Perhaps if you know any Latin at all, you will know the little phrase ‘cogito ergo sum’ or ‘I think/cogitate therefore I am’. It is perhaps one of the most famous sentences ever uttered in modern history. The first time I ever heard this phrase was, oddly enough, whilst listening to one of my favorite Moody Blues albums, when all of a sudden either Justin Hayward or John Lodge said in one of their more ethereal songs “I think, therefore I am” to which they added “at least I think I am.” The irony of that is that they added ‘doubt’ to the one proposition that Descartes said could not be doubted– the thinking subject cannot doubt that he exists or else he wouldn’t be thinking. Descartes was on a quest for what a person can know with certainty. It was a lonely quest, and in the end it landed him in Sweden freezing to death and dying of a fever, as a guest of Queen Christina of Stockholm.
But that ending on Feb. 11th 1650 was the beginning of not only a story about his bones and their various bizarre travels, but really the story of modern intellectual history and how it broke free from medieval feudalism and the control of one state church after another. It is a story that in one sense led to the American and French revolutions, and if for no other reason, it is a story Americans ought to study closely if they want to understand not merely the origins of their intellectual freedom to speak and believe freely as they feel led and are persuaded, but also the origins of the modern tension between faith and reason, church and state, mind and body, certainity and doubt, objective and subjective evidence, and we could go on. The basic antinomies of modern thought, whether secular or sacred, whether religious or profane can in one way or another be traced back to Descartes reflections in his most famous of all works— “A Discourse on Method”.
Here is a brief synopsis snagged from the Wiki article which I find, in this case to be fundamentally accurate—
“René Descartes (French pronunciation: [??ne deka?t]), (31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650), also known as Renatus Cartesius (latinized form), was a French philosopher, mathematician, scientist, and writer who spent most of his adult life in the Dutch Republic. He has been dubbed the “Father of Modern Philosophy,” and much of subsequent Western philosophy is a response to his writings, which continue to be studied closely to this day. In particular, his Meditations continues to be a standard text at most university philosophy departments. Descartes’ influence in mathematics is also apparent, the Cartesian coordinate system allowing geometric shapes to be expressed in algebraic equations being named for him. He is accreditied as the father of analytical geometry. Descartes was also one of the key figures in the Scientific Revolution.
Descartes frequently sets his views apart from those of his predecessors. In the opening section of the Passions of the Soul, a treatise on the Early Modern version of what are now commonly called emotions, he goes so far as to assert that he will write on his topic “as if no one had written on these matters before”. Many elements of his philosophy have precedents in late Aristotelianism, the revived Stoicism of the 16th century, or in earlier philosophers like St. Augustine. In his natural philosophy, he differs from the Schools on two major points: First, he rejects the analysis of corporeal substance into matter and form; second, he rejects any appeal to ends — divine or natural — in explaining natural phenomena. In his theology, he insists on the absolute freedom of God’s act of creation.
Descartes was a major figure in 17th century continental rationalism, later advocated by Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz, and opposed by the empiricist school of thought consisting of Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Leibniz, Spinoza and Descartes were all well versed in mathematics as well as philosophy, and Descartes and Leibniz contributed greatly to science as well. As the inventor of the Cartesian coordinate system, Descartes founded analytic geometry, the bridge between algebra and geometry, crucial to the invention of calculus and analysis. Descartes’ reflections on mind and mechanism began the strain of Western thought that much later, impelled by the invention of the electronic computer and by the possibility of machine intelligence, blossomed into the Turing test and related thought. His most famous statement is: Cogito ergo sum (French: Je pense, donc je suis; English: I think, therefore I am; OR I am thinking, therefore I exist), found in §7 of part I of Principles of Philosophy (Latin) and in part IV of Discourse on the Method (French).
Descartes is often regarded as the first modern thinker to provide a philosophical framework for the natural sciences as these began to develop. In his Discourse on the Method he attempts to arrive at a fundamental set of principles that one can know as true without any doubt. To achieve this, he employs a method called hyperbolical/metaphysical doubt, sometimes also referred to as methodological skepticism: he rejects any ideas that can be doubted, and then reestablishes them in order to acquire a firm foundation for genuine knowledge.
