Many people try to discover their own philosophy, especially in times like the present, when there is a dearth of resonant, interesting, much-discussed published philosophical work. And the sheer amount of this home-grown alternative —DIY philosophy, which can be very wacky, (e.g. Trump)— is a sign that philosophy’s message is addressed to the individual, not to the collective, or ‘the society’ or the state. Frank Sinatra said <<I did it my way!>> and millions took his message, not as a message to the social body, but to them as unique individuals.
In the 17th century Rene Descartes produced a new philosophy which was treated as particularly illuminating for about two hundred years. It is an object lesson in how to look for a new philosophy relevant to today’s world. Even after three hundred years Rene was still being widely called ‘The Father of Philosophy’, though one rarely hears him treated in this way today.
Descartes began by saying that he had discovered by experience that he had been misled during his own education —by the Jesuit monks who taught him at school (La Fleche). So he vowed that he would cultivate a critical approach towards much, perhaps all, the ‘accepted wisdom’ he had acquired. It was an agenda of doubt, doubt and doubt again. This though, he soon found, was not a satisfying approach towards life. He was probably getting a reputation among his family and friends of being a doubting Thomas, a spoilsport, someone who tended to pour cold water over any attractive project. So he asked himself the searching question: was there anything which he could not doubt, or better still, was there anything which it would be logically impossible to doubt?
If he could find such a nugget of truth, which it was logically impossible to doubt, he could seize upon it as the best possible starting point —to begin to build a new philosophy.
In the end he discovered such a nugget:
Cogito ergo Sum!
It is usually translated as <<I think, therefore I am!>>. But it was really a recognition that although his thinking was full of doubt, there was one thing he could not doubt —his own doubting! (For ‘his own doubting’ read ‘his own thinking’.)
So thinking existed, he could be sure of that. Or if you prefer, he had a Mind, a capacity for thinking, and by observing his colleagues carefully, he could see that those around him had a similar capacity for thinking too. So the world consisted essentially of two kinds of things —physical things out there like plates of food, trees, houses, rivers, mountains, seashores… and Minds —the capacity each individual person possessed, of being able to think.
In other words, he was saying that the great thing about human beings was their capacity to think. This was what life was all about. To cultivate thinking was to become more quintessentially human.
He meant, of course, sensible, serious, reasoned, rigorous thinking.
This was needed to dispel all kinds of superstition, myth, folly, error, fantasy…
Would he have coped in today’s or yesterday’s world?
If he had lived through the 20th century, or had somehow been resurrected from a deep sleep at that time, he would have been shocked and horrified at hearing well educated people advising him:
<<Don’t think! The more you know about things today, the less you like what you hear!>>.
He would have found huge billion-dollar industries dedicated to providing elaborate amusements, fantasies and distractions which obviated the need to think. (Cinema, TV, Pop Music, Cruising, Football…)
He would have found large numbers of older people who had forgotten how to think with pleasure, and even, sometimes, why it was better to be alive than dead.
He would have found philosophers sitting round in circles trying to prove that they had desisted from, opposed and categorically abandoned, the pursuit of reason and truth much more comprehensively than the person who had just spoken.
He might have started to harbour renewed doubts, second thoughts… about his great motto Cogito, ergo sum!
If he had passed by a newspaper stand and bought some papers, he might have been alarmed at the number of ads which urged their readers to be sure to go down a quite different, consumer path, one which can be summed as: Tesco, ergo sum!
So we may ask: <<Wherever did Descartes go wrong?>>.
Yes, the 20th century was the ‘century of the common man’, the ‘century of the depressive intellectual’, and the century of murderous ideological wars when only the big battalions and brute industrial powers were supposed to make a difference.
Whether this was the result of following Descartes or abandoning Descartes is another matter. When WW1 broke out the credibility of thinking was already on the slide. Afterwards it was in freefall. It is not credible to suppose that this sad collapse of confidence in reason was caused by Descartes’ insistence on the gap between mind and matter.
So instead of asking how Descartes went so badly wrong, we might ask instead:
How did he find the confidence to formulate, and the composure to announce, such a grand world-changing philosophy in the first place?
And we might pause to consider the question whether we have minds. Actually, as you are reading this, and following the argument, you are also proving to yourself —if you need to— that you do have a MIND! We all have this thinking capacity. So Descartes was not entirely wrong.
Probably Descartes was able to stand and commit himself strongly in favour of reasoning, because he had discovered a door in mathematics which opened the subject up. He devised coordinate geometry, in which lines and curves are represented by equations. This was something which sounded at first very strange and unlikely. Surely an equation is a statement about two things being equal: so how can this suddenly become a mathematical object?
The implications of Descartes’ vision have been momentous. Descartes’ methods were the essential tool used by Newton, who added calculus and a theory of gravitation. Machines followed, and with machines, the industrial revolution… which brought a complete transformation into the human condition.
So Descartes was a genius of the first order.
The important questions are (1) What went wrong with his worldview? (2) How can we put it right? (3) What went wrong in the first few years of the 20th century, and which caused so much catastrophic loss of faith in reason?
The answer to Q3 is principally four things: (a) the mathematic hierarchy’s tacit decision to stop treating their main role as being to help the physicists, (b) Russell’s Paradox, which seemed to show logic destroying itself, (c) the acceptance of spacetime as a mathematical trick to tackle the relativity of light by treating it as a timeless fait a compli, (d) the adoption of ZF theory to try to bury the dismay caused by a complete failure to explain Russell’s Paradox. These inexcusable betrayals of reason have been repeatedly aired in this series.
Questions (1) and (2) remain.
Descartes’ worldview rested on an absolute separation of mind and matter. But discoveries in biology, neurophysiology, pharmacology, and computer science have blown any such sharp separation out of the water. We now know that the brain is a system of extraordinary complexity which works in some way we do not understand. The word ‘mind’ refers to visible human, purposive performance. It is quite reasonable to suppose that it is the result in some way of the billions of inter-connected neurones in the human brain. But our sense of self and identity, and our freewill, seem to be “peculiarly real” and “peculiarly special” in a way which they would never be if we were merely tamely deterministic bio-machines.
A merely ‘mathematical modelling’ view of science will always result in either a high quality deterministic machine account of the brain, or else a low quality indeterministic machine account. Neither will project a visibly purposive character, still less any hint of the peculiarly “grabbing” experience of our own consciousness.
Because if the future is already there, we can’t affect it. The “grabbing” feeling mentioned above is precisely a feeling that we do have power to affect the future. We can make things happen. This only makes sense if the future is undetermined, and is up for grabs.
This is why we need to turn, with some urgency, towards the new, mind-blowing form of transient actimatic modelling, if we are really to understand the human condition and to sort out the crises of our sorry post-pandemic world.