BCC Introduction to Philosophy
LECTURE ON DESCARTES AND HUME
DESCARTES (1596-1650) is called the ‘first modern philosopher’ in the tradition of European and ‘Western’ scholarship. He went to law school following his merchant father, but decided to become a mercenary instead and fight in the 30 years war, ‘to seek truth’. It seems he did not find truth in law school. In 1633, Galileo was condemned by the Church for his solar centric theory (which India and Islam had for more than 700 years). Descartes thus decided not to publish his views on physics, but his ‘Discourse on Method’ instead. This is considered the first work of modern European philosophy. However, it was condemned by the pope in 1663, thirty years later, put on the prohibited index of books alongside other authors who are foundational for European scholarship.
Descartes’ death is famous (and unfortunately funny). For the majority of his life, he worked in bed until noon each day (an aristocrat has the time to do this). After he became famous and his works were prohibited by the Catholic Church, the Protestant Queen Christina of Sweden invited him to Stockholm to be her private tutor. Unfortunately for Descartes, she wanted morning lessons, every morning, at 5 am. Between the snow and the early mornings, Descartes was soon sick with pneumonia, and then dead. Maybe we should all work on our problems every day until noon, safe in bed. This is similar to Francis Bacon’s famous death, catching pneumonia and dying after repeatedly stuffing snow into chickens to try to preserve the meat.
We saw last time that Islamic algebra and mechanics show us the development toward modern society and thought. Descartes, in a world of increasing algebra and mechanics, turns from an understanding of causes being up in the heavens to cause being the mechanics of this world. Just like many Islamic and medieval European thinkers, Descartes identifies the mind and heavens with freedom and consciousness while putting the mathematical order of things down in the world. The heavens remain the good and pure, but the order and mathematics becomes a thing of this world and not the other world. This change, which is very much modernity, comes with a world increasingly full of algebra and mechanics. The world we see begins to be the known, and the spiritual begins to be the unknown. This goes in hand with the soul/mind ceasing to be round and made of fire and the heavens and afterlife ceasing to be physically above our heads even for the committed religious.
Best illustration of this is the City of Brass story from the 1001 Nights, also called the Arabian nights. In the story, an exploration party of the Sultan sets off to discover King Solomon’s lost City of Brass, a place where he kept demons in brass bottles and forced them to forge many wonderful pieces of metalwork in furnaces. Solomon uses mysterious forces from below to produce technological wonders in this world, a thing that he can do only because he is very holy and doing it as magic. In the story, there are many evil robots that still kill long after Solomon is dead and gone. This comes from the Islamic tales of Solomon, that when he died he stayed upright for a century and the demons continued to work on their tasks not knowing that he had died. Then a worm ate through Solomon’s staff and he fell over, and the demons realized that they had been working for no purpose and fled. In the City of Brass, a beautiful extension of the story, there are beautiful marionettes that move and beckon in the wind, luring some of the exploration party to their deaths in gorges below. There are other sorts of dangerous automata that are empty bodies still moving from natural forces. Finally, Solomon’s Queen (not Sheba who went to Ethiopia, but another) is stuffed and preserved, sitting on her thrown, with her eyes mechanically blinking every so often. One guy falls in love, approaches, and only realizes when touching her hand that she is dead, and he reels back in horror. Think of this as a medieval Islamic science fiction story.
Remembering the automata in Islamic palaces, Descartes now proceeds to make the natural world, including animals, nothing but mechanics and causation, completely devoid of intention or feelings. Dualism is a position that sees two separate levels in a thing. Descartes argues for a radical dualism between the mechanics of the world below (body) and the consciousness and intention of the world above (mind). Consciousness or mind or spirit is in the upper world, while all in the given world is mindless mechanics. This is what developed into our ‘scientific’, ‘modern’ mentality. The worst of this is that Descartes practiced vivisection, cutting animals apart while alive to learn about anatomy, and helped popularize the practice in Europe, arguing that animals do not have minds and thus do not feel a thing, their behavior being mere automatic reflexes of causal forces.
