March 7, 1999
Descartes' Extreme Philosophy
The philosopher/scientist/mathematician Rene Descartes lived in a time of sweeping changes across all realms of knowledge. Descartes himself was responsible for many of these changes, one of which was a strong advancement in philosophy. Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy tackle, among many things, two difficult philosophical issues. The method in which these issues are dealt with, however, tends to be on the extreme side, since Descartes is determined to build upon ideas that are indubitable. Descartes' meditations give a great deal to the field of philosophy, but they could have been composed in a more understandable way for people.
Rene Descartes lived in an era of both extreme skepticism and scientific advancement. This era, the Scientific Revolution, occurred between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. During this era, strong advancements were made in seemingly every area of scholarly knowledge. One important element that arose during these times was skepticism, the denial of anything that could reasonably be denied. Skeptics existed to exploit any mistake made by scientists and scholars, as every idea and piece of knowledge would be subject to attack unless it was indisputable. So, if someone wanted to make a contribution to a scholarly field, they needed to make sure it would survive under scrutiny of the skeptics. Descartes was himself a man full of contributions to the world of knowledge, and luckily enough a bit of a skeptic. Only by being able to think like a skeptic was Descartes able compose his meditations with so few weak points.
Descartes' Meditations were written in extreme defense against all types of skepticism. The only weak points Descartes left in his Meditations were those which he based upon religion. Religious skepticism was a particularly large obstacle to his philosophy, since the easiest way to support all of his knowledge was to affirm the existence of an all-loving God. Descartes had three separate proofs- causal, ontological, and design- for the existence of God that could be a foundation for the rest of his philosophy. However, he knew that some skeptics would deny the existence of God no matter what, so there needed to be some foundation that did not rely on faith. This foundation was the statement "I am, I exist", which according to Descartes must necessarily be true every time he utters it. Descartes proves all this and leaves nothing vulnerable to the skeptics, but his methods are quite extreme. Perhaps Descartes could have defeated his skeptics by proving his philosophical goal in a slightly different manner.
Descartes' main two philosophical goals in the Mediations were to prove the existence of God and to demonstrate the distinction of the soul from the body. To prove these two points, Descartes writes six separate meditations which delve deep into the philosophical recesses of his mind. The task of proving the existence of God seems easier for Descartes than proving that the body and soul exist separately. Once he proves that there is a God, however, he is able to prove the existence of the body and the soul.
Descartes begins his meditations by denying everything he knows unless it is absolutely certain. Once one certain idea is found, only then may he proceed to rebuild upon that everything he knows. Arriving at his two goals this way will leave absolutely no doubt in his mind or those of his skeptics. Although the Meditations are built to withstand criticism, the work as a whole is not as strong as it could be. Descartes goes to such great extremes to prove his points and develop his arguments that they seem at times silly. Some of his assumptions are made in confusing circumstantial situations and are therefore borderline on the absurd. The idea of reality existing in various degrees is incomprehensible to most people, even the scholars of that era. At other times Descartes is talking about weird looking animals and the fact that he really is a gourd. Times like these make his philosophy very extreme and almost incredible to people who do not fully understand Descartes' methods.
Descartes' philosophy would be much more credible if the goals were met without having to go to such extremes. The separate existence of the body and the soul could have been affirmed with much less thought if Descartes had