Over the past few weeks I have been reading, and very much enjoying, Rene Descartes’ ‘Discourse on Method’, a book he wrote in the early 17th century with the intention of cutting through the confusion of the times in which he lived.
Insight into the genuine nature of things, Descartes said, had become so hidden behind layers of superstition and dogma that even the most intelligent and sharp thinking people of his generation were muddled and incoherent. It rightly bothered him that wisdom was so hard to find, and that attempts to establish a more solid basis for truth about the world were rewarded with punishment and scorn. He was keenly aware that his contemporary, Galileo Galilei, had been condemned and imprisoned by the Church for showing that the earth revolved around the sun and that human beings, contrary to dogma, were not the centre of the universe. And he became committed to laying out a new way of understanding the world that could influence the very people who held the newly emerging sciences in such contempt.
Reading Descartes is illuminating. He is warm, witty, playful and extraordinarily clear. And, throughout, he painstakingly describes a powerful method for arriving at truth that cuts through misunderstanding, prejudice and confusion. In many ways his method is simple. Doubt everything and only take as true that which you can prove by stepwise logical reasoning from first principles. Distrust your own judgements. Distrust your heart and emotions. Distrust your body. Distrust all of your experience of the world. Start with the only thing that you can really know – that you exist and that you are thinking – and rebuild the world from there, rigorous careful step by rigorous careful step.
The genius of Descartes’ work is that it works. By doubting all that we take for granted, and by establishing a method by which we can observe the world and prove things from it, he cut through centuries of irrationality and provided a firm basis for the sciences that have revolutionised the world in which we live. And not only is his method robust, reliable and truthful, in principle it can be learned by anybody.
No longer was it necessary to believe something simply because someone else told us to believe it. With the Cartesian method we could find out for ourselves that something was true. Or we could ask those making a claim to show us the steps they’d taken in claiming it. And so as well as establishing a new way of generating truth about the world, he democratised it, taking it out of the hands of those with power and giving it to all of us. The explosion of creativity and insight in mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and the computational sciences that followed have transformed every aspect of the world – what we can make, what we can understand, what we can do, and what we make of ourselves and our place in the universe.
While there are many limits to the Cartesian way of looking at things, which I’ll get to another time, his plea for rigour and clear thinking strikes me as incredibly important at times like these when there is such polarisation, superstition, uncertainty and manipulation in our public discourse, our media and our politics. Descartes reminds us that there is a much firmer basis for our decisions than how we happen to be feeling in the moment, than our prejudices and fears, and than the stories about ourselves and others we were handed.
He reminds us that in many aspects of human life, doubting is a helpful and necessary orientation. And that there’s no substitute for looking closely, for checking evidence, and for talking with one another about how we’re reaching the conclusions we’re reaching rather than deciding in a vague, muddled or mistaken way on the big issues of how to live together.