Friday, March 31, 2006

I Think, Therefore I Am


"The view of nature which predominated in the West down to the eve of the Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, and clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt comfortable in this environment. The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging . . . Scientific consciousness is alienated consciousness: there is no ecstatic merger with nature, but rather total separation from it . . . I do not wish to suggest that Descartes is the lone architect of our current outlook, but only that modern definitions of reality can be identified with specific planks in his scientific platform." -- Morris Berman, The Reenchantment of the World.

Rene Descartes was born on this day in 1596 in La Haye, Touraine, France.

Educated at a Jesuit school founded by Henry IV, during a commemoration of the assassination of Henry's death, young Descartes became intrigued by references in one of the eulogies to Galileo's discovery of certain moons of Jupiter. Galileo soon became Descartes' intellectual hero -- a pioneer thinker and mathematician who sought objective answers, leaving dogma and the morass of moral uncertainty behind in the service of knowing what was knowable, but hidden.

At 21, Descartes' impatience with scholastic texts led him to military service, where he had a mystical awakening of sorts. On November 10, 1619, after a day filled with reflection as he waited for active duty, Descartes had a dream that he was destined to found a unified scientific movement based on a method for the proper management of human reason. From that point on he was single-minded in his pursuit of reason. Preferring to learn from travel and encounter rather than dusty, hopelessly muddled books, Descartes arrived in Paris and stunned a gathering of scholars there with a first, furtive attempt to free philosophical inquiry from scholastic rigidity through logical analysis, offering "12 evident reasons" for the falsity of a statement which was widely considered to be true. He then apologized to the thoroughly convinced crowd that his methodology was not yet mature.

Despite the danger of such independent thinking, he was encouraged by a Roman Catholic cardinal who was present at the gathering to complete his methodology, that it was "God's will" that he do so. In 1633, as Galileo and his solar-centered view of our planetary system were being condemned by the Inquisition, Descartes had completed an astronomical treatise called Le Monde. He considered burning his manuscript, because it too reflected the Copernican cosmology which the Church had condemned, but instead he set it aside with the idea of having it published posthumously.

In 1637, Descartes published The Discourse on Method, which articulated his method of systematic doubt for the first time, distilled as follows: (1) admit as true only what is free from all doubt; (2) divide all difficult problems into analyzable elements; (3) pass synthetically from the easy to the difficult; and (4) record the steps of your reasoning without omission, so they can be retraced like a trail of bread crumbs back into the darkness if necessary.

Descartes' aim was to blow away the old science, which started with axioms and assumptions, and make humans the possessors of their own universe by pushing reason to calculated, practical effects. "I think, therefore I am," seemed to be the only proposition which was free from doubt (because one must exist in order to doubt at all) in his metaphysical inquiry, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641); it became his first principle. Further meditations led him to conclude that thinking is what defines the essence of the individual, the body being a separate, distinct and perhaps illusory substance, accessible only through one's intellect. Perhaps it is not surprising that a man who could find his future framed so vividly in a dream should have exalted 'the mind' over the 'the body' so definitively.

Descartes' Meditations were celebrated throughout Europe; although theologians found Descartes' questioning of what were once considered to be basic principles to be discomforting, despite the fact that the Meditations contained Descartes' proof of the existence of God, and scientific empiricists, led by Pierre Gassendi, did not appreciate Descartes' distrust of the senses and experimental method. The opposition of organized religion posed the more serious threat at the time. One theologian, Reformed pastor Gysbertus Voetius, had Descartes tried in absentia for "libel," after which he was sentenced to be burned at the stake.

Meanwhile, encouraged by his friendship with Elizabeth of Bohemia while in exile in the Hague, Descartes wrote Principles of Philosophy (1644), proposing, as he had once dreamed, a science with metaphysical reasoning as its foundation, physics as its set of logically derived regulations, and all of the other branches of science, from medicine to astronomy, as its beneficiaries.

His final work, The Passions of the Soul (1649) takes his "Cartesian duality" to its logical extreme, proposing that all psychological manifestations can be traced to mechanical causes -- that human bodies are, in essence, automatons with souls located in the pineal gland. (Meanwhile, Descartes viewed animals as soulless, giving a justification for using animals in scientific research which to this day brands him as an enemy to animal rights activists.) These views had a profound effect on medicine, which for hundreds of years afterward officially ignored the potential impact of psychological stresses back onto physiology; it also foreshadowed the notion of artificial intelligence, thinking conducted by robots.

Legend holds that Descartes had himself built a "life-like" hydraulic robot-servant which he called "Francine" (named after his only child, an illegitimate daughter by one of his servants, who had died at age 5) whose realistic movements so scared a ship's captain on Descartes' journey to Holland that the captain, believing that the Brigitte Helm-like puppet was the creation of the devil, had it thrown overboard.

In 1649, Descartes was invited to the court of Christina of Sweden, who became his enthusiastic pupil in the new science and philosophy. Within a year, however, Descartes grew deathly ill from pneumonia, and died on February 11, 1650 in Stockholm holding the Queen's hand.

In addition to the profound effect he had on the shape of philosophy and science, Descartes employed his own advice to divide difficult problems into analyzable elements by founding analytic geometry, by which he plotted algebraic equations as points on a grid.

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