Rene Descartes and the Bible-Centered Mind
Was Descartes idolatrous in his approach?

I am presently reading Think Biblically: Recovering a Christian Worldview, edited by John MacArthur, a book which is (obviously) about having a Christian worldview in your thinking. The second chapter, which is authored by Richard L. Mayhue, one of the associate editors, is entitled "Cultivating the Biblical Mindset" and is chiefly about the idea that the human mind is fallen and we need God to restore and renew our minds as well as our souls. (See, e.g., Romans 12:2 -- "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. . . .")

In the process of this discussion, Mr. Mayhue takes Rene Descartes to task for his approach to understanding. While the great Christian philosopher's ideas are fairly well known and much too complex for a brief reduction in a post, I will attempt to describe part of Descartes' thought process for purposes of this short essay.

Rene Descartes struggled with the question of epistemology, i.e., how do we know what we know? He noted that the world around us seems real, but no one doubts that our senses may be deceived at times. So, he assumed for the sake of argument that there was an evil, malevolent demon out was intent on fooling him such that he could not tell whether the chair he saw before him was really a chair or just an illusion created by this evil, malevolent demon to fool him. One by one, he cut down all that he could see and think as possibly just illusions, including his own body. As stated by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

With the demon hypothesis, Descartes' procedure doubt has reached its peak. Such a demon could cause ideas to appear within Descartes' mind such that he was deceived not only about the existence and nature of secondary qualities, but even about the existence and nature of primary qualities. It follows that if there is to be knowledge, then either there must be a new, as yet unmentioned ground of knowledge, or new reasons must be found that independently remove the above doubts. In either case, there must also be a means of testing (a 'rule of truth') whether such knowledge is indeed beyond doubt.

Descartes, sitting and reasoning, comes up with a solution to the problem in Meditation II, section 6:

But [as to myself, what can I now say that I am], since I suppose there exists an extremely powerful, and, if I may so speak, malignant being, whose whole endeavors are directed toward deceiving me ? Can I affirm that I possess any one of all those attributes of which I have lately spoken as belonging to the nature of body ? After attentively considering them in my own mind, I find none of them that can properly be said to belong to myself. To recount them were idle and tedious. Let us pass, then, to the attributes of the soul. The first mentioned were the powers of nutrition and walking; but, if it be true that I have no body, it is true likewise that I am capable neither of walking nor of being nourished. Perception is another attribute of the soul; but perception too is impossible without the body; besides, I have frequently, during sleep, believed that I perceived objects which I afterward observed I did not in reality perceive. Thinking is another attribute of the soul; and here I discover what properly belongs to myself. This alone is inseparable from me. I am--I exist: this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; for perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be. I now admit nothing that is not necessarily true. I am therefore, precisely speaking, only a thinking thing, that is, a mind (mens sive animus), understanding, or reason, terms whose signification was before unknown to me. I am, however, a real thing, and really existent; but what thing? The answer was, a thinking thing.

This is the famous Cogito ergo sum, i.e., "I think therefore I am". While the professor of my philosophy class on epistemology that I had back in the early ice age suggested that Descartes was wrong, and that he could even be fooled into thinking he was thinking, I personally believe that Descartes was right in his famous cogito ergo sum. If there is a demon who is trying to fool you into seeing the world in a certain way, there has to be a "you" he is trying to fool. That "you" has to have the ability to think in order to be fooled. Thus, I think it is necessarily true that, given Descartes approach, the fact that we think does mean we exist in some fashion.

Mr. Mayhue, while stating no objection to Descartes' logic, took him to task on his approach. He says:

The ultimate form of idolatry would be, like Descartes, to reject the mind of God in scripture and worship at the alter of one's own independent thinking. A believer's greatest intimacy with the Lord will be those times when our Lord's thoughts supersede ours and one's behavior then models that of Christ.

Unlike Descartes, Christians should be altogether glad to embrace the certain and true mind of God the Father (Rom. 11:34), God the Son (1 Cor. 2:16) and God the Spirit (Rom 8:27)."

I find myself disagreeing with Mr. Mayhue on this issue--not because I disagree that a "believer's greatest intimacy with the Lord" is those times when we are acting as vessels for God. I heard a Christian speaker on the radio yesterday morning (I don't know who as I started to listen in the middle of the program and wasn't able to listen to the end) who said that he describes his role as a preacher as "the mouthpiece for God" (or words to that effect, i.e., God speaks through him when he is preaching). That is how all Christians should be at all times--being in such a close walk with God through the study of Scripture and prayer that they know the mind of God as fully as a human being can (keeping in mind that his thoughts are beyond our thoughts -- Isaiah 55:8-9). If we did that, we would be the most happy since we are living as God intends for us to live.

But I cannot agree that Descartes was acting in "idolatry" when he approached the question of epistemology from a "what can I know for certain" approach. After all, God does call for us to reason together. Descartes was a very Christian man (hence, his unwillingness to posit a evil, malignant god, but positing instead a evil, malignant demon who was attempting to fool him), and he was following the Biblical call to investigate the truth of the claims of the Bible. Jesus Himself calls on us to thoroughly investigate His teachings and claims (see, e.g., Matthew 11:4-5). Paul claimed that if Jesus did not, in fact, rise from the dead, we are fools and still dead in our sins which invites all men to investigate the central claims of the Bible. Peter tells us to be ready to give a defense for the hope that lies within us. All of these things (and more) show that we are invited by God to use our reason to investigate the truth claims of the Bible.

The question "how do we know what we know" is a question about "truth." If I cannot trust my senses to be right a majority of the time, I cannot know for certain that the Bible in fact says that Jesus is God (e.g., Titus 2:13). Thus, it is important to establish a certain ground level basis for knowledge which can be built upon to know that we have the truth.

