Philosophy March 7, 1999 Descartes Extreme Philosophy The philosopher/scientist/mathematician Rene Descartes lived in a time of sweeping changes across all realms of knowledge. Descartes himself was responsible for many of these changes, one of which was a strong advancement in philosophy. Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy tackle, among many things, two difficult philosophical issues. The method in which these issues are dealt with, however, tends to be on the extreme side, since Descartes is determined to build upon ideas that are indubitable. Descartes meditations give a great deal to the field of philosophy, but they could have been composed in a more understandable way for people. Rene Descartes lived in an era of both extreme skepticism and scientific advancement.
This era, the Scientific Revolution, occurred between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. During this era, strong advancements were made in seemingly every area of scholarly knowledge. One important element that arose during these times was skepticism, the denial of anything that could reasonably be denied. Skeptics existed to exploit any mistake made by scientists and scholars, as every idea and piece of knowledge would be subject to attack unless it was indisputable. So, if someone wanted to make a contribution to a scholarly field, they needed to make sure it would survive under scrutiny of the skeptics.
Descartes was himself a man full of contributions to the world of knowledge, and luckily enough a bit of a skeptic. Only by being able to think like a skeptic was Descartes able compose his meditations with so few weak points. Descartes Meditations were written in extreme defense against all types of skepticism. The only weak points Descartes left in his Meditations were those which he based upon religion. Religious skepticism was a particularly large obstacle to his philosophy, since the easiest way to support all of his knowledge was to affirm the existence of an all-loving God. Descartes had three separate proofs- causal, ontological, and design- for the existence of God that could be a foundation for the rest of his philosophy. However, he knew that some skeptics would deny the existence of God no matter what, so there needed to be some foundation that did not rely on faith. This foundation was the statement “I am, I exist”, which according to Descartes must necessarily be true every time he utters it. Descartes proves all this and leaves nothing vulnerable to the skeptics, but his methods are quite extreme.
Perhaps Descartes could have defeated his skeptics by proving his philosophical goal in a slightly different manner. Descartes main two philosophical goals in the Mediations were to prove the existence of God and to demonstrate the distinction of the soul from the body. To prove these two points, Descartes writes six separate meditations which delve deep into the philosophical recesses of his mind. The task of proving the existence of God seems easier for Descartes than proving that the body and soul exist separately. Once he proves that there is a God, however, he is able to prove the existence of the body and the soul.
Descartes begins his meditations by denying everything he knows unless it is absolutely certain. Once one certain idea is found, only then may he proceed to rebuild upon that everything he knows. Arriving at his two goals this way will leave absolutely no doubt in his mind or those of his skeptics. Although the Meditations are built to withstand criticism, the work as a whole is not as strong as it could be. Descartes goes to such great extremes to prove his points and develop his arguments that they seem at times silly. Some of his assumptions are made in confusing circumstantial situations and are therefore borderline on the absurd.
The idea of reality existing in various degrees is incomprehensible to most people, even the scholars of that era. At other times Descartes is talking about weird looking animals and the fact that he really is a gourd. Times like these make his philosophy very extreme and almost incredible to people who do not fully understand Descartes methods. Descartes philosophy would be much more credible if the goals were met without having to go to such extremes. The separate existence of the body and the soul could have been affirmed with much less thought if Descartes had used the existence of God as his archemedean point instead of “I am, I exist”.
Descartes would contest that the skeptics would refute this God-based argument without hesitation. Also, the meditations were written during the era of the Reformation, when religious support by the great minds of the day would have been greatly appreciated. Descartes did promote the existence of God, but his philosophy used God only as a second base. He could have showed more support for the church more by making God his primary base, or his archimedean point. After all, no matter how many people refuse to believe in God because of their own stubborn fears or radical ideas, Gods existence can be proved in many ways. Although Descartes is correct on Gods existence and nearly all the rest of his assertions, one particular profession stands in the gray Descartes insistence that people cannot be absolutely sure that they are dreaming is not completely correct.
When people are truly awake in reality, they are absolutely certain that they are awake. Only when they are sleeping are they able to be fooled that they are awake when they really are not. No matter how many times a person “wakes up” in a dream and is under the false impression that they are awake, when they finally wake up into reality, they will be certain that they are awake and alive. In this moment of awareness a person could affirm that his body does exist and is separate from his soul. This is assuming that God is not some “evil genius” who would deceive people, of course, but that is defeated when God is proved anyway.
Although Descartes would probably think of some way to defeat this statement or just reaffirm that people can never surely know if they are awake, this argument would stand much better with those people who are not as intellectual as Descartes. Just a few small refinements in Descartes arguments would really help him achieve his goal more quickly, easily, and directly. Most importantly, the existence of God should be the archimedean point in the Meditations. Anything that recognizes the existence of God should hold Him as the basis for all else that follows. No matter how complex his methods, Rene Descartes did in fact prove the existence of God and the distinction of the body from the soul.