This is what led in Protestantism to loosing Saints and Angels with functional roles and simply praying directly to Jesus for everything, different from all previous systems (including Catholicism). Now that there is increasingly sophisticated practices of medicine and then veterinarian practice, you no longer take your sick cow to a particular temple and pray to a particular saint. The causal solution is now one of this world, but the ‘evil’ of sickness remains distantly rumbling in the world beyond, not gone but no longer the primary force of the institutional practice. Temples become increasingly research facilities.
Positivists celebrate Descartes as discovering the simple positives of mechanical causes and the existence of self-consciousness or the soul, arguing that there are certain mechanical facts and that each person has a certain personal identity. Skeptics see Descartes as being fooled by his own judgments, and argue that we can never be absolutely certain of mechanical facts nor of the personal or shared identities.
Thus, Descartes is very much part of the frame of European Philosophy to follow.
Not only is he the first to flourish in Europe in an algebraically structured wealthy culture, but his position is the starting positivism which is foundational for positivists and the departure point for skeptics.
Now, first let us remember Avicenna’s floating man thought experiment. In what some call the first ‘thought experiment’ (the central device of the American tradition of philosophy), he suggests that the reader imagine floating in a void and having all sensation, including of the body or senses, slowly taken away. What are you left with as the essential factor once the accidental sensual factors are removed? Self consciousness, with the awareness of consciousness and mind itself. For Avicenna, as for Descartes, this awareness and self-circling is the small piece of God, the big all awareness, that is one’s soul, humanity and life.
Descartes proposes a very similar thought experiment: he asks the reader to imagine that there is a deceiving demon that is creating an illusion of the world, casting doubt on everything except the essence of the human being and soul, the self-awareness which Descartes believes proves that you must exist. Thus, his famous line: “I think, therefore I am”, a conclusion that has been violently debated back and forth ever since. One’s position is defined, in a sense, by what you think of Descartes simple experiment.
Where does the deceiving demon in Descartes come from? Why the radical psychological skepticism, and then the simple positive (skeptics would say ‘naïve’) affirmation of existence? To see this, we must speak of the Cathars, a Gnostic Christian and Manichean hybrid Heresy that was being persecuted in France in the 1400s. Descartes is writing in France in the late 1600s, two hundred years later. Gnosticism, as we briefly mentioned, spoke of a deceiving demon false God that controls the appearance of this false world below, similar to the Indian doctrine of the world below as not only evil but illusion and false.
Manichaeism was a religion started by a Syrian named Mani (200-276 CE), who claimed to be the final coming of Jesus, the Buddha Amitaba, Buddha of Infinite light who will ferry people to the pure land. This is because Buddhism and Christianity flourished in Syria and Afghanistan as a middle ground of cultures. Then quickly the religion was fused with much Zoroastrian terminology to become what Christians in Europe considered a Christian Heresy. The religion spread up through Europe in 300-500, and the Cathars were an offshoot that survived in France up until the persecutions of 1400s.
Thus, Descartes (the first modern philosopher) is arguing for Christianity and its simple positive faith in the world vs. the Cathar-Manichean-Gnostic deceiving demon. Descartes thought experiment is very much Avicenna’s floating man thought experiment, but notice that it also attacks the idea of the Cathar Satan or King Demon. Notice that Descartes’ thought experiment suggests that a Demon could not keep us in the dark the way the Cathars believe. Instead, because of our self-consciousness/mind/soul that we get from God, and then using this as an anchor of certainty, Descartes argues that God thus does not completely deceive us in this world but shows us many other certainties that we can know with the power and sight of our mind.
I gave you selections of Descartes’ two great works, Discourse on Method and his six Philosophical Meditations. Let us work through the texts.
In his Discourse on Method, he lays out the famous “I think therefore I am” thought experiment, remarkably similar to Avicenna’s Floating Man thought experiment. He says he won’t tell us about his first meditations in hardcore skeptical ‘all is a dream’ mode, “for they are so abstract and unusual that they will probably not be to the taste of everyone”. Wow, keep that to yourself, Descartes.
