Establishing the Boundaries of a Biblical Worldview

Descartes’ Philosophical Revolution

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In the history of Christian philosophy, Anselm stands as one of the key figures.  His idea that one must trust God (i.e. believe) in order to understood, was a high point in the Middle Ages.

But in the 16th century, Rene Descartes turned the world upside down. In trying to establish what he thought would be an indubitable starting point for human thought, his answer was the opposite to that of St. Anselm.

Cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am—placed the human mind as the unquestionable starting point in all human predication. Now, God and everything else would have to be proven by the mind of man that was now unlinked from everything. The mind of man was now autonomous.

Now the problem with this statement seems hidden from Descartes. And the problem is this. His idea of cogito ergo sum is not logical. It assumes what it is supposed to prove. Consider this syllogism:

P1. I think
P2. In order to think I must exist
C. Therefore I exist.

The problem is that the conclusion ‘I exist’ is assumed in the first premise: ‘I think.’ The moment the ‘I’ word is used, it assumes existence. In order to not beg the question, therefore, the first premise ought to be: ‘There is thinking going on,’ and you cannot get from there to ‘I exist.’ So, you can’t know that ‘you think’ because you have not justified that you exist. Consider the revised syllogism:

P1. There is thinking going on
P2. In order to think I must exist
C. Therefore I exist.

But there is nothing to tie P1 and P2 together in this example. There is a huge leap to the notion ‘I must exist’ and Descartes has still have not proved what he was assuming. That’s why Descartes’ cogito ergo sum is a superficial waste of time, trying to lay a foundation to knowledge that does not exist.

Having gone this far to establish the mind of man as the unquestionable starting point in knowledge, why then is God even necessary? Descartes added God back in to his discussion, but the God he put in place was merely a ‘solution’ to a problem of logic. He needed not God, but the idea of God, as an answer to particular questions. But you can already see the problem. God is not in the discussion as the Almighty Creator of all things; he is merely a ‘limiting concept’—a God of the gaps.

In order to justify cogito ergo sum, Descartes had to abandon the idea of original sin. The idea of original sin says all of a man’s being is affected by the moral revolution of Adam and Eve. Man’s moral character is certainly tainted, displaying a propensity toward evil rather than good. Not surprising, it was not too long after Descartes that John Locke began his presentation of the idea of tabula rasa—man in a state of neutrality, determining for himself which way he will direct his own path. This idea also finds expression in Jewish thought with the yetzer hara and yetzer tov. Evil inclination and good inclination. Man in the middle—neutral—figuring which way he will jump.

word cloud ethicsSo the question needs to be asked: Is man’s mind in full working order as it was at the original creation, or did the entrance of disobedience have a negative effect upon man’s mind and therefore his critical thinking skills? If you ask the autonomous mind of man is his mind undeniably reliable and the answer is ‘no’, the next question is obvious. Well, if the autonomous mind of man is unreliable, how do we know when any judgement it makes is accurate, including the affirmation just made that the mind of man is unreliable?

But there’s more. Having established the mind of man as the unquestionably reliable starting point, how then is man going to get from his mind to external objects? It took a couple of hundred years before the definitive answer was posted: he can’t. In fact, argued Kant, he can’t, so he shouldn’t even try. In the Kantian world, the human mind does not need to ‘conform’ to external objects; external objects are to conform to the human mind.

Which human mind would that be that to which the external world should conform itself? Since each mind is autonomous, there is no clear-cut answer. Later linguistic philosophers argued that language determines reality, yet not even this assertion last very long, and that particular aspect of linguistic analysis died off for lack of support.

But cogito ergo sum lives on because of its central commitment to the proposition that it is the mind of man that determines everything—even the existence of God. The result is the modern world that no longer knows right from wrong, good from evil, and a return to the skepticism of the Epicureans and the Stoics. Truth as an absolute concept no longer exists, and thereby kills off education, for you cannot truly educate anyone unless they are educated in what is true, not what is false, providing the necessary ‘tools’ to allow the student to distinguish what is true and what is false.

But if the basic tool is the autonomous mind of man, then everything is true so long as someone believes it to be so, and everything is false for the same reason.

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