Descartes and Euthanasia
What would the world’s first modern philosopher say about one of the most controversial issues of modern times? Rene Descartes was a prominent 17th century mathematician, scientist, and philosopher. He revolutionised western philosophy with his ideas concerning knowledge, certainty, and the connection between the mind and body. Euthanasia is a complex ethical issue facing today’s society; passive euthanasia is when a patient is allowed to die by withholding or withdrawing medical procedures, whilst voluntary euthanasia is defined as death brought about by a doctor at the request of the person who dies. Descartes never spoke explicitly on euthanasia or any correlating topics, and thus one can only conjecture his opinion on the matter. This essay seeks to highlight Descartes main beliefs in the three main areas of philosophical endeavour; epistemology, ontology, and ethics. It will then infer from these how Descartes would approach euthanasia. Descartes was a rationalist; he based his ideas about ontology and ethics on his ideas about epistemology. He demonstrated the importance of the mind with his analogy on wax. Wax, Descartes reasoned, is in a completely different form when it is cold compared to when it is melted, and yet “Does the same wax still remain after this change? It must be admitted that it does remain; no one doubts it, or judges otherwise. What, then, was it I knew with so much distinctness in the piece of wax? Assuredly, it could be nothing of all that I observed by means of the senses, since all the things that fell under taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing are changed, and yet the same wax remains.”(Meditation II, 1641) Descartes makes the point that while our senses tell us that the wax is completely different, our mind still knows that it is the same piece of wax. This refutes the empiricist idea that knowledge is based on physical, observable reality. Descartes lived during a period of great political and scientific change, and this led him to search for indubitable truths. To achieve this, Descartes considered false everything that falls prey to the slightest doubt. Descartes then reasoned that he must exist to have these false beliefs in the first place, and came up with the infamous reasoning that “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.” (Principles of Philosophy I, 1644) thus knew for certain that he existed, and that his essence was a thinking substance. He used this as an axiom to establish other indubitable truths. Descartes asserted that he was a finite substance, meaning he was capable only of finite ideas, and so the infinite idea of an omnipresent, omnipotent God did not originate in him. Descartes stated that “There must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in the effect of that cause” (Meditation III, 1641) This implies that the effect of the idea of God has been caused by something as perfect, if not more perfect then the idea of God, and thus God must exist. Descartes went on to further prove the existence of God with the ontological argument, and used the existence of God to re-establish everything he had formerly doubted. Descartes believed that there were two components involved in ontology; the physical and the metaphysical. This idea, that the world is made up of spiritual and material aspects, is known as dualism. Descartes reasoned that “There is a vast difference between the mind and the body, in that the body...is always divisible, while the mind is completely indivisible" (Meditation VI, 1641) By observing all the differences between the mind and the body, Descartes concluded that the mind and the body were distinct. Descartes hence deducted that the destruction of the body did not necessitate the destruction of the mind “From this it follows that the human body may indeed easily enough perish, but the mind is owing to its nature immortal" (Ibid) He reasoned that the body was simply a machine for the mind "I...
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