He starts with the meditations he will tell us about with a thought experiment: assume that all the senses are being tricked, as if by a dream. (This is similar to Zhuang Zi’s Butterfly, and now he doesn’t know what it is- but Descartes ends like Avicenna’s floating man instead).
Everything can be doubted but the self-awareness. He writes that ‘I think therefore I am’ is the first principle of his new philosophy, brought up from the ground of this principle out of total skepticism of certainties. A skeptic here would wonder if this is so skeptical. First, Descartes assumes from self-awareness that he is a mind, a ‘substance of thought’, which is completely distinct from the body, which can be doubted. Already there are grey areas here. Can’t thought be doubted as much as a body part? Aren’t both ‘sensed’?
Now, we move to the Meditations, to the argument laid out step by step. Descartes argues that we all accept things that we believe to be certain, but then turn out to be wrong. Therefore, we cannot use certainty as the sole criterion for truth. We have to separate out the categorically certain from the seemingly certain. The skeptic here questions whether there are categorical certainties that are distinct from our illusions. This remains a central question. Positivists believe in the categorically true, also called ‘fact’, while skeptics tend to disbelieve in this sort of categorical certainty and opt for relative or perspective/subjective certainty.
Descartes says that it seems certain that he is sitting by the fire writing, but we can doubt this and believe that Descartes is simply dreaming that he is Descartes, by the fire. He uses the example of madmen who think that they are kings or that their bodies are made out of glass. Obviously, Descartes had some familiarity with at least literature about types of madness and delusions (also very Avicenna-like, who understood imagination and mental conditions).
There seem to be certain truths that cannot be untrue, like 2 + 3 is equal to 5, a central example he uses, or a square always has 4 sides. However, we can even imagine that this itself is all delusion. Hence, we assume for skepticism’s sake that there could be a deceiving demon (much like the movie The Matrix). He also says it could be someone extremely powerful who could use ‘industry’ to deceive me: this is the ‘brain in a vat’ mad scientist thought experiment. The demon cannot convince me that I do not exist, and so I am an existent thing that thinks. The one point of certainty is self-awareness or consciousness, the one thing that we cannot be fooled about because it is self-evident.
Descartes argues that the mind has no quality and no quantity, no space or time to it at all. It is the human immortal soul/mind/awareness. Because we are sure of this, and because we get our truth from something that we are within we are not in the power of something that completely lies to us. Descartes then quickly declares that we can trust that God is good, the world is not an illusion and 2 + 3 is equal to 5. When we aspire to God and truth, using reason correctly, we discover certain truths, such as the truths of mathematics, the existence of the soul, and of God, the certainty that the body is not our true self, and that animals do not have souls or awareness. Note that everyone after Descartes found this reasoning a bit too quick, both those who agreed with him and those who did not.
HUME (1711-1776) did not agree with Descartes on much. Hume’s position is that all of our thinking and truth is induction. This is like the Indian theory of skandas, ‘piles’ of sand, speaking of the mind and how all perceptions in it are just bundles of stuff that accumulate and then dissipate. I gave you Hume’s ‘An Abstract of A Treatise of Human Nature’ because it is the condensed form of Hume’s first and foremost work which he wrote after critics claimed his original was convoluted and difficult to understand.
Hume starts saying that philosophy has flowered all over Europe in “these last four score years” (80 years, no connection to Lincoln), and that it has occurred in England just as greatly as any other. Notice the recent development for Europe, and England. Hume says that philosophers of ancient times have handled their truths delicately, showing more restraint than full depth of reflection. Remember with Descartes, whose skepticism quickly turns to orthodoxy. Hume is ultimately going to say that all truth is assumption, habit, and prejudice, which opens the gates on any accepted truth as needing to be proved, which opens up potential attacks on all established forms of truth.
Hume says that all mental activity are perceptions. Perceptions are divided into two kinds: impressions of objects that are present, and ideas of objects that are not present.
