Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Cartesianism is so-called because as a way of perceiving the world it derives from the philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650). He's considered by many as the founder of modern philosophy. Bertrand Russell [1] thinks that Descartes was the first thinker since Aristotle to work de novo on the nature of knowledge.

It may be helpful to put Cartesianism in a broader context, lest its concerns seem largely pointless to the contemporary person. One of the roots of the way Descartes analysed reality goes back to Plato. The latter concluded that the world we experience is surely too imperfect to be the best there is. Since we can conceive of perfection there must be an over-arching realm or second dimension in which unchanging perfection rules.

This idea of a two-world reality was the way almost everyone in the 16th and 17th centuries thought of their universe. Most religions reflected the idea in terms of a dimension inhabited by God or gods on one hand, and the dimension we inhabit on the other. The art of religion was to attain satisfactory communication between the two. It also facilitates our passage, given certain conditions, from this world into the next.

Ideas of revelation rested on the proposal that God communicates with us from the higher of the two dimensions. Knowledge gained in this way can't of course be contradicted or even doubted, since it originates from God. God must be perfection itself or, as some put it, the "absolute". From there it was but a short step to insist that doubt itself is a betrayal of truth, since God cannot but tell us only what is true.

Descartes was a gifted thinker of independent means who asked the question, "What happens if I doubt everything?" Throughout his life he wisely avoided being too public with his answers because the various ecclesiastical authorities could turn nasty if they thought that doctrinal verities might be at risk from innovative thought. 

Descartes' position was predicated by the tacit assertion that answers to his questions were determined by rational thought rather than authority based on revelation. Rationality thrives on doubt, revelation on certainty. This was nothing short of revolutionary in an age when infallible authority ruled the roost. It should be remembered that the 16th century was a time of rigid social structures and codes. Both secular and ecclesiastical powers could, and did, heavily penalise and even kill dissenters.

Descartes argued that the possibility exists that we are deceived in what we think is true and real. "Can I doubt that I'm sitting in front of a fire in my dressing gown?" he asks. The answer is yes, because I could in fact be lying in bed and dreaming that I was sitting in front of the fire. On top of that, says Descartes, we all know that it's possible to have delusions. I might be in a mental hospital imagining the scene.

Of what, then, can you or I be certain? If I can doubt even my experience of reality, is anything left of certainty? Even revelation might be a delusion. My very existence might be a delusion in someone else's mind.

But we have to stop there, says Descartes, because if I don't exist then I can't be deluded. So something called "me" must exist in some way or other. But, taking "Cartesian Doubt" as far as possible, it might be that my body and what I call its sensations are illusions.

This leaves what Descartes called "soul" or "mind". One day, sitting next to his stove, he came up with a proposal which seemed to solve the problem of existence. He wrote, 

While I wanted to think everything false, it must necessarily be that I who thought was something; and remarking that this truth, I think, therefore I am, was so solid and so certain that all the most extravagant suppositions of the sceptics were incapable of upsetting it, I judged that I could receive it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy that I sought.

Here at last, he thought, is the bedrock upon which it might be possible to build a new, non-revelatory, way of knowing the world and everything. That mind or soul is more certain than matter (a conclusion known as "subjectivism") became the foundation of a whole new way of thinking.

Like every new proposal, Cartesianism has its special problems. If the existence of matter (our bodies, chairs, other people, the universe) is knowable only by inference from the mind or soul is there any point in so inferring? Does it matter one way or the other if the cat I'm stroking is really there? Does it matter if I stroke it or kill it?

Mathematics and geometry may be different, however. Even in dreams and delusions 2 + 2 = 4 and a right angle is 90 degrees. That is, they seem to be a type of knowledge independent of mind and the world.

More tricky, however, is establishing why I should think I'm stroking a cat rather than a man-eating lion. An easy answer might be that the two give entirely different sensations. But why should sensations be real, and the cat and lion be delusions? If the mind can experience sensations, and the sensations are real, there surely the objects which cause the sensation must be real? Can I really doubt the lion's existence and suppose that I'm being torn apart by a household cat?

Cartesians nevertheless maintained that, strictly speaking, knowledge of "external" things is by the mind not the senses. Descartes used the analogy of wax. It has certain characteristics when cold. But that doesn't mean that it ceases to be wax when it's hot and runny. This shows that the reality "wax" must be known by something other than the senses. We call that thing the mind or soul. It's important to note, however, that the wax Descartes used for his analogy might not be real in the first place.

It should by now be evident that despite a neat bit of reasoning, Cartesian conclusions tend to lose relevance as soon as one attempts to come to grip with external things which may or may not exist.

Descartes proposed a solution which seemed entirely plausible in his time. He proposed that the soul resides somewhere - in the pineal gland (Descartes was interested in medicine and knew the human anatomy well). There the soul contacts "vital spirits" - a sort of life force which penetrates everything. 

The body itself, like all animals (which have no souls), operates automatically. The pineal gland provides an interface between the body and the vital spirits. It allows the soul to interact with the world. I suppose that Descartes and other thoroughgoing Cartesians would continue to maintain that the physical body containing the pineal gland might be an illusion. And it's difficult to know why they bother with such devices if only the soul is real. Only the soul can move and change. So what point is an interface if bodily behaviours are automatic? 

