On the Cartesian Anxiety of Our Times and What Faith Can Offer

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 revelatoryThe 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.

24 Replies to “On the Cartesian Anxiety of Our Times and What Faith Can Offer”

  1. Extremely well put. Descartes set the cart rolling, and Kant sealed the deal. Of course, others also contributed. Like Francis Bacon. The slow move in philosophy to deny final and formal causes.

    What I don’t understand is how Descartes was ever convincing in the first place. His project itself is contradictory; he cannot achieve what he says he achieves in the first meditation. He cannot set aside all previous knowledge and traditions. Even in his “I think; therefore I am”, he borrows the scholastic understanding of subject and essence– “I”.

    Do you think there’s any chance of overcoming modern philosophy? It’s so very embedded in our culture, as you point out. Even most philosophy programs… Can there only be right thinking in the Church (and perhaps a few intellectuals outside)? Or can we somehow change the tide of the culture, the tide of current philosophy?

    1. Yes, it does seem as though we crossed a great divide between the ancient world and the modern with Descartes. But it would also seem that the shift took a awhile to trickle down from the academy through the college systems and finally unto ordinary folks. All this while the vision of the Christian faith has also remained as a kind of parallel universe, but in this past century even this has been infected by the modern Cartesian problem. Thankfully though our “ancient” texts do continue to speak to us and I think we are making something of a recovery in the Church. Perhaps, if this can continue (Dei gratia) we will, as the Pope says be in a stronger position to “re-propose” the gospel to a troubled and doubting culture. Oremus!

    2. The project to abandon Aristotelianisma and Scholasticism was convincing because the problems with it, which seem so obvious to us today, were not at all obvious to Descartes or to other thinkers who rang the first few changes on his thought. It is only after centuries of development that we have been able to see clearly the horrible blind alleys to which it leads.

      Another part of the problem is that there was a political movement abroad which benefited greatly from the demise of formal and final causality. The Scholastic world view, replete with those causes, leads inevitably to certains kinds of political arrangements. The first stirrings of the Enlightenment, made possible by the Reformation, led to the desire to shrug off the old order and put on new and different forms of government. This required the death of formal and final causes.

      The project was so successful that Americans take it as axiomatic that democracy is the best and wisest form of government. Suggest otherwise, you’re a loon.

  2. Thank you for this post, Father. You write that “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.”
    That helps me understand why sometimes my doubts seem overwhelming. The doubt itself is no different than anyone elses, but I constantly hear the question, How do you KNOW?

    1. Yes, doubt is not only in the water these days it is in the mother’s milk. Existential doubt seems to plague modern man. But in the end the solution is faith wherein we accept what we can reasonably know with reasonable certitude as a good basis on which to proceed. It is ultimately our demand for absolute certitude and proof that derails us.

  3. Excellent essay, Father! I just want to add that I am also struck by the similarities between ancient Gnosticism and Manicheanism and the philosophy of Descartes. Both posit a radical separation between soul and body and thus both ultimately do not see truth or goodness as rooted in anything outside the soul itself. Liberation is a matter of “gnosis” or secret knowledge which in our day is scientific-technical knowledge. As such, the only thing that matters is purity of intention or “mutual consent.” That there is an objective truth apart from what we can dominate with scientific methods, still less an objective good, is incomprehensible, therefore, to most people today. This is also why, as you so insightfully remark, all the moral issues of our day are precisely abstract “issues” – social or humanitarian causes that are disconnected from me and my own embodied life. This is so much so that the very notion of individual virtue and a moral law to which I, personally, am subject is, again, positively repugnant to most of our contemporaries. This is in sharp contrast with Christian teaching which has always emphasized the embodiedness of human thinking and action, an embodiedness that has its ultimate exemplar in the Incarnation of our Lord.

  4. This is a great insight into the minds of my theology students. I knew about Descartes’ philosophy, but had never before considered how pervasive the worldview had become. In fact, I remember as a teenager thinking the same way, “well, you can’t really prove anything, because you could just be misinterpreting reality through your senses.” Once I realized that in order to say that, I had to admit that there was such a thing as ‘reality,’ it struck me that I must do all I can to find out what that reality is. At first, I tried to work from within my flawed worldview, to prove certain things about reality without relying on my senses, but that didn’t work. There were things I knew were real with 100% certainty which I couldn’t prove from intellectual reason alone. Then I asked myself what the senses were for and I realized that, while they may be flawed sometimes and give us incorrect data, it is the intellect’s job to interpret that data and try to spot the data that seems inconsistent or incorrect. If my senses fail me by giving me flawed data, then my intellect fails me even more by not catching it. How can I even trust my intellect? Descartes’ philosophy trades one fallible thing for another.

    This Lent, I’ve been noticing certain aspects of my behavior and realizing that many of them stem from a lack of trust in God. I also suffer from anxiety disorder. I am also a bit of a control freak (and a situation-manipulating one at that, always conspiring, always making contingency plans, trying to give myself a safety net because I’m so often doubtful that God will help me). I wonder now, having read your article, if this lack of trust in God is because I had been so strongly influenced by Descartes. Here is a true Lenten resolution: total abandonment to the Divine Will. I am trying, more and more, to let God to the planning. If He exists and He loves me, then even the evils that come my way are to help me. I’d better trust Him and stop avoiding the evils by setting a safety net for myself.

    Thank you!

    1. Lack of a trust in God and anxiety — I know very well someone like this. I’m wondering if perhaps that lack of trust leads to a fear of death (and possibly suffering), with that fear, then, being used by Satan to stir up anxiety to create or perpetuate the lack of trust in God and thus a separation from him, which then feeds the fear and anxiety, and so on.

