The Philosophy of Descartes - The Rationalist and the Skeptic - Seeker