More than April’s fools? (aka, Descartes’ unwitting disciples)

 

Confession time:

I began this blog intending to show how Christianity is viable, and how the co-centrality of love and truth is instrumental therein.  But I have certainly not done so.

Why?

Because much about Christianity is problematic or broken and this must first be identified, cleared away, and better understandings / approaches put in their place.  For example, I cannot hope for the notion of truth-for-me to seem meaningful so long as readers continue to believe in such false ideas as being able to read the Bible without interpreting it, or to access the Bible’s (absolute) truth absolutely.

Thus my last nine posts have aimed to debunk false views about how we relate to the Bible.  Particularly, false views about how (and how well) we can know the Bible’s content.  Among them, the concepts of certainty, neutrality, and historical independence.

So where does our desire for certainty come from?  Why do we think that we should (or even could) be neutral rather than having biases and prejudgements ?  And why do we want to read the Bible “free” from the views of the past?

As I’ve shown in past posts, the Bible stands against human certainty and nowhere espouses neutrality or historical independence.  Further, it is important to note that the above are all questions about knowledge: how reliable it is and how we get it.  And knowledge (or epistemology) is the domain of philosophy.

Strikingly then our fascination with knowing, or accessing things, absolutely finds its origins in the philosophical movement known as “Modernism.”

The poster boy for modernist thinking is René Descartes.  A French mathematician and philosopher, Descartes is famous for the conclusion “I think, therefore I am.”  But the problem that precedes this conclusion—and the method he used to solve it—are what interest us most.

Through his studies and travels Descartes found that people held all manner of contradictory beliefs.  Nor did the number or education of people who believed something guarantee the truth of it.  In contrast, Descartes observed that in mathematics the proper use of reason guarantees certainty about our conclusions, and so decided that reason properly applied could grant certainty in other areas of life.

Now he had already deduced that all humans have the capacity to reason and that each person is equally able to apply this capacity.  So with the right method and enough practice, human beings could not only know things truly but could even master the natural world, living happier (and even longer) lives.

So what was his “method”?

He started with reason, which is not simply thinking but is specifically the ability to determine truth from falsehood.  Next, Descartes held that “properly applying” one’s reason meant only accepting things as true that were accessible to the mind in a clear and distinct fashion—things that could not be doubted.

But in order for something to be undoubtedly true it must be true despite one’s best efforts to doubt it.  And this is just what Descartes did.  He went through a process of doubting everything that he believed up to that point.

Having already observed how people typically establish their views on inherited practices and customs rather than reason, his method rejects all past opinions as false until proven–by reason–to be true.  Sense perceptions (what we see, hear, and experience) are likewise false until proven true.

The only thing that Descartes could not doubt was that he was thinking, and this gave him absolute certainty of his own existence, upon which he founded his entire philosophy: I think, therefore I am.

But is this important?

You bet.

For in showing us where these “problematic and broken” views about the Bible come from (and what they are based on), we are more able to replace them with better, more functional views.  Specifically, it seems Christians need a better philosophical orientation than Descartes’ Modernism if they are to do justice both to the real world  and to the Bible itself.  More next post.

7 thoughts on “More than April’s fools? (aka, Descartes’ unwitting disciples)

  1. In my personal opinion, Descartes failed. I understand how he came to such a conclusion, but he could not and can not prove that that person thinking was and/or is real. Perhaps, his “I am” is but a dream or a figment of imagination, thus challenging the absolute or truth about his own reality. I dream vivid dreams within which I think, so therefore am I? Perhaps, but perhaps I am but an illusion upon which I will some day awaken? This is Descartes main falling point. He can not prove that he exists, nor can I, I.
    I believe that this is a good starting point, but not an absolute certainty, like he thought. I agree, that there are, perhaps, better philosophical examples to follow, then that there of Descartes’.

    A favourite quote of mine is by Anne Lamott, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.”
    Also, Voltaires’, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

    • Hi Philip,
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, I too agree about Descartes’ failure and also disagree with his view that thinking affords absolute certainty of one’s existence.
      Yet I also believe that our rationality allows us to know something—and so have a certain degree of confidence—about the world around us. Likewise our sense perceptions, emotions, experiences, memories, etc. My goal targets a path between both extremes of Descartes’ work: either solipsism (where the only thing we have some confidence about is our existence) or quasi-divinity (aka, naive realism, where “you get what you see” and you see “what is”).
      For my money, I think that phenomenology offers a more modest yet workable alternative to how we access the world around us. I hope to do a post on this in near future.

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