No. 3151: Descartes (2023)

Today, a voice crying out for reason. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Utter the name Descartes and the phrase "I think, therefore I am" immediately comes to mind. It's catchy, but it fails to capture the monumental impact Descartes had on the course of human thought.

No. 3151: Descartes (1)
Descartes portrait by Franz Hals Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Descartes was educated in a period when Scholasticism predominated universities. Representing a reshaping of Aristotelian thought through the lens of Church scholars, Scholasticism had no interest in the scientific method. When observational facts conflicted with the Scholastic doctrine of the Church, the observational facts inevitably lost out.

No. 3151: Descartes (2)
Laurentius de Voltolina Photo Credit: Wikimedia

It was into this environment that Descartes unleashed his treatise Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences. The work was a call to understanding the world through reason. And in its pages Descartes sought to construct the foundation for human reason by stripping away belief in anything that could be doubted. He entertained the thought that "everything that had ever entered my mind was no more true than the illusions of my dreams." From this position of extreme skepticism, Descartes arrived at but one irrefutable fact: I am thinking, therefore I exist.

No. 3151: Descartes (3)
Descartes Discours de la Methode Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Now, it's a long way from there to a world governed by human reason. Descartes bridged this gap by arguing his existence derived from something more perfect than himself. That something was God.

Throughout his life Descartes was a devout Christian. He believed his arguments did more than simply provide a way for faith and reason to peacefully coexist. To Descartes, faith and reason were intimately bound together. Surely the Church would embrace what Descartes had to offer.

As word of Discourse on the Method spread, freethinking scholars saw an alternative to the Scholastic way of thinking. For Scholastics, this was a challenge to established orthodoxy. One illustrative point of contention arose over transubstantiation -- the Catholic dogma that the bread and wine used in the ritual of the Catholic mass were transformed into the actual -- not metaphorical -- body and blood of Jesus Christ. Both Scholastics and Descartes' followers were in full agreement that transubstantiation occurred, but they differed in how to explain it. Scholastics believed the very substance of the bread and wine were transformed, whereas Cartesians would argue that if it looked and smelled like bread and wine, it was bread and wine. For Cartesians, the transformation occurred in the spiritual realm of mind and soul, a realm separate and distinct from the physical world of bread and wine. Such was the basis for Scholastic obstructionism.

Like his contemporary Galileo, Descartes' was a voice crying out for reason. And his ideas, coupled with a writing style that was both comprehensible and engaging, helped fuel the passions of minds thirsting for a new way. He was truly a most inventive mind.

No. 3151: Descartes (4)
Cartesian Coordinates Photo Credit: Wikimedia

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


What are the four rules according to Descartes? ›

This method, which he later formulated in Discourse on Method (1637) and Rules for the Direction of the Mind (written by 1628 but not published until 1701), consists of four rules: (1) accept nothing as true that is not self-evident, (2) divide problems into their simplest parts, (3) solve problems by proceeding from ...

Does Descartes believe in God? ›

According to Descartes, God's existence is established by the fact that Descartes has a clear and distinct idea of God; but the truth of Descartes's clear and distinct ideas are guaranteed by the fact that God exists and is not a deceiver.

What was Descartes main theory? ›

Descartes argued the theory of innate knowledge and that all humans were born with knowledge through the higher power of God. It was this theory of innate knowledge that was later combated by philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), an empiricist. Empiricism holds that all knowledge is acquired through experience.

What does the phrase I think, therefore I am mean? ›

Phrase. I think therefore I am. (philosophy) I am able to think, therefore I exist. A philosophical proof of existence based on the fact that someone capable of any form of thought necessarily exists.

What were Descartes 3 main ideas? ›

Scholars agree that Descartes recognizes at least three innate ideas: the idea of God, the idea of (finite) mind, and the idea of (indefinite) body.

What is the problem of Descartes philosophy? ›

The problem is that, in the case of voluntarily bodily movements, contact between mind and body would be impossible given the mind's non-extended nature. This is because contact must be between two surfaces, but surface is a mode of body, as stated at Principles of Philosophy part II, section 15.

What is the famous line of Descartes? ›

I think; therefore I am. The reading of all good books is like conversation with the finest men of past centuries. Cogito ergo sum. (I think, therefore I am.)

What are Descartes two proofs of God's existence? ›

Another problematic notion of Descartes' project with respect to the argument for the existence of God is the fact that he felt the need to introduce two separate proofs for the existence of God — a causal proof in the third meditation and the ontological proof in the fifth meditation.

What are the 5 proofs of God's existence? ›

Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways to Prove the Existence of God
  • The First Way: Motion.
  • The Second Way: Efficient Cause.
  • The Third Way: Possibility and Necessity.
  • The Fourth Way: Gradation.
  • The Fifth Way: Design.

What was the first thing Descartes doubted? ›

In order to determine whether there is anything we can know with certainty, Descartes says that we first have to doubt everything we know. Such a radical doubt might not seem reasonable, and Descartes certainly does not mean that we really should doubt everything.

