Skepticism–How to Doubt–Part I
How can we know what is real? The chair you sit in — is it really there? Yes, of course, you can feel it. But can you really trust your senses? Well, you reason, the chair must be real or you would be sitting on the floor. Can you trust reason? You have been wrong before. How do you know? How can you be absolutely sure?
Doubt can be a helpful tool. Reasonable doubt leads us to question things: motives, ideas, statements of other people. We use doubt to clarify hazy proposals or opinions. Doubt drives us to ask questions. Questions inspire us to make improvements. Doubting can be a good thing.
Truth must be questioned. As we walk through life many of us search for truth. We should ask a lot of questions. These questions can help us find our way. Socrates’ dialogues provide a good example of this. Questions help us stay on the right road. But skepticism does not. Skepticism only causes you to stumble.
Skepticism is different. Skepticism doubts everything. Skeptics rarely, if ever, settle on a position. Skeptics do not seek knowledge or truth. Oh, they may proclaim strongly that they seek truth but their method causes confusion. They poke holes in truth. They have no answers. They only have questions.
Skepticism has been around for a long time. But modern skepticism is more aggressive than skepticism in other ages. Why? What caused this aggressive skepticism to come into existence? Some say it is a byproduct of the scientific method. Science advances through trial and error. But science searches for truth in the physical world. This should not cause someone to question truth.
There are more likely causes. The Sixteenth Century was a time of change and chaos. New discoveries opened the world to unknown countries and cultures. Old beliefs were challenged: materialism challenged metaphysics; the Reformation challenged the Roman Catholic Church.
But the philosophy of Rene Descartes probably produced the greatest challenge from a single event. Cartesian philosophy (the name for Descartes’ philosophy) provides a foundation for this aggressive modern skepticism. It asks how do you find “the real” in a changing, confusing world?
Searching for Truth in a Changing World
Change dominated the Sixteenth Century. There were new discoveries. Explorers proved the Earth is round. Columbus “discovered” the New World in 1492. The Age of Exploration began. So many new places were discovered. Cortez destroyed the Aztecs for their gold around 1518-1520. Magellan sailed around the world. Empires were built. People were conquered. Brazil, Cuba, Peru, Nova Scotia, Africa–where did these places come from? How did they stay hidden from Europeans for so long? Europeans wanted to know how they could be so ignorant.
So many new races. Suddenly there were people with black skins, brown skins, red skins. They represented strange new cultures, beliefs, traditions. They ate strange foods. Europeans discovered sugar, coffee and cocoa. Sugar could be grown in large quantities on the islands of the Caribbean. Who will work on the sugar plantations? Slavery entered the New World.
Science challenged basic beliefs. In 1543 Nicholas Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. The sun is the center of our solar system. Copernicus used science to prove this. Johannes Kepler endorsed his findings in 1596. Galileo followed in the early Seventeenth Century.
Francis Bacon directed European minds away from God. In his book The New Organon, published in 1620, he wrote that Nature is our only source for knowledge. He wrote, “Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature.”
Change came in many forms during this chaotic century. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, an unknown German monk and college professor, nailed ninety-five theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther did not plan to change the world. He only wanted to debate the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of granting indulgences. They were selling God’s forgiveness!
The Protestant Reformation burst forth, triggered by a request for a scholarly debate. New faith groups sprang up overnight. At one time Europe stood united under the beliefs of Roman Catholicism. Now several groups claimed special knowledge of the truth. Who held the truly true truth? Did truth still exist? How can a person be certain regarding the truth?
By the end of the Sixteenth Century unbelief was rampant across Europe. One hundred years of religious division caused many people to abandon religion. People began to search other places for truth. Science stared to organize itself. Reason was crowding out faith as the basis for truth. Certainty disappeared behind turmoil and confusion. People began to ask, “How can I know what is real?”
Descartes’ Quest to Find “the Real”
Life began, for René Descartes, in 1596 in The Hague in the Netherlands. Descartes was the younger son from a family of lawyers. He also was a lawyer but his heart belonged to mathematics. Like many mathematicians today, Descartes was looking for a Theory of Everything. New ideas fractured Europe’s unity. Could anyone put it together again?
The problem of certainty plagued Descartes. How can a person know what is real? How can we know truth from error? What things absolutely cannot be doubted? He must find a point of certainty on which to build his new system. He wrote in Rules for the Direction of the Mind:
It were better not to study at all than to occupy one’s self with objects of such difficulty [objects that can be doubted], that owing to our inability to distinguish true from false, we are forced to regard the doubtful as certain . . . Thus, in accordance with the above maxim we reject all such merely probable knowledge and make it a rule to trust only what is completely known and incapable of being doubted.
How can anyone find knowledge that absolutely cannot be doubted? Is that even possible?
Descartes joined the Army. In early 1619 he was stationed in Ulm, Germany. Ulm is a city on the Danube River in southern Germany. Winter came. Armies in that day rarely fought during the winter. Descartes spent the winter in study and speculation. Bored with algebra and geometry, his studies turned to philosophy. He began to see chaos in every area of study, including mathematics. What caused this chaos?
