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Rene Descartes: a Great Thinker of the Western World Essay

“I think therefore I am” are the words that come to mind as we encounter the subject of Descartes. We see man full of knowledge and ideas ready to expand and break free. His interest in knowledge and the acquisition of truth itself brought him to doubt all around him, including God and his very own existence. He is even considered to be the Father of Modern philosophy because he guided the thinkers of his time to deviate from the Scholastic-Aristotelian method. This is due to his belief that the scholastic method was prone to doubt since it relied on sensation as the source for all knowledge, meaning that teachings adhered to traditional methods posed by the church. However we cannot simply look at Descartes without knowing anything about his background and inspirations.

Rene Descartes is credited with being the father of modern philosophy. Not only is he accredited to being a man of extraordinary genius, but his ideas changed the way western European thinkers viewed theology. Having his mother die after he was born caused young Rene to live with his grandmother in La Haye. He was sent to a Jesuit college called La Fleche, where he studied grammar, rhetoric, and a philosophical curriculum of verbal arts and logic. He was disappointed in the courses he had to take, except for mathematics, thus explaining his infatuation with the subject along with physics. Either way he left La Fleche with a very broad liberal arts education in 16141. He received his degree and license in civil and canon law at the University of Poiters. From there, Descartes became a volunteer for the army of Maurice of Nassau in the Netherlands during the summer of 1618. It is said that before he went to Netherlands, Descartes had lost all interest in science and mathematics and experienced a period of depression or mental breakdown.

However while at Nassau, he met the most important influence of his early adulthood: Isaac Beekman3. It was Beekman who re-ignited Descartes interest in science and opened his eyes to the possibility of applying mathematical techniques to other fields outside of the pre-determined mindset. A push was all that Descartes needed to make him set his eyes on a new method of scientific findings. For a while, he was on and off theories, starting and never finishing them, including his Rules for the Direction of the Mind. He moved to the Netherlands yet again in 1628 in order to find a place full of peace and quiet where he could think. He tried to run away from Paris and its city full of distractions. It is here that Descartes began to work on “a little treatise,” which took him approximately three years to complete, entitled The World3.

The World constituted in showing the mechanisms behind not using the Scholastic principles of substantial forms and real qualities3 and in giving an account for the origin of the universe, nature and the human body. He also stated here that he agreed with the heliocentric theory proposed by Galileo, that the sun is the center of the universe rather than the earth. He chose not to publish his work after learning of Galileo’s condemnation; thus his work was not seen until his death. He did decide, however, to publish his Geometry, Dioptrics, and Meteors which he prefaced with a brief Discourse on Method. He saw this method as something that could be applied to almost anything; but mostly to philosophy.

Before Descartes, there was Aristotle and previous other thinkers who believed in syllogisms or basically deductive reasoning that can be used as an extremely subtle, sophisticated, or deceptive argument. For example syllogisms’ usually follow something along the lines of “All A is C; all B is A; therefore all B is C3.” Descartes did not believe in syllogisms because their conclusions merely brought forth a probable statement which could not be easily proven. “Since a statement is probable because it is a statement” this just caused confusion. In order to avoid these confusions, Descartes sought geometry and absolute certainty.

For example, in geometry a theorem is deduced from a set of clear, simple, undeniable truths3 that are universally agreed with, thus we can deduce that these undeniable truths are supported by deduction and reasoning. As Descartes laid this basis down, he found them promising due to the idea that geometry is clear, distinct and therefore it is easily understood. The idea behind geometry is not just simple speculation; instead it is something that is agreed upon, unlike the confused ideas of sensation. Even though he was able to prove his theories in geometry, he was unable to provide the same way of thought to human thinking, because of the people’s skepticism.

To solve this he came up with Meditations on first philosophy. In this work, he laid out arguments doubting his previous beliefs3, since they did not apply to human thought. He observed that the senses can be deceiving. For example your vision can deceive you by letting you believe that there is water on the road, even though it is just a formulation of radiated heat. Moreover, although this may apply to sensations derived under certain circumstances, doesn’t it seem certain that “I am here, sitting by the fire, wearing a winter dressing gown, holding this piece of paper in my hands, and so on”? (AT VII 18: CSM II 13)1. His point was that even though senses do deceive, you reading this paper right now may not be based on true sensations, instead it may be based on those inside a dream.

