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 DESCARTES (1596-1650) AND THE CARTESIAN DOGMA OF A MECHANICAL UNIVERSE

theme:  Descartes is usually regarded as the founder of modern philosophy. His belief in the certainty of knowledge or 'truth' - the 'Cartesian belief' -  was the basis for his method of analytic reasoning - the 'Cartesian method' - which he claimed was a function of the 'soul' - 'Cartesian doctrine'. He viewed the universe as a machine designed by divine reason or 'God' - the 'Cartesian dogma'.

Descartes' perception of 'human nature'... The "essence of human nature lies in thought, and all the things we conceive clearly and distinctly are true". In this way Descartes demonstrated the value of error and proved his doctrine - the 'Cartesian doctrine' - that human reason was a valid means of searching for certain knowledge or 'truth'.

"Most ancient civilizations knew what we have forgotten: that knowledge is a fearful thing. To know the name of something is to hold power over it. In ancient myths and legends, eating from the tree of knowledge meant banishment from one garden or another. In the modern world, this Janus-like quality of knowledge has been forgotten. Descartes, for example, reached the conclusion that 'the more I sought to inform myself, the more I realized how ignorant I was.' Instead of taking this as a proper conclusion of a good education, Descartes thought ignorance was a solvable problem and set forth to find certain truth through a process of radical skepticism." (Miller et al. The Renewal of Meaning in Education: Responses to the Cultural and Ecological Crisis of our Times Brandon, VT: Holistic Education Press, 1993 27)

 Cartesian belief (certainty ofknowledge)...   Cartesian method (analysis)... 

Cartesian doctrine (mind-body dualism)...   Cartesian dogma (mechanical universe)...  Western science...

 Cartesian belief in the certainty of scientific knowledge or 'truth': Descartes was a brilliant mathematician who was greatly affected by the new physics and astronomy of his time. He did not accept the traditional knowledge of Aristotle and the Church and set out to build a whole new system of thought... a complete and exact natural science He devised an analytic method (Cartesian method) ushering in the so-called 'scientific revolution' which overturned the authority of Aristotle and the dogma of the Church.  These were replaced by the scientific study of the universe using methods of reductionism which originated with the analytic method of Descartes ... the 'Cartesian method'.

At age twenty-three in a sudden flash of insight... he experienced an illuminating vision that was to shape his entire life.. he envisioned a plan for building a complete and exact natural science ... the foundations of a marvellous science' which would unify all knowledge.. This is the 'Cartesian belief' in scientific truth.

His firm belief in the certainty of knowledge or 'truth'  the 'Cartesian belief'led him to his plan for building a complete and exact natural science based on a new system of thought ...a new method of analysis involving the breaking up of a problem into pieces and rearranging them in a logical order.analytic reasoning  His method of analysis known as the 'Cartesian method'  

 Cartesian method of analytic reasoning was based on his belief in the certainty of knowledge: To carry out his plan, he developed a new method of reasoning... 'Cartesian method'. The method involved the breaking up of the parts of a problem into smaller pieces or thoughts and then rearranging them in a logical order. He presented his analytic method in his famous introduction to science entitled Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason and Searching the Truth in the Sciences.

 The crux of Descartes' analytic method was doubt. Descartes was a sceptic who systematically doubted everything which he could manage to doubt - all traditional knowledge, all sense impressions and even his own body. He rejected "as absolutely false all opinions I could suppose the least ground for doubt, in order to ascertain whether after that there remained aught in my belief that was wholly indubitable". He doubted that philosophical and scientific concepts could be derived solely from the senses. He realized that the more he doubted, the more ignorant he was and in his own words "the more I sought to inform myself, the more I realized how ignorant I was"  He finally reached the conclusion that ignorance was a solvable problem

 and set out to find certain truth could be discovered through a process of radical skepticism and analytical reasoning. He at last came upon one proposition which his doubt could not conquer. There was one thing he could not doubt and that was his own existence as a thinker. He could not doubt that he was doubting. He was unable to doubt that he was doubting  He proved that he could not doubt his own existence as a thinker... n his celebrated statement, "Cogito, ergo sum," "I think, therefore I exist." I think therefore I am.  From this premise he deduced that "the essence of human nature lies in thought, and that all the things we conceive clearly and distinctly are true".With this proposition he established the famous premise which he believed was a valid basis for a rationalistic philosophy which could be used in the search for truth.  Descartes demonstrated the value of error as the source of discovery and that progress can be made from the discovery of error... the problem ignorance was a solvable one.

