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PHL 323
Instructor: Dr. Bob Zunjic
 

 

RENE DESCARTES

Dedicatory Letter

to the Mediations

An Outline

The Meditations were written in 1639 as a self-reflective essay on "first philosophy", that is to say as an introspective exploration of the "first things one can know in philosophy". Descartes was convinced he had discovered the very first foundations of all human knowledge and he was eager to communicate them to the world of learning. But in view of Galileo's fate (home confinement for heretical assertions) he wanted first to submit his findings to the judgment of the "philosophical" and "spiritual" community in the hope he would pass this public check up. Through Marine Mersenne, his friend,  he sent the manuscript to many philosophers and theologians of the time requesting critical remarks and comments. Upon receipt of their objections he published them in 1641 as an appendix to the manuscript along with his own replies.
The language of the original edition was Latin. In 1643 Descartes himself approved a French translation, which, after its publication in 1647, became widely accepted as the study edition. The Dedicatory letter, although conveniently skipped in today's philosophical discussions, provides very important hints about Descartes' intellectual motives and his expectations from the publication of the work.


Meditations on First Philosophy
In which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated


Title: A composite of different genres, ideas and traditions, Ancient and Modern, secular and religious.
Despite its eclectic nature Descartes' synthesis yields a distinctly new result: by meditatively turning to subjectivity it unveils the realm of indubitable truths that can serve as the foundation for the entire edifice of human knowledge.
Meditation: A form of spiritual exercise, self-examination and introspective journey accomplished through an effort to overcome the corporeal imprisonment of the soul. The objective is to achieve personal illumination about the "ultimate things" that are awaiting the individual (eschatology). However, Descartes transforms this soul search into a technique of freeing our intellectual considerations from the bonds of sensory knowledge. In the Dedicatory letter he emphasizes that his demonstrations "require a mind entirely free of all prejudice and one that can readily free itself from its attachment to the senses".
First Philosophy: Aristotle's designation for the theoretical science dealing with the first causes and principles (as opposed to the "second" and "third" theoretical philosophy, mathematics and physics). Later on this study of the first principles of "all beings" was named Metaphysics (coming after the study of nature) or Ontology (the study of being as being). Descartes now turns first Philosophy (a.k.a. Metaphysics) into the study of the first principles of knowledge = Epistemology.

Aristotle First Philosophy Ontology
Religious Mystics Meditation Eschatology
Descartes Metaphysics Epistemology

Synthesis: Meditations + First Philosophy = Epistemology.
Descartes combines a religious (medieval) genre with an ancient philosophical discipline to produce a new science of knowledge. The traditional striving for personal religious salvation turns now into a personal striving for epistemological security.




Dedicatory Letter to the Sorbonne

 

