We live in a time where some of the troubling philosophical premises of previous centuries have reached full flower. In particular the skepticism of our time, which plagues us, goes back several hundred years. Doubt and cynicism are a huge factor in our times and they underlie a lot of the atheism and agnosticism of this modern age.
Allow me for a moment to speculate as to how we have gotten here. As with all things, there are many causes, but I suspect that a lot of it goes back to Rene Descartes and his (flawed, I think) attempt to overcome the doubt he experienced. And, due to the significant influence he had, he set forth a kind of “Cartesian Anxiety” which keeps us from attaining to a proper balance between certainty and doubt, faith and reason, body and mind. I think it has also severed our ties with the world as it is and has caused us to retreat into our minds.
Cartesian anxiety is a term that refers to a longing for absolute certainty, and the belief that scientific methods, should be able to lead us to a firm and unchanging knowledge of ourselves and the world around us. It is called Cartesian due to its connection to René Descartes who sowed seeds of extreme doubt by insisting upon a kind of absolute or ontological certainty in things. Western civilization has suffered from unrealistic expectations as to the basis of knowledge, and a kind of anxiety ever since, that we can really know anything in a way that will satisfy our doubt. Let’s take a brief look at Descartes. If you think you know about Descartes then skip the block and go to the implications.
René Descartes lived in the Dutch Republic during the first half of the 17th Century. – He is widely held to be the Father of Modern Philosophy.
Descartes, uses a method of fundamental doubt, wherein he rejects any ideas that can be doubted, and then tries to re-establish them in what he considers a firm foundation for knowing them as actual or genuine.
This led Descartes, ultimately to only a single “provable” principle, namely that thought exists. He states this in his treatise, Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy. It is here that we get the well-known cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). In other words, since I doubt, something or someone must be doing the doubting, as so, the fact that I doubt proves my existence. Somewhat more negatively, the well-known phrase could be: “I doubt, therefore I am.”
It seems to me that this is where things begin to go off track since doubt and skepticism move to the center. Further, Descartes seems to conclude that he can only be certain that he exists because he thinks. He considers the senses unreliable. Only thought itself is evident to Descartes as a basis for what is undoubtedly real and existing. He considers that, in order to properly grasp the nature of things we must put aside the senses and use the mind.
Descartes thus went on to construct a system of knowledge that largely discarded perception as unreliable and admitting only deductive reasoning as a method of thinking or knowing.
Descartes was not an atheist and claimed to be able to prove God’s existence but in so doing he had to back away just a bit from his exclusion of the senses as reliable. In effect he argues that because God is benevolent, he can have some faith in what his senses communicate to him. For God has provided him with a mind and with senses and does not wish to deceive him. Thus, he does admit of the possibility of acquiring knowledge about the things based on deductive reasoning and perception via the senses.
Descartes also seems to back away from the radical skepticism his rationalism implies. He argues that since sensory perceptions come to him involuntarily, they are thus, in fact, “out there.” The fact that these sensory perceptions come to him apart from his willing them, is evidence of the existence of something outside of his mind, and thus, an external world.
I personally think that Descartes fails in his attempt to re-establish a basis for reality. For, he first sows the seeds of a radical doubt then, according to me, has to break his own rule to reconstruct some semblance of reality outside his own doubting mind. But to do this he introduces a priori assumptions (e.g. God is benevolent), which, while I agree with them, are assumptions, nonetheless. Either the senses are not reliable, as he first argues, or they are to some extent reliable. In which case he must abandon his original rationalist and reductionist premise that only the inner mind is demonstrably real.
Even though I think he tried to resolve or back away from his radical doubt, In failing to clearly resolve it he left us with a legacy of Cartesian disconnectedness from reality and retreat into the mind.
OK, I hope I haven’t lost or bored you. But here are a few of the problems that seem to flow from Descartes and the Cartesian Anxiety he set forth. I do not say he held all these problems, only that they stem from what he pondered.
1. The retreat into the mind and loss of connection with reality. In radically distrusting his senses, Descartes disconnects himself (and us) from the world of reality. What is real is only what is in my mind. The actual “is-ness” of things is no longer the basis of reality. Now, it is just my thoughts that are real. Reality is not “out there” but it is only in my mind. It is what I think that matters.
This leads to a lot of the absurdity of modern times where we tend to overlook reality and reduce everything to opinion. We often think of things abstractly and as “issues.”
For example, abortion is an “issue” for many people, rather than the dismemberment of a human baby. Many tend to think of abortion abstractly and repackage “it” as choice, or a woman’s right. But abortion is not an abstraction. There is something actually happening “out there” in the real world. An actual child is being dismembered and suctioned into a jar. But the Cartesian retreat into the mind allows many to continue to think of abortion abstractly and as an issue. And the mind, detached from reality can do some pretty awful rationalizing. Showing actual pictures of abortion seems to have little affect on those who have retreated into their minds and think of abortion abstractly as an issue, rather than a real thing.