He decided to find the truth by way of a thought process which combined 'radical skepticism' with 'analytical reasoning'. He proved beyond doubt that human reason is valid in the process of finding certain truth. Because of his recognition of the importance of an unshakable base for a rationalistic philosophy, Descartes is regarded as the greatest of the rationalists... and even as the founder of modern philosophy. Descartes taught those who came after him how to make new discoveries through a process of radical skepticism and analytical reasoning.

Descartes' Discourse on the Method is probably his greatest contribution to science... to human knowledge... because it proved the validity of human reason in the search for certain truth.... and laid the foundation for the general belief that complex phenomena can be understood by reducing them... fragmenting them... to their constituent parts... represents the origin of 'reductionist science' or 'reductionism'. 

 Descartes showed the world that it was possible to make new discoveries through a process of radical skepticism and analytical reasoning. He demonstrated the value of error.

Cartesian method explains the mental creation of concepts  The key feature of the Cartesian method was that it explained the mental creation of concepts... innate cognitive disposition... which he called 'innate ideas'. Descartes believed thatin experiences of learning the clarity of concepts could not be attributed to the senses. Their creation had to be the product of innate cognitive process or 'intuition' by the 'pure and attentive mind'... depends on the reasoning of sound thinking or 'sanity', common sense and a cognitive process of  forming concepts... the 'conception of the pure and attentive mind' or 'intuition' which is functional in learning experiences which provide opportunities for the creation of concepts. He believed that the search for scientific truth was only possible through intuition and deduction from a true premise. In his own words "there are no paths to the certain knowledge of truth open to man except evident intuition and necessary deduction...." He believed this premise to be unshakable and therefore a valid basis for a rational philosophy of science. Descartes was the greatest of the rationalists and the founder of modern scientific philosophy. With the rationalism of Descartes, the scientist was perceived as an 'objective' observer whose job it was to measure the objects, and then explain the causes for their interactions and discover the laws of nature.

     (Descartes' concept of innate ideas was refuted by Hobbes and Locke who maintained that there was nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses. In Locke's famous phrase, the human mind at birth was a blank tablet or 'tabula rasa' upon which ideas were imprinted through sensory perceptions. It was this notion which served as the starting point of empiricism and the mechanistic theory of knowledge according to which sensations were the basic elements of the mental realm and these were combined into more complex structures by the process of association)

 "Overemphasis on the Cartesian method has led to the fragmentation that is characteristic of both our general thinking and our academic disciplines, and to the widespread attitude of reductionism in science - the belief that all aspects of complex phenomena can be understood by reducing them to their constituent parts". (Fritjof Capra The Turning Point p. 59) .

  Cartesian doctrine: mind-body dualism  At the time of Descartes, the connection was not made between the mind and the brain. Descartes based his whole view of nature on the fundamental division between two independent and separate realms: physical reality and spiritual reality... body and soul or 'mind' independent of the brain.

 The Cartesian doctrine taught that the process of reasoning or 'knowing' was a function of the 'soul' and took place independently of the brain. Human reason - sound thinking, intelligence, sanity and sense as a function of the 'soul'   

     Descartes based his view on the clear distinction between the realms of 'physical reality' and 'spiritual reality'. Physical reality was thought to be the reality of unconscious matter governed by mechanical laws which could be studied using a mathematical approach and so it was possible to describe it by science. Spiritual reality was thought to be the reality of the conscious spirit, the mind or 'soul' beyond the reach of scientific investigation... could not be described by science. it was only possible to use a mathematical approach in studying the physical world and not the spiritual world. This dualism was useful for the scientific research of the time because it enabled scientists to free themselves of the authority of the church from their work..The body-matter realm was believed to be governed by mechanical laws but the mind-soul realm was believed to be free and immortal. the spiritual world did not lend itself to a mathematical approach of study

