“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things” (Descartes, goodreads). Rene Descartes, often described as the “Father of Modern Philosophy”, was born in a time where philosophy and science were advancing at an unbelievable rate. The revolutionizing philosopher was fascinated by how much skepticism influenced a rapid progress in society, and was eager to find an indubitable truth that could survive any and all skeptical challenges.
In order to rid science of constant and disturbing skepticism, he planned to find an undeniable concept that would allow him to rebuild his system of doubt on an absolute certainty. After years of doubting utterly every presupposition and idea, Descartes found his absolute certainty in the concept of “I exist”. He was eventually stuck in solipsism, and was determined to abandon that state by proving the presence of God, thereby finding truth in something other than his own existence.
Religion ultimately became a crucial aspect of Descartes’ skepticism, providing all epistemological foundations needed for him to develop upon his ideas regarding the truth.
Descartes believed that Scholastic tradition proposed many opinions and conclusions that were formed on the basis of incomplete information, largely facilitating the forming of counter arguments. This resulted in an overwhelming confusion where truth was hidden behind weakly formed concepts. Primarily, he sought to avoid these issues through geometry, as he trusted the propositions that made up a geometrical theorem were not exposed to doubt. This ultimately meant that anything deriving from these propositions would also be unexposed to doubt and therefore absolute certainties.
Yet this argument was completely torn apart by radical skepticism, leading him to write the First Meditation, where he attempts to show the possibility of knowledge even when it derives from the most skeptic ideas. The first idea introduced in his work is one that claims false all of our sensory knowledge. Descartes argues that most of his dreams have extremely realistic components and therefore sensory knowledge can come from real sensations as well as false ones that are found in dreams. Since there is no way of differentiating these sensations, every belief that is based on them can be doubted.
However, this is not valid for mathematical beliefs, as “for whether [he is] awake or dreaming, it remains true that two and three make five, and that a square has but four sides” (Descartes, oregonstate). Eventually, Descartes starts to wonder whether God could deceive him by making him believe in false concepts, even if they come from the most certain propositions. From this point on, religion becomes vital to his succeeding ideas. When wondering about a universal deception perceived by God, Descartes realizes that this idea would go against “God’s supreme goodness”(iep). In fact, any deception at all would go against God’s goodness and yet people were still constantly making mistakes.
In order to explain this contradictory issue, Rene introduces the idea that besides being his own deceiver he is also tortured by “some malignant demon, who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful, has employed all his artifice to deceive [him]”(Descartes, oregonstate). This kept him from considering any idea that has the slightest possibility of being dubious, eventually leading him to a “whirlpool of false beliefs”(Descartes, The Philosophy Book). It is important to notice, however, that Descartes recognized the idea of the existence of a manipulator purely as “hyperbolic”.
Although he did not believe that he was dreaming or being deceived, Descartes hoped that these concepts would enhance his method of doubting and essentially aid him in finding absolute truth. In spite of introducing “hyperbolic doubt” and attempting to define God, Descartes never stopped being a devout catholic. Descartes did not attempt to define God or more so to prove his existence until he found “something that is certain, or at least, if [he could] do nothing more, until [heknew] with certainty that there is nothing certain” (Descartes, oregonstate).
Since he had previously claimed false all beliefs achieved through sensory, he now questioned whether or not this affected the concept of his own existence. In the Second Meditation he affirms: “If I convinced myself that my beliefs are false, then surely there must be an “I” that was convinced” (Descartes, phylosophypages). Moreover, he realized that he could only be fooled by a malignant demon, even regarding his existence, if he in fact existed. This leads him to the finding of his first absolute certainty: “I think, therefore I am” (Descartes, goodreads).
This indubitable truth of “I exist” could effectively serve as the axiom from which his method could be built upon. He now wanted to expand his hopes for human knowledge by proving the existence of God, and therefore being certain of something other than his own existence. In the Third Meditation, Descartes introduces the concept that “there must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause” (Descartes, phylosophypages).
With the idea that what is present in an effect must have been given to it by its cause, the challenged philosopher established the concept of a finite substance. A finite substance is one that depends solely on God’s will to exist, and the attributes given to these substances are known as “modes”. Finite substances are considered to be more real than modes, as modes depend not only on God’s concurrence to exist but also on the presence of a finite substance. A finite substance can therefore be the cause for a mode but it cannot be the cause for an infinite substance, in this case, God.
Since God is the only infinite substance that could cause the idea of another infinite substance, he is the sole possible cause of his effect. Descartes eventually comes to the conclusion that his idea of the existence of God came from the intuitions of his own existence. Since the concept of his own existence is an absolute truth, so must be the concept of the existence of God. This also leads Rene to the idea that characterizes him as an empiricist: God is an innate concept, as no finite substance is able to create it. He thereby proves the existence of an omniscient and omnipotent being, which is perfect and
has no reason for deceiving; as such act would be an indication of imperfection. Consequently, the only reasonable explanation for his constant mistakes is the misuse of his God-given will, making the idea of error nothing more than a “moral failing” (iep). Descartes’ rigorous way of thinking and eagerness to “defeat skepticism in its own grounds” (phylosophypages), made him a crucial philosopher of the Enlightenment. His fascinating theories caused the philosophers that followed him to undertake the tasks of either improving upon his ideas or questioning them even further.
Rene’s skepticism was deeply influenced by his religion, even when he was not attempting to prove the existence of God. Although he was accused of being a heretic, Descartes always remained a devout Catholic and attempted to defend Christian faith through his works “He had a deep religious faith as a Catholic, which he retained to his dying day, along with a resolute, passionate desire to discover the truth” (Stephen Gaukroger, The Philosophy Book). This balance between skepticism and religion was crucial to Descartes’ findings and was present in every aspect of his method.