Initially, Descartes arrives at only a single principle: thought exists. Thought cannot be separated from me, therefore, I exist (Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy). Most famously, this is known as cogito ergo sum (English: “I think, therefore I am”). Therefore, Descartes concluded, if he doubted, then something or someone must be doing the doubting, therefore the very fact that he doubted proved his existence. “The simple meaning of the phrase is that if one is skeptical of existence, that is in and of itself proof that he does exist.” 
René Descartes at work.
Descartes concludes that he can be certain that he exists because he thinks. But in what form? He perceives his body through the use of the senses; however, these have previously been proven unreliable. So Descartes concludes that the only indubitable knowledge is that he is a thinking thing. Thinking is his essence as it is the only thing about him that cannot be doubted. Descartes defines “thought” (cogitatio) as “what happens in me such that I am immediately conscious of it, insofar as I am conscious of it”. Thinking is thus every activity of a person of which he is immediately conscious.
To further demonstrate the limitations of the senses, Descartes proceeds with what is known as the Wax Argument. He considers a piece of wax; his senses inform him that it has certain characteristics, such as shape, texture, size, color, smell, and so forth. When he brings the wax towards a flame, these characteristics change completely. However, it seems that it is still the same thing: it is still a piece of wax, even though the data of the senses inform him that all of its characteristics are different. Therefore, in order to properly grasp the nature of the wax, he cannot use the senses. He must use his mind. Descartes concludes:
“ And so something which I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind. ”
In this manner, Descartes proceeds to construct a system of knowledge, discarding perception as unreliable and instead admitting only deduction as a method. In the third and fifth Meditation, he offers an ontological proof of a benevolent God (through both the ontological argument and trademark argument). Because God is benevolent, he can have some faith in the account of reality his senses provide him, for God has provided him with a working mind and sensory system and does not desire to deceive him. From this supposition, however, he finally establishes the possibility of acquiring knowledge about the world based on deduction and perception. In terms of epistemology therefore, he can be said to have contributed such ideas as a rigorous conception of foundationalism and the possibility that reason is the only reliable method of attaining knowledge.
In Descartes’ system, knowledge takes the form of ideas, and philosophical investigation is the contemplation of these ideas. This concept would influence subsequent internalist movements as Descartes’ epistemology requires that a connection made by conscious awareness will distinguish knowledge from falsity. As a result of his Cartesian doubt, he viewed rational knowledge as being “incapable of being destroyed” and sought to construct an unshakable ground upon which all other knowledge can be based. The first item of unshakable knowledge that Descartes argues for is the aforementioned cogito, or thinking thing.
Descartes also wrote a response to skepticism about the existence of the external world. He argues that sensory perceptions come to him involuntarily, and are not willed by him. They are external to his senses, and according to Descartes, this is evidence of the existence of something outside of his mind, and thus, an external world. Descartes goes on to show that the things in the external world are material by arguing that God would not deceive him as to the ideas that are being transmitted, and that God has given him the “propensity” to believe that such ideas are caused by material things.
Descartes was also renowned for his work in producing the Cartesian Theory of Fallacies. This can be most easily explored using the statement: “This statement is a lie.” While it is most commonly referred to as a paradox, the Cartesian Theory of Fallacies states that at any given time a statement can be both true and false simultaneously due to its contradictory nature. The statement is true in its fallacy. Thus, Descartes developed the Cartesian Theory of Fallacies, which greatly influenced the thinking of the time. Many would-be philosophers were trying to develop inexplicable statements of seeming fact, however, this laid rumors of such a proposition impossible. Many philosophers believe that when Descartes formulated his Theory of Fallacies, he intended to be lying, which in and of itself embodies the theory.
Descartes suggested that the body works like a machine, that it has the material properties of extension and motion, and that it follows the laws of physics. The mind (or soul), on the other hand, was described as a nonmaterial entity that lacks extension and motion, and does not follow the laws of physics. Descartes argued that only humans have minds, and that the mind interacts with the body at the pineal gland. This form of dualism or duality proposes that the mind controls the body, but that the body can also influence the otherwise rational mind, such as when people act out of passion. Most of the previous accounts of the relationship between mind and body had been uni-directional.
