Descartes as Synthesiser of Christianity and Science

Leonard Ares FAITH Magazine November – December 2012

Leonard Ares outlines Rene Descartes' attempt to prevent human knowledge, especially concerning the existence of God, from being undermined by a new scepticism and a new science. In as much as he founds metaphysics through knowledge which is a priori to scientific observation his is still a popular approach among neo-scholastic philosophers of science. Mr Ares is studying for a PhD in French literature at the University of Alabama.

In his Meditations, Rene Descartes constructs a theory of the universe that begins with doubt rather than faith. In putting all his preconceived opinions and ideas to the test, he questions almost everything. This is in order to ground knowledge of the truth. In mistrusting his senses, because he well knows that the senses can sometimes deceive, Descartes leans towards the mind and the intellect as reliable sources of information. In Meditations, he addresses both the interpretation of the physical world that is accomplished by means of the senses and the interpretation of things linked to the metaphysical domain that are conceived of by means of the intellect. Descartes wants to prove that God exists in order to found metaphysically the "new science" which Galileo's mathematical andexperimental work had begun to articulate. Consequently, Descartes' texts and writings indirectly advance Judeo-Christian beliefs and traditions in a manner acceptable to the ecclesiastical authorities of his time. They meet a need to respond to the challenge presented by the new science to the old philosophy of the previous era.

Being Catholic and French in the 17th century, Descartes wants God to play a large part in his system. He works hard to find a proof of the existence of God that concurs with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. In the 17th century, the ideas of the Reformation were spreading throughout the world and the Church did not accept very graciously the new scientific ideas that mixed themselves with God and religion. Conscious that the Inquisition was active and powerful at the time and that it was necessary to be careful not to agitate European ecclesiastics with the contents of his writings, Descartes proceeded prudently and cautiously with the development and justification of his theories. All the great philosophers and intellectuals of Descartes' time, of course, were familiar withthe manner in which the Church treated Galileo and his new heliocentric theory concerning the solar system. Descartes did not want to have to appear in front of a Church commission to defend his new science, which might seem suspect or undermining of Church teachings. He hoped that his science would be viewed as completely irreproachable to Catholic authorities.

In writing the Meditations, Descartes stays in conformity with Catholic teachings. Throughout his texts, one observes that Descartes advances, at least indirectly, the principles of the Holy Scriptures and Judeo-Christianity. In the last paragraph of the Third Meditation, one notices a direct reference to Catholic instruction: "For, as the faith teaches us, the supreme happiness of the other life consists in that single contemplation of the Divine Majesty, of which we already experience, albeit in a much less perfect contemplation, but that causes us nonetheless to rejoice of the greatest contentment of which we are capable of sensing in this life" (42). Descartes clearly advocates the contemplation of God. He goes beyond the science of his youth, but does not oppose Church dogma.

According to Descartes, his former Jesuit teachers think superficially because they observe the world only by means of the physical senses. In the Discourse on Method, Descartes states: "What is fairly well manifest of what even the philosophers hold for maxims in the schools is that there is nothing in their understanding that had not first been in the senses, where, however, it is certain that the ideas of God and of the soul have never been" (37). Descartes holds fast to the idea of going further than his former scholastic teachers by profoundly examining both metaphysical and earthly existence. In light of the new science, he feels the need to extract metaphysics from being founded upon that which is perceived through the senses. At a certain point in this endeavour, he comes tobelieve that he has discovered the needed new foundation.

Descartes' disappointment over his formation at school and university taught him to learn to mistrust the senses, that is to say the technique of interpretation of material things by means of the senses. For Descartes, moral certitude and the subject of God is the proper domain of the intellect and the spirit. Descartes puts everything carefully to the test in trying to separate that which is definitely true from that which is possibly false, in order to find a definitive proof of the existence of God, a proof on which he can base his science. However, he stays all the while carefully faithful to the religious sensibilities of the time in France. His new science, when it comes to fruition with its discoveries and metaphysical affirmations, renders a sort of moral and fresh support toJudeo-Christianity, especially as concerns the existence of God. In the context of the 17th-century's new learning, this appears fortuitous.

The fact that Descartes always wants to concur with the Church while founding the new science does not prevent him, again, from questioning all that surrounds him and all that passes through his mind. In continuing his pursuit of the truth, which carries with it a precise method of making the distinction between the definitely true and the possibly false, he employs the triage of his second precept of Discourse on Method: "The second, to divide each of the difficulties that I would examine as individual parcels, as much as it would be possible and required for a better resolution" (18). In mistrusting his senses, he hypothesises that material things are only a sort of illusion. But, in dividing what he examines, he reduces everything into elements rendered easier to analyse. Thisprocess eventually leads to his proof of the existence of God. Descartes proceeds carefully and with circumspection because, in his opinion, man is capable of making errors, but not God. With this judgment, Descartes is in complete agreement with the Church and its Judeo-Christian convictions. As we have said it was imperative for him that the Church, very powerful during the 17th century, be convinced that his writings did not contradict it in any way.

