Descartes’ schoolboy-level philosophizing – Cogito and God

Let me jump to about 1637 AD for a further example of the pottiness of Philosophy:  ‘Cogito ergo sum’, ‘I think, therefore I am’, wrote Descartes.  This is thinking that ranks with that of Parmenides’ Ontology (from here ) in its pottiness.  Descartes couldn’t convince himself he existed till it occurred to him that he was thinking! therefore he must exist!  Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!  

Actually it wasn’t even that he existed, it was only that his mind existed!  And from that logical certainty, and only from that,  did he think he could ever arrive at other truths, and these by way of logical deduction.

He is for me a good example of the Wisdom of the logicking, mathematicking, and scientificking mind.

Nothing Descartes said sticks in my mind because it is to me so pottily rationalistic to the point of irrationality that none of it follows.  So I may well have got his thoughts, and their sequences, not exactly right in what follows below.

Descartes was rigorously sceptical to the point that he couldn’t trust the philosophizing of the previous 2000 years because none of it gave him absolute certainty.  He wished to start philosophy all over again with a self-evident axiom he could be absolutely certain of, and then work upwards from that by deductive logic to establish other certainties as in mathematics.  So he called it his ‘mathematical method’.  

I am somewhat surprised that it was still Philosophy and not Science that was expected to reveal Truth, but perhaps scientific method had only started recently in about 1500 AD with Copernicus and Galileo (but that is perhaps too neat a bit of history.)

Descartes was so rigorously sceptical that he also couldn’t trust what came to him through his senses because he found that his senses sometimes proved misleading.  For instance, in the case of honey, it was runny when warm, solid when cold, yet was still the same thing!  Descartes also reasoned that what came to him through his senses might be coming to him in a dream; or that God or a wicked demon might be deceiving him in the sensations he was having.  

(I think some modern philosophers are still worrying whether his Cogito ergo Sum  is actually fully logical.) 

But (as I think I got from a site dedicated to Ayn Rand’s admiration and criticism of Philosophy) surely Descartes, like the rest of us, would have relied on his senses to correct the few occasions when his senses temporarily deceived him. 

Subsequent philosophers have taken Cogito ergo Sum not merely as Descartes’ logical inference from the fact of his thinking to the existence of an agent that does the thinking, but also that it is an intuition of his own reality, of the certainty of first-person experience, of ‘the logical self-certification of self-conscious awareness in any form.’  (This comes from www.philosophypages on Descartes but I can’t now trace precisely where.)  This long statement is rather ambiguous in the end, but seems largely to mean that Descartes had an intuition, separate from his logic, that he, or rather his mind, existed! (Whatever next are philosophers going to come up with!)

It has been pointed out (here) that Descartes at the Cogito stage of his philosophizing could be defined as an ‘epistemological idealist’ in that he thought that the external world was just an idea or picture in his mind and may not really exist.

On the basis of his mind’s existence, it seems he derived an ascending sequence of other facts he could trust in, such as ‘My clear and distinct ideas must be true’.  I do not see that this latter belief must follow from the fact that he has a mind, and it may only have referred  to logically analytic or mathematical statements which have to be right because of the words or numbers they consist of in the first place, such as that old chestnut ‘All bachelors are unmarried’.  This seems to take us forward to Kant’s  discovery two centuries later of a priori, non-observational truths perceived by the mind alone.  The best examples of such statements that Descartes uses are indeed all about logic, geometry and mathematics.

But Descartes then immediately cheated on himself by using separate arguments to prove that God did exist after all, and that He was not a Great Deceiver who would deceive us about what came to us via the senses that God had provided us with.  These arguments were painfully feeble, not anywhere as rigorous as the argument that Descartes’ own mind existed.  But they gave him the opportunity to entirely skip over ‘I think, therefore I am’ as the only thing he could be certain of, and to now believe in his senses instead.  Brilliant! — he could now believe after all that he did have a body with arms and legs, that the outside world did exist, and that he didn’t really need his Methodology of Doubt leading up to Cogito ergo Sum in the first place! (from here and  here).

Descartes got back to the world of the senses as soon as he could, from a world of complete insanity.

