I first read Rene Descartes’ “The Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences” back in high school. I was fascinated by the simplicity of his hypothesis “I think therefore I am“. It had a profound effect on my own philosophy from that time (secular humanist if I were to give it a title) onward and particularly later as I came to faith in Christ.
Descartes helped me to bring things down to basics. After all his argument is persuasive if not for its simplicity: if I seek to find the thing(s) of which I can be sure, I first need to eliminate all that can not be definitively known. Most people would consider the physical world around us to be a definite, but I was not so sure. I remember working through Descartes’ argument to explain to a friend that the only thing of which we can be sure is that we in fact exist simply from the fact that we are thinking. When I tried however to persuade my friend that we can not know anything outside of that, a wall went up. “Of course we know about other things. I see trees and grass etc.” I responded that perhaps we are only dreaming and that this is not in fact real, but only imaginary. (I wish I had Vanilla Sky or The Matrix as a reference at the time.) But my friend was having none of that and the conversation ended there as did may other similar conversations.
The Discourse is broken up into six sections. The first contains some ideas on science. In the second section Descartes lays down some ground rules on the experiment which he is about to undertake. In particular, he argues that he needs to strip away past beliefs to get down to truth(s) which are obvious for everyone. In the third section, he sets forth some maxims for his investigation. In the fourth section, he finally comes to his argument that “I think, therefore I am” based on the fact that everything we perceive can possibly be explained away as a mental phenomenon, but the fact that we think, can not. He continues on to argue that we are not perfect and therefore a more perfect nature must exist to explain the objects external to himself. This leads him to the conclusion that a perfect God must exist and be the creator of that perfect nature, which he, as an imperfect man, could possibly not. He continues on in sections five and six to discuss some issues related to medicine and nature, but these are not the focus of my investigation.
In the past number of years, I have heard what I believe are misrepresentations of Descartes’ position. I am not sure where he was spiritually, but I have heard it argued that what Descartes was in fact trying to do is to prove that he alone exists. The point of my exercise here has been to re-read the Discourse and to figure out what he was arguing. I am now more confident that Descartes used the “I think therefore I am” argument solely to establish what could be known and that once he did that, he continued on to prove the existence of God. This argument in fact helped my in my faith and for this reason I am thankful to Descartes.