Since we cannot prove that we are dreaming at this moment, Descartes concluded that any belief based on sensation had to be doubtful; because it could all very well be a dream, thus disproving the syllogism view. This in turn does not pertain to mathematical beliefs. We all know that 2+3=5, whether we are asleep or awake, this is proven to be true and thus accepted. However, Descartes saw it as a predetermined belief’ that 2+3=5 was not really reasoning or sensing on his own but that God was conspiring against him to make him wrong about everything including math. And since God is the one conspiring against him, then God ceases to exist, meaning that there is a mean demon waiting for him to fail.

After such statements, Descartes finds himself even doubting these beliefs, thus leaving him in a whirlpool of false beliefs3 by the end of his First Meditation. He does however recognize that these are all just exaggerated conceptions, which give him the opportunity to rid himself of all preconception beliefs, thus being open to accept future undeniable truths. It seems that Descartes was trying to clear his mind of what he had learned from the past, putting it all into one thought (or First Meditation) this writing seems to have helped him open his mind, and become more accepting to new theories and consider their possibility instead of discarding them.

In his second meditation Descartes tries to find absolute certainty in his most famous reasoning: “Cogito ergo sum”: “I think therefore I exist.” These words marked the end of Descartes doubt and open a passage where he can seek to discover the nature of his own essence, to demonstrate the existence of God, and to provide the criterion to guide the mind in search of truth2. Here not only does he experience the “I exist” shock, but he realizes what he has left behind from the previous theory. All belief in sense has been left behind from the First Meditation, and now the belief of: “if I exist” comes to mind because he can now see that in order for the demon to deceive him he must be real. The thought of “I exist, and I am real” are now embedded in the mind2. This new embodiment allowed Descartes to see the mere fact of his thoughts being engaged in activity, thus seeing a thinking “I” being combined with “I exists becomes an absolute certain truth.

The ‘therefore’ is something that is embodied by Descartes, meaning the consideration of himself and his existence as something immediate. Lastly, we review the ‘I exist’ meaning that since “I think and reason,” it must mean that I must be present to think therefore I exist. Descartes, in the end, at around his Sixth Meditation3 determines what he is in terms of the phrase: A thinking thing. A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, refuses, that imagines and also feels2. Thus, Descartes sees his thoughts as operations all occurring within the will, the intellect and the imagination, all which are occurring inside the thoughts of the mind.

At the end of his theory, Descartes sees that he does have a mind and indeed also has a body, and that he is nothing more than a thinking thing. However, he does not believe that his mind and body are connected, in fact his belief is that they are separated from each other and that he can clearly conceive each of them separately and thus whatever he “thinks god can set asunder2”. Descartes does not solve this conflict of mind and body, what he does is condensing it. By saying that a human is the compound of mind and body, he was able to transition his philosophy into the biology of the body itself. He says that mind and body interact at the pineal gland which controls the perception and motion of the body.

The nest step in Descartes theoretical strategy was to prove God’s existence. He decided to do this by providing proofs, such as those used in geometry. The first base is that there is an idea of a supreme perfect being, the second is based on the cause of one’s very existence as an imperfect being and the third is the idea that a supreme perfect being must have in itself the necessity to exists2. Because something cannot come from nothing, his existence has to come from someone or something that created him, (a bigger power,) thus if he exists and he has to have been created by another existing force then that means that such a force has to also exist1&3.

For example, if you are boiling a pot of water, that pot is being boiled by the heat source coming from underneath the pot, meaning that something (in this case the kitchen) has to provide an specific amount of heat, or at least be hot enough to provide heat to the cool un-heated pot. Same way if the kitchen did not have heat, then the water would not boil, because something cannot give what it does not have3, this is called the Casual Adequacy principle. In the end, god has to be real since he created a real being, in this case Descartes. God exists because I exist, and I exist because the existing perfect being of god created me, thus I was given existence by someone already possessing it.

At last, Descartes was able to prove that eliminating predetermined beliefs helps those in philosophy think and accept rationality outside of society’s box. As a philosopher, he was able to prove his existence and reality and God’s existence as well by following steps in order to reach complete satisfaction with his theories. As a mathematician, he was able to introduce ideas of geometrical coordinates and use them as an application in his more profound thoughts. Of course Descartes’ extensive philosophies exceeded the ones discussed in this paper, even though his most influential ones were covered.


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