Dizzy Over Descartes

October 4, 2008

If the Discourse on Method (read it here) made me dizzy and giddy as a schoolboy, it is because in the fabulous few pages of part four of his book, Descartes turns the world right on its head. A reductionist might say he did it in just the three words (in Latin, five in English) of the cogito. From “I think” I can know “I am” and from there I can know I have a soul and from that I can know God. Not only can I know God, but I can know Him more clearly and distinctly than I can know anything else. And it is this first rule of Descartes’ method—never to accept anything as true unless it is known clearly and distinctly—that upsets the whole of Christendom. Very few people have the greatness to bend history itself, as Robert Kennedy said, but our Frenchman is one of them.

After all the excitement, however, I cannot help but to return to my thoughts about Lucretius (August 29, 08). Cartesian reductionism does not seem so different from Epicurean atomism in its deadening effect on my spirit. But even the prosaic Lucretius thought it important to think about reality. Descartes thought it more important to think about thinking. When he says “I think, therefore I am” he still believes in God, but he makes Him transcendent to thought.  He hives off theological questions. Had he left them to theologians that would have been fine, but the first rule of his method cuts short any rational discussion of the mystery of being. That is, we cannot accept mystery because by definition it cannot be known clearly and distinctly–Descartes conditions for claiming knowledge. This is not immediately obvious in the Discourse, but I don’t think Descartes hoped to fool Catholic censors; he knew they were too clever to be tricked. I suspect he was carried away by his enthusiasm, in the way the modern scientist will split an atom to see what is inside even at the risk of blowing up the world. The upshot is that theology becomes superfluous, if not superstitious talk; and I am left with an inadequate account of my being and, worse, no means to make a better one.

A second, unintended consequence arises. When he removed religion, that is our theories of everything, Descartes created an epistemological vacuum and human nature did what every nature does with a vacuum. Since Descartes, it let science slide into that part of understanding that was once occupied by theology. (Take at look at the Temple of Science in Wired). Ironically, this is the very place from which Descartes saw—and saw rightly—it needed to be extricated. Now, however, moderns act like the old instrumentalists: New theories—or old ones such as Catholicism—can be discussed so long as they do not question the authority of science on matters of ultimate truths. This is Galileo and his friend-turned-persecutor, Cardinal Barbarini, inverted.

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On the Nature of Things

August 29, 2008

I was looking for a reference in Lucretius’ epic philosophical poem, On the Nature of Things, as I prepared my classes for the fall school start up. Lucretius, and his muse, Epicurus, expect materialism to inspire confidence. No longer need we fear death, those two say, because where we are, death is not. That is, when we are dead, there will be no consciousness to register the fact, so, as Bobby McFerrin sang some 2,000 years later, “Don’t worry. Be happy.”

My own brush with mortality leads me to believe otherwise; Death and I once spent an intimate and exceedingly unpleasant moment together in the shadow of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. We may argue endlessly about whether this near-death experience was in fact real or merely some hallucination, brought to life, as many tell me, by my Western Christian prejudices about dying and the afterlife. If I am deluded, then my delusion is complete, for although I cannot offer any conventional proof that things happened as I claim they did, they are the surest things I lay claim to knowing. But never mind here, let us just register that this happened.

Notwithstanding my own experience then, it is hard to take inspiration from or to find confidence in a way of thinking that emboldens me to pursue nothing. If it is true, Lucretius’ story frees me from ultimate fears, and being mortal I feel most gratified to anything that can do that; but whether or not it is true, the story does not free me for anything in particular, or at least nothing of particular importance. Being good to one another and living by modest means is a very fine way to go about the world; and no doubt it seemed especially fine to a Roman in the violent years of the waning Republic. But I cannot help thinking that cows also live modestly and benignly, if not exactly kindly. Not many people have jumped out of an airplane and had the misfortune of parachuting into a pasture full of happy cows. But those who have will tell you that you can yell “Cow! Cow! Watch out!” until you’re blue in the face but the cows will not budge one step. They will look left and right rather stupidly and go back to jawing cud; it just doesn’t occur to them that something of consequence might come down from above.

Of course, all may indeed be the blind destiny of matter. We may quite properly look to the grass at our feet instead of the stars over our heads for meaning. But at this moment I do not want to consider the relation of materialism to the truth. My objections here are psychological. The road marked by materialism is far more contracted than the narrow path to the Kingdom of Heaven. The Roman Catholic Church can say sorry to Galileo and still be a church, but Lucretius cannot say sorry to God without his whole world coming undone. And for Plato’s philosopher kings, 40 years of the most intensive study will neither enliven life’s journey nor take them anywhere else but to a bleak dissolution. Materialism’s grey philosophy leaves out first causes and instead deals only with simple or efficient causes and thus succumbs to all the deadening effects of mere efficiency. Ironically, what is missing from Lucretius’ poem is poetry—and hope, initiative, inquisitiveness, striving, resolution…all that is human.