When I Awake From A Dream I Think Of Descartes

Descartes haunts me. The reason he does is forthcoming. Before I elaborate, the first thing you should know about Descartes is that he said never to trust anything someone said he said without hearing it from him first. That task is rather difficult since he lived from March 31st, 1596, until  February 11th, 1650. His writings were in Latin and French, which adds another layer of difficulty in carrying out his wishes. Every math student is familiar with his Cartesian Coordinate System. He linked Euclid Geometry with Algebra, and that alone has haunted many uninterested and unwilling school kids.

Too deep to touch bottom and too far to swim to the top.

Descartes haunts me for a different reason. He was a philosopher and a Catholic. Now, neither of those two things bother me, but that combination led René Descartes to set out to prove by reason the existence of God and the soul of man. He wasn’t trying to reassure the Bible reading community, rather the argumentative atheist instead. René postulates, ‘What if everything he ever believed was false?’ I mean everything! How do you know you have a body? Do you know what you touch and taste and see is there? Or how do you know that you exist? A little scary to think this way isn’t it? It troubled him as well. Descartes exclaimed that he felt like he was in the water too deep to touch bottom, and so deep he couldn’t swim to the top. True to the nature of Euclidian geometry, Descartes thought if he could prove one postulate of reality, he could prove other things as well.

I think, therefore, I exist.

Eventually, Descartes realized that he could prove he was thinking. Descartes postulated that he could not think if he didn’t exist. René also admitted he wasn’t perfect, and his thoughts were not perfect. Yet, as an imperfect thinking thing, René could imagine a perfect being. Was this imagining of a perfect thing a falsity like his dreams when he was asleep? René realized that even when dreaming, the objects imagined resembled objects from when he was awake. Even dreams loosely follow rules that guide us when one is awake. Monsters may have the head of a lion or some other life form in the world of the awake. There is nothing completely original in the dream world. Therefore, the idea of a perfect being was not necessarily a falsity.

Descartes also believed that he did not think his reality into existence. Sure, he had thoughts from internal, but many ideas are from external sources. For example, heat from a fire or the sun can bring discomfort even when one prefers that not to be the case. Of course, there are external sources that can bring comfort also. He concluded, “If I got my being from myself, I would not doubt, nor would I desire, nor would I lack anything at all. For I would have given myself all the perfections of which I have some idea; in so doing, I myself would be God!” He considered and dismissed the idea of man evolving into God over time. Instead, he viewed man as a creature that looks up to God.

The being on whom I depend

Descartes wrote, “when I turn my mind’s eye toward myself, I understand not only that I am something incomplete and dependent upon another, something aspiring indefinitely for greater and greater or better things.” Descartes continued, “… but also that the being on whom I depend has in himself all those greater things-not merely indefinitely and potentially, but infinitely and actually, and thus that he is God.” René adds, “it is impossible for me to exist as I am (namely, having in me an idea of God) unless God did in fact exist.”

He continues, “God is in me: a being having all those perfections that I cannot comprehend, but can somehow touch with my thought. [God] cannot be a deceiver, for it is manifest by the light of nature that all fraud and deception depend on some defect. René Descartes closes his meditation on the existence of God by stating that our greatest fortune in the next life will be the contemplation of God’s Divine Majesty. He concludes by saying we have a much less perfect perception of God’s majesty in this life.

The Irony

I find it ironic that every student studies the teaching of René Descartes concerning algebraic geometry, while few students study his philosophy and even fewer review his writings about God and man. Sadly, when the school bells ring, students exit math classes heavily influenced by Descartes and enter Science classes void of his influence, where they are taught that men evolved from the monkey and that there is no God. Without his words to the atheist, surely, society eventually finds itself in water too deep to touch bottom and too deep to swim to the top, which is a most haunting predicament.

One more haunting

There is one more haunting I want to share concerning René Descartes. His experiment of pretending that everything he had ever believed was false hits a little too close to home. I lied to myself when I was a young man, and I believed the lie for over three decades. I also felt I was in the water too deep to touch bottom and too deep to swim to the top when the truth was rediscovered. Descartes was only experimenting for a few hours or days, while I repressed memories for a few decades. I never stopped believing in God, as Descartes imagined. My poison was far less toxic, but I consumed it for far longer, thus creating more damage. I’m glad I finally learned the truth.

Learning the truth is sometimes a painful endeavor but is a blessing nonetheless. I’m also happy I read René Descartes Discourse On Method And Meditations On First Philosophy -Fourth Edition Translated by Donald A. Cross. All quotes in this blog are from this work. I shall conclude with one more, which is the concluding statement by Mr. Descartes.  “Because the need to get things done does not always permit us the leisure for such a careful inquiry, we must confess that the life of a man is apt to commit errors regarding particular things, and we must acknowledge the infirmity of our nature.”