Discover more from Layman Pascal
Was Descartes Correct?
Q: Was Descartes correct?
Doubtful (sic). I mean who could love that face?
I’ve answered questions about Rene Descartes before so I will keep this article mercifully brief. Although, of course, I will also keep it sadistically complex. Any complaints will be forwarded to my Chinese overseers…
My interest in Descartes is not in assessing him personally. That’s been done to death. Rather what I would like to do with this question is to surface two different currents in the way that we engage transformational history.
Let us call these: the Way of the Traveller & the Way of the Inhabitant.
A choice stands before us. Today and tomorrow, we look back at ol’ Monsieur Descartes (i.e. old ideas, previous epochs, words we don’t say anymore, discarded paradigms, outdated fashions, formerly dominant technological regimes) and we face a strange option. We could tell ourselves a story about a journey, a revolution, a great change. Perhaps we historiographical travellers who need a legend describing what we have left behind in our recent adaptation to the new forms?
Or, on the contrary, perhaps we are such deep inhabitants of the new consciousness that we now tell the story of how our people, and our feelings, have always dominated and defined the very essence of profundity in all times and places? It has always only been us. Every philosopher and epoch agrees!
Does Descartes therefore represent the false worldview we have left behind OR will he be absorbed, infiltrated & revised so utterly thoroughly by our new truths that even he will soon be seen as their servant? Mycelial webs grow into and take possession of fallen trees.
And on Star Trek, the infamous “Borg” hyperspecies assimilate all their rivals and predecessors…
But we were talking about Rene Descartes!
When I attended coastal North American university philosophy courses near the beginning of the 21st century, there was almost universal scorn for “Cartesian” thinking. Descartes and Darwin and Newton were widely denounced as left-brained, white-male stooges who ushered in an unnatural epoch of industrial dominators whose outdated atomism was being rapidly overturned by populist New Age quantum-egalitarianism. Prominence-seeking professors competed like peacocks to prove how loyal they now were to the much more sensible Spinoza! And young students like myself (raised on television and the internets) simply presumed that we were already much wiser than every dead asshole who wrote those old books.
This intuitive hunch was quickly confirmed by a superficial glance into the crass Cartesian writings. Apparently, this grid-slinging defiler of Nature’s goodness had sat down on one fine jour to perform the project of DOUBTING EVERYTHING!
But it turned out that he couldn’t doubt God or Himself.
Of course, I fancied that I could easily doubt both God and myself. Like a character from Alice in Wonderland, I was equipped to proudly believe several impossible things even before breakfast! Childhood. Obviously my still-adolescent pride was rather hasty and historically immature. Nietzsche reminds us that we “cannot see around our own corner,” and I was yet to take myself seriously enough to understand that I am indeed bound by my own basic cognitive architecture. Some thoughts ARE impossible to think. To realize that kind of liberating limitation, we first need a power of mind that exceeds the superficial flux of whatever we happen to “think” that we think…
It was this very sense of potent, self-refining boundaries that enabling me to sink again, a few years later, into Descartes’ fascinating blog: Meditations on First Philosophy.
The Cartesian writings begin not with math or philosophy but with autobiography. The conventional critical reading is that young Rene, as one of the newly literate seed-pods of modernity, roamed internationally (as part of the military-industrial complex) until he lost all sense of common identity with his own national culture and returned as a self-aggrandizing rational individualist mechanical-dualist.
Is that true? I don’t care.
What I would like to do is consider narrating it slightly differently. Imagine we are pondering this hip nomadic, philosophical adventurer who takes risks to stay near the unfolding transformational events of his epoch. He cultivates an almost aristocratic nonchalance toward the identitarian habits of the mass population, low and high, and instead gravitates to networks of deep experiencers linked by leading edge technology and ideas.
Instead of simply believing in himself as a metaphysical individual armed with fixed and correct ideas, he treats himself as internal dialogue. A self-enriching and self-mystifying “dividual” conversation that unfolds into changed ideas.
You can see what game I am playing with this description.
Like the Process Philosophers (who have claimed to translate the data of dynamic human experience back into the nature of Reality at all layers) I am extending the current leading-edge so that it begins to inhabit the past. This is quite closely aligned with patterns in organic moral and wisdom development. To mature, we must, through some intentional participation, convert emergent insights and values into real experiments and behavioral habits. Translate them back down.
