Law, Politics, and Philosophy

Tuguegarao City, Cagayan. Atty. MICHAEL JHON M. TAMAYAO manages this blog. Contact: mjmtamayao@yahoo.com.

RENE DESCARTES

Michael Tamayao

Cogito Ergo Sum. I think, therefore I am. The mere fact that I am thinking, I am certain that I exist. This statement occupies a special place in the revolutionary philosophy of Rene Descartes, who, among other thinkers, plays a critical role in the development of modern western thought.

Who was Rene Descartes?

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a famous French philosopher and mathematician. He was considered by many scholars as the “Father of Modern Philosophy” because he initiated the shift from Medieval to the Modern way of thinking. Much of the subsequent western philosophies were reactions to his philosophy.

What was the impetus for Descartes’s philosophy?

Mathematician that he was, Descartes desired to make knowledge certain; he wanted to create a system of knowledge that was error-free. Philosophies of the past were laden with uncertainties, ambiguities and all sorts of errors, so he demolished them and tried to institute a skeptic-proof science. It was in mathematics alone that he saw hopes in fulfilling his task. In his Discourse on Method, he says “Of all who have sought for the truth in the sciences, it has been the mathematicians alone who have been able to succeed in producing reasons which are evident and certain.” The geometrical method was for him the perfect tool. Just as the geometrical method of Euclid starts from certain ideas which need not be proven, Descartes’s philosophy starts from a statement whose truth is self-evident, and from which all knowledge can be deduced. However, this statement cannot be something that is taken from sense experience, for although it is readily available and believable, knowledge arising from sense experience is subject to uncertainties. As Descartes famously states “senses often deceive us.” If “empirical” knowledge is excluded, then what remains is knowledge from pure reason, that is, knowledge learned without the use of the senses. This belief stating that true and certain ideas are only attained through reason is called “rationalism.” Thus Descartes, in his quest to make knowledge certain and clear, employed only intuition and deduction. Like in analytical geometry, which he himself created, he first intuited the first principle or “axiom” of philosophy, that which need not be proven because it is in itself evident to reason. From this axiom, he thought of inferring and squeezing the juices of truth through logical deduction.

How did Descartes arrive at the “cogito ergo sum”?

Because anything that can be doubted was discarded as untrue knowledge, Descartes sought for something that was indubitable (cannot be doubted) to serve as the ground of his system of thinking. For him, the only thing that cannot be doubted was doubting itself. To still doubt that you are doubting is self-contradicting and virtually impossible because the data subjected to doubt has already been proven true the very moment the act has been carried out. To doubt doubting is to affirm it. Thus, that he is doubtful is certain. Or restated more paradoxically, he is certain that he is uncertain. Moving on, he saw doubting as a mode of thinking. No one can reject that he is thinking because rejecting the idea proves that he is already thinking. That I am thinking is certain beyond the most extreme form of doubt. Thinking is something and can never be nothing. Since thinking is something, and since I am certain that I am thinking, then I am certain that I am something. Or to put it simply, I think, therefore I exist. Whether you affirm or deny it, the statement “I think, therefore I exist” or in Latin, “Cogito, ergo sum” remains to be true no matter what. Doubting or thinking requires the existence of the thinking being. Thinking about doubting or doubting that we are thinking proves to us that we exist as thinking beings.

What is the “I” in the “I think therefore I exist”?

Descartes is certain that he exists because he thinks. This does not however mean that he is certain that his “body” exists because the knowledge of the body is acquired through the senses which was previously said to be unreliable. So he is uncertain that he exists as a body, but he is certain that he exists as a thinking being. Thus, the “I” which Descartes is certain of existing is not his body but he as a thinking being. By thinking he means any conscious activity of a person such as reflecting, doubting, questioning, proposing, willing, imagining, sensing, and the awareness that he is thinking. Since this is the only thing about him that cannot be doubted, thinking is said to be his essence.

How does the Cartesian Method work?

