It is commonly believed that Descartes was the first modern philosopher, but the fact is that philosophy was an afterthought for Descartes. His initial work was on analytical geometry, which created a relation between geometry and algebra through the use of a coordinate system. Descartes intended to construct a “physics” from it—a rational and empirical description of the world. However, when this manuscript was about to be published, Descartes heard about Galileo’s Inquisition for advocating a rational and empirical study of the world, instead of relying on the Church and the Bible. Realizing that he would meet the same fate as Galileo if his mathematical work was published, Descartes withdrew his work on analytical geometry, and went about writing a philosophical defense of a rational and empirical study of the world called “Meditations” which he dedicated to “The Most Wise and Illustrious Doctors of the Sacred Faculty of Theology in Paris”. This philosophical exercise was deceptive because Descartes wrote to this friend “… the six Meditations contain all the fundamental ideas of my physics. But please keep this quiet.” This post explores the structure of this deceptive argument.
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The Structure of the Cartesian Argument
The argument by Descartes can be summarized into the following steps:
- I cannot trust my senses and my mind to know the world with certainty. This was also the argument of the Church, and it concluded that the world had to be known through the scripture because the revealed scripture was not based on discoveries of the senses and the mind.
- However, I don’t need the certainty of the senses and the mind to know that I exist; I can know my existence with certainty from the fact of the existence of any sensation and thought. This is the well-known Cartesian dictum cogito ergo sum or that “I think therefore I exist”.
- Once the self is established beyond doubt, we can analyze our minds, and we find that it contains innate ideas such as a “perfect being”, “substance”, “self”, etc. These ideas are not obtained by the analysis of the external world, and therefore they are innate ideas.
- Just as the sum of all angles of a triangle equals 1800 is part of the idea of a triangle, similarly, the existence of a perfect being is a part of the idea of a “perfect being”. Just as the truth of the sum of angles is guaranteed whenever we speak of a triangle, similarly, the existence of a perfect being is guaranteed whenever we speak about the “perfect being”.
- This perfect being will not allow our minds to be deceived by an evil genius, which means that if we see an external world, then there must really be an external world. However, since we sometimes have hallucinations, therefore, the real external world could not be how we see it. Rather, the world must be analytical geometry that is not subject to hallucinations.
- To the extent that we can use our minds to understand geometry, and we can use our senses to realize the presence of geometrical truth in the external world, our senses and the mind are useful sources of knowledge about the real world, and they can be trusted to know.
Without getting into the merits of the argument, we can look at its structure. The argument begins by saying that “I cannot trust my senses and the mind” and concludes by saying that “I can trust my senses and the mind”. Whatever else is said in between the premise and the conclusion doesn’t matter, because the two are logically contradictory. A valid argument should not have such a contradiction. But if that contradiction has appeared, then there is something wrong with the argument. We can now focus on finding that flaw.
But before that, let’s address the objection from reductio ad absurdum or the proof by contradiction. In a proof by contradiction, we use a premise to arrive at a conclusion that is either manifestly absurd or contradicts another established fact. By the absurdity of the conclusion, or the contradiction to another established fact, the starting premise is disproven and is thereby rejected. In the case of the Cartesian argument, the starting premise is that we cannot trust our senses, and the conclusion is that we can. For reductio to apply, we must say that the conclusion that we can trust our senses must be absurd or contradictory to other facts, and thereby, we can reject the premise that the senses cannot be trusted. In short, we must reject the idea that senses can be trusted to prove that the senses can be trusted. This, as we can see, is not a valid reductio because X must be false to say that X is true.
The point is that proof by contradiction doesn’t apply to self-contradiction between premise and conclusion. Descartes uses a self-contradictory structure and presents it as a legitimate argument.
The Flaw in the Cartesian Argument
But where is the flaw in the argument? Is the idea that we know our own existence with certainty flawed? No, that is not a flaw; we do know our existence for sure. Then, is the existence of innate ideas such as “perfect being” flawed? At least in Vedic philosophy, everything you can imagine can also exist in reality, although it might exist temporarily. The question is: Can perfection be eternal? The answer is yes, although this is not innately known by everyone. Many cynical people might say: There is no such thing as perfection or idealism. American Pragmatism, for instance, began by rejecting the pursuit of perfection and ideals, and substituting it with “whatever works for the time being”. Clearly, the claim that perfection is known by everyone innately is false, although perfection itself is not false. Since perfection itself is not false, what we derive by that assumption is also not going to be false. Therefore, even this supposition will not lead to a false conclusion, although it can be disputed by many.