For example, one has the perception of a red billiard ball on the table. If one turns around and doesn’t look at the ball, one has an idea of the ball and its appearance in one’s head. Likewise, if one looks at the still red ball and imagines it is moving, one has an impression of the ball and has an idea of the ball rolling down the table. Impressions are strong, while ideas are weaker. Hume argues that we derive all of our ideas from our impressions. Hume acknowledges that this is in line with Locke’s Tabula Rasa/Blank Slate idea. It goes directly against Descartes and Kant, who believe we can with the operation of reason, independent of experience, determine several truths that must be certain regardless of experience.
Now, Hume gets to his famous and central billiard ball analogy. Imagine two billiard balls, one red and one blue. There are two events. First, the red ball moves up to the blue ball. Second, the blue ball moves away from the red ball. Naturally, and this is the key word here as we are talking about the habit, we all understand that the red ball struck the blue ball. Notice that we did not see or perceive the conjunction of the two events. We did not perceive the causation. The causation is itself invisible. Then how did we all understand it? The answer is: we have all shared common experience, and so we share ideas and prejudices. We all had an idea or prejudice when we watched the red ball moving toward the blue ball. Our impressions of things knocking into each other, and in particular our impressions of billiard balls and their motions, naturally caused us all to get into the habit of having a preconception, a preconceived idea, that the red ball was going to hit the blue ball and then the blue ball was going to move afterward. Then, when things happened as they usually seem to, we all come to the conclusion, individually and as a group together, that we were right in our preconceptions. Hume believes that this is all one can strictly say about the two events, and that saying anything else, like suspecting that a particular ‘causation’ was there as an invisible presence, may be common perception but it is not in fact perceived or known. Most often, our conclusions are correct, but whenever they are wrong, it shows us that we can have certainty and preconceived ideas, but these do not guarantee that we will be correct. For example, if I made a flash movie of the two billiard balls, it is an illusion that one image is striking the other. Obviously, I want the audience of the film to have this idea, but this does not make it any less of an illusion. In a sense, when we watch animation we know and don’t know that what is going on is ‘real’. We can ‘suspend’ our disbelief, and allow our minds to watch and believe in the animated events, even though any animated even must by its nature be fake caricatures of events.
Hume argues that all of our beliefs and truths are inferences that we draw, not certainties that we can know without qualification. This is true of life, history, and all of philosophy. If this seems hopeless in its skepticism, it is not entirely bad. Remember that most of our preconceptions are quite in accord with how things go, otherwise we would have no reason for forming them in the first place. While nothing can be known for certain, it is giving a different view of meaning. Things accumulate and build up in our ideas, and thus they are real to us. They are not so real that they ensure that nothing could ever contradict them, but they are real to us and we use them in the world. Hume uses the example of Adam in the garden of Eden as a human who learns the motions of things by experience, starting with a blank slate. Hume says that even Adam, “with all his science, would never have been able to demonstrate that the course of nature must continue uniformly the same, and that the future must be conformable to the past.”
“We are determined by custom alone to suppose the future conformable to the past. When I see a billiard ball moving towards another, my mind is immediately carried by habit to the usual effect, and anticipates my sight by conceiving the second ball in motion…It is not, therefore, reason which is the guide of life, but custom That alone determines the mind, in all instances, to suppose the future conformable to the past. However easy this step may seem, reason would never, to all eternity, be able to make it.”
“With regard to any matter of fact, however strong the proof may be from experience, I can always conceive the contrary, though I cannot always believe it…Philosophy would render us entirely skeptical (Pyrrhoian) were not nature too strong for it”.
Hume argues that effect is often variable and uncertain in life. As an example, he argues that thirty grains of opium will kill anyone that is not accustomed to it.
Hume goes on to question the Cartesians’ (followers of Descartes) idea of a supreme being which is wholly without deception, the eternal self, and geometric/mathematical truths (remember 2+3=5). He argues: how can they know this from experience? Our idea of God is a composition of our experience (guy with a beard, in the clouds) that we have not experienced in God so much as in other things. Mathematical and Geometric proofs look nice, but sometimes geometry seems like it is proving something that later is disproved.