René Descartes is often referred to as the father of modern philosophy. Although some controversy exist over the appropriateness of such a label one can hardly dispute the fact that his approach to philosophy was dramatically different than many of his contemporaries. Descartes grew tired of how dogmatically the ideologies of past philosophers were presented and how dissimilar and unsystematic each was. Breaking free of the custom of merely reworking prior philosophical doctrines Descartes took a fresh approach to discovering knowledge, truth, and understanding. He disregarded the classic texts in favor of what he called “the great book of the world.” In his travels though he found no more unity of notions among the public sector than he did of the philosophers he held with such reverence. This lack of a unifying truth among both philosophers and the commoner troubled Descartes. He began questioning all that was presented to him and, in the end, found mathematics and geometry to provide the only absolute truths. Enamored with the systematic clearness of mathematical propositions he attempted to incorporate such a method into philosophy. And hence we have Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy.
As a student Descartes discovered no continuity of truth among neither his masters and contemporaries nor among the common people. Throughout his life Descartes encountered numerous situations where commonly held truths turned out, upon further consideration and meditation, to be false. So Descartes began to doubt, but to simply label him a skeptic would be a grave injustice to the extent of his doubt. Upon reaching retirement Descartes began paying closer attention to the great accumulation of false truths he had acquired. Overwhelmed by the credulousness of the world, he temporarily entered into a state in which he asserted “that there is nothing of all that I formerly believed to be true of which it is impossible to doubt.” One must make note of his temporary immersement into such a state; for Descartes himself admits that it would be ludicrous for one to go through life perpetually doubting everything. Having made this point clear Descartes does, for a brief stint, doubt everything. He questioned authority and the power enshrined in authority figures such as Aristotle and Aquinas. Along with authority he is hesitant to accept the notions and ideas of other individuals because such things may not be commonly held as self-evident. Astoundingly Descartes even questions that which we often consider most genuine and obvious; that which is perceived through the senses, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, visual, and auditory sensations. At this point in his theory he cannot be sure that anything associated with the world around him actually exists. So often our senses perceive us, such as an amputee who feels a pain or itch where his/her limb once was. He questions also whether or not we can be assured of a waking state, for in our dreams we perceive objects, and as if in our dreams cannot our imagination constantly be creating the objects we perceive. Descartes was leery of scientific hypotheses as well for the very reason that they so often are based on observations of objects which he cannot be assured exist. He even goes so far as to doubt mathematics; not pure math which he so privileged such as geometry, but the most simple calculations and principles often recalled directly from memory. Such doubt can exist because often mistakes are made in such rudimentary calculations. Descartes credits these fundamental errors to an evil genius, perhaps the antithesis of our perceptions of God, who plants these erroneous conceptions into our mind. Citing how often he is deceived Descartes even calls into to questions the existence of God. If God is all knowing and all good how can one be deceived, why not an evil Deity? As earlier stated Descartes does not advise or prescribe a constant state of doubt such as this for one would certainly be driven to the fringes of insanity.
At this point Descartes as established his theory of systematically doubting everything conceivable in our world, and even those things unworldly; God and a Satan-like figure. It is this very system of doubt however which accounts for the existence of at least one thing in the