Do you ever wonder why the study of philosophy got a bad reputation? Or why it came to be viewed as something that has nothing to do with life?
Well, I blame the Father of Modern Philosophy and devout Catholic (darn it!) Rene Descartes. Descartes can be likened to the nice guy who had good intentions who really screwed things up. We can thank him for the bad philosophy that was to follow from David Hume, Immanuel Kant, etc.
Descartes was a brilliant mind and mathematician but he should have stayed in the mathematics department and left philosophy alone to Aristotle and St. Thomas who had it right in the first place. Unfortunately, Descartes was taught corrupted teachings of the Angelic Doctor through manuals instead of reading his works directly. (How does that make you feel about all the most likely corrupted textbooks we were taught from? We learn about people's thoughts by other people's thoughts about them...we need to return to a classical educational model...but that's another story for another blog..)
So here was where Descartes went right in philosophy: he sought to prove God's existence and the immortality of the soul. He is correct that God exists and that the soul is, indeed, immortal.
He wanted to do the Church a favor by proving these truths in an age of skepticism post-the division of Christendom in the 16th Century. However, he did not do the Church a favor in the end and actually did quite a bit of damage by embracing the skepticism in order to prove the skeptic wrong. He, in fact, made the skeptics more skeptical. He also contributed to the dualistic notion of the soul and body that many embrace today in attempting to define the human person. Some believe as Plato and Descartes did that we are essentially a soul. Plato believed that the body was even a kind of prison for the soul. However, the human person is uniquely body and soul and both as a composite are what comprise a human being.
So how did he open this can of worms? By attempting to rebuild the foundations of philosophy--a pretty big job for one person. Especially when you had the minds of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas previously. But where Aristotle erred in scientific matters, Descartes erred in philosophical ones.
There is a point in reading this because you will learn how to approach knowledge and truth in your own life! I promise you philosophy done RIGHT is helpful!
Here's what happened: Descartes like math so much because the conclusions one gets in math are certain and self-evident: 2+2=4 You can't argue with that, right?
However, math is REALLY abstract, especially geometry. Descartes actually discovered algebraic geometry. (Thanks a lot, I hate high school because of you...just kidding...I did have fun poking my friend Jasmin's back in class.) Math does not deal with actual things, matter, etc. You can "do" math in a classroom, never using anything tangible, in your head, etc.
Descartes liked the certainty and decided to apply the mathematical model of abstraction to rebuild philosophy and to come to the knowledge of truth with that method. So instead of looking at the things of the world (how do I learn about an orange? Well, I find one and examine it!), he relies on his ideas. That is where he begins: in his mind.
He first begins by doubting everything, even his own existence. He comes to the conclusion that he does, in fact, exist because he is thinking and if you can think, you exist. This is where we get his famous, "Cogito ergo sum;" I think therefore I am.
Um, DUH. Aristotle said that it is foolish to seek a reason for what evidence shows to be fact.
He goes on to demonstrate the existence of God and says that he has this idea of a perfect, infinite being so therefore there must be a God. The error here is that just because I have an idea of God, does not make Him real. This was essentially the weak argument St. Anselm put forth positing that God is the "the being greater than which cannot be thought," allowing him to conclude that an existing "greatest" is greater than a non-existing "greatest," therefore God must exist. Well, I have an idea of a purple unicorn right now but that doesn't prove diddly-squat. (Sorry, Anselm.)
Descartes didn't really prove the existence of God. He goes on to "prove" the existence of the external world (which really should have been his starting, not ending point) by saying that if such a perfect being as God existed than he would not allow for this mass deception of my sense perception and therefore I and the world must exist.
This abstract method of Descartes is one of the idealist. The idealist claims to prove God's existence from his idea of God. This is contrasted with realism which seeks to look at what's in front of our faces and traces the effect back to the cause which is God. The idealist believes reality is in his ideas, the realist asks the question, "What is this in front of me? How did it get there?"
St. Augustine said, "I inquire in order to know something, not to think it."
Descartes method of knowledge, a method of doubt, is unreasonable and contrary to what is obviously in front of him: the world. He ends with the world, but in order to gain knowledge and discover truth, it is more convincing for the world to be the starting point.
The mistake Descartes made was that he chose the method and then tried to make the object conform to the method. Instead, one should look to the object to determine the method. What works for math ("mathematicism") will not work for all sciences. The human person is body and soul as a composite and so a completely abstract method will simply not work. Descartes denied sense skepticism which is self-refuting and contradictory because, as my professor puts it, "you only know sense error through sense truth, it can't be all error."
I agree with Aristotle it is foolish to prove what is evident and the existence of the world is clearly evident unless you are a madman where you have lost everything but your reason. (G.K. Chesterton)
Luigi Giussani says, "Realism requires a certain method for observing and coming to know an object, and this method must not be imagined, thought of or organized and created by the subject (ahem, Descartes!): it must be imposed by the object.
Why do I care? I care because by imposing the method he made our ideas superior to the object itself. Descartes made our ideas the object of knowledge instead of the means of knowing the actual object itself. Thought and reality are not identical. Reality should be the starting point. Thought is about reality, not reality itself.
I end thanking Father Giussani who really helped me understand all of this. Descartes just confused me. (He confused a lot of people and he is blamed for the increasing skepticism that modernity is, dualism, denial of the mind and athiesm.)
Giussani says in his book The Religious Sense, regarding our age of ideologies,
"Instead of learning from reality in all its aspects and building on it, man seeks to manipulate reality according to the coherent schemes fabricated by the intellect; 'thus the triumph of ideologies ratifies the defeat of civilization.'" (Alexis Carrel in his Reflections on Life)