In his work Discourse on Method (1637), Descartes expressed his intentions of making a new method which will serve as the basis for all scientific and philosophical inquiries. We can easily understand his method using the analogy of a chain. The strength of the chain is generally measured by the durability of its first ring. If the first ring (from which the rest of the chain is anchored) is weak then the chain will easily crumble when a strong external tension is exerted on it. But if the first ring is “unbreakable,” then the chain will withstand any external force. Descartes pictures his system of knowledge like the latter chain which is anchored on an “unbreakable” first ring. He wants the system of knowledge to be like the latter chain. Through his new method, Descartes firmly believes that, like the sturdy chain, all sciences and philosophies will withstand the onslaught of skepticism no matter how extreme it may be. Knowledge must start from something that is recognized by reason as “clear and distinct.” That which is unclear and ambiguous is unreliable, and that which is unreliable cannot serve as a keystone of knowledge. Since sense perception is unreliable, the only means to acquire clear and distinct ideas is through “intuition” and “deduction.” As was already proven, the first ring in the chain of knowledge is the existing thinking self. Thus from this indubitable idea all knowledge must be deduced. No link in the deductive chain of knowledge must be omitted and everything must be ultimately linked to the starting point. Through this mechanism everything participates in the same degree of truth enjoyed by the first idea. How did Descartes think as an Skeptic? Descartes used the method of skepticism to arrive at the incontrovertible and absolute truth. He discarded anything that can be doubted and retained only the things that cannot be doubted (which is, the cogito ergo sum). Unlike the conventional “Skeptics,” Descartes doubted not in order to remain in doubt but in order to arrive at the solid starting point of knowledge. He doubted in order to believe once again. Descartes employed radical doubt. He doubted everything that is acquired by the knowing faculties: sense data and intellectual data. He even doubted mathematical truths saying that an “Evil Genius” may be fooling him, making something that is objectively wrong as right. That 1+1=2 may in fact be objectively wrong, but because the “Evil Genius” is so deceitful he can make it seem perfectly correct. Paradoxically, doubt itself is certain. Descartes stated that what is certain to him is that he is doubting and, consequently, thinking. Despite his extreme doubt, he was most certain that he exists. Thus in face of the onslaught of skepticism, the only real thing to him is his thinking. With this, he concludes that the primary reality is the thinking thing or the “res cogitans.” In this point of his philosophy, however, Descartes faces the philosophical problem of solipsism. Solipsism states that we can only be certain about the existence of our self and not of any other person or thing. This is a logical consequence of his subjectivist philosophy, which certifies only the knowledge of the self. To overcome this problem, Descartes disembarked yet again to the quest of proving the existence of things and beings other than him. He started with the existence of God.

How did Descartes prove that God exists?

Descartes is now aware that he exists as a thinking thing. But this awareness also tells him that he is limited and imperfect and subject to doubt. If given the chance that he gives existence to himself, he should have given himself a perfect nature. Thus, he did not give existence to himself. Descartes was aware that he was imperfect. But with the idea of “imperfection” comes the idea of “perfect” because you cannot know the one without the other. Now, the idea of “perfect” cannot come from Descartes or from any limited thinking self for the simple reason that “the perfect cannot come from the imperfect.” Hence, it can only come from a Perfect Being, who is God. For Descartes the idea that “God is Perfect” is clear and distinct, it is innate. If God is perfect, then part of his essence is to exist, for just as the idea of “three sides” is included in the idea of triangle, so is existence included in the idea of God, the Perfect Being. After proving the existence of God, Descartes pressed on to state that man can rely on his reason. Since God is perfect he can never deceive us because doing so destroys his perfect nature. Thus, the rational self is now ascertained that the clear and distinct ideas it apprehends are indeed certain and true. Accordingly the concept of an Evil Genius is debunked. Types of Ideas… With the first idea now in place, Descartes then tries to rebuild the entire system of knowledge. He fills the foundation with innate ideas which he thinks are true and certain. By innate he means ideas which are available to us since birth such as the knowledge of God, logical and mathematical principles, and moral truths, to name a few. Aside from the innate ideas, Descartes distinguishes two other types, adventitious and fictitious ideas. By adventitious he means ideas which are derived from the sense, and by fictitious he means ideas fashioned by the thinking self out of the former. The knowledge that “fire is hot” is adventitious, while the idea of a “human torch” is fictitious. Descartes has little regard for the latter two because they are acquired only through the senses. Only innate ideas and knowledge deduced from innate ideas are certainly true for him.

Does the material world exist?