The cogito ergo sum ("I think therefore I am") answer is too slick.

Perhaps Descartes need not have worried so much about the ecclesiastical authorities. As it happened, the Christian churches and theologians seem to have rather liked his conclusions because they preserve the idea of an immortal soul. Traditional theology demanded that something be left over to ascend to heaven after physical death. 

His scientific theories about the sun and earth, amongst other theories, were not much noticed by the wider scientific audience of his day. Those who did notice, quickly demolished them. 

Descartes and the early Cartesians thought that only the soul could experience "movement" - what we'd today most probably call change or perhaps entropy (Boltzmann's Second Law of Thermodynamics). The physical world is governed by rigid, unchanging laws. This conclusion was necessary because in their scheme of things the soul had to be ultimately independent of the body. Only the soul was real and therefore open to modification or "movement".

Isaac Newton was born two years after Descartes' death. His work had major effects on the Cartesian scheme. First, it virtually destroyed Cartesian physical science, based as it was on incomplete mathematics and uncertain experiments. Descartes applied algebra to geometry, for example, using co-ordinates to fix the position of a point on a plane. But although he made a useful start, it was left to later thinkers to perfect what he began.

Second, Newtonian theory cemented into the Western mind the idea that nature is ruled by inflexible physical laws. Cartesian determinism - the idea that mind and matter don't effectively interact, that choices have no effect in a mechanistic physical world - was thus strengthened. There were incalculable social consequences which echo through history to this day, particularly when linked with crude Darwinism.

One aspect of the scientific method was strengthened by Descartes. His method of scientific analysis contained the basic assumption that problems are best solved by breaking them down into their constituent parts. Later this became known a "reductionism" - the process by which science breaks things down into their basic parts, the better to understand them.

Some, like E O Wilson, still proudly claim for science the capacity to describe reality completely by reducing everything to its physical components [2]. Other scientists, particularly those aware of the dynamics and problems of biological science, are increasingly less certain of the Cartesian thesis.

To do him justice, Descartes was not too well understood in respect to an analytical approach to nature. Having advocated what later became reductionism, he went on to propose that the whole nevertheless be built up from the parts "... as far as the knowledge of the most complex..." through the same sort of chain of reasoning used in geometry (at which he was expert).

The Cartesian model had one unfortunate result - which was to baffle philosophers for 300 years. If the mind (soul) is an entity which somehow resides in the physical body, exactly how does each relate to the other? In 1994, some 350 years after Descartes death, editors of a philosophical work on consciousness could still write that

Even though everybody agrees that mind has something to do with the brain, there is still no general agreement on the exact nature of this relationship [3].

Following Ludwig Von Bertalanffy [4] it is becoming increasingly plain that reductionist thinking is woefully inadequate. Perhaps if Descartes had lived today he would have advocated something similar to what is now called General Systems Theory.

Broadly speaking, this states that what we know as reality, from the macro (the universe) to the micro (fundamental particles), can be properly understood only in terms of wholes. Knowing how the parts operate and interact gets us somewhere. The only way to discover how constituent parts work is by the analytical process. This is, to put it one way, knowledge about the world.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Even if all the parts are fully described and known, the whole means more. For example, you might theoretically one day know your cousin in terms of every physical constituent - from fundamental particles to minute-by-minute electro-chemical functions of the brain. 

But will you really understand your cousin if you know all these things? Obviously not, for your cousin is a "person" - the holistic term we use for describing one kind of biological system we call "human".

Systems theory was born in the twentieth century. Biologists like Bertalanffy struggled to make sense of the way living entities operate in their environments. How the "mind" is related to the "body" inevitably posed a problem. Is it a "thing" which is a component of the overall physical system? Or is it a "thing" somehow independent of the body?

The systems view of reality abandons mind as a "thing", either as part of or as separate from the body. Instead it's thought of not as "mind" but as "mental process". Mind isn't a thing but a particular aspect of the way human systems work. The mind doesn't "know" something. Rather, humans go through a process of knowing. Memory then fixes a remnant of thought in a way we don't yet understand in detail.

One of the more viable systems theories is the Santiago Theory of Cognition. It identifies the process of knowing with life itself. The mind is

... the activity involved in the self-generation and self-perpetuation of living networks ... cognition is the very process of life. The organizing activity of living systems, at all levels of life, is mental activity ... Thus life and cognition are inseparably connected. Mind - or, more accurately, mental activity - is immanent in matter at all levels of life [5].

In other words, all living things in a sense are mental processes. Systems such as humans have a structure, which can be analysed. But they also have an ongoing process by which their structure maintains and develops. Cognition (mind) is a critical part of that organising activity which includes perception, emotion and behaviour. "Mind" is process and "brain" is structure.

Another way of perceiving "mind" is to recognise that the word labels (but does not describe) a particular aspect of a human being. For example, a horse perceived exclusively from its rear end might seem singularly unattractive. But perceived as a whole system, as a living, moving being it is beautiful.