What are all of Descartes arguments? ›

Descartes uses three very similar arguments to open all our knowledge to doubt: The dream argument, the deceiving God argument, and the evil demon argument.

Where does Descartes get his idea of God from? ›

He purports to rely not on an arbitrary definition of God but rather on an innate idea whose content is “given.” Descartes' version is also extremely simple. God's existence is inferred directly from the fact that necessary existence is contained in the clear and distinct idea of a supremely perfect being.

Why did Descartes doubt his senses? ›

Answer and Explanation: Descartes doubts his senses because they are capable of being deceived. In other words, sensory information is not as reliable as information that is obtained through pure reason. This is the origin of his famous statement, 'I think therefore I am.

Was Descartes Religious? ›

Throughout his life Descartes was a devout Christian. He believed his arguments did more than simply provide a way for faith and reason to peacefully coexist.

Who are you according to Descartes? ›

In the Meditations and related texts from the early 1640s, Descartes argues that the self can be correctly considered as either a mind or a human being, and that the self's properties vary accordingly. For example, the self is simple considered as a mind, whereas the self is composite considered as a human being.

What three things does Descartes doubt? ›

Descartes doubts everything: external world, his own body, his own existence. Then he wonders how, under these conditions, he could doubt his existence.

What is the error in Descartes? ›

Descartes' Error leads us to conclude that human organisms are endowed from the very beginning with a spirited passion for making choices, which the social mind can use to build rational behavior.

What philosophers disagree with Descartes? ›

Locke was one of those scholars who disagreed with the theory and argued that all human knowledge was established through experience rather than as stated by Descartes. In his book “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” John Locke contends against innate ideas utilizing various arguments.

What Cannot be doubted Descartes? ›

The one thing that Decartes claimed he can not doubt on is "himself." If he doubts that, then he would have thought of everything as an illusion or some sort of dream, even for himself.

What was Descartes famous conclusion? ›

Descartes concludes: 'So after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that this proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. '

What were the last words of René Descartes? ›

On his death in 1650, Descartes' last words are said to have been 'Ça, mon âme, il faut partir' ('So, my soul, it is time to part').

Does Descartes believe in free will? ›

Freedom is a central theme in Descartes's philosophy, where it is linked to the theme of the infinite: it is through the freedom of the will, experienced as unlimited, that the human understands itself to bear the "image and likeness" of the infinite God.

How does Descartes define truth? ›

Here's what we've been waiting for: Descartes's definition of truth. He defined it as 'a clarity and distinctness of thought' after trying to forcefully validate your ideas as much as you can.

Did Descartes say I think therefore I am? ›

cogito, ergo sum, (Latin: “I think, therefore I am) dictum coined by the French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes in his Discourse on Method (1637) as a first step in demonstrating the attainability of certain knowledge.

What is the first proof of God? ›

Proof of God's Existence

In the first proof, Descartes argues that, by evidence, he is an imperfect being who has an objective reality including the notion that perfection exists and therefore has a distinct idea of a perfect being (God, for example).

How does Descartes prove that God is not a deceiver? ›

An act of deception is an act of falsity, and falsity deals with what is not. Thus, by Descartes' reasoning, God cannot be a deceiver since he is supremely real and does not participate in any way in nothingness.

How do we know God exists? ›

As mentioned earlier, evidence for God's existence is widely available through creation, conscience, rationality and human experience. What is more, the biblical faith—unlike other traditional religions—is checkable; it opens itself up to public scrutiny.

What two beliefs does Descartes take to be most certain? ›

At the beginning of the Third Meditation only “I exist” and “I am a thinking thing” are beyond doubt and are, therefore, absolutely certain. From these intuitively grasped, absolutely certain truths, Descartes now goes on to deduce the existence of something other than himself, namely God.

What does Descartes say about God? ›

Descartes' ontological argument goes as follows: (1) Our idea of God is of a perfect being, (2) it is more perfect to exist than not to exist, (3) therefore, God must exist.

What was Descartes trying to prove by doubting everything? ›

This method of doubt was largely popularized in Western philosophy by René Descartes, who sought to doubt the truth of all beliefs in order to determine which he could be certain were true. It is the basis for Descartes' statement, "Cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am).

What is Descartes strongest argument for dualism? ›

Descartes' Arguments for Dualism (Meditation 6)

Strong Form: For any X and any Y, IF, for any property F, X has F if and only if Y has F, THEN X is identical to Y.

What is human nature according to Descartes? ›

According to Descartes, a human being is a union of mind and body, two radically dissimilar substances that interact in the pineal gland. He reasoned that the pineal gland must be the uniting point because it is the only nondouble organ in the brain, and double reports, as from two eyes, must have one place to merge.

How does Descartes explain how we humans make mistakes? ›

The answer, as Descartes shows in principles I. 32 through I. 44, is that error results only when we form judgments about perceptions that are not clear and distinct. So long as we only assent to clear and distinct perceptions, we will never fall into error.

