Welcome to the first instalment of “God and the Philosophers,” a newsletter project I’ve been contemplating for a while. Since many people associate me with postmodernism (publishing a book called Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? probably explains that), I thought it might be fun to begin counter-intuitively by offering a sympathetic reading of Descartes. So, while generally each newsletter will discuss a different philosopher and text, for the first couple we’ll build some steam by focusing oon Descartes’ Meditations and see the integral role that God plays in the Cartesian project. (If you want to refresh your familiarity with the Meditations, I’ll be referring to Cottingham’s translation, but the Hackett edition is also fine and widely used. There are several versions available online.)
It’s 1641; Descartes is a French Catholic living in Holland, a region where the Reformation has taken root (which partly explains a renewed interest in St. Augustine). Descartes is a consummate “renaissance man”: a philosopher and mathematician, who also composed treatises on music and optics. His Discourse on Method received a lot of attention, but there were loose ends in that work, so he returns to it all again in his Meditations on First Philosophy.
Descartes is often a bit of a whipping boy who is blamed for everything that is wrong with modernity. (“Cartesian philosophy” was already condemned in Utrecht in 1642, in fact; Descartes’ Letter to Dinet, appended to a 1662 edition, is a response to charges that his philosophy undermines Scholasticism and Christian orthodox.) But I hope a close reading of the Meditations yields a much different picture.
Now, in many ways, we are at the birthplace of modernity in this work. But that should remind us that the origins of modernity are complex and complicated. As Charles Taylor suggests, we need to take a zig-zag approach to the history of philosophy rather than making the history of philosophy conform to “Whiggish” stories of linear “progress.” The best history of philosophy recognizes contingency–that things could have gone otherwise–and admits layers of complexity. Are there ways in which Descartes unleashed philosophical trajectories he didn’t intend? I think so. But rather than reading him as the beginning of the Enlightenment, we do well to read him as an extension of late medieval philosophical conversations.
In his “Dedicatory Letter to the Sorbonne,” it’s striking how Descartes wants the authority of the Jesuits to underwrite his rational proofs. So we’re clearly not on the terrain of some “Enlightenment project” (as we’ll see later in Kant, for example). (It’s also striking that, already in 1642, Descartes thinks there are so “many irreligious people” who are “unwilling to believe that God exists.”)
According to this Letter that frames the Meditations, Descartes has two or three goals, depending on how you slice them. (1) He wants to prove that God exists; (2) he wants prove that the mind is distinct from body; and then an epistemological goal: (3) he wants demonstrate that our knowledge of such matters are as certain as geometry. While the Meditations are an exercise in metaphysics, exploring the contours of reality, they are most fundamentally an exercise in epistemology. While Descartes attends to what is real and what we are, he is actually most interested in how we know and whether we can know such things with certainty.
This isn’t just “academic”: this quest to know whether we can know is its own sort of existential crisis, in a way. While Descarates is exploring the question, “What can I know with certainty?” in the Meditations, there’s a point where the exploration reaches a precipice, beyond which is an abyss: “Can I know anything with certainty?” And contrary to some hackneyed portrayals of Descartes that try to make him out to be a philosophical egoist, Descartes’ only assurance of his knowing anything is intimately tied not only God’s existence but also God’s goodness.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. My point is that when you recognize Descartes’ goals, you realize that we’re a long way from lazy second-hand readings of Descartes that claim he replaces God with the ego. Deconstructing this picture of Descartes’ supposed “subjectivism” is one of the reasons I want to revisit the Meditations in my first couple of newsletters. As we’re going to see, far from making the ego (or “cogito”) the center of philosophical universe, the Meditations are a thoroughly theo-centric philosophical endeavor (a persistent thesis in Jean-Luc Marion’s close readings of Descartes; see, for example, On Descartes’ Metaphysical Prism).
Descartes’ procedure in the first Meditation receives lots of attention so I don’t want to spend too much time on it here. As you’ll recall, Descartes is out to see whether he can find anything that is “indubitable,” un-doubt-able, certain, as a basis for knowledge (in “the sciences,” he says, but that is broader than our current use of the term). If, upon consideration (i.e., upon reflection, contemplation, meditation), there is any “reason for doubt” (RFD) in some realm of knowledge, then that suffices for it to be rejected since any RFD means we don’t have certainty.
You might think of Descartes’ undertaking a demolition project with the hope of discovering something that can’t be demolished. So he comes to entire spheres of knowledge–e.g., what I know by the senses, what I know in proximity, etc.–with what we might call the RFD “wrecking ball” to see if there is some kind of knowledge that withstands it. If we can discover some sphere or kind of knowledge where the RFD wrecking ball bounces off, then we’ve hit upon certainty and have the makings of a foundation for rebuilding the edifice of knowledge.
In the First Meditation, with Descartes’ in his smoking jacket, musing on how he might be dreaming, nothing withstands the wrecking ball. It looks like the entire edifice of knowledge is going to be demolished, including the majority of things I believe on the basis of the senses–which means that all the empirical sciences can’t yield any knowledge that is certain. No wonder Descartes is despairing after all this.
Having rejected the sciences of “composite substances” (i.e., empirical sciences, knowledge based on observation with the senses–which is a lot of what we know!) as doubtful, since they are based on observation with the senses, D. proposes a third “basic principle” as a possible basis for certainty: Isn’t it the case, he muses, that the simple subjects of mathematics are stable and contain “something certain and indubitable?” Could there be any possible RFD for the fact that 2+3=5? Let the RFD wrecking ball swing and see if it bounces off mathematics. Here’s how Descartes runs the RFD test:
RFD 1: It could be that I continually go wrong/am deceived in counting 2 + 3 = 5. Maybe I’ve just always been wrong about this. But this has to be invalid, he reasons, because God is supremely good and would not allow me to be deceived regularly and constantly (“all the time”). To be allowed to always go wrong would be inconsistent with the goodness of God.
So, at first, it looks like 2+3=5 might be an example of something about which I can be certain. But there’s a niggling worry that Descartes has the courage to voice and entertain. Hence a second RFD:
RFD 2: If it is inconsistent with God’s goodness to allow me to be deceived all the time, then it would seem equally inconsistent for him to allow me to be deceived at all. However, I am sometimes deceived. Therefore, perhaps God is not good, even a deceiver, opening up RFD 1 again, which would mean that I cannot be certain that 2 + 3 = 5.
The upshot is this: the RFD stands–and the ultimate reason for doubt here is that I can’t be sure God is good. Thus, the First Meditation ends without producing a “basic principle” that escapes doubt. Descartes can feel the world swirling, the rug being pulled out from beneath him. Maybe nothing is certain?
This is what propels us to the second and third of his Meditations, which we’ll take up next time.
Thus endeth the first installment of our newsletter. I’m new to this, so let me know how I’m doing. Is this what you were hoping for? How could this be improved? Thanks for being patient, early adopters!