August 17, 2010

René Descartes: "Cogito ergo sum," "I think therefore I am."

In the previous post we talked about the challenge Descartes posed to Catholicism. We continue today with his "Cogito"

"I think therefore I am."

Descartes observes that sometimes our senses deceive us. When a straw is placed in a glass of water the water’s refractive properties make the straw appear bent. This optical illusion is precisely that, an illusion. How can we know what is real with certainty, Descartes asks, if we cannot always trust our senses? Because our senses are fallible in his search for certitude Descartes employs "hyperbolical doubt." In other words, for Descartes nothing is certain – not even reality itself.

The fact that he can doubt, however, means something or someone exists to do the doubting. His mind thinks, in this case about doubt. Consequently, Descartes arrives at the first certainty, his famous "Cogito ergo sum," "I think therefore I am."

Descartes goes on to prove that God exists and that He is benevolent. Nonetheless, the foundation of Descartes’ philosophical system is man. Man or man’s mind is the ultimate source of everything. Man determines morality, knowledge, meaning, and reality, to the extent it can be known. That natural law (God’s law written in our hearts), could be the source of civil law or a universal morality, an idea central to Augustine and Aquinas, is all but abandoned.

After Descartes, truth is no longer objective. It resides in and is established by the individual. Morality, therefore, cannot be universal. Each person decides for himself what is right. This helped to shape a new worldview.

That worldview, our own, is subjective (based on feelings and opinions), inductive (moving from specific instances to general assumptions), and experimental (proof is everything whether in the laboratory or our everyday lives). It would give rise to skepticism, existentialism, nihilism, Freudian psychology, and secular humanism, among others, affecting government, law, culture, and religion.

The "new Philosophy" called all in doubt, leaving nothing to give man his bearings, direction, or purpose. Moral relativism replaced moral absolutes. Science, technology, material affluence, sexual permissiveness, and the threat of nuclear annihilation brought new concerns. Increasingly, the person was seen as a "something," not a "someone," to be indoctrinated, exploited, or used. A new synthesis of faith and reason would respond to these developments.

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