Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Some disorganised thoughts on René Descartes and his Method

Rummaging around some dusty corner of my hard disk recently I came across this note that at the time had the potential to become the basis of something more substantial. It's 18 months old now, so the references to my "new" Kindle are a bit irrelevant (the restrictions have been partially lifted, and the Kindle 2 itself has been superseded by its cheaper third incarnation). Nevertheless I'm posting the note here rather than consigning it to the bit-bucket.
Of an evening I have a choice: I can watch TV, or I can read. Currently I'm reading — I have a machine that watches TV for me (and I hope to get around to watching those programmes soon). My reading is mostly off a computer screen, as it consists of news and blogs. I wouldn't want to read a whole book on the computer.

But I now have a Kindle — Amazon's "wireless reading device" — and though the service Amazon provides for the Kindle's international (non-US) users seems unnecessarily and arbitrarily restricted, there are sufficient advantages to make it a worthwhile proposition (plus it's a gadget, and I like gadgets).

A big advantage for me is that the Kindle gives me convenient access to many public domain classics — such as those available at Project Gutenberg — in a format that doesn't require reading off a computer screen. And they're free, if you download them to your computer and transfer them to the Kindle using the supplied USB cable. So I'm revisiting one particular classic that I originally explored decades ago in my then quest for philosophical justification of the theistic mindset.

René Descartes' Discourse on the Method, containing the famous phrase "I think, therefore I am", held out the promise of a rational proof of the existence of God, based on his initial rejection of everything that could not be shown to be true, or was not self-evident. On my first reading of the Discourse I was impressed by the Method, but underwhelmed by some of the unjustifiable leaps of logic Descartes makes. I thought it would be instructive to revisit this seminal work in the light of my more recent exploration of the various "proofs" of God (see my series of blogposts, "Arguments for Fred").

The first problem I notice on re-reading the Discourse is the gradual edging towards what I now know as the ontological argument, and Descartes' problematic use of the word "perfect".
And that's where it stops. I recall that I did continue with my re-reading of Descartes, but I can't find any other thoughts, other than notes and highlights on the Kindle itself:
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Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 113-15 | Added on Sunday, November 01, 2009, 03:28 PM

And, in fine, of false sciences I thought I knew the worth sufficiently to escape being deceived by the professions of an alchemist, the predictions of an astrologer, the impostures of a magician, or by the artifices and boasting of any of those who profess to know things of which they are ignorant.
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Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 153-56 | Added on Sunday, November 01, 2009, 03:47 PM

the sciences contained in books (such of them at least as are made up of probable reasonings, without demonstrations), composed as they are of the opinions of many different individuals massed together, are farther removed from truth than the simple inferences which a man of good sense using his natural and unprejudiced judgment draws respecting the matters of his experience.
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Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 396-98 | Added on Tuesday, November 03, 2009, 12:23 AM

from reflecting on the circumstance that I doubted, and that consequently my being was not wholly perfect (for I clearly saw that it was a greater perfection to know than to doubt), I was led to inquire whence I had learned to think of something more perfect than myself;
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Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 442-44 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 06:17 PM

Finally, if there be still persons who are not sufficiently persuaded of the existence of God and of the soul, by the reasons I have adduced, I am desirous that they should know that all the other propositions, of the truth of which they deem themselves perhaps more assured, as that we have a body, and that there exist stars and an earth, and such like, are less certain;
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Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 471-74 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 06:24 PM

And because our reasonings are never so clear or so complete during sleep as when we are awake, although sometimes the acts of our imagination are then as lively and distinct, if not more so than in our waking moments, reason further dictates that, since all our thoughts cannot be true because of our partial imperfection, those possessing truth must infallibly be found in the experience of our waking moments rather than in that of our dreams.
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Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Note Loc. 503 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 06:30 PM

Enough with the double negatives already!
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Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 527-28 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 06:35 PM

things purely material might, in course of time, have become such as we observe them at present;
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Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 527-29 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 06:36 PM

things purely material might, in course of time, have become such as we observe them at present; and their nature is much more easily conceived when they are beheld coming in this manner gradually into existence, than when they are only considered as produced at once in a finished and perfect state.
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Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 648-49 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 06:56 PM

Such persons will look upon this body as a machine made by the hands of God, which is incomparably better arranged, and adequate to movements more admirable than is any machine of human invention.
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Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Note Loc. 657 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 06:58 PM

Turing test!
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Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Note Loc. 689 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 09:34 PM

So far, these are merely assertions.
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Discourse on the Method (René Descartes)
- Highlight Loc. 790-91 | Added on Friday, December 25, 2009, 09:49 PM

I have never met with a single critic of my opinions who did not appear to me either less rigorous or less equitable than myself.
This ability to add notes and highlights on the fly is a useful feature of the Kindle — it's equivalent to writing in the margins of the book you're reading, except in the digital version you're unlikely to run out of space.

Incidentally, Melvyn Bragg's weekly BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time covered Descartes recently:
(It appears that IOT is archived in its entirety, with full audio available for every episode — a most valuable resource.)
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