Ervin Laszlo points out that science attempts to explain mental phenomena "... in terms of neurophysiological processes". That is, when we know how mental processes operate we suppose we know what mind is. 

This, says Laszlo, isn't wrong. It's just that it doesn't go far enough. It is better, he says, to think of "mind" from at least two perspectives:

[1] The reductionist perspective which gives us a vocabulary of "brain language" such as cell-assemblies, neural interactions, sensory stimuli, intracortical activity and so on. This is a labeling approach.

[2] Mind can also be perceived as one's personal experience, including thoughts, beliefs and one's overall experience of the world. The subjective experience is integrated into a map or schema which represents both myself and the world..

Each perspective represents an aspect of the system I call "me". They are not different "things" but the same entity perceived from different perspectives - that is, "mind" and "body" form a biperspectival reality,

... [two] sets of irreducibly different mental and physical events [which] constitute an identical psychophysical system .. [6]  

What has for centuries been called "mind" is both the workings of the brain and the subjective experience of those workings. Mind is the same "thing" or process perceived in totally different ways. 

This way of defining reality is, in my view, entirely new. It is, in effect, a radically new paradigm which will eventually change the way we relate to the world. Starting in the 1970s it has already given birth to a new stream of endevour - cognitive science.

Although the life of pure Cartesianism was short, it nevertheless greatly extended the duration of modern dualistic perceptions of reality.

Being a thoroughgoing philosopher, Descartes had to have a go at metaphysics. A continuing question is how, if at all, we can know anything about God. Descartes tried to prove God's existence - though quite how he could hope to conclude anything about God (ultimate reality) if he wasn't sure that other people exist, or that speech or writing or society or the universe are real, boggles the mind.

One of his "proofs" (used before in slightly different form by Thomas Aquinas) went something like this [7]:

  • Whenever I have an idea of an object, whatever characteristics I clearly and distinctly understand the object to have, it really has;
  • And I have a clear and distinct idea of God as the maximally perfect being;
  • God is perfect (literally, "has all perfections");
  • Everlasting existence is perfection;
  • God has everlasting existence;
  • Therefore God exists.

This sort of propositional reasoning can obviously be used to "prove" the existence of anything - a perfect person or a perfect motor car. It also embodies false logic. It's logically valid to argue that if it's true that Bush is the President of the USA, and if the President exists, it follows that Bush exists. But it's obviously invalid to argue that if Pegasus is a winged horse, and a winged horse exists in the book Greek Myths, then winged horses exist. 

So Descartes can say something like "In the idea of God, God is perfect." But if he does so, then all he's actually saying is, "If God exists, then God exists." And anyway, the argument hasn't proved that a perfect God is possible, never mind that he, she or it exists. Nor has it shown that everlasting existence is better than finite existence.

Overall, it seems to me, the Cartesian method fails to establish that anything can be known. First, the device used to establish the reality of "soul" is based on a type of reasoning which fails because it fractures the whole. Once separated from "body", the "mind" cannot be reunited with it. Nor can it be shown by what mechanism the mind knows anything about itself.

And, second, if body and mind are separated one from the other, then nothing "external" to mind can be the object of experiment because the data yielded by experiment cannot be matched with the data existing in the mind. The former is uncertain. The mind, being the only real thing in the equation, can't rely on uncertain information. 

In other words, the basis of all science and analytical thought is demolished by both dualism and determinism. Since Cartesians use analytical thought to arrive at their conclusions this turns out to be an unfortunate consequence.

Cartesian Doubt was appropriate in, and congruent with, the times in which it was born. But because the proof of the pudding is in the eating, it's life as a credible school of thought was justifiably short-lived. 

Karen Armstrong suggests that the limitation of human reason to rational thought is inherently limiting. For example, pure rationality cannot answer the question, "Why do we exist?", though it has much to tell us about how we exist. She writes:

Descartes beside his stove, in his cold, empty world, locked into his own uncertainty, and uttering a "proof" which is little more than a mental conundrum, embodies the spiritual dilemma of modern humanity. [8]

Elsewhere she points out that the social effects of Cartesianism were to have long lasting and somewhat unfortunate results in that people

... were excited by the idea of a mechanical universe, ruled at all times and in all places by the same unequivocal laws. Increasingly the mechanical universe would be seen as a model for society. Citizens should submit to a national government in the same way as the different parts of the cosmos obeyed the rational laws of the scientific God. [9]

That approach has been long-lived, perhaps because it has reinforced an ancient and persistent way of regarding the world. Dualism and determinism retain a firm place in the minds of many.
[1] History of Western Philosophy 
[2] Consilience, 1998
[3] Consciousness in Philosophy and Cognitive Neuroscience, Revonsuo et al
      quoted by Fritjof Capra in The Hidden Connections, 2002
[4] General System Theory, 1968
[5] Hidden Connections, Fritjof Capra
[6] Introduction to Systems Philosophy, E Laszlo, 1972
[7] From Early Modern Philosophical Theology by Derk Pereboom in
      A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion, Eds P L Quinlan & C Taliaferro
      Blackwell, 1999
[8] The Battle For God, HarperCollins, 2001
[9] The Case for God, The Bodley Head, 2009

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