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  • Subject area(s): Engineering
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  • Published on: 7th September 2019
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Rene Descartes was a 17th century philosopher and mathematician and is often considered the “father of modern philosophy.” He was born in France on March 31, 1956. His grandmother raised Descartes after his mother had passed when he was a small boy. Descartes was a sickly child, but eventually became well enough to take on studies at La Lleche. Descartes is well known for more than his work in philosophy. He invented both the Cartesian coordinate system – which is used in math, physics, engineering, and other sciences. He also discovered analytic geometry and showed the world that it was possible to merge geometry and algebra and introduced skepticism to the scientific method.

Descartes accepted the fact that substance was the foundation of reality, but he still wanted to blend Christianity with the new emerging science ideas, as this was a difficult time period to be a believer in God and a scientist. Descartes divided substance into separate parts including Mind and the Physical world. Descartes argued that there were two categories of substances. First, immaterial, which would include God and Mind or Soul including all possible thoughts and ideas with a primary focus stating that thoughts would then exist outside of space and time. Second, material, physical world and body with a primary focus/characteristic of which is a space/time extension and would have mass and weight, occupy space and exists in time.

Descartes defined substances as being independent and distinct with the physical and material world being created by God, and are dependent upon God for their existence. God is only able of existing independently. By categorizing substance the way that he did, he was able to claim that God was real and a also a part of the same universe as everyone and everything else, but that he was not bound by the same set of rules of the physical world. Descartes logic meant that at least for him there would be no conflict between theology and physics.

Descartes main goal was Cartesian Rationalism, to claim absolute certainty established by using reason and logic without using senses or past experience. Descartes started with “Radical Doubt.” He argued that a person could not ascertain absolute knowledge if the knowledge that they arrive at are built upon unproven beliefs.

Descartes rejected empiricism as it was based on the theory that knowledge was achieved through sense experience, and he saw a problem with illusion, change, and the inability to distinguish the difference between the waking and dreaming states. The problem of illusion is that your senses often lie and make it impossible to know when it is truthfully representing reality; therefore, Descartes thought they could never really be trusted. For Descartes the problem of change was explained with beeswax. Descartes demonstrated with a candle to show that all the characteristics that a person learns about it through their senses will altered over time. A candle before it was burned was yellow, hard, cold, and smelled slightly sweet. After it was lit the candle had become colorless, liquid, hot, and lost its sweet smell. Being unable to distinguish between an awake state and a dream state problem consisted of how can a person have a dream that was so real, that it convinced the person having it that they were indeed awake, how can they now be convinced that they were not now dreaming. The only corroboration a person has is through the ever so unreliable sensory evidence. When everything is challenged and doubted, it does not leave room for much. Descartes was able to find his first truth, and a claim that he could not rationally doubt because the simple act of doubting would prove the existence of the person doing the doubting. This proves the existence of Descartes as a being that thinks but not that of a physical being.

Descartes had simple criteria to prove a truth. It had to be clear and distinct. Clearness are those ideas which cannot be doubted reasonably and distinctness are those ideas whose truth are independent of sensory evidence. If Descartes’ ideas did not come from experience then he decided that they must, therefore, be innate.

Descartes was perfectly willing to accept that innate knowledge included knowledge of a perfectly good God,  the knowledge of self, and understanding the basic rules for deductive inferences.

Having God coexist with science was important to Descartes. He had work to do to prove that the all-good God that he needed existed. Descartes had a clear and distinct idea of God. To Descartes he was an infinitely perfect being with the only possible exception being the possibility of him not existing, but that would make him not be infinitely perfect; and therefore, he concluded that God must exist. God to Descartes is all knowing, all-powerful, omnipresent, and all loving. Descartes spent time considering the possibility of “evil demons and deceivers” concluding that people are fooled by their perception of the material body and “no such physical realm really exists.” Descartes suggests that individuals are capable of seeing the material world because God would not permit people to be deceived in such a manner.  

There are several problems with Descartes arguments. First and foremost, they are circular. Descartes, “I think therefore I am,” he assumes his existence to prove his existence. God is the originator of all ideas and God is perfect and he uses his innate idea of God to prove God’s existence as a perfect being. Descartes has an unshakable faith that his God is perfect. Even if someone can concede that God does exist, there is no reason to also concede that God is also perfect. Further, a person cannot claim that something exists based on just describing it.  

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