Dedication: Why did Descartes make decision to dedicate the Meditations to "the Dean and the Doctors of the sacred faculty of Theology of the Sorbonne"? A seminal work of new philosophy to the people whose job is to provide intellectual justification for the old tenets of Christian faith. Was this an expression of caution or an unfortunate choice destined only to cause misunderstandings?
Rationale: Descartes says he had a very good reason to dedicate his work to the faculty of theology, allegedly as good as the theologians should have to accept the requested sponsorship.
Descartes Logical reasons to offer
Theologians Logical Reasons to accept
Rumination: The very subtitle of Descartes' manuscript indicates that he would be dealing with two major traditional theological "questions": the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. But he immediately adds that his objective, to demonstrate both the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, could be better accomplished by virtue of "rational philosophy" than theology. Why then the need for theological approbation? To say that theology is less apt than philosophy in proving the two most important doctrines of Christian faith must have been perceived as a provocation at least by some theologians despite Descartes' efforts to show that his intentions coincided with the main theological objectives.
Purpose: The most important practical benefit of demonstrating those two fundamental doctrines would be to strengthen the link between morality and faith and thus to gain over for virtue even those who otherwise would not be moral (this is obviously a religion based view of morality which claims that people would not respect moral norms without religious sanctions or rewards).
Intention: Descartes did not want to provoke or put down the theologians. He thought that a philosophical demonstration of religious truths should be welcomed by theologians precisely because it compliments theology. Theology will not be undermined, rather supported beyond its current acceptance only among the faithful. In other words, it seems that Descartes was offering his good services to finally perform the job rational theologians had always wanted to do. Descartes was aware that theology could not provide universal valid demonstrations for both believers and non-believers simply because its approach suffers from some irreparable deficiencies:
Shortcomings:
(a) Theology can persuade only believers, who are already convinced.
(b) It commits the fallacy known as circular reasoning (petitio principii = begging the question).
The first (a) is a serious defect because those who do not believe will not be persuaded to accept any religion and virtuous conduct resulting from the belief in after life. Descartes states realistically that in real life vices often pay off and therefore stresses the necessity of heteronomous (religiously backed) morality for good conduct.
As to (b) Descartes admits that "we must believe that there is a God because it is so taught in the Holy Scriptures, and, on the other hand, that we must believe in the Holy Scriptures because they come from God", but he indicates that from a logical point of view this is a faulty reasoning. In other words, circular arguments make sense in theology (all the more so as they include true premises and true conclusions) but to those who do not identify with the faith = truth circle their formal invalidity proves fatal.
Theology: Given the necessary leap of faith it is possible to ask whether theology is a rational discipline? One brand (thomistic) certainly is as it attempts to speculatively trace back the creatures to their Creator (cf. the "five ways" of St. Thomas Aquinas), but many other strains of Christian theology refuse to subject the content of divine revelation to the principles of logic and rationality. Even the rational breed of Christian theology must presuppose faith and supernatural reason as their point of departure. Only after that crucial move it could proceed in accord with the principles of rational discourse.
Demonstration: To demonstrate something means to show that the inference necessarily follows through all the steps of reasoning.
Opposition
Theology Supernatural Reason => Revelation + Human Reason
Philosophy Natural Reason = Human Intellect
Rational Philosophy: Philosophy based on insights and powers of "natural reason". It starts from evident propositions and proceeds by means of demonstration.
Advantages:
(a) Rational philosophy establishes a binding common ground for all by relying on the insights of "natural light" (= reason).
(b) The conclusions of rational philosophy are therefore persuasive even to those who do not have faith.
Justification: Confidence in reason is something very modern, something that proves very productive in the sciences and philosophy. But it could have raised some eyebrows among the theologians as too presumptuous or even anti-religious. Descartes sincerely believed that this reliance on natural reason and the privileging of rational philosophy in matters of the two proofs was not a heresy. But he overlooked the psychological impact of that stance on those who were instinctively inclined to prefer intellectual modesty. Precisely his attempt to justify his position by formulating three mutually supportive interpretive claims of the Scriptures could have had the opposite effect:
  (1) Theologians assert that the existence of God can be proved by virtue of 'natural reason'. With the latter words Descartes refers to the reason we possess by birth as an innate intellectual ability. This reason is certainly different from if not opposed to the supernatural reason as revealed in the Scriptures (the distinction between "natural" and "divine" reason was an important medieval idea directed against the view of the ancients who were convinced that reason is universal and undivided). Now Descartes joins the ranks of those who claim that there is no discrepancy between human reason and divine intelligence, that the former leads to the latter while the latter supports the veracity of human rationality.
  (2) Our knowledge of God is much clearer and easier (to obtain) than our knowledge of created things, so easy to attain that those who fail are blameworthy. The quote adduced from the Bible (The Wisdom of Solomon, XIII) only says that if your knowledge of the world is so great, why don't you look for the Creator of the world. The implicit objection is obviously that those who boast great worldly knowledge are not justified in their presumption as long as their knowledge is not complete, and it becomes complete only when it includes the Creator of the world. There is no mention of clarity and easiness here. These are new, very modern features added by Descartes. In Antiquity, the knowledge of causes was considered difficult but that difficulty was not an objection against it.
  (3) To those who seek God the Bible says: "That which may be known of God is manifest in them." The same idea seems to be echoed in the Pauline and Augustinian view that the truth resides in our inwardness (In interiore homini habitat veritas). This could have sounded as an invitation to look into ourselves, to look into our mind for the answer about God. Descartes readily draws that conclusion: The reasons for the existence of God are awaiting to be discovered in our inwardness. Therefore our mind is capable of furnishing the requested demonstration by simply looking into its own interiority. "All that can be known of God can be demonstrated by reasons" derived from our inwardness. The only route to true knowledge lies in the examination of one's own consciousness.

Scriptural References:

Why does Descartes make these references? Obviously, to show the conformity of his work with the mainstream of Christian tradition. Is this conformity real? Not exactly. All these references stem from the Bible but they are cuckoo's eggs in the nest of theology. They exaggerate certain similarities, while fighting against the credo quia absurdum est, against the "we don't know God's ways", against the idea that the world is the mirror of God.
  Descartes' interpretation of the Scriptures is all up to one goal, to establish the most prominent position of subjectivity in every attempt to prove the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. What we find revealed in all three claims is in fact Descartes own philosophy of the subject or the subject oriented philosophy. Just ask yourself:
Subjectivity: - Where does the 'light of nature' reside? "Natural reason", which is supposed to provide decisive demonstrations, has its seat in the subject.
- For whom the knowledge should appear as 'clear' and 'easy'? For the thinking subject who has this privileged access to his consciousness.
- What is the source of the reasons that are expected to settle the issue? Subjective consciousness furnishes these reasons, which means that the criteria of knowledge are in fact subjective (by their origin). Thus we see that rational theology buttressed by first philosophy (epistemology) leads to the philosophy of the subject. The alliance is embedded in the following proportion:
Proportion:  

