there’s a world behind this veil. After all, only God knows what is going on once the veil is lifted. For Immanuel Kant only a God, who was but a postulate could know the world of noumenon. But what if this personal God doesn’t even exist? What other ways Descartes could have found out about the Reality hidden behind this facade called life except the fact that it should be a better one than what we experience every day. Was

Descartes searching for the reality after death? He doesn’t seem to have been interested in this. What he was eager to find out was what God knew regarding the world beyond once the veil of appearance has been removed. Faith comes in when we cannot know the Reality like God. Who was crucified, was he really Jesus, the son of God?

But how can you achieve this when you’re not even able to prove the existence of a personal God created perhaps by him. Once you remove your perception of the created God, you then will look for the Ultimate Reality. How can you know about the existence of God by ‘Cogito ergo sum’? Apparently, his commentators have looked at his works in ‘Mditation’ as a piece in epistemological skepticism. Nonetheless, he tried his best to establish a foundation for certainty, which I’m afraid, was not successful. He instead created a gap between mind and body named Cartesian Dualism. May be If he had taken meditation seriously as the Hindus did thousands of years ago, he would have reached what Buddha did. But in reality he widened the world of mind from the realm of body.  If he had just thought of the non-dualistic nature of the Ultimate Reality, he wouldn’t have done what he did. A house divided against it shall not stand (Christ, not an exact quotation) or ‘Don’t put asunder what God has put together’ (Jesus, not an exact quotation) Descartes went from ‘the One’ to ‘the many’ and created tremendous difficulties for the following philosophers after him such as Espinoza and Leibniz and more.

Please remember I have been using the source called, ‘Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers’ by Philip Stokes not only for this article but others I wrote before like Augustine, Aquinas.  These relatively short articles are all based on this source.