Thursday, May 29, 2003
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Navel Gazing With Descartes!

Note to reader: this may not seem like much of a blog post, and it isn't. But I'd love to keep you apprised of my daily ruminations; after chewing on this I need a mental Alka-Seltzer™

Despite being a rather short literary work, René Descartes’ Meditations somehow manages to condense the kernel of philosophy’s search for existence and truth into a surprisingly small number of pages – attempting to answer in cogent, almost mathematical-proof terminology questions such as “who am I?” “what am I?” “what is Truth?” and “does God exist?” However, I think this brief work is actually quite a bit of work to grasp one’s mind around! Descartes himself admonished prospective readers in the preface to follow along and experience the meditations for themselves – their essence being grasped best in the “first person”.

The First Meditation seems to be a massive deconstruction of the reader’s preconceptions and beliefs, from how much trust they place in the evidence of their senses – even to their belief in their own existence! I can see how Descartes (or anyone for that matter) would need an atmosphere of contemplative solitude to process the Meditations, since virtually any environmental distraction tends to spoil the altered state. Following along with the text can seem reductionist to the point of absurdity, until one moment perception shifts and your mind says, “Yes! I get it!”

We reach the point of cognitive singularity, the “Big Bang,” if you will, in the climax of the First Meditation: Descartes explains that our single irrefutable belief is that we exist – why? Because we think: Cogito, ergo sum.

What I found especially interesting it that unlike a mathematical or scientific proof, Descartes never draws on outside philosophy, or what is previously “known to be true” for basing his logic on – all must come from the pure innate intellect, not the knowledge gained over a lifetime of learning and the exercise of human free will. In fact, the idea of “free will” is how Descartes explains the presence of error and deception in the human condition. Since God is perfect, and would not knowingly deceive Man “some” of the time, the innate unspoiled “distilled” intellect is held to be “perfect” – always correct. Recently I read this interesting paraphrase of the “source of doubt” discussion in the Fourth Meditations:
“Error is due to the concurrent operation of the will and the intellect. No error is found in the intellect. Error consists in the will, in its judgments, going beyond what the intellect clearly and distinctly perceives to be the case… [and] the way to avoid error is to refrain from judgment until our intellect sees the truth clearly and distinctly.” [from “Descartes’ Arguments for Universal Doubt and the ‘Cogito’ Argument” by Prof. David Banach, St. Anselm University (1999)]
One part of Descartes’ Meditations I would like to know more about is his proof of the existence of God, and his explanation that God must exist because we, as imperfect beings, would otherwise be incapable of conceptualizing a perfect being unless there was a real causation of that idea (cognitive effect), therefore God exists. It seems a bit circular, but I’ll need to think through that Meditation some more!

In a strange way, Descartes’ Meditations also recalls the process described in Zen teachings for seeking “mindfulness,” and discarding the “noise” and complexity of “reality”. I think the human mind in many cultures and times has been drawn to the pursuit of ultimate simplicity in this manner; perhaps it is an innate antidote to what seems to be the human mind’s nature to complexify thought processes unless we consciously rein them in. Perhaps the human mind creates both “constructive entropy”, such as imagination and artistic thought on the one hand, and “destructive entropy” such as war and socio-political discord on the other? Somehow, chaos theory and fractal geometry also come to mind as mathematical analogues to Descartes’ “mechanical” philosophies – while they seek to find an ultimate order in what we understand to be dis-order, they also attempt to reduce the most complex structures into irreducible units in a manner that reminds me of the Meditations.

(P.S.) On a side note, I re-watched a fascinating film this past weekend in anticipation of reading Descartes - Mindwalk (1990), based on Fritjof Capra’s The Turning Point, is set at the medieval L’Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel, on the French North coast. This “quasi-island’s” monastery is periodically isolated from the mainland by the natural rhythm of ocean tides, and so is an apt setting for this story of three people (allegorically representing the triad of science, art, and politics) who meet by chance and spend several intense hours discussing Cartesian “mechanistic” thought, deconstructing their long-held ideas of how the world works – both in the abstract, and in its relevance to the sustainability of the world’s ecological and bio-political systems. I’ve seen it three times, and it gets better with each viewing!