Objects
Quality
Objects
Quality
Knowledge of God Easy and Clear Knowledge of World
Eas Difficult and Unclear
Knowledge of Soul Easy and Clear Knowledge of Body
Difficult and Unclear
Knowledge of Myself Easy and Clear Knowledge of Others
Difficult and Unclear

Criteria: Strictly speaking the above analogy suggests only that we should not look into the world of objects but to our own inwardness as the source of reliable knowledge. It does not support other Cartesian characteristics (criteria) of knowledge: clarity, easiness, obviousness, validity, etc. They are Descartes' own standards of knowledge that he now regards as commonly accepted. What does he profess to accomplish? To provide demonstrations that will be: easy, clear, valid, obvious, certain, evident, reliable, exact.
Characteristics The following list is a partial inventory of Cartesian attributes for knowledge:
 
Rational
Easy
Clear
Careful
Exact
Demonstrable
Evident
Certain
Obvious
Methodical
Fundamental
Critical
Reliable
Valid
Origin: What is the origin of these criteria? Mathematics. Certainty, obviousness, clarity, exactness, validity are terms that make sense when applied to mathematical propositions. Descartes is to be credited with the introduction of these criteria into modern scientific thinking which gradually emerged in the 17th century. What is the implicit objective of these parameters (certain method, carefully elaborated, critically applied)? Mastery over nature, control over the world.
Method Only methodical knowledge deserves to be regarded as knowledge and only methodically secured procedures are exempt from further doubts.
Proofs Almost all arguments for the existence of God and the immortality of soul are "valid demonstrations". So there is no need for new ones - it is questionable whether new arguments could be invented at all. Therefore the task is just to select "critically and carefully" the best ones and to provide a clear and exact presentation of them. This is the reason why Descartes did not give a comprehensive survey of them - this would be necessary only if there is none absolutely certain and convincing.
Novelty Descartes denies the novelty of his proofs and his method. The proofs are taken from the history while the method is as old a the truth itself. But he cannot conceal that his presentation of the proofs and his application of the method are in fact new.
  "I have put in this treatise everything that I was able to discover about this subject."
I (ego subject) -> Subject (object)
Bearer of perceptions Bearer of qualities
Soul Soul is a composite entity. Plus an ambiguous idea. Hence it is difficult to define it, let alone to prove its immortality. Descartes believes he can circumvent the problem by insisting only on its distinct nature vis-a-vis the body. The refutation of epiphenomenalism should be the basis for the proof of soul's immortality. This revision of the traditional argument is the decisive innovation that strenghtens Descartes in his belief that he has resolved the controversy. Which explains why Descartes now speaks just about the distinction and not about the immortality of the soul.
Demonstrations: Descartes says that his philosophical demonstrations should equal those of geometry. In itself this is quite a statement. But he also adds that they will even surpass them? How is it possible? The answer is to be found in the 2nd and 3rd Meditation. The truths of mathematics could be affected by an evil demon, the truths of epistemology are resistant to the machinations of a powerful trickster.
Requirements - Freedom of Prejudices (including common sense);
- Detachment from the Senses;
- Ability to Discern Intricate Arguments;
- Capacity to follow Protracted Arguments;
These pretty demanding requirements hold both for Mathematics and Philosophy; however, common perceptions of mathematics and philosophy are very different.
Differences: There is no valid demonstration in mathematics that has ever been disputed, let alone rejected. There is no demonstration in philosophy that has ever been accepted as the ultimate and irrefutable truth. On the contrary, it seems that philosophy argues for both sides which only aggravates the situation. In philosophy people tend to play devil's advocate at all rate. This explains why so many valid demonstrations about the existence of God and the immortality of the soul have been unrecognized.
 