Descartes conjectures: "But maybe also I am something more than I would imagine; maybe all the perfections that I attribute to the nature of a God are in some way in my power, albeit that they are not are not yet evident and are not made manifest by their actions" {Meditations, 37). However, Descartes proposes this speculation only in order to prepare a solid base for a proof of the existence of God. Descartes conceives that the idea of a perfect and infinite being cannot come from him, an imperfect and finite being, and consequently that this conception must come from God. Descartes then concludes that he is sure that he is a creature made by God: "It is necessary that God would be the author of my existence" (39). With this declaration and by not straying from Western religiousteachings of the era, he indirectly affirms Judeo-Christian convictions while he continues with determination in his search for a definitive proof of God's existence.

Descartes proceeds cautiously with his science and his mission, while also putting forth his conviction that his existence is due to a higher being. In the first Meditation, he writes: "Nevertheless, for a long time I have had in mind a certain opinion that there is a God who is omnipotent and by whom I have been created as I am" (16). Descartes' certainty in his own existence was determined before he undertook the task of discovering a proof for the existence of God: "Since I am but a substance that thinks" (39). Being sure that he exists, Descartes continues by dealing with cause and effect as concerns the idea of the existence of God.

According to Descartes, a substance "must have at least as much reality in the cause as in its effect" (39). He asserts: "There must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause as in its effect, because from where can the effect draw its reality if not from its cause?" (32). Descartes proposes therefore that the idea within man of the existence of God is an effect caused by God, and reasons that this idea is innate and a gift from God: "That the idea of an intensely perfect being (that is to say God) is within me very evidently demonstrates the existence of God" (40). Descartes' conclusion reconciles his new science to the religious teachings of his time and culture.

According to Descartes' reasoning, the act of thinking about a substance, which, in accord with the scholasticism of his youth, he calls the formal reality of a substance, depends on the substance's objective reality-the veritable object of what is represented. Descartes as a res cogitans, a thinking substance, insists that ideas are modalities of thought. Again, according to his theory of causality that establishes that a substance has at least as much reality as its effect, his idea of God cannot be more perfect than God, who, as the cause, must surely exist. The ecclesiastical authorities finally have a philosopher-scientist who supports the foundation of their ideas and precepts - the existence of God rather than the changing results of scientific observation - yet in a way that isin harmony with these latter.

Descartes proceeded to make a large part of his natural philosophy a study of the relationship between God and man. Most of Europe during the 17th century was under the influence of Judeo-Christianity. The Old Testament, the Torah of the Jewish faith, combined with the New Testament to make up the Bible for Christians. The sacred texts of these two religions address not only the subject of God, but also the relationship between God and man, as well as the enigma of body and spirit. One often sees references to the duality of man in Holy Scriptures. According to Descartes, the human soul thinks and contains the natural light, otherwise known as common sense. Also, Descartes writes, the soul is a gift from God that is of the same nature as God, that is to say, thought. In contrast, thebody also exists but is composed of material elements and accompanies the soul during its temporal existence on Earth. Although the two function together they are nonetheless separate.

Descartes proposes that a human being is two things at the same time: a material and mortal body united with an immaterial and immortal soul. With this, Descartes is in concordance with Judeo-Christian beliefs and precepts. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Man occupies a unique place in creation: (I) he is 'in the image of God'; (II) in his own nature he unites the spiritual and material worlds" (91). In Discourse on Method, Descartes asserts his ideas on the connection between the soul and man's thoughts: "Our soul is that distinct part of the body of which the nature is only to think" (AT 6: 46). In compliance with the Church and its teachings, Descartes theorises that although the soul is separate from the body, it is still nonetheless connected to it. The basics ofthis conception remain a central part of Judeo-Christian doctrines.

Descartes wants to help humanity with his new science and wishes to publish his texts principally for the benefit of others. In the sixth section of Discourse on Method, he writes of his sense of obligation to share his ideas with his society as well as his belief that one should strive to assist his fellow man: "I believed that I could not keep them hidden without greatly sinning against the law that obliges us to procure, as much as is in us to do so, the general well-being of all men" (61). In Descartes' works, God always remains respected and honoured, while man is always described as a creature of God, composed of a mysterious mixture of substances. Descartes indirectly extols the precepts both of Catholicism and of Judaism in his writings. Centuries later, his way of maintainingmetaphysics in the light of science would still appear to be not without influence.

Faith Magazine

November - December 2012