But what actually were these proofs of the existence of God that didn’t derive from Cogito Ergo Sum (as he had initially promised he would deduce everything from)?  One of them was pretty much Anselm’s of  600 years earlier (from herehere, and here ) which proceeded as follows:  ‘God exists in my mind as the Greatest Being.  Existing in reality must be a quality of the Greatest Being.  Therefore God must exist in reality.’  This quality of argument is dignified by the title ‘Ontological Proof of the Existence of God’.   I can only think it is called ‘ontological’ because it goes back to Parmenides’ Ontology which says, ‘If you can think it, it is‘ (from here).

It is amazing that even Anselm took it seriously.   Parmenides’ idea was potty in 500 BC, Anselm’s in 1078, and Descartes’ in 1637, but subsequent philosophers have spent time explaining what was wrong with it.  It is said that Descartes wished to deduce that God existed because he was himself a believer, and also because of the risk of Church persecution. 

It seems that Descartes also used an argument for the existence of God that was similar to Aristotle’s — that there has to be a First Cause for everything that is and everything that happens.  There was also another argument, similar I think to another of Aristotle’s, but I haven’t quite got hold of it.  There was also a ‘Causal Argument’ — that if one has an idea of something, then there must be a  cause of it that is greater or has at least as much reality in it than the idea itself. This latter argument may come from Augustine’s neo-Platonism, although it seems to me similar to Anselm’s.  (This paragraph is derived from philosopher Akomolafe Akinola Mohammed whose post I cannot now find on the Web.) 

Some later philosophers have criticized the way Descartes came finally to believe in his senses, because it rested on his new belief in God.  This new belief, they pointed out, rested on rationalistic a priori arguments such as the ontological one; it didn’t rest on sensory evidence, because Descartes could only trust his senses after he had proved God!   These later philosophers were probably of a 20th century kind who only believed in sensory evidence. 


Philosophers are still taking Descartes seriously, and saying that his thinking had important consequences for later thought.  I have tried to improve my opinion of him by re-reading hereherehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, but have failed.

Was he suffering from mental retardation?  No, he has gone down in the history of Western philosophy for ‘methodological scepticism’, ‘epistemological idealism’, and ‘Cartesian Dualism’ (described in my next post); also as the ‘the first modern philosopher’, and one who ‘provided a foundation for the natural sciences’.   Oi! 

It seems that one great importance of Descartes to subsequent thought was that thinkers could now investigate the world by sensory perception and deduction, free of theological interference.  Descartes first had had to prove the existence of God, and somehow to ‘prove’ that He wasn’t a Great Deceiver, before Descartes could believe that the world did exist and that he was capable of sensorily apprehending it.  Now it became theologically justifiable for thinkers to investigate the world by thought, because they had taken God’s existence into account (from here).

But it seems that Descartes also helped Philosophy become an enemy of Religion. Here is an excerpt from George Heart’s  Christianity: Dogmatic Faith and Gnostic Vivifying Knowledge that I got from a site I now can’t trace and that I edited myself as follows:   ‘Philosophy was independent at the start, but then Christianity appropriated it for its defence of its faith, showing faith to be in accord with Reason.  Reason/Philosophy was seen as a helper of religion.  This came to a head with Scholasticism.  Descartes broke philosophy free from religion.  That is his importance as Father of Modern Philosophy.  Reason on its own could now understand God, universe and man.    It had its own validity apart from divine inspiration.  Philosophy became an enemy of religion.’

Descartes also contributed original work to mathematics and to science (from here and here, and more on him here.)  He invented analytic geometry, provided the basis for calculus and ‘thus for much of modern mathematics’, and did seminal work in optics (from here and here)  I say this to show what kind of mind he had.

But, against my disdaining of philosophers as having logicking, mathematicking and scientificking mentalities, he said this about himself in his Discourse on the Method:  that, early in his life, he  ‘abandoned the study of letters.  Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that which could be found in myself or….in the great book of the world, I spent the rest of my youth travelling, visiting courts and armies, mixing with people of diverse temperaments and ranks, gathering various experiences, testing myself in the situations which fortune offered me, and at all times reflecting upon whatever came my way so as to derive some profit from it .’  He was even a military mercenary.  

(Here are some other sites I have used to get my idea of Descartes from — here  here , here.   I have also used posts from James Mannion and Kenneth Shouler writing in www.netplaces as it previously was.)  

At about the time Descartes was writing, the following were also being written:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

That’s rather too high in its ethical idealism, but it just takes no notice of the logicking retardation fo Descartes. 


Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
       But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
       Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Compared to them, Descartes is like someone retarded.


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