Again in contrast to conventional skeptics, Descartes proved the existence of the external world. He said that although the external world is known through the senses (which are unreliable) there is still evidence that it really exists. When we feel the heat of the sun, we do not just will it to be hot because it comes as a data of the senses. The rays of the sun are hot because they are indeed hot and not because we only thought them to be hot. Sensory perceptions come to us involuntarily, thus pointing to the fact that there is something “external” existing outside the thinking self. For Descartes this is the external world or “res extensa.” It is possible that the senses deceive us, but it is overwhelmingly clear that there are things outside the mind that trigger the senses. And we have a very strong inclination that these things are corporeal. We are so sure that God would be charged of deceit given that these data were all but mere illusions. Well of course, by virtue of the nature of the senses, some data may be wrong, but through the proper use of reason and critical examination we could arrive at the actual picture of the material world. At the end of his work Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), Descartes reassured us of the validity of our knowledge of our own existence, of God, and of the material world.

Who is man for Rene Descartes?

The “res cogitans” or the thinking thing is immaterial, while the “res extensa” or external world is material. These two realities are fused in the substance of man; he is a dichotomy of mind and body. The body, on the one hand, has the material properties of extension and motion, and as such it is governed by the laws of physics. On the other hand, the mind, inasmuch as it is immaterial, is not governed by the laws of physics. For Descartes, only man has a mind thus the only thing in the universe that is beyond the grasps of the laws of nature. Although ultimately Descartes proved the existence of the body, he saw it as an inessential part of his personal existence. For him, what constitutes the true essence of man is the mind, making him a strict rationalist. The mind, which has priority over the body, is more real than the body, and it can exist apart from the body. Descartes then sought for the link that ties the two realities in man. He said with fervent conviction that it was through the “pineal gland” in the brain that the mind interacts with the body. But since the mind takes precedence over the body, Descartes’s mind-body dualism has a uni-directional stint stating that the mind controls the body.

How do we become ethical according to Descartes?

Reason plays a central role in Descartes’s ethics. In his work Rules for the Direction of the Mind, he insists that humans must increase their natural light of reason. Our intellect should direct our will in pursuing what must ought be done. Reason alone makes man moral. A good man is someone in a good mental health and has freed himself from the mental diseases of doubt and deception. Happiness consists solely in contemplating the truth from which the comforts of life come. Everything begins in the proper use of the thinking faculties. We learn to preserve our health, to conduct our acts, and all manners of skills through the contemplation of truth and proper exercise of reason. Anyone can survive the saddest disasters and emotional pains provided he knows how to use his reason. One of the main points of Descartes’s ethical code is to embrace life and to never fear death. This manifests the Hellenistic influence of stoicism on his philosophy. Do not imprison yourself in fear of things which are impossible to control such as death. Instead develop an affirmative attitude towards life by having recourse to reason. One gains mastery of himself by devoting his whole life in search for truth and by not succumbing to his emotions.

Final Words…

If there is one thing you need to remember about Descartes’s philosophy, it is its goal of cultivating the mind’s capacity for sound judgment and putting reason before anything else. For Descartes, reality must be explained through clear and distinct ideas. In order to weed out the unclear and indistinct, he employed his radical skepticism, from which he arrived at the indubitable idea that “the thinking self exists.” Then he rebuilt the system of knowledge and continued in proving the existence of God and the corporeal world. For him, man is a dichotomy of mind and body. But because the mind has precedence over the body, man is essentially a thinking being. Thus, he must live in accordance with reason and never with passions.

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This entry was posted on April 28, 2011 by in Ethics, Uncategorized.

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tamayaocsu

tamayaocsu

Tuguegarao City, Cagayan Atty. MICHAEL JHON M. TAMAYAO manages this blog. He is currently starting his private law practice. Contact: mjmtamayao@yahoo.com; Tel. No. 09353343739. PROFILE: Atty. Tamayao is currently teaching law, philosophy and social sciences at the Cagayan State University. He finished his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy degree at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Santo Tomas and graduated in 2005, garnering the highest academic honors in that Academic Year. He pursued Licentiate in Philosophy and Master of Arts in Philosophy degrees at the same university, completing them both in 2007. In 2009, he took up Bachelor of Laws and Letter at the Cagayan State University, where he also teaches. He passed the 2013 bar exams, and now currently taking up Master of Laws and Letters at the San Beda Graduate School of Law.

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