Descartes and the Method of Doubt

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It is a cliche to hold that Rene Descartes is the founder of modern philosophy. It is a cliche for one specific reason: the method of doubt. This method is rather simple, and is based on the concept of a “clear and distinct” idea. An idea is clear and distinct if and only if one falls into a contradiction in the process of denying it, hence it is true without question, and can serve as an axiom for further reflection.

One cannot hold that the process of doubt is original with Descartes. In his attempt to refute the ancient Greek doctrine of skepticism, St. Augustine used the identical thought experiment to prove the same object as Descartes: that truth is real and that it is objective, using the principle of contradiction as the touchstone as “clear and distinct.” For St. Augustine, if truth is absolutely real and exists unconditionally, then God also exists, who is the Truth behind all things that are true. It is not convention that makes something true true, but rather the objective nature of the universe, and hence, such a nature is orderly–the creation of an act of reason, the creation of God.

The thought experiment is simple: I refuse to believe anything that is not clear and distinct. The report of my senses is not clear and distinct. My senses can tell me things that in, fact, do not exist, and there is no logical contradiction in holding this. Therefore, at least at first, empiricism is ruled out of court. The world of the senses needs to be grounded in a further truth, a truth that grounds the report of the senses.

Ultimately, all I sense is relegated to the realm of opinion, of mere impression, not logical certainty. If all of this is swept away, all the reports of the senses and the prejudices that I have inherited in my upbringing, etc., then what remains is doubt itself. If I can doubt everything, then all that remains is that there is an agent who doubts. Hence, what is true without the possibility of contradiction is that there is a doubter. One cannot deny this without denying the very act of doubt that brought the doubter to this stage in thought. Hence, I, the doubter, exists–that is true unconditionally and objectively.

Descartes is using his method of doubt in a similar fashion, and his historical background is not dissimilar to St. Augustine’s. In both cases, the two thinkers lived in a time of great political and social upheaval, both lived on the cusp of one civilization giving way to another. St. Augustine lived as the Roman empire was becoming Christian and slowly, falling apart to the invasions of German tribes living to the north and east of the empire. For St. Augustine, the “eternal empire” was in doubt. For Descartes, it is similar: the world of the middle ages was coming apart, the black death and the one hundred years war had ripped the certainties of the medieval scholastics to shreds, and new methods were necessary. These are substantial similarities that are unlikely to be coincidental.

In both cases, the two most famous uses of the method of doubt existed in eras where long held certainties were coming apart, not because their inner logic was faulty, but because the structures of life that were more or less built upon their assumptions was coming apart. To some degree, this is a problem, since the impetus to find a new philosophy was not based on the problems of the old, but on the social and political structures that often took them for granted. Logically it makes little sense, but it does hold that times of substantial civilizational crisis forces new approaches to philosophy and thought in general.

Descartes and Augustine both lived in similar times in this regard, and both became founders of new schools of thought: Augustine as more or less the metaphysician of western Christendom and the civilization of the middle ages, Descartes for the new scientific technique that was to usher in a new age of scientific rationality. Neither of these men acted alone, but given the precision of their work, their writing ability and their overall influence, they both have reached levels of fame that their contemporaries never dreamed.

Nevertheless, Descartes is attempting to place thought on a newer basis. The old scholasticism was impressive. Thomas Aquinas and Albert Magnus attempted the massive project of placing both Aristotle and Roman Catholicism in a huge synthesis that was to take into itself all of creation and the world of divinity in a single philosophy.  It was highly analytic, consistent and logically rigorous–it was as far from religious mysticism as one could get in that age. But by the time of the Renaissance when Descartes is writing in France, the scholastic method had reached its high point.

No serious new philosophical writing had occurred systematically since Thomas with the exception of William of Occam, whose radical nominalism was little more than revolutionary in terms of metaphysics, and placed the world of Aristotle radically in doubt (Ariew, 1992; and Garber, 1992: 97-100).

Therefore, after the shocks of the Death and the one hundred years war, not to mention the shocks of  the reversals of the economic prosperity of the high middle ages, new answers to old questions were demanded: the questions of free will or universals had not been solved, and the writing of William had seriously damaged the credibility of extreme and moderate realism in metaphysics. Like Augustine in late Rome, Descartes found himself in a world that seemed a swirl of radically differing philosophies and world views. The old rigor of the scholastics had fallen apart into nominalism and a rise in radical religious sects that challenged the old order–for better or for worse. Hence, the method of doubt (Ariew, 1992: 60).