 The dualistic perception of human consciousness - the 'mind-body problem' - a notion inherited from Greek philosophy... had been portrayed earlier by Plato in his Phaedrus. In a powerful and influential image of the psyche, a charioteer drives two horses one representing the bodily passions and the other the higher emotions of the 'soul'. The metaphor embodies the two approaches to consciousness - the biological and the spiritual..... the same dichotomous view of human nature which has been adopted and pursued throughout Western philosophy and science - . Descartes based his whole view of nature on the fundamental division between two parallel but fundamentally different realms, the physical realm and the spiritual realm.each of which could be studied without reference to the other: that of mind or soul - 'res cogitans' the 'thinking thing' and that of matter, or the body - 'res extensa', the 'extended thing'. Descartes claimed that the physical interaction between body and soul occurred through the 'pineal gland' of the brain. (In his time it was not understood that the mind is a function of brain functioning.)  Even human emotions were described in a mechanical way in terms of combinations of six 'elementary passions'.  Descartes' naive models of the 'psyche' led to mechanistic models of psychology.  The Cartesian form of 'mind/body dualism' - mind/soul-body/matter or 'soul-body' or 'mind-matter' had a profound effect on Western thought and shaped the development of Western science and scientific psychology.

The 'mind-body problem' is reflected in many schools of psychology, most notably in the psychologies of 'scientific psychology' of Freud defined self-knowledge in terms of the separate existence of a psychological 'ego' and a physical body.

 The dualistic notion of 'mind-body' and the analytic method of Descartes resulted in the replacement of an organic universe with a mechanical universe produced by divine reason... 

"According to Descartes, mind and body belonged to two parallel but fundamentally different realms, each of which could be studied without reference to the other. The body was governed by mechanical laws, but the mind - or soul - was free and immortal. The soul was clearly and specifically identified with consciousness and could affect the body by interacting with it through the brain's pineal gland. Human emotions were seen as combinations of six elementary 'passions' and described in a semimechanical way. As far as knowledge and perception were concerned, Descartes believed that knowing was a primary function of human reason, that is, of the soul, which could take place independently of the brain. Clarity of concepts, which played such an important role in Descartes' philosophy and science, could not be derived from the confused performance of the senses but was the result of an innate cognitive disposition. Learning and experience merely provided the occasions for the manifestation of innate ideas." (Capra Turning Point1 166)

 Descartes believed that both mind and matter were creations of God. He believed that God created the world as a perfect machine which was governed by mathematical laws. With his view of nature as a perfect machine, Descartes created the conceptual framework for seventeenth century science. After his death, the mechanical picture of nature remained the paradigm of science. The Cartesian view of the universe as a mechanical system provided a 'scientific' sanction for the manipulation and exploitation of nature that has become typical of Western culture. When Francis Bacon proposed an alliance between science and power, Descartes shared Bacon's view that the aim of science was the domination and control of nature...

 Cartesian dogma: mechanical universe designed by 'divine reason' or 'God' "The Cartesian view of the universe as a mechanical system provided a 'scientific' sanction for the manipulation and exploitation of nature that has become typical of Western culture. Descartes himself shared Bacon's view that the aim of science was the domination and control of nature." (Fritjof Capra. The Turning Point. page 61) 

As a result of the combined effects of the Cartesian doctrine (mind-body dualism) and the Cartesian method (analytic reasoning) the worldview of an organic universe was replaced by the worldview of a mechanical universe produced by divine reason. Descartes believed that both mind and matter were creations of God. He believed that God created the world as a perfect machine which was governed by mathematical laws. Man was considered to be the central figure of God's creation.