      Ponder Monsignor’s posts on prayer (relate, rejoice, receive, request, repent) and “bad things happening” (to: direct, inspect, correct, protect, perfect) from one and two weeks ago to help you.

      Peace and love.

    2. Thanks for this testimony. I think a lot of our fears are rooted in unrealistic expectations of what this world should be and, as you point out, a need to control and manipulate outcomes.

  5. Can we also say this? That the Cartesian anxiety has led not only to a quest for absolute in the sciences but that that same quest for the absolute has found its expression, religiously, in a fideism that says “bible alone”. It would seem that in both accounts the senses and the use of our natural capabilities have been called into an “absolute” question and yet a ground must be asserted: in one, reason, in the other, Scripture. I do not mean to imply that Scripture is not revelation, but that Scripture without the senses (and everything that comes along with them) is just as much of a blindness. Origen talked about the scriptures having “flesh” in the same way as Christ did, a flesh that simultaneously revealed and concealed (at every step). Descartes effects do not seem to me to be along purely ‘secular’ lines.

  6. Hi Monsignor! May God bless you.

    Have you ever read Blessed Anne Emmerich’s “Dolorous Passion…”? There is a portion of her visions that describes the actual skull of Adam, to be found (I think she meant future tense, if I recall) deep in the earth under Calvary, which would account for the hill’s true etymology.

    It is very eerie to consider how God works, to, if true, bring Christ to the point on the map where his, shall we say, anti-type, is buried. I am thinking of this because so much malaise (shall we say harm?) has come to us from this one man, Descartes, and it really puts into perspective what harm came to us from Adam.

  7. Can you please write more on the subject of TRUTH, and why we must seek, possess and live it.

  8. I’ve always admired Descartes for such wonderful works like the Cartesian co-ordinate system which so many of our graphs are based on. I’ve never heard of Cartesian anxiety and find it re-assuring that he was imperfect like the rest of us. The need some have for a final answer reminds me of a difference of opinion I had with a lady friend of mine almost thirty years ago. She couldn’t understand why I liked science so much since; with virtually everything based on one or more theories; it seemed so uncertain.
    My reply was that I find theories wonderful because each was an opportunity to take knowledge to the next level. At any rate, the mystery of perfection (as I’ve phrased it) is a great comfort to me. As mentioned before, the Holy Mysteries of God are a great comfort to me since they show that; if I can’t understand Him then He can easily be ahead of concerns that I flounder with.
    As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Don’t tell God how big your problems are … tell your problems how big God is.”
    I suspect that many of the problems which come from a misunderstanding of science are due to the fact that the difference between a hypothesis and a theory is rarely taught before university. Public school may only lay the groundwork of knowledge so that those who wish to be scientists are prepared for university but, not covering these two parts of the process may well contribute to the confusion between a hypothesis (advanced stage of research, but unproven) and a true theory (proven by the failure of expert groups to disprove) – Indeed, many (perhaps mistakenly) present a hypothesis as if it was a proven theory … thereby raising the founder of the hypothesis to a pedestal position which is dangerous for any human.
    These two misunderstandings; the difference between hypothesis and theory …and… people who should know better adding to it by acting as if a persons unproven idea was a perfect truth; seem to contribute to the growing tendency to regard science as one might regard a religion. Science is just one of the many searches for truth (John 8:32-34) but I do like their version of humility; “insufficient data” which I take to mean, “we don’t have an answer yet so we’re still working on it.” If more people had a grasp of this (including Descartes) maybe they’d stop putting science of a pedestal so much
    At any rate; one of my favourite science jokes. Rene Descartes is sitting in a wine shop with a newly emptied cup and the waitress asks if he’d like another so he says, “I think not.” and disappears.

  9. Descartes missed the obvious: I am therefore I think (recall how we are made in the image and likeness of I AM)

  10. Very thought provoking article and I respect you for writing it. I must admit however that, being someone who respects the mental journey that Descartes took throughout his life, there are many other aspects of Descartes that are left untold.

    I apologize for not breaking down everything aspect of the article you have written, but point three seems to call out to me. To me, much of what has become “Cartesian” in today’s world is a rather extreme version of what Descartes was really trying to do. His objective was not to make people realize that there is an “absolute” proof to everything, but more that as human beings, with the ability to reason (a God-given gift), we are called to pursue an “absolute” proof in everything. Why? Because God has given us a way to become the individuals he wants us to be; to explore into the mysteries of life through the exploration of doubt of what we currently know.

    This may sound like it is some type of circular reasoning, but I guess the main point is that this journey that Descartes took (and many others, from his lifetime to ours) has created MANY good things in our society. Some may argue that Descartes, through doubt, has opened up the world of mathematics and medicine, and expanded our knowledge of the world around us.

    Before and during his life, many were saying that the advancement of knowledge (or I guess, the “doubt” of current knowledge) was not only wrong but a mortal sin.

    I guess my question is, why is doubt the arch-nemesis of religion? Why does the advancement of science and the knowledge of our world mean ultimately the end to religion and spirituality? Who says that these are complete opposites, with one rising and another falling (neither being able to expand, grow?)

    Again, if you are reading the above and believe I am writing out of anger, I would like to make note that I am not (it’s hard to tell through written word). I am merely trying to expand my own knowledge of the subject and hopefully gain perspective from you all that I may not have seen from the beginning.

  11. Excellent! As a young person trying to navigate our modern culture, I appreciate this entry (and your blog) so much.

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