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.