Descartes suggested that the pineal gland is “the seat of the soul” for several reasons. First, the soul is unitary, and unlike many areas of the brain the pineal gland appears to be unitary (microscopic inspection reveals it is formed of two hemispheres). Second, Descartes observed that the pineal gland was located near the ventricles. He believed the animal spirits of the ventricles acted through the nerves to control the body, and that the pineal gland influenced this process. Finally, Descartes incorrectly believed that only humans have pineal glands, just as, in his view, only humans have minds. This led him to the belief that animals cannot feel pain, and Descartes’ practice of vivisection (the dissection of live animals) became widely used throughout Europe until the Enlightenment. Cartesian dualism set the agenda for philosophical discussion of the mind-body problem for many years after Descartes’ death. The question of how a nonmaterial mind could influence a material body, without invoking supernatural explanations, remains controversial to this day.”
My concern in this post is not to debate Cartesianism, which has even been used to support the ontological argument for the existence of God, my concern is with the really splendid and well written book released last year by Doubleday by Russell Shorto with the title DESCARTES BONES; A SKELETAL HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT BETWEEN FAITH AND REASON.
In the first place this is a beautifully produced and first rate read. It is one part detective story (instead of where’s Waldo, we seek to discover– where’s Descartes skull?), one part intellectual history of the West since Descartes, one part investigation of why there has been so much fascination with and concern about Descartes bones and legacy over the past 350+ years. Shorto, it must be said,tries to accomplish too much in some 253 pages of this well written investigation, but like imbibing a good gumbo, if you simply drink in whatever he is serving up, you will find the final product nourishing and tasty. Had the story really been limited to the detective bit of tracking Descartes bones through Europe, it would have been too short a story for a full book.
The question for us as Christians to ask about Mssr. Descartes, who was himself a devout Christian, is— why should so many non- and anti-Christians of various eras have taken him to be their intellectual hero? Richard Watson, one of the foremost authorities on Descartes in the world, and perhaps the foremost in North America explains:
“Descartes laid the foundations for the dominance of reason in science and human affairs. He desacralized nature and set individual human being above church and state. Without Cartesian individualism, we would have no democracy. Without the Cartesian method of analyzing material things into their primary elements, we would never have developed the atom bomb. The seventeenth-century rise of Modern Science, the eighteenth century Enlightenment, the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, your twentieth-century personal computer, and twenty-first-century deciphering of the brain–all Cartesian. The modern world is Cartesian to the core.” [Watson Cogito ergo Sum. The Life of Rene Descartes, (Boston: Godine, 2002), p. 3].
I would say, as the British do, this is over-egging the pudding a bit, but still it gives you some degree of understanding of the impact of Cartesianism on the modern western world. To the Christian it is hard to avoid hearing echoes of the primeval story of Eden lost in the reflections of Descartes.
What I mean by this is you will remember what happened to Adam and Eve, according to Gen. 3.7 when they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil– “and the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked” Here we have not merely self-awareness, the realization that one exists, but self-consciousness in the negative sense, the heart turned in upon itself, the beginning of self-centered, selfish existence. The beginning of isolation from God and all other creatures or things. The beginning of doubt, as opposed to faith (“Did God really say…….?”).