The same is true for the issue of homosexuality. Any even rudimentary look into the biology and design of the body makes it clear that something is disordered with homosexual activity. The man is for the woman, not for the man. The biology is clear. But with the Cartesian retreat into the mind, the body no longer has anything to say to many people. “What does the body have to do with it?” Many ask. All that seems to matter is what they think. It is opinion, not reality, that wins the day. Thought overrules the body, dismisses the external reality. Here again is the Cartesian flight from the real world into the mind.
And the same holds true for just about every moral issue today. It is merely my thoughts and intentions that matter. What I am actually doing is, to the Cartesian dualist is not that important. It is what I think that matters.
2. Reality is no longer revelatory – The revelation that comes simply from the way things are, is “not reliable” and is mere opinion in this Cartesian world we have inherited. Scripture and the Natural Law tradition had held that creation and the way things are were revelatory for us. St. Paul says, For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made (Romans 1:18-19). There was a confidence in the Scriptures, and Natural Law Tradition, that the created world, that reality, provided a reliable guide to what was right and true. We had only to study the “is-ness” of things to learn. But this is all jettisoned in the Cartesian world, which remains skeptical that we can really know or reliably perceive the “there” out there.
3. The Cartesian worldview is also unrealistic in insisting upon “absolute” proof. To insist that we, who are contingent and limited beings, can prove or know something absolutely is both arrogant and unrealistic. In the Christian worldview their remains a mystery to all things, a hiddenness that we come to accept. Now mystery does not mean we are clueless. We are clearly able to perceive and come to know what God reveals. But mystery is the Christian acceptance of the fact that things are partially revealed, but that much more lies hidden and unseen.
For example, every human being is a mystery. We are surely able to perceive many things about the people we know. We see their physical presence and know many things about them. But there is also a glorious hiddenness to every person related to their inner life and their place in God’s plan. This is mystery: things are revealed, but at the same time, much lies hidden.
Hence the absolute proof demanded by the Cartesian world is unrealistic.
But simply because we do not know all things, does not mean we know nothing. A balance is required where we can be confident about what we do know and honest about what we do not know. Some degree of doubt or uncertainty is part of the human experience. Yes, we can actually know things, though not as absolutely as demanded by the Cartesian notion of hyperbolic doubt.
4. And this unrealistic notion of needing absolute proof in order to know things is what leads to the Cartesian anxiety of our times and causes us to set up intellectual idols. We tend in our culture to divinize science and the scientific method. And, I would argue, we do this out of Cartesian anxiety. We seem to desperately need absolute proof and so we entertain the notion that science can provide this. Of course, scientific theories change all the time, but never mind, we’re talking about an idol here, and the anxious search for absolute proof is willing to overlook facts like this. “Perhaps older theories have given way, but now we REALLY know! Now the proof is in, and the theory is absolutely proven!” Or so we think. But this is anxiety; it is not reality. Science will continue to change with new data, as it must. And science does not know or prove many things absolutely. We know a lot, but there is a lot we do not know. Good scientists know this and freely admit it. Science alone cannot be our elixir for the radical doubt that troubles us.
And so, here we are. The Cartesian world is in full flower. But it is not a lovely flower. It has led us to an imbalance. On the one hand we distrust reality and have retreated into our minds. Yet, paradoxically we seem desperate to prove some things absolutely to overcome the anxiety that extreme doubt produces. Our confidence in reality as a reliable guide was set aside as we have increasingly retreated into our minds. But, without reality as a reliable guide, we have sought something to soothe the anxiety that uncertainty causes. And so we trot out science and anoint experts and entertain the fiction that they can give the absolute proof our Cartesian anxiety demands.
It is a perfect storm caused by an unrealistic demand that everything be absolutely proven to be knowable at all. As usual, faith provides a better balance. For the fact is, there are many things we cannot know with absolute proof, but we can still know them as reliable. Not everything is known with absolute certainty, but that does not mean it is not known at all. Faith and trust are an important way of knowing. God trains us to trust him through faith. And this also helps us to learn to trust ourselves, our senses, and the reality of the things around us. It even helps us to trust one another.
St. Augustine well described the human person without God as curvatus in se (turned in on himself). That is what seems to have happened to us as we have retreated into our minds. Through faith God can turn us out again to creation, to truth, to one another, and to Himself. This is the real cure for our Cartesian Anxiety.
Art Credit Above: The Louvre, Atlas Database, http://cartelen.louvre.fr