Descartes – Cartesian Doubt

Descartes helped turn the process of doubt and understanding into a systematic approach that allowed him to apply the same or similar lines of questioning on different issues he wanted to understand. 

Rene Descartes (1596-1650 A.D) was a very strange man. According to our standards of normalcy, he would have seemed strange, that is. He was a natural philosopher in an age of philosophers that spent their time doubting all around them (not really God, of course, unless you expected and wanted the Inquisition…but no one expects them). Descartes (pronounced DAY-cart) was important as a philosopher because he helped turn the process of doubt and understanding into a systematic approach that allowed him to apply the same or similar lines of questioning on different issues he wanted to understand.

It is important to clarify that the point of doubting as a philosophical process was not necessarily taken in order to be contrary or do that renaissance equivalent to Uh-Huh and Na-uh we see children doing when someone says something unbelievable, but the process of systematic doubt was taken to greater understand the concept and abstract idea that the questioner is trying to understand.

Here is how the method goes:

  1. Accept as fact only those things you know to be categorically true. By categorically, I mean those things that are true in every instance or situation that you can test. Example, we can know that gravity is present because we have yet to experience a moment where the effects of gravity are broken. I am not meaning the bending of the limits such as on the vomit comet where you experience weightlessness, that is a manipulation of the environment to stretch gravity, not undermine the law.
  2. Simplify the truth you are considering into smaller truths. Descartes tried to consider whether he can know he exists as a body. He broke that into understanding the truth of having a mind and the truth of understanding the body. By breaking existence into smaller segments, he can isolate falsehood easier and understand the intricacies of a larger issue through its constituent parts.
  3. Start simple. By solving the simple problems first, you can engage in the harder ones knowing that the earlier conditions have already been met. Beyond that, like the scientific method, if an earlier condition proves problematic, or false, it is much easier to amend your notion and thought when the problems are simpler, rather than when you are considering life-shattering ideas.
  4. List. When you make a list of further problems you may encounter or issues that are sort of related, then you have the ability to be flexible or consider outside situations that may not have popped up before in your earlier considerations.

Now, let’s make an example out of this. Though Descartes used this method most famously for an understanding of himself through the phrase cogito ergo sum I think, Therefore I am (literally, I have the ability to think and because of that, I know that at least my mind exists). You may be thinking that this is similar to the scientific method you have learned for many years in school.

Assume you have a large problem that is looming over your head that you cannot seem to find a solution to or a way out of. What do you do? We often just let the stress build until we make a rash decision, but is that the best alternative to answering the problem? Usually not. We often don’t make good decisions when worried or stressed. But, using the Cartesian method what we can do is think about the consequences of various scenarios within the main problem at hand. If you can anticipate consequences, it is much easier to think through the correct steps. The military uses similar logic when training their officers and leaders. Break down the problem, assess the situation, and check off key pieces to all the issues in the main problem. This is how soldiers are so good at reacting to ambushes or challenging moral dilemmas. What will happen if you do something? What could happen if you do not? What other pieces of the puzzle will be affected?

Though Descartes used the method to try and break down the larger existential meaning behind the existence of God and of the implications of having a body and a working mind.

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