Cartesianism in some ways sounds as if it is the ultimate philosophical playing out of that primeval story, for good or ill, and mostly the latter. What we need to know about the story is that
both modern radical atheism and modern fundamentalism with its anti-intellectual spirit are in fact over-reactions to Cartesianism in various ways, either on the faith side of the equation or the reason side of the equation. Shorto, insightfully puts it this way:
“‘Reason vs. Faith’ may be the chronic fever of modernity, but if the Western world caught it in the period of the Enlightenment the division was not as clear as some today might like to believe. There seems nowadays to be an ingrained notion that people of that era set reason firmly against faith and the two have ever been locked in a death struggle. [which Shorto rightly goes on to say is absolutely false, especially in the case of Descartes himself] Maybe this idea comes from our desire to simplify things, our hunger for sound bites and text crawls. Maybe it gives clarity to both the hard-core believers and the antireligion faction, both of which are very much alive today. People who want to drive society and politics via the motor of their religious views– whether they are Muslims, American evangelicals, Roman Catholics, members of Indian’s nationalist Hindu party– have been particularly vocal in recent years. But the other side– political atheists, you might call them–are voicing themselves, too, as evidenced by the titles of recent books: ‘The God Delusion….’ etc. The root of these atheist manifestos is the belief that society woke-up three or four centuries ago to the realization that God doesn’t control the universe, that rather blind forces of nature do, but that many people around the world are still caught in the trap of religion and are threatening, with violence and intimidation, to drag humanity down the drain. If the hard-core faithful have their ancient texts to rely on for foundations, the new atheists have the Enlightenment.” (pp. 79-80). But in fact both extremes of this debate and ongoing struggle have their history wrong.
As Shorto goes on to show, Descartes was not part of the radical Enlightenment, and his legacy was never a matter of repudiating faith in order to exalt reason, and make humankind and human thinking the measure of all things. His legacy has more to do with the ability to distinguish between soul and body, or even more particularly between mind and brain (the latter being the hardware and the former being the software so to speak, and without the software there is no real thinking or consciousness. A corpse still has his full material brain the instant after death, but the mind and with it consciousness has left the building). Descartes was interested in distinctions and categorizations that help us better understand ourselves, the world, and even God. He was not interested in radical dichotomies between faith and reason, and indeed to the end of his life he wrote about and looked for ways to connect the soul and the body or the mind and the body. “In his last book, Descartes states that in effect there must be a third substance, which is not really a third substance but a compound of mind and body…’I should treat it as a code, an encoding, which allows mind to react on body and body on mind.” (Shorto p. 251. The quote within the quote is from Father Jean-Robert Armogathe, a Roman Catholic priest of Paris and one of the premiere experts in Descartes).
There is so much more to Shorto’s stimulating book, including what happened to Descartes skull and body, which I will leave to your own peregrinations. What I would like to do here at the close of this little discussion is point out what Descartes seems to have really thought and believed.
He believed that nature is not defiled by inquiry, and so for example the examination of corpses to help us advance medicine and knowledge of human beings is not a sacrilege. Precisely because he believed in a Creator God distinct from all of his creation, he believed one was not defiling a deity when one examined nature or human nature. He could point to the story in Genesis of human beings naming and classifying the animals, of their filling the earth and understanding as well as ruling over it. Descartes, in others words, would not see most of modern empirical science as in any ways at odds with Christian faith. Indeed, he would see it as a natural outcome of such faith, believing there really is a world outside the human mind that can and ought to be examined and understood.
Secondly, Descartes did not believe that reason in itself was at odds with revelation or faith. Indeed, he believed that ‘right reason’ and proper faith should be seen as complementary things, though often they had different spheres of inquiry. Reason and understanding were good gifts of God, as was faith. He would no more have approved of modern atheism than he would have approved of the modern anti-intellectual spirit of Protestant fundamentalism.
Shorto in his book goes on to show how it was the Enlightement of Descartes, not the Enlightenment of the radical figures which led to the American Revolution, led to notions of intellectual freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, but a continued strong faith in God. This could be contrasted with the French revolution which was the brain child of the truly godless or sometimes even pantheistic radical Enlightenemnt (see e.g. Spinoza).
I think he is right in this analysis, and here is what it means. As both Americans and Christians, we need to come to better terms with Descartes. We need to understand why Descartes’ call to critical thinking without in any way jettisoning one’s trust in God is the crucial via media between being benighted and blessed, between being at odds with our Maker and using all the spiritual and intellectual gifts he has given us, between bowing down to the spirit of repression and anti-intellectualism in the name of God, or the spirit of suppression of all those who would want to exorcise all religion from our intellectual history. If revering God is the beginning of all wisdom, then loving God and all others and all of creation with our entire minds must be said to be the continuation of that wisdom.
It was not natural human inquiry and intellectual curiosity which killed the Adamic cat— it was disobedience to a clear command of God.