A Discourse with Descartes

René Descartes
René Descartes by Frans Hals ca. 1649 National Gallery of Denmark

N: Cartesius, ever since I read your treatise “Meditations on First Philosophy: In which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated”, I’ve wished to meet you in person and discuss the subjects in detail.

C: Is that why you imagined this conversation with me?

N: Unfortunately, I have no power of imagination, with which you are abundantly gifted.

C: Nemo, you’re gifted with the faculty of reason, which all men have, and by which you can distinguish truth from error.

N: Speaking of the faculty of reason, you write in the Discourse on the Method that it is by nature equal in all men. But how can this be? It seems obvious that you yourself possess a far greater share of reason than most men.

C: The difference does not lie in the faculty of reason itself, but in the way we apply it. The greatest minds, as they are capable of the highest excellences, are open likewise to the greatest aberrations; and those who travel very slowly may yet make far greater progress, provided they keep always to the straight road, than those who, while they run, forsake it. For myself, I have never fancied my mind to be in any respect more perfect than those of the generality.

N: When you say “greatest minds”, aren’t you implying there is a difference in the share of reason?

C: The difference of greater and less holds only among the accidents, and not among the forms or natures of individuals of the same species. Man possesses the faculty of reason as the essence of his species, which is complete in each individual, but there are differences among individuals arising from the differences in the ways they apply reason and the subjects to which they apply it.

N: If I understand you correctly, you believe that if all men apply their reason rightly, they’ll inevitably arrive at the same conclusion regarding the existence of God and the immortality of the soul.

C: That is correct.

N: Why is it that many rational and intelligent men do not believe in them at all?

C: They have not applied their rational faculties, keen as they may be in other subjects, in carefully and seriously pondering these most important questions. Many learned men in my time objected to my arguments, and you’ve read their objections and my replies, have any of them provided any legitimate refutations?

N: None whatsoever, but still it didn’t prevent people from voicing their opinions. Some even conjectured that you didn’t believe in the existence of God yourself, but only wrote the treatise to pacify the religious authority of your time, and forestall the fate that had befallen Galileo who had been condemned by the Inquisition.

C: You’ve soundly refuted them yourself, Nemo. Your good will towards me is manifest in the manner you read my writings, expound my arguments and defend them against objectors.

N: If I may say so, Cartesius, I think freedom is something you hold dear. If it is within your power, you’d rather devote your time to your thoughts and the search of truth in the sciences than defending your belief against unreasonable adversaries and authorities.

C: Archimedes, in whose writings I discovered the methods of conducting geometry, used his knowledge of the sciences to defend the city of Syracuse against the Romans. So I found it necessary to defend our belief with the power of reason, and demonstrate that the right use of reason is beneficial to all men.

N: I must confess I have become a big fan of yours, being both enthralled by the brilliance of your mind and saddened by your premature death. How much more you could have contributed to science and philosophy had you lived longer!

C: There is no reason to be sad. Since I’m now free to think without any hindrance of the body, I can now comprehend and see the truth more clearly and distinctly than I ever did in the body.

N: You say “see” the truth. Can you “see” without the eye or any other sensory organs?

C: We do not see with the senses. The images in our mind are not generated by the sensory organs, but by the brain itself, which is also what happens to us in dreams. The mind make its own judgments of the senses it receives, and form opinions and ideas independently of the senses. A geometer can deduce the attributes of a triangle without looking at a triangle. In the same way, the whole corporeal universe can be “seen” with the rational faculty, because all bodies are quantifiable and can be accurately described by mathematics. The image of the world thus formed by the mind is far more clear and distinct than the image that is retrieved from the senses.

N: As a mathematician and philosopher, you’re accustomed to abstract thinking, and not only that, but you have purposefully trained yourself to think independently of the senses. Few men can do that, and I’m not one of them, I’m afraid.

C: This conversation would not happen if you’re incapable of abstract thinking.

N: (laughing) Touche.

C: I’m delighted to hear you speak French, my native tongue.

N: I’m learning French. Needless to say, I envy your fluency in both French and Latin.

C: Most envy the achievements of great men but few emulate their Herculean labor.

N: (feigning defiance) This coming from someone who always stays in bed till noon.

C: I think while lying in bed, and thinking is Herculean labor.

N: Yes indeed, rigorous thinking is very difficult and therefore rare. You write in the Meditations that thinking is the same for God and for man. I find it hard to believe that the Supreme Being, who is incorporeal and omniscient would think in the same manner as man, who is intimately joined to a body and dependent on the body for its material existence. It is written in the Scripture, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.”(Isaiah 55:9)

C: Without sound reason, no one can rightly interpret the Scripture. I’d even venture to say that he who doesn’t know the reason for his faith is not a true Christian. The passage in Isaiah refers to people who don’t apply their reason rightly. It is impossible to think rightly of the things of God without grace, for even the idea of God itself is implanted in us by grace. It is written in the Scripture, “‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”(1 Corinthians 2:16) God’s thoughts are infinitely higher than ours in actuality, but our thoughts have the potentiality to be just like His, because the seed, so to speak, is innate in us.

N: I have to admit I’m surprised how well-versed you’re with the Scriptures. I even wondered whether you’re really a Deist or a Christian. A contemporary of yours, Blaise Pascal -I’m sure you remember him well- is quoted to have said, “I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God”.

C: What other people think or say of me, like the accidents of life, is not something I can control, for I can only direct my own thoughts. I have explicitly stated many times that the continual existence of the world is as dependent on the creative power of God as the creation.

N: In the Principles of Philosophy, you posits a law of physics, which Newton later adopted, that an object in motion will continue to be in the same state of motion, unless acted upon by external force. If we apply this principle to the world, it would seem to suggest that the world would continue to exist on its own without divine intervention.

C: Time is not continuous but infinitely divisible, from the fact that a thing is in motion a moment ago, it doesn’t follow that it must be in motion now. If it does stay in motion in reality, it must be because what initiated its movement continues to move it. The cause for its motion remains the same. The cause of the world’s continual existence is the same as the cause of its initial creation, i.e. God.

N: On the one hand, there is the law of cause and effect, on the other hand, there is freedom and the free will. How do you reconcile the two?

C: I cannot know myself as a thinking thing without at the same time knowing that I have the freedom to choose what I will, and I cannot have this freedom in me unless God who is the cause of my existence have freedom in Himself. The freedom of God is absolute. He is not bound by the laws of nature or ethics. The laws of nature are ordained by God and don’t exist independently of Him. The same for the laws of ethics. There is no standard of good and evil apart from God Himself.

N: Does it mean then that He can, if He so wills, create many other worlds in which the laws of nature differ from ours, and knowledge of our world would be useless and false if applied to the other worlds?

C: I have written that our certain knowledge must be true even if many worlds exist. Since we are imperfect beings, our knowledge is also imperfect. God’s knowledge is in a higher form than ours, nevertheless, the seed of truth is in us, as it is in the knowledge of the other worlds, the differences are among the accidents.

N: You’ve answered all the questions I want to ask at this point.
Merci beaucoup.

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