Then, the Ontological Argument, that existence is innate to the idea of perfection is not false, because every idea can exist, although temporarily. So, even if we have a subjective notion of perfection, that idea can also exist temporarily. The question is again: Can this existence be eternal? And that depends on how perfect is our perfect. Assuming that our perfect is truly perfect, it can be eternally real. So, the Ontological Argument that embeds reality into the idea of perfection is also not a flawed idea.
Now, comes the problematic part of the argument, namely, that the perfect being will not deceive us. This is certainly false in Vedic philosophy because the world is said to be delusionary in the sense that we can have false ideas about it. Such false theories are also temporary, even as those ideas exist as a possibility eternally. Their realization always requires an individual, and the association of the individual with that idea is temporary and hence false. For example, the idea “father” is eternal, but “I am a father” is temporary and false. Likewise, the idea “man” is eternal, but “I am a man” is temporary and false. Since we believe in all such ideas, therefore, we are factually under a delusion. And the material world exists precisely to create such delusions because we want to be deluded in many ways.
The claim that God will not delude us is valid if we don’t want to be deluded. But that claim is false if we desire to prove that we are great, invincible, powerful, etc.—which are all delusional desires. Thereby, a worldly delusion is created by God to help us enjoy such fantasies temporarily. Since God creates that temporary delusion for us to fulfill our fantasies, therefore, God is also deluding us.
Thus, the material world is a delusion, because God is deluding us. After all, we want to enjoy false fantasies. Since God is deluding us to fulfill our desires for delusion, therefore, neither our minds nor our senses are perfect sources of truth. To obtain that truth, we have to remove our desire for delusion. Then, God can remove the delusionary experiences, and reveal the truth to us, and then, the senses and the mind become sources of perfect knowledge. Until then, the senses and the mind are delusionary.
Therefore, the flaw in the Cartesian argument is that God does not delude us. In Vedic philosophy, God is also an evil genius, and He exhibits that evil ingenuity to cure us of the evil in us. In simple words, He creates the delusion of our invincibility and then destroys our power. He can create the illusion of knowledge, and then later on we realize that was we thought was knowledge was actually ignorance.
The idea of the “perfect being” in Cartesian philosophy suffers from the problem of evil in Christianity. If God is good, then how can evil exist in the world? And the answer is that God is both good and evil. If we are good, then God exhibits the good side, and if we are evil, then God exhibits the evil side. Thereby, good and evil are aspects of God. However, since God is always good in Christianity, therefore, Christian priests could not question this idea for the same reason that they could not explain the origin of evil.
In one sense, their idea of a “perfect being” is not so perfect. And that imperfection in their idea of a “perfect being” allowed Descartes to claim that God would never delude us. If we take out that claim, then the conclusion that we can trust our senses and mind would also not exist. Thereby, the whole argument about the validity of reason and experience to study the world would collapse.
In one sense, we can say that the imperfect idea of God, which rationalizes knowledge via senses and the mind, is the cause of modern science. That idea also leads to the problem of evil. And if the problem of evil is solved, then the Cartesian foundation of science disappears. Of course, Christian priests could not fault Descartes for saying that God is good, so they had to accept the Cartesian argument. And that argument introduced the validity of mental reason and sense experience to create modern science.
The Vedic Argument for Reason and Experience
Now, you might assume that if we acknowledge God’s perfection, then we would have to reject reason and experience as methods of knowledge. But that is not true because reason and experience are also methods to know the good, to distinguish the good from evil, just as they are the methods to conflate evil with good. Our minds and senses can be deluded, or they can reveal the truth. Everything depends on our attitude. If our attitude is good, then reason and experience are valid methods to know the truth. If the attitude is evil, then reason and experience are delusionary.
Therefore, scriptures are prescribed as a method to fix our attitude, but the truth of the scripture is not contrary to reason and experience. If we fix our attitude according to the scripture, then the truth stated in the scripture can also be confirmed by reason and experience. Some reasoning and experience are required to read the scripture, analyze its teachings, and practice its instructions. If all reason and experience were flawed, then we would be deluded even while reading the scripture. Therefore, reason and experience cannot be in principle rejected. They have to be rejected based on our attitudes.
Thereby, the rejection of the Cartesian argument doesn’t mean blind faith in the scripture or even the blanket rejection of reason and experience. There can be eternal scientific truth—confirmed by reason and experience—that is identical to that in scripture. And there can be some temporary and imperfect scientific truth—confirmed by reason and experience—that is contrary to the scripture.
