Rene Descartes wanted to solve a problem.
Even at his particular juncture in history, after hundreds of years of rigorous thinking, philosophy was still languishing, struggling to provide a sound epistemology to life’s ultimate questions. And it bothered the Frenchman, Rene Descartes very much. Feeling up to the task, he wanted to brush away everything, start at the very bottom and find an immovable object with which to anchor knowledge. An edifice had to built, one everyone could agree on. And so he set out, turning his attention to all things skeptical and uncertain, looking and searching for something that could not be denied, no matter how hard one might try. As we all know, he came up with this famous statement, “Cogito ergo sum.” I think, therefore I am.
What’s significant about this?
Let’s back up and ask a question. How do we know for certain that we can trust our senses? If everything we know comes through our senses, then there is no way to get outside such senses in order to see if they are trustworthy. This creates a very big problem. Why? How do we know, how do we know for certain, that we aren’t a brain in a vat being manipulated to experience this reality that we are in? How do we know for certain that this isn’t a very vivid dream? How do we know for certain that the creator of everything isn’t actually deceiving us, isn’t a terrible being leading us to believe one set of truths, all the while secretly delighting in springing the trap someday? How do we know that we aren’t Keanu Reeves in the Matrix, a mind locked up in another world, an imaginary world?
These are haunting questions. And to be honest, I’ve wrestled with them for years. I believe there is an answer to this problem, but it doesn’t follow Descartes path. More on that later.
For Rene Descartes, he thought that doubt was a sure foundation. Whatever one might say, he couldn’t doubt that he was thinking. He couldn’t doubt that he doubted, for if he did, he was still doubting. And from there he built his house of knowledge.
But it had a real problem. He couldn’t be sure that anything outside of a very few things- like mathematics and doubt and his thoughts- were real. Therefore his position led to skepticism and/or solipsism, the belief that only one’s own mind is sure to exist.
That is a very lonely and sad place to be. Rene Descartes did not solve the problem.
Then along came David Hume. He raiseed the problem of induction. In a nutshell, we test something in science over and over again and think we can draw a conclusion about what will happen next, so long as it happens many times in a row. But the conclusion doesn’t follow. It is a non sequitur. It’s technically, always, non sequitur. And we can never know for certain the causes behind it all. And so causality was called into question. At the end of the day, his consistent skepticism led to profound agnosticism.
Listen to what he says in “A Treatise of Human Nature.”
“Where am I, or what? From causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favor shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? And on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron’d with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear do cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
Here then I find myself absolutely and necessarily determined to live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life. But notwithstanding that my natural propensity, and the course of my animal spirits and passions reduce me to this indolent belief in the general maxims of the world, I still feel such remains of my former disposition, that I am ready to throw all my books and papers into the fire, and resolve never more to renounce the pleasures of life for the sake of reasoning and philosophy.”
Then Immanuel Kant came along.
Hume, as he put it, awoke him from his dogmatic slumber. Hume’s sharp skepticism tore at his assumptions, which lead Kant to try and solve the problem as well. But alas, he couldn’t. His position viewed the mind much like a waffle maker. You pour in the batter and the form of the waffle maker molds the mix into the predetermined shape. Our minds, according to Kant’s view, are like that. We do know things about this world, but we don’t know them as they really are. That is unknowable. It is the noumenal realm. We live in the phenomenal realm. So basically, we are locked in ourselves and our senses as well. Our minds organize things into categories, but it doesn’t follow that our categories really get at the essence of reality.
So there you have it. In a nutshell, rationalism failed. And this is why things have moved towards irrationalism, or postmodernism. There is no objective truth, it is thought. Truth is relative. It is what we make it, what our minds say it is.
Now if you have hung with me this far, you deserve a prize. So how about an audio recommendation?
It’s called the History of Modern Thought. If you like this kind of stuff, you’ll enjoy the lecture series. I don’t know much about the teacher other than the fact that he knows what he’s talking about. The man’s name is Lee Hardy, and he taught this course at L’abri, which is pretty cool. You may recognize L’abri. It’s where Francis Schaeffer taught, and it’s the place he founded.
I should mention something else. Lee Hardy discusses Thomas Reid’s response to David Hume, an eighteenth century Scottish philosopher and Christian. He apparently thinks Reid’s argument is sound. I think Reid’s response is ok. But I prefer to go another route, a route that, I think anyway, better answers the question from a distinctly Christian point of view. I’ll share my thoughts at a later date…
Difficulty: He is teaching students, so it is understandable. But it is still challenging. If you’ve had some training in philosophy, it is intermediate. If not, it is advanced.
Must Listen Factor: Medium. It’s pretty heavy stuff. And it’s about 5-6 hours long (five lectures). That’s a lot of listening. But if you like philosophy and you want to get a grip on some gritty issues, dive in.
Download Audio, History of Modern Thought, Lee Hardy. See Picture.