Existential growth is not merely the story of a journey from one set of beliefs to another but, more importantly, the story of working to inhabit your pre-given life from the perspective of what you now are beginning to understand.
Experimental, half-ironic retroactive transfiguration.
Yet there are still two chunks of meat that are difficult to swallow. What do I make of the God & Self proofs upon which I formerly choked in university? In which (presumably perverse) ways might I contort the Cartesian argument to make it sound almost like its own opposite?
Well, Descartes begins, famously, laudably, by taking seriously the argument we are familiar with from Plato, Baudrillard & the Matrix. How DO I know what is real ???
Of course, we know today that such a question is actually an inquiry into what is real enough and for something. Descartes is therefore setting a standard for his own pragmatic self-deception that is higher than that of his contemporaries and which promises to provide a self-organizing and mobilizing sense of empowerment appropriate to the transitional times in which he lives.
Most of “the folks” act as though it is real enough when you encounter information that comes from repeated sensory perceptions, repeated admonitions from symbolic authorities & repeated summaries of the currently received social consensus. For Descartes — much like those “Is-ness-obsessed” cognition-mystics of the Himalayas — all that stuff was simply NOT real enough.
Caution. The lust for super-reality is ambiguous. We know that every incomplete nihilist posits some covert or overt concept of a Superior Valuable Reality (SVR) by which she can slander (and mope about) the actually existing reality. Similarly, the grotesque pornographic fantasy of machine-like hyperpotency is likely to be fuelled by a deep insecurity about one’s functional capacity to have satisfying natural encounters and responses. So maybe it is totally fucked up to want le sur-realisme.
Yet at the same time, all our healthy flow states, peak experiences and deepest perceptions vibrate with a potency that outshines, even in our memories, the dull facticity of everyday trivia.
So at some level we have a choice in how we estimate the meaning of Descartes’ thirst for inner experiences that express a historically uncommon force of validation. Maybe it is a sign of what Nietzsche called “the Great Health” ?
And, if so, then what was the Cartesian tactic for sifting through the realm of possible social, perceptual & cognitive illusions and teasing out those seductive potentials of heightened and edifying hyper-realism?
He begins with risk.
He begins by philosophizing with a hammer. Doubt everything. Smash hard all your received validities to see if any of them can withstand the blow.
Any perception could be a trick, a simulation, a dream, a deepfake. Any fact that I have heard could be wrong or a lie or disinformation or ideological capture by the dominant cultural operating systems. My memories may have been implanted by Phillip K. Dick. My sensations and even my impulses may have been hacked by rogue neuralink engineers or diabolical CIA alchemists...
Is there literally anything that still has to be maximally validated in the present moment of my total doubt?
Good question. I even like it. But then, how, in the seven squirming hells beneath Yggdrasil, does Descartes blithely decide that “God” and “cogito ergo sum” are somehow the “real enough” metaphysical assumptions implied in the very act of skepticism ?!
I have long and pedantically argued that “emptiness” is a poor Anglo-Tibetan translation of what Sri Nagarjuna meant by sunyata. Thus it will come as no surprise that I am also skeptical whether Descartes’ meaning is adequately rendered into contemporary language by the cartoonish pop-philosophy phrase: I think therefore I am.
Might it not be more correct, more charitable (and more likely to subsume Descartes into the metamodern epoch) if we phrased this whole business a little differently?
I AM a conversation — a split & relational subject. In my dialogos (with each other within) about the possibility that nothing can be trusted, this living conversation is performing a basic cognitive operation. What is it doing? It is collaboratively evaluating degrees of validation.
Reality? Truth? Objects? Anything at all ??? These discursive inner gestures are essentially a pseudo-Bayesian inquiry concerning how much credence we ought to give to any cognized information pattern.
When I question myself concerning the possible validity-or-invalidity of everything, then in that condition what is produced as “real enough” ? This is the Cartesian question. What is the answer?
In that process moment, it is as-confirmed-as-possible that I am a reciprocal dialogue capable of collaboratively engaging in a validation inquiry. THAT exists. The very fact that I am currently doubting everything demonstrates that this kind of “cogito” definitely “sums.”
Evaluating reality for its degree of realness necessarily implies that info-cognitive evaluation processes exist up to the maximal degree of possible verification.