  Expectation Argumentation Position Inclination
Geometry Everything could be demonstrated. Arguing only one way and side Acceptance based on Authority Acceptance of defective demonstrations.
Philosophy Almost nothing could be demonstrated. Arguing either side in multiple ways Dismissal based on Incomprehension Rejection of valid demonstrations.
  He thought that his arguments were like complicated and prolonged geometrical proofs that are understood by a few but accepted by all on the basis of the expert authority. What makes these arguments difficult to understand?
Difficulties
The arguments are lengthy.
The arguments are involved.
The arguments require freedom of prejudices.
The arguments require freedom of sensory images.
Limitation: Independent from these difficulties Descartes realized the limitations of his epistemological criteria. Ultimately these are subjective and psychologically conditioned. Very few people are fitted for philosophical arguments and demonstrations. In fact, much fewer can comprehend them than geometrical proofs. Therefore, despite all their convincing features, philosophical demonstrations cannot persuade the many, and especially not the outsiders and the atheists.
Descartes does not want to produce new arguments. Only to sort out those that are most evident and certain from the tradition and to present them properly. But even then he cannot expect universal acceptance without public approbation of the authorities.
Approbation: Why did Descartes ask for approbation / support of an ecclesiastical body (the faculty of Sorbonne was not just an educational institution and certainly not a research oriented group)?
 

How can we decide what was really on his mind? This is what he himself says about his expectations from the theologians.

To provide support.
To correct possible errors.
To add what is necessary.
To make the work complete.
To give advice.
To improve the work.
To grant approbation.

 

Awe It was not unrealistic to expect that theologians could have corrected and completed the work in a way conducive to Descartes' goals. They were in high esteem not only in the "divine philosophy" (theology) but also in "human philosophy" (worldly philosophy). If this was his motive then the dedication came because he truly respected the Church, the theological faculty of the Sorbonne, and was a sincere believer, though a bit presumptuous and misguided. The fact is that he criticized the atheists, and regarded himself a faithful.
Self-Protection
Another possibility would surmise a deliberate attempt to use the authority of theology to avoid persecution. In other words Descartes turned to the powerful theological faculty because he was smart and eager to 'cover his buts'; he did not want to experience the same fate as Galileo particularly in view of his deviation from the accepted theological procedures.
Benefit There is a third possibility that combines both previous theories but adds some other motives. The theologians were supposed to provide protection and authority for the work at once. He believed that the existence of God needed to be secured in order to be able to establish other truths. He was convinced that the two main doctrines could be proved without the assistance of theology, but he knew that the intricacy and length of his proofs would prevent many to accept them without the support of an authoritative body.
Promotion He was more interested in promoting his work than in securing self-protection. Descartes sincerely believed that this sponsorship could be beneficial for the acceptance of his arguments simply because he knew the power of authority and the strength of human inclination to go with it.
Thus his reasons were rather psychological and practical than "logical". He truly hoped that public approbation would efface all false (contrary) opinions from the minds of the people. If everything went well everyone would be eventually convinced in the correctness of his arguments. First the learned and the wise will subscribe to the truth, then atheists will follow suit and finally the broad public (the many).
   
Explanation: The main reason for requesting the sponsorship is therefore the wish to get certain ideas across. Descartes wanted to be effective in promoting his views on the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. He wanted to reach both the educated and the uneducated. Theologians were needed to provide the expected support and authority for the new claims. Basically Descartes offered the theologians to serve religion by serving his plan. In their eyes, this was certainly presumptuous which explains their cold reaction.

 

 
Galileo's Case: Galileo similarly chose to both go with the Church and to educate it from within. Not to renounce it or to give up his ideas. The approbation of the Church was his goal and he looked at it as an inestimable value. But he bypassed the intellectual authorities, the universities, the theologians and spoke directly to the enlightened public. The officials were offended and Galileo was humiliated and forced to recant his views.
Partial Lesson: Descartes learned the lesson from this episode. He didn't want to repeat the mistakes of Galileo. He immediately withdrew his manuscript on physics from his publisher and decided to disguise his ideas into the form of solitary Meditations that should gain a theological approbation. At the same time he wrote to the friend that "the six Meditations contain all the fundamental ideas of my physics. But please keep this quiet." However he didn't accept the advice of Galileo not to use the Scriptures to "support the opinions of certain fallible philosophers at the jeopardy of authority". Descartes referred to his "human fallibility" and yet presented his questionable interpretation of the Scriptures to the supreme theological authority. He also did not resist the temptation to assert the advantages of rational philosophy over theology, which explains the final outcome: The president of the University of Utrecht accused Descartes of atheism and his book was condemned. After while it was placed on the infamous list of banned books (Index librorum prohibitorum).
Atheism It is ironic that Descartes was accused of atheism although he wanted to demonstrate its falsity. He has overlooked that he shared one main trait with atheism: the spirit of arguing and "opposition to the most obvious truths". And although he was committed to his faith the liberal use of reason and the freedom to pursue his reasoning to its ultimate consequences made him appear as arrogant as the atheists who were unbound by any doctrinal obligations. In the Preface he states that "all that atheists allege will give us no difficulty if only we remind ourselves that we should consider our minds to be finite and limited, and God to be an infinite and incomprehensible Being". But everything he says rather bears witness about the greatness of human intellect and its ability to penetrate the ultimate reality.
 

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