(In subsequent centuries scientists omitted any explicit reference to God and developed their theories according to the 'Cartesian division', the humanities concentrating on the 'res cogitans' and the natural sciences on the 'res extensa.') In his time, humankind was perceived as separate from nature and in a position to control nature in its own interest.

The organic worldview of the Middle Ages had implied a value system conducive to ecological behaviour. With the rationalism of Descartes, the scientist was perceived as an 'objective' observer whose job it was to measure the objects, and then explain the causes for their interactions and discover the laws of nature. And in the 19th century the mind-matter dualism became an obstacle because it placed consciousness and other mental phenomena outside of ordinary physical reality and thus outside of the domain of the natural sciences.

 In subsequent centuries scientists omitted any explicit reference to God and developed their theories according to the Cartesian division, the humanities concentrating on the 'res cogitans' and the natural sciences on the 'res extensa.'

    With his view of nature as a perfect machine,  Descartes replaced the 'organic worldview' of the Middle Ages and created the conceptual framework for seventeenth century science. Both Descartes and Galileo made a clear distinction between 'physical reality' and 'spiritual reality'. With the origins of reductionism in science...'Cartesian method', the authority of Aristotle and the dogma of the Church was replaced by the scientific study of the universe as divine creation of Cartesian dogma.  Although his view of nature as a perfect machine remained a vision during his lifetime (see Newton) the mechanical picture of nature remained the paradigm of science and the mechanical universe... the world machine became the dominant metaphor. In his time, humankind was perceived as separate from nature and in a position to control nature in its own interest. When Francis Bacon proposed an alliance between science and power, Descartes shared his view that the aim of science was the domination and control of nature.   Scientists have been obsessed with measurement and quantification science has become 'scientism' preventing progress in the human sciences. Scientific goals have been directed to the control of nature and human nature. The Cartesian view of the universe as a mechanical system has provided the so-called 'scientific' justification... sanction for the manipulation and exploitation of nature that has characterised Western culture.

The Cartesian mentality and worldview has given to Western civilization its characteristic features. amongst others, scientific goals are directed to the control of nature and human nature

Western 'Science' .

For four hundred years the empirical approach and its mathematical description of nature have remained important criteria of scientific theories.

Overemphasis on the Cartesian method ...led to 'reductionism' in science ...the general belief that complex phenomena can be understood by reducing them to their constituent parts ...i.e. fragmentation...

The Cartesian division between mind and matter has had a profound effect on Western thought. It has taught us to be aware of ourselves as isolated 'egos' existing 'inside' our bodies; it has led us to set a higher value on mental than on manual work

 Experiences of human feelings, human motives, human goals, human values have been ignored. Implications for education: In the present shift of scientific paradigm, dualistic concepts such as 'unconscious matter' and 'conscious spirit' are being replaced by holistic concepts such as 'consciousness'. A parallel shift in the paradigm of education is replacing traditional education with holistic education.

 Descartes' naive models of the 'psyche' led to the mechanistic model of the founder of psychoanalysis Freud. Freud defined the human psyche in terms of the separate existence of the 'id', the 'ego' and the 'superego'. The mind-matter dualism became an obstacle to progress in psychology because it placed mental phenomena of consciousness - moral consciousness or 'conscience' - outside of ordinary physical reality and thus outside of the domain of the natural sciences. 

The soul was believed to be free and immortal, not governed by mechanical laws and not able to be described by science. This notion was useful at the time because it allowed for scientific investigation which was free from the authority of the church.

Misunderstanding of importance of human needs as human motives or 'values' in mature growth or 'self-actualisation': implications for education The lack of respect for human values has prevented progress in the human sciences including the science of education. In the present shift of scientific paradigm from reductionism to holistic science  dualistic concepts such as 'unconscious matter' and 'conscious spirit' are being replaced by holistic concepts such as 'consciousness'. A parallel shift in the paradigm of education is replacing traditional education with holistic education.

 We need to abandon the dualistic concept of unconscious matter and conscious spirit, and to adopt holistic concepts of the holistic worldview.

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  "Descartes has taught those who came after him how to discover his own errors." (Montesqieu)

 References: Capra The Turning Point