Descartes never did a stroke of useful work in his life. At various times he
described himself as a solider, a mathematician, a thinker and a gentleman. The
last comes closest to describing his attitude toward life as well as his social
status. Descartes was indisputably the most original philosopher to appear in the
fifteen centuries following the death of Aristotle.
Rene Descartes was born March 31, 1596, in the small town of La Haye,
in the Creuse Valley thirty miles south of Tours, France. Rene was the fourth
child. Descartes spent a solitary childhood, accentuated by his sickly nature, and
he quickly learned to do without company. From his early years he is known to
have been introspective and reserved.
Rene Descartes was a foundationalist. Descartes is one of the most
important Western philosophers of the past few centuries. He became one of the
most important and influential thinkers in human history, and is sometimes called
the founder of modern philosophy. Descartes attempted to restart philosophy in
a fresh direction.
The two most widely known of Descartes' philosophy ideas are a method
of hyperbolic doubt and the argument that, though he may doubt, he cannot
doubt that he exists. In order for there to be doubting, there must be a doubter.
In order to think, there had to be a thinker. If I am being deceived, then surely "I"
must exist. This is known as cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am."
Descartes concludes that he can be certain that he exists. Thinking is his
essence as it is the only thing about him that cannot be doubted.
Descartes begins to prove other truths, such as the existence of God. In
Descartes' view, God created the universe. He thought of God as a resembling
human mind in that both the mind and God think, but have no physical being.
Descartes believed that God is unlike the human mind and that God is infinite
and does not depend on a creator for his existence. "Descartes argues that God
must exist because by definition God must be a being that is infinite in
perfections. If God were lacking existence, then he would be lacking perfection.
If God were lacking perfection, then he would not be unlimited and infinite.
Therefore, the very concept of God entails existence; so to say that something
does not exist would be to refer to something that cannot be God. God must
exist, be definition, so it cannot make any sense to say, "God does not exist."
Squares do not need to exist, but it would be impossible to say that there
was a 3-sided square. If there is a mountain, there must be a corresponding
valley. If there is a valley; there must be a corresponding mountain. God must
exist the way that all squares that happen to exist must have 4 sides.
The problem of Descartes was, as we have seen, to reconcile the
mechanical theories of his time with the ideas of God, soul and freedom. He was
not contented to accept the mechanistic view of the universe, including man,
which the science of his day seemed to demand. At the same time, he was
unwilling to discredit science altogether and return to the older spiritualistic
tradition. His solution lay in making a sharp distinction between mind and body.
The body, for him, was purely mechanical processes. He believed that here
cause and effect was supreme, that there were no breaks in the chain of causes,
and what determined that everything went before. The entire universe, including
man, could therefore be explained mechanically.
The mind, or soul however, is free. It wills an active principle. It is free,
for example, to will to love God or not. It is free to think pure thoughts or not. It
is free to create imaginary pictures and to move the body in any way it cares.
The volitional part of man's nature, then, is...