This lesson explores the beliefs and works of Rene Descartes and how he explained the relationship between the mind and body as well as religion and science.
Who Was René Descartes?
Who was René Descartes, and why is he so important? Many credit this man as the 'father of modern philosophy.' He was famous in France as a scientist, philosopher and mathematician. He developed new ideas about knowledge and certainty. He also introduced new views regarding how the mind and body are related.
At the time in which Descartes wrote, the early 17th century, philosophers were often skeptics who questioned the nature of knowledge and the sciences. Can we really know anything for certain, they wondered? At the same time, a conflict between Europe's churches and new methods of study brought out by the Renaissance was boiling over. The freethinking ideas that led to the Renaissance often pitted science and religion against each other, even leading some major thinkers of the day, like the astronomer Copernicus, to be condemned by the Church.
Descartes had ways to tackle the problems of both certainty and of religion versus science. His influence on philosophy has remained popular for over three hundred years.
Descartes' Life and Career
Descartes went to school at the Jesuit College of La Flèche between 1606 and 1614. However, he felt that his education was mostly useless and that only what he learned about mathematics gave him any certain knowledge. Several of his contemporaries shared the same opinion about education.
In 1618, he went to Germany with the Dutch army and had several dreams that he felt were telling him he would discover a new method of science. He began to cultivate his dream by engaging in discussions of problems in physics and mathematics with other noted philosophers and scientists.
As Descartes developed his ideas, he became popular with his peers - well, most of them. During this time, Descartes had a well-known confrontation with a chemist named Chandoux. Chandoux said that science was based on probability. Descartes argued that only certainty could be a foundation for scientific knowledge and said he had created a means of finding this certainty. Descartes' answer to Chandoux was found in a book he published in 1641 entitled Meditationes de Prima Philosophia, or 'Meditations on First Philosophy,' that was mostly metaphysical and established a new basis for the sciences.
Religion, Science and Philosophy
Earlier in the lesson, we discussed the ideas of science and knowledge versus religion and skepticism. How does Descartes tackle these questions?
Descartes starts by saying that science should come from the mind rather than senses, because senses were not trustworthy. Along these lines, he presents three arguments meant to encourage humanity to question their senses. The first is the deceiving God argument, which states that if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then He has the power to give false perceptions. This idea is that things you perceive to be true could very well be some type of deception or illusion placed on you by whichever God you follow.
Of course, many people, including Descartes himself, did not agree with the idea of a deceitful God. This led to a variation on the argument: the evil demon argument, where an evil demon is responsible for deceiving people instead. As with God in the first argument, because of the evil demon, people could not trust that what they perceived was true.
Descartes' third argument is called the dream argument and refers to the fact that people have no way of knowing whether or not they are dreaming at any given time; therefore, perceptions could be false because they stem from a dream state. After all, we perceive things in a dream as real, but they're not - so how do we tell what is real?
You have likely heard Descartes' famous phrase 'I think, therefore, I am.' This is Descartes' establishment of certainty. From his three arguments of doubt, Descartes goes on to explain that in order for a person to be deceived, that person must first exist. So, certainty comes from the fact that the person is thinking, regardless of whether the thought of the person is true or false. Since a person thinks with his or her mind and that mind bestows certainty, we can trust our mind much more than our senses.
From that, you might be wondering how Descartes was able to prove that anything outside of his own mind exists. Well, that's where God comes back in. Simplified, Descartes' argument for the existence of God states that man could not have the idea of something so perfect as God in his or her own mind unless there was an actual cause of it: a real God. If God is real, it follows that everything we perceive in His world is also real, since, Descartes' argument aside, a perfect being would not be a deceiver. So basically, Descartes breaks down the concept of knowledge to just his mind only to build everything back up again. The world is as we see it because God made it that way. However, we still have a basis for certainty in the sciences and mathematics, because our own mind and the things we can reason from it are just as real as God. In this way, Descartes is able to appease both scholars and the Church while still challenging those, like Chandoux, who insisted that no scientific pursuits could be known with certainty.
René Descartes was a French scientist and philosopher who created new avenues of thought concerning the body and the mind. He felt the current methods of education and science could not be trusted and set out to challenge society to question established truths. He used three arguments of doubt to get people to question their perceptions, then pointed out: for one to be deceived at all, he or she must certainly have a mind that exists. From this, Descartes then brings in the idea of a perfect God, which humankind could not have thought of, were it not real. Descartes thus took significant steps to settling the conflict between religion, philosophy and the sciences that raged in his day, and his thoughts have been influential for centuries.
After viewing this video lesson, students should:
- Understand Descartes' belief that knowledge comes from the mind, not the senses
- Define his three arguments of perception
- Summarize how Descartes was able to rationalize religion using science