Thursday, November 02, 2006

An outline of Descartes' Meditations

From David Banach


Edward T. Babinski said...

Blaise Pascal on Descartes:

"I cannot forgive Descartes; in all his philosophy he did his best to dispense with God. But he could not avoid making Him set the world in motion with a flip of His thumb; after that he had no more use for God."

Most of Pascal's references to Descartes in the jottings that make up the Pensées are derogatory. Two examples: "Descartes useless and uncertain." "Write against those who probe science too deeply. Descartes."

As far as we know, Pascal only met Descartes a couple of times, during Pascal's illness of 1647. For safety, Descartes lived in Holland rather than France during this time, while Pascal remained in France. The two men were very different. Descartes had been trained in a Jesuit school and glorified the pure intellect, devoid of emotion, the submission of everything to cold reason. Pascal, especially after his second conversion, was Augustinian, anti-Jesuit, and very emotional. He was something of a saint in his spirituality, though of course, like Descartes, also a brilliant mathematician. Pascal followed Descartes in using "the method of doubt," but whereas this method led the confident Descartes to think that he understood everything, it led Pascal to the opposite conclusion: we understand nothing. Whereas Descartes thought the human mind or soul was completely transparent to itself, Pascal replied, "Man is altogether incomprehensible by man." For Pascal, unlike Descartes, the intuitive spirit was quite distinct from the geometric (mathematical) spirit.

Pascal became the first Christian apologist both to absorb the Cartesian apotheosis of reason and to fight against its acidic effects, often using Descartes’ own principles.

To cite Pascal:

"How absurd is reason, the sport of every wind! . . . Anyone who chose to follow reason alone would have proved himself a fool. . . .
Man is nothing but a subject full of natural error that cannot be eradicated except through grace. Nothing shows him the truth; everything deceives him. The two principles of truth, reason and sense, are not only both not genuine, but are engaged in mutual deception. . . . We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart. It is only through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has nothing to do with it, tries in vain to refute them. The sceptics have no other object than that, and they work at it to no purpose. We know that we are not dreaming, but, however unable we may be to prove it rationally, our inability proves nothing but the weakness of our reason, and not the uncertainty of all our knowledge, as they maintain. For knowledge of first principles, like space, time, motion, number, is as solid as any derived through reason, and it is on such knowledge, coming from the heart and instinct, that reason has to depend and base all its argument. The heart feels that there are three spatial dimensions and that there is an infinite series of numbers, and reason goes on to demonstrate that there are no two square numbers of which one is double the other. Principles are felt, propositions proved, and both with certainty though by different means. It is just as pointless and absurd for reason to demand proof of first principles from the heart before agreeing to accept them as it would be absurd for the heart to demand an intuition of all the propositions demonstrated by reason before agreeing to accept them. Our inability must therefore serve only to humble reason, which would like to be the judge of everything, but not to confute our certainty. As if reason were the only way we could learn! Would to God, on the contrary, that we never needed it and knew everything by instinct and feeling! But nature has refused this blessing, and has instead given us only very little knowledge of this kind; all other knowledge can be acquired only by reasoning."

For Pascal, original sin corrupts reason as well as will; hence, Descartes’s project fails. You cannot begin from pure reason alone and successfully argue your way to God’s existence as a rational basis for faith. It is not enough to restrict the scope of free will to reason (where reason unfreely forces us to believe). For Pascal our only way to truth and understanding (of ourselves and the world) is through faith in the supernatural teachings of Christianity. Pensée 171 states that reason, without support of faith and revelation leads to Pyrrhonian doubt.

Far from trying à la Descartes to take dualism as the basis on which to build a rickety philosophical superstructure, Pascal wants to see in the baffling juxtaposition of these two irreconcilable substances the very pathos of human existence itself. "Man’s nature is entirely natural, wholly animal," he concedes. "There is nothing that cannot be made natural." But that is also why, he says, "there is nothing that cannot be lost."

Descartes famously loathed theological disputes and avoided their entanglements whenever possible. Pascal, as his acrimonious debates with the Jesuits attest, entered the fray of theological infighting with startling gusto and vehemence.

Pascal saw himself, above all, as Christ’s apologete and defender against Christianity’s rationalist scoffers (whereas Descartes in contrast knew himself primarily, indeed only, as a scientist and philosopher).

Whereas Descartes argued that self-existence ("Cogito, ergo sum") was the key pillar upon which man must erect all subsequent knowledge, Pascal argued that it was in fact "the end of self-existence" (i.e., death) with which man must concern himself primarily and ultimately. For Pascal, knowledge and acclaim in life were future if man disregarded this essential existential problem:

"Nothing is so important to man as his state: nothing more fearful than eternity. Thus the fact that there exist men who are indifferent to the loss of their being and peril of an eternity of wretchedness is against nature. With everything else they are quite different. they fear the most trifling things, foresee and feel them; and the same man who spends so many days and nights in fury and despair at losing some office or at some-imaginary affront to his honor is the very one who knows that he is going to lose everything through death but feels neither anxiety nor emotion. It is a monstrous thing to see one and the same heart once so sensitive to minor things and so strangely insensitive to the greatest. An inevitable death, which threatens us at every moment, must infallibly in a few years face us with the inescapable and appalling alternative of being annihilated or wretched for all eternity." Pensees 427, 432

Pascal led an illness plagued life and died at 39, thinking in a guilty fashion that God was judging him and making him suffer.

C. S. Lewis, who suffered and died of cancer after his wife died of the same disease not longer before him, seems to have had his own doubts, about what "God" might "really" be like and admitted his greatest "dread" was not atheism but whether he was deceiving himself about what "God" was really like.

Final quotations, Camus:

"Since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn't it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him, and struggle with all our might against death without raising our eyes towards the heaven where He sits in silence?"
Camus, The Plague


Scene: A small boy lay dying in agony from the plague. A priest and an atheist doctor are in attendance, both unable to help the child.

Father Paneloux [the priest]: "This sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand."

Dr. Rieux [the doctor]: "No, Father, I've a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture."

Johnny-Dee said...

Hey Vic, I'm currently taking a grad seminar on Descartes, and I've been grappling with the "problem of the circle." This has led me to consider whether AFR arguments have a similar circularity. For Descartes, the circle goes something like this:

(1) I am certain that God exists only because I am certain of whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive.

(2) I am certain of whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive only because God exists.

How do AFR arguments avoid a similar problem of circularity. Of course, the AFR circle (if one exists) would be different, perhaps it would go something like this:

(1*) I am justified in believing my cognitive faculties function rationally only because God exists.

(2*) I am justified in believing God exists only because my cognitive faculties function rationally.

With all of this stuff on Descartes, this gave me a perfect opportunity to raise this question, which I've been meaning to ask you.

Owen said...

Uh oh...

Johnny Dee's heading towards a presuppositionalist conversion, and only then will come to realize the true meaning of the name of his own website. lol.

Antony and his Dragon Fly said...

Descartes Comedy!!!