What about God? Did Descartes throw the Divine baby back into the bathwater merely to appease socially dangerous Church authorities and obscure the fact that his modernist revolution was actually utterly marginalizing their Ultimate Authority by placing Him in a neutralized backroom (presumably containing a bathtub) within the prison of print-literate Reason?
Let us for now, however, put aside that cynical, crypto-conventional reading which treats Descartes’ religious fidelity as a tactical artifact of his still half-underground modernist radicalism. Instead, let’s experiment with a revised story that puts our newly transformed sentiments back into the very heart of our dead predecessors.
We have seen in the previous section that omni-skepticism itself implies at least one strong metaphysical assumption — which is that “we” evaluators ARE evaluating. We might consider this to be trivially tautological. However, if it is no better than saying 1+1=2 then it is also no worse. The contemplation of maximal self-approximation (which is how a Metaphysics of Adjacency would describe an “=” sign) is uninteresting from the point of view of mere knowledge but very interesting if we are inclined toward the quasi-erotic super-validation sensations that accompany moments of ultra-salience. It, like, totally IS what it is! But of course that “totally” is actually a “mostly.” Which is even better.
Anyway, our trek through the steep mountains now bursts out at this “almost absolute” peak where we access the reality-generating intensity of constructive interference at the zenith of being-becoming. Just like Descartes said, right? But as the high alpine mists part for a brief sunny moment we glimpse… another peak.
A treacherous climb but let’s give it a shot:
In the Cartesian process of collaborative dialogical self-inquiry, we are trying to determine which information patterns are characterized by which degrees of validity. We are checking experience against an implied standard. When we feel doubt about the degree of reality-confirmation then we are comparing experience against some abstract scale, spectrum or gradient of validation.
And that scale includes its own maximum.
Even the feeling that “This is all unreal!” is a measurement of how close-or-far it is from the greatest possible phenomenological validation.
So the MOST VALID is a valid option whenever we are open to the possibly insufficient validity of all things. Invalidity itself is being estimated against something whose effect we would call “reliable validity.”
To doubt is to presume that there IS reliable validity. All skepticism affirms the existence of the maximum functional approximation by which two things in reciprocal adjacency can mutually confirm each other to the greatest experiential intensity. This is given to us by virtue of the very fact that we trust nothing.
To assert that anything is unreal or valueless or unverified is to provide an answer to the implicit question of “how valid?” or “how valuable?” — which in turn affirms that anything up to the degree of maximal validity & value is actually possible as far any cognizing or evaluating process is concerned.
So Descartes proves the necessary implication of the existence of the “actually possible” maximum validity, value & realness.
Thus God exists.
Don’t let the letters G, O & D confuse you. These letters ruin many otherwise excellent English conversations. Whatever you think other people mean by the word “God,” clearly Descartes is pointing to the maximum real and valuable “something” that is intrinsically validated by our experience of becoming the very process of openness to total doubt and uncertainty.
And if that also happens keeps the Church off your back — so much the better.
No doubt you have easily followed my simple argument, presented in popular, attractive colloquial language, and you are now a thorough-going Cartesian in the new style. And without any superficial flattery, I must say that it looks very good on you and will certainly soon be the height of fashion in all the pseudo-significant cosmopolitan centers of the global empire.
But what was this article about besides simply acknowledging how sexy, clever and leading-edge you are, dear reader?
What I’m asking us to consider together is the choice — and therefore also the reasons & possible advantages and disadvantages of this choice — between treating previous thinkers, previous epochs, retro styles and disturbingly outdated words as either something that (a) the travelling world has moved on from or (b) something that the moved-on-from world now absorbs as part of itself.
I (a team effort!) for “one,” am prepared to keep this slippery ambiguity alive by imagining that M. Rene Descartes was a bold adventurer of internal collaboration who discovered/invented that the evaluation process & the maximal value possibility are both as-real-as-it-gets and can thereby empower networks of depth-oriented experimenters moving through epoch transitions.
I can get behind that.
I’m prepared to be the Borg and assimilate him.
On the other hand, if this wretched Frenchman is actually saying that left-brain thinking proves the existence of a concrete metaphysical individual separated from the body and also proves the existence of the God of the Medieval Churches (as at last a PR stunt) then… I can’t get behind that.