Now, you can argue that Descartes did some things wrong and that would be appropriate. The Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics, for example, makes the point that Descartes ultimately got it backwards:

Descartes begins his philosophy in thought [indubitable thought] and then moved to reality. He reasoned "I think, therefore I am." In reality, however, "I am, therefore I think." He literally got de carte before de horse!

Pun aside, I agree that Descartes does have it backwards and I think it would have been a simple step for him to begin with his reasoning to arrive at that conclusion. I also think Descartes is wrong because by positing a evil, malignant demon, he is violating Occam's Razor. Now, Occam's Razor, sometimes called "Ockham's Razor" (by Sir William of Occam or Ockham, another Christian with a few interesting variations in this theology), says: "Don't multiply entities beyond necessity." Roughly translated, this means that we shouldn't posit the existence of causes if there is other simpler explanation for the matter being explained. As John Mark Reynolds facetiously put it in a talk I heard him give, it may be that the reason that I am writing such stupid things because there is an invisible pink unicorn behind me putting a horn in my back making stupid statements come out. But there is no reason to posit the existence of such a pink unicorn when there is a much simpler explanation: I am being stupid. (Note, this is a facetious statement--I don't think Dr. Reynolds, or myself for that matter, is stupid in the slightest. But it does illustrate what Occam's Razor is intended to prevent: the unnecessary multiplication of entities.). In the case of Descartes, Occam's Razor would say "why posit the existence of an evil, malevolent demon to explain why the real world appears to exist when there exists a simpler explanation: the real world does exist as we perceive it?" It seems to me that this is correct, and that Descartes was necessarily wrong in positing such a being in order to so dramatically doubting his senses in the first place.

But saying that Descartes was wrong is a far cry from saying that he is engaging in idolatry for starting with his own mind and working towards a common basis of knowledge. I believe that Rene Descartes would be upset at such an accusation. But on the other hand, I also agree that knowledge of truth is gained primarily through Scripture, and starting with our world and working out gives us some truth but in a limited way. Thus, Descartes does seem to have taken a rather unusual approach for a Christian. Having said this, I do think that God has given us the capacity to reason and even calls us to reason (Isa. 1:18). I do not believe that God closed any avenue of reason to us. If we can investigate something, with very few exceptions (e.g., sorcery), God has left it to us to investigate it. But that does not mean that every investigation is going to be fruitful and lead us closer to God. Sometimes reason, being fallen, errantly leads us away from God.

While I don't think Descartes has led us away from God with his approach, it certainly appears that his approach leads through murkier fields than the typical Christian (who already accepts the information of their senses because, unconsciously using Occam's razor, there is no need to posit a evil, malevolent demon to fool them) needs to walk.


Anonymous said…
this was a well written essay. I am doing a report on rene descartes and i am reading 30 pages from one of his books put together called philosophical assays... in our book chosen we are supposed to look incredibly deeply to find falt in their thinking according to the bible. and what i loved about reading your essay is that you kinda in some places explained some of what i didnt understand. and thank you.
Personally, I do not believe that Descartes put Descartes before the horse. He obviously has it the right way around: cognition is the one process whereby we are even capable of assessing the position of any cart relative to any horse; without cognition, there is no knowledge, apart from stimulus elicited response. If such is even deemed knowledge, it must be devoid of the dimension of memory, or else cognition would be implied (due to the fact that memory is by definition comparative in nature, and the capacity for such comparison making is necessarily cognitive in nature). Therefore, Descartes established the only ground that makes sense for the basis of any knowledge whatever: cognition.

Further, Occam's Razor is not an inviolable rule; it is more like a sieve, or a screen to be used as a tool for the more efficient generation of hypotheses. To see if indeed Descartes' assumption is so far a field as it might seem, I think it would be best to follow in his footsteps and to judge along the way whether given era wherein he wrote this treatise, if we can truly find such a fault with his reasoning. In order to do this, we need to start where he began: doubt of one's own senses. The cause of the doubt of one's own senses, in a broad sense, devolves to one of two categories: the doubt of some external condition affecting the senses themselves, or doubt of some internal process of sensing. If Descartes were to assume that something could be wrong with his internal mechanism for sensing, then it would seem unlikely that any proof could be made at all, because, consequently, then nothing could be trusted, either internally or externally. However, by positing that an external force could affect his senses, he is able to continue his investigation into his internal cognitive process. The next obvious question is what, then, could account for such an external manipulation of his senses. One possibility could be that given insufficient light, that his perception of the chair could have thereby been a misperception; however, while initially seeming to be a cause external to his faculties, upon closer examination we see clearly that it is the defect of the senses that makes them less capable of accurate perception and not the existence or non-existence of the chair. What, then, according to the thinking of his time, could be responsible for such an externally manifest illusion? Certainly a supernatural force comes to mind, yet within the Christian context in which he writes we know, biblically, that all things from God are good, and so Descartes would not expect such deception from his Creator; but if he were to expect such a supernatural deception, it would then necessarily come from some supernatural form of malevolence.

As well, for the purpose of Descartes' argument, the juxtaposition of such a universal as a supposed supernatural force gives his argument the scope of a universal domain, so that in order to come against his argument, one would have to replace the supernatural with the material, a thing that clerical philosophers would less likely to do; and therefore Descartes' argument, rather than floundering upon some material point of its formulation that would prove debatable with regard to its universality with respect to religion, essentially cut to the chase with respect to the current thinking of the era in which he lived. None of this is to say that Descartes' beliefs were not Christian; but rather it is to say the for the rhetorical expedition of his purposes, that he deftly preempted argumentation that would have been unnecessarily peripheral to his postulation.

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