The reality is that when Descartes established the validity of the scientific method, he used the existence of God as the lever to solve the problem of hallucination, misperception, and an evil genius deluding our minds. This lever then justified the use of reason and experience to study the world. However, because there were no caveats to the use of reason and experience, therefore, when science rejected God’s existence, another self-contradiction between premise and conclusion was created. The new problem for Christianity is that if we say that God deludes us, then we cannot use reason and experience, and religion becomes blind faith. But if we say that God doesn’t delude us, then we can use reason and experience to reject God, and the situation worsens—religion is still blind faith, plus it is irrational and unempirical.
Therefore, the idea that God is both good and evil, and He reveals one side to us based on our attitude is essential to (a) religion being accessible through scriptures, (b) religion being confirmable through reason and experience, and (c) science confirming the same truth as accessible via religion.
Hidden Attitudes in the Cartesian Argument
The Cartesian argument is clever, and it exploits a weakness in Christianity: It uses the Christian idea of God to promulgate an ideology that over time undermines Christianity. This, as I noted at the start, was the purpose behind the Cartesian argument. Catholic priests failed to see what Descartes was actually doing. Blinded by the deceptive dedication and praise to God, they were easily deceived.
One unmissable aspect of Cartesian metaphysics is the use of only two substances—mind and matter—leaving God out of the ontology completely. Obviously, God cannot be matter, because matter is inert. And God cannot be the mind, because then everyone in the world would become God. You need a third category—a res theos apart from res extensa and res cogitans—to acknowledge that God is real. But Descartes did not induct this category. He opportunistically used the Ontological Argument to say that God must be real because it was necessary to overcome the problem of “senses and mind cannot be trusted”. But once he established the reality of the mind and the world using that argument, he discarded God. Thereby, Cartesian metaphysics only recognizes mind and body and not God.
Cartesian metaphysics was prescient: The subsequent development of science followed the same trajectory, namely, mind and body are ontologically real, but God has no ontological reality. Over time, you can also say that since mind-body dualism is problematic, therefore, there is no mind apart from the body. Thus, initially, you reduce three categories—God, mind, and body—into two: mind and body. Then you reduce these two further into one—body. And now everything becomes materialism.
In contrast, in Vedic philosophy, God, matter, and soul are always three distinct categories. Thereby, any attempts to reduce these three categories to fewer categories are rejected. For example, impersonalism tries to reduce God, soul, and matter to just God and matter, and that is rejected. Likewise, voidism tries to reduce soul, God, and matter to just matter, and that too is rejected. And since you cannot reduce three categories to fewer categories, therefore, the result of interactions between these categories creates even more categories. For instance, the interaction between soul and matter creates karma and the soul is bound to matter by karma. Likewise, the interaction between God and matter requires Causal Time, to transform His eternal will to purify the soul into a temporal manifestation of the will’s fulfillment. However, if God and soul are removed, then Eternal Time and karma are also removed as a result. Then, we are left only with matter, and that is indeed the state of modern science.
The Creation of Science from Religion
The essence of the Cartesian argument is that of using God to get the entitlement to study the material world by our senses and the mind, and derecognizing God once that entitlement is obtained.
Now, Christians can gloat over the fact that science was created from Christianity because that is indeed true. And scientists can reject Christianity because that’s what Descartes was actually doing. Since both claims are based on the same argument, therefore, they are merely two sides of the same coin.
To overcome this science-religion dichotomy, we have to realize that the Cartesian argument is flawed. It rests on a false idea of God, as someone who is only good; in fact, God in this false conception is so good, that He permits the soul to study the world only to be rejected by that study. This so-called “goodness” in God makes God so helpless that He has effectively been deceived by a carefully designed Ontological Argument. If God is so weak, then naturally, the power of God is transferred to the soul. Now, theologians may make further changes to extend the soul’s power, thereby further weakening God’s position. For example, some religious theologies postulate that each soul can draw up a personal contract with God, that God has no power to reject whereas the soul has the full power to change. As these contracts become more self-serving, rather than God-serving, the difference between religion and atheism keeps narrowing.
If we had any idea of how great God is, how magnificent His power is, and how His deluding energy is enslaving the soul through the body, senses, and the mind, then we would not think in this way.
Thus, both atheism and religion have become different aspects of a weakening position of God and strengthening the position of the individual in this world. The religion may recognize a weak God and atheism may reject His existence. Those acceptances and rejections are equally false and frivolous.