It was, therefore, not the simple fact that the senses might offer false impressions, or the more systematic idea that the senses, per se, can be doubted without contradiction, that motivated the system of doubt, but a historical and philosophical milieu that demanded a new system, the beginnings of a new philosophy on a sort of logical rigor that would ground sense data and the slow emergence of the new science that was interested in empirical data, but needed a rationalist epistemology that grounded that data. A new civilization was being born partially on the basis of the fact that Descartes was capable of basing sense data on the method of doubt. But how was this brought about?

If one can find the unconditioned, absolute truth that is clear and distinct–that is, cannot be rejected without contradiction, then one realizes that an absolute truth, a truth independent of time and place, exists and can be proven without doubt.

But do I also realize that this doubter, namely me, has a cause? Did this doubter come to existence though eternity?> This must be something else that I realize at the same time as the act of existence: that I am not the cause of my own existence. Therefore, God exists, that which exist from all eternity. But is it not also the case that when I realize my own existence, that I also realize the existence of an outside world? This is a bit foggy in Descartes, but seems to be implied in the method: if I come to the knowledge of my own existence through he method of doubt, does not this imply that there is and objectively extant outside world that has also pointed to my existence? If x is absolutely true, and the method of reaching x has meant the systematic negation of y, then does not he realization of x depend on y, thus showing y’s objective existence? Hence, it seems that the method of doubt can never end with the simple slogan of “I doubt, therefore I exist.”

It must also be extended to the world of the divine, and the outside world (Garber, 1992: 263). If I doubt and hence, I exist, I must exist conditionally, since there is no evidence that I exist from all eternity, I am a created being that does not exist though itself. I exist though another. Hence, I realize, in the same act of doubt, that I exist, God exists, and the world exists. All of this is implied in the cliche “I doubt, therefore I exist.” Therefore, the logic looks like this:

a. I exist. I exist because I doubt the external world and all that implies.

b. But I am a created being. The very fact that I need to go though this process to gt to the point where I can say “I exist” suggests that I am dependent, I do not exist through myself, but through another, and hence, am a conditional being. Descartes writes (marginal note 38) that “these things are outside my will,” hence admitting the “I” conditionality (Descartes, 1996: 26)

c. Therefore, God must exist, since he exists though himself. In other words, If I exist through another, this implies that there is a being that exists through himself. If a being exists through himself, then that being is eternal, since he is the cause of his own existence, and hence, uncreated. Therefore, God exists, and is eternal (Descartes, 1996: 30).

d. But if b and c are true, then there must be an outside world, since I am conditioned. I am conditioned because I’ve just come to knowledge about myself through another, that is, the method of doubt and the denial of my senses and the society around me. Therefore, since I know myself through others, I am conditional and hence dependent. The outside world is necessary for the continued existence of this “I” and therefore, must exist objectively. While the report of my senses may still deceive, this does not imply that the outside world does not exist objectively, but that only my senses can and are wrong about many things (Garber, 1992: 64-70).

e. Therefore, from the cliche, “I doubt, therefore I exist,” means that I doubt, exist, and I exist dependently. Since I exist dependently, there is an outside world and a God, the latter is that which does not exist dependently, but exists through himself alone. Therefore, to unpack the cogito is to objectively ground the world in the divine mind (so to speak). But the realization of God’s existence and the objective (not sensate) basis of the outside world are not separate thoughts, but are apprehended within the cogito itself: the cogito implies the existence of God and the outside world in the sense that the I is dependent, and hence, the I cannot exist alone.

Therefore, to summarize, the method of doubt is a response to s specific historical situation, a historical situation that, for better or for worse, has placed the old certainties and schools of thought in doubt. Therefore, a new approach is necessary, one that can ground the truth outside of a “school” of thought of social prejudice. It is clear that the historical context of Descartes needs to be understood to show the urgency of this project, and why it was so important–important enough to be studied many centuries later. Descartes helped build a new civilization.

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