. . . the diversity of our opinions does not proceed from some men being more rational than others, but solely from the fact that our thoughts pass through diverse channels and the same objects are not considered by all. For to be possessed of good mental powers is not sufficient; the principal matter is to apply them well. Discourse on Method, part I.
Can a method be established to help man “promote the good conduct of his Reason?” This method must be based on a firm, unshakeable foundation. It must be founded on facts that are beyond all doubt.
I Think, Therefore, I Am
Descartes was a perpetual student. He went to school for many years. He began to review the topics he studied. Perhaps one of these would provide a method. Descartes was pleased with his undergraduate work. But his studies led him to doubt and error. He felt they only served to help him discover his ignorance.
Mathematics delighted him most. But he admitted he did not understand its true use (Descartes would accomplish this later in life.). Theology was highly regarded but too much of it is “quite above our intelligence.” Philosophy struggled to find its own foundations.
Descartes traveled after graduating from college. His travels did not help. He found wise and intelligent men in every country. Many of them knew the truth in their area of expertise. But their ignorance in other areas of knowledge led them into speculation and wrong judgment.
How frustrating! Descartes wanted to find truth. He discovered error and confusion.
But because in this case I wished to give myself entirely to the search after Truth, I thought that it was necessary for me . . . to reject as absolutely false everything as to which I could imagine the least ground of doubt, in order to see if afterwards there remained anything in my belief that was entirely certain. Discourse, part IV.
Descartes began by discarding all sense impression. At times they can deceive us. But so much of our knowledge began with sense impressions. If we throw them away, what else is left? Had Descartes gone too far? Was nothing beyond doubt? How could he get out of this dilemma?
I noticed that whilst I thus wished to think all things false, it was absolutely essential that the “I” who thought this should be somewhat [that is, exist], and remarking that this truth “I think, therefore I am” was so certain and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions brought forward by the skeptics were incapable of shaking it. Discourse, part IV
This simple statement would transform the world. Descartes called it the “first principle of the Philosophy of which I was seeking.” But if Descartes realized the destruction this principle would cause, he might have burned his notebook. Rather than silencing the skeptics, he opened to door for skepticism to dominate the modern world.
Finding the Way Out
But, first, Descartes was faced with another problem. He was stuck in his mind. Is there any way to gain knowledge apart from our senses? If we cannot trust our senses, how can we learn anything from the world around us?
Descartes realized he was less than perfect. Knowing is better than doubting. There must be a greater perfection. But how could he conceive of perfection? He wrote, “I recognized very clearly that this conception must proceed from some nature which was really more perfect.” He believed this conception was placed in him by “Nature.” It had within itself “all the perfections of which I could form any idea—that is to say, to put it in a word, which was God.”
Belief in God provided Descartes with a way out. According to Descartes, this is the only way out of the world of doubt he created.
And though the wisest minds may study the matter as much as they will, I do not believe that they will be able to give any sufficient reason for removing this doubt, unless they presuppose the existence of God. Discourse, part IV
If Only He Had Known
Descartes kept this discovery to himself. This epiphany burst into his mind on November 10, 1619. He began to revise the work for publication in 1622. But he did not publish it until 1637. Why? According to Descartes,
I was commencing to revise it in order to place it in the hands of a printer, when I learned that certain persons, to whose opinions I defer[the Catholic Church] . . . had disapproved of a physical theory published a little while before by another person . . . This sufficed to cause me to alter the resolution which I had made to publish. . . . caused me immediately to find plenty of other reasons for excusing myself from doing so. Discourse, part VI
What would you do? What if you discovered a world-changing philosophy? This discovery could bring you lasting fame. Would you keep it to yourself? After all, no one can restrain a world-transforming philosophy forever. Someone else will stumble onto it. Then your chance for glory is gone. Descartes felt he had to announce his discovery to the world.
Descartes’ philosophy became known as Cartesian philosophy or Cartesian dualism. Controversy immediately exploded around it. Cartesian philosophy was attacked by the authorities. It was subversive of religion. For a few years influential friends protected Descartes. Finally, in 1649, he fled to Sweden where he died in 1650.
The damage was done. Atheists quickly discarded Descartes’ solution. Resolve the Cartesian dilemma through belief in God? No way! Atheists and skeptics rejoiced. They no longer had to defeat Christian arguments. Plant a little doubt. That’s all it took. Cartesian dualism was their golden ticket.
The Revolution Begins
Cartesian dualism transformed thinking throughout Europe. Skepticism welcomed a potent new ally. The pseudo-intellectual community, mostly atheists or other kinds of unbelievers, welcomed this commanding new basis for skepticism.
Atheism rose in power and prestige. Atheists twisted Cartesian philosophy. They ignored Descartes’ God-centered solution. “Forget God,” they said. “He doesn’t exist.” Remember this quote from Descartes: “I do not believe that they will be able to give any sufficient reason for removing this doubt, unless they presuppose the existence of God.” Atheists rejoiced in their doubt. They thought, “What a wonderful way to defeat God! What a powerful way to trap people in a pit of doubt and despair!”
Why is Descartes’ idea so powerful? How can a mere idea transform society? These questions are considered in Part II.