What conclusion does Descartes reach at the end of meditation I? ›

Conclusion: Mind More Distinct Than Matter: In any case, Descartes concludes that, while it may SEEM that you understand the nature of things like tables more than minds, you're wrong. For, you never really see material things.

What was the primary reason Descartes doubted so many things? ›

The primary reason that Descartes doubted so many things was: B: To find if there was any belief that was certain.

Did Descartes believe in truth? ›

Apparently, Descartes assumes that true belief is stronger than any doubt. He does not explicitly argue it but it is implied by his definition of truth as 'beyond any doubt'. By defining truth in this way, Descartes assumes not only that the doubtful may be false, but also that the true is indubitable.

What did Descartes think about government? ›

In reality, Descartes had less to say about politics than any of the major philosophers, and the little he did say was of a markedly conservative, even reactionary nature. This fact did not, however, deter subsequent writers from finding the seeds of revolt and liberalism in Descartes's philosophy.

Was Descartes a protestant or Catholic? ›

Descartes always insisted that he was a devout and orthodox Catholic (and there is no evidence to the contrary), even though his philosophical method and system were (and still are) criticized by some Catholic philosophers.

What is a Cartesian soul? ›

For Cartesians, the mind or soul is a substance existing in itself, independently of matter; thus, they were able to explain immortality without having to rely on the dubious assumption that the soul-form is a kind of substance.

What did Descartes say about morality? ›

Cartesian moral judgments are truth-evaluable; that is, they are capable of being true or false. Descartes, then, is a cognitivist about moral judgments. As Descartes says, we must recognize that although our best practical moral judgments are morally certain, they may still, “absolutely speaking,” be false.

What is the opposite of mind body dualism? ›

The opposite of dualism is monism. Monism is philosophical teaching according to which everything can be derived from a single principle.

What is 4 a philosophical doctrine that we can only know the consciousness we inhabit? ›

Solipsism, technically, is an extreme form of skepticism, at once utterly illogical and irrefutable. It holds that you are the only conscious being in existence.

What are examples of Descartes rule? ›

For example, the polynomial x5 + x4 − 2x3 + x2 − 1 = 0 changes sign three times, so it has at most three positive real solutions. Substituting −x for x gives the maximum number of negative solutions (two).

What is Descartes first rule of thought? ›

Descartes. Rule 1. The end of study should be to direct the mind towards the enunciation of sound and correct judgement on all matters that come before it.

What is the rule of truth Descartes? ›

Descartes' Truth Rule: Clarity and Distinctness

"Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be true is true." So descartes thinks that, so long as he is really careful, and doesn't form beliefs unless they are clear and distinct, he won't make any epistemic mistakes.

What are the 4 philosophical arguments for the existence of God? ›

Evidence for the existence of God is seen in several ways in what have traditionally been called the Classical Arguments for God's existence. The four Classical arguments are simply called: The Ontological argument, The Cosmological argument, The Teleological argument, and The Moral argument.

What are the 4 theories of consciousness? ›

To clarify this complicated landscape, we review four prominent theoretical approaches to consciousness: higher-order theories, global workspace theories, re-entry and predictive processing theories and integrated information theory.

What are the 4 states of consciousness? ›

In verses 3 to 6, the Mandukya Upanishad enumerates four states of consciousness: wakeful, dream, deep sleep and the state of ekatma (being one with Self, the oneness of Self).

What methods does Descartes reject? ›

French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) fought against such spurious investigative approaches. He rejected the notion that everything could be determined by pure logical analysis, without recourse to observation or experiment.

Why is Descartes rule important? ›

Descartes' rule of sign is used to determine the number of real zeros of a polynomial function. It tells us that the number of positive real zeros in a polynomial function f(x) is the same or less than by an even numbers as the number of changes in the sign of the coefficients.

What reasoning did Descartes use? ›

Cogito, ergo sum. In the Second Meditation, Descartes tries to establish absolute certainty in his famous reasoning: Cogito, ergo sum or “I think, therefore I am.” These Meditations are conducted from the first person perspective, from Descartes.

What is the first thing that Descartes calls into doubt? ›

Answer & Explanation. The first step of Descartes's "method of doubt" is to doubt all his previous beliefs and opinions.

Did Descartes say I think, therefore I am? ›

cogito, ergo sum, (Latin: “I think, therefore I am) dictum coined by the French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes in his Discourse on Method (1637) as a first step in demonstrating the attainability of certain knowledge.

What is the moral philosophy of Descartes? ›

Descartes's morality is anti-Jansenist and anti-Calvinist in that he maintains that the grace that is necessary for salvation can be earned and that human beings are virtuous and able to achieve salvation when they do their best to find and act upon the truth.

What are Descartes three arguments for doubt? ›

Descartes employs three types of argument in order to motivate scepticism about one's beliefs: an argument from perceptual illusion; the dreaming argument; and the evil demon scenario.

What is Descartes most famous for? ›

Descartes has been heralded as the first modern philosopher. He is famous for having made an important connection between geometry and algebra, which allowed for the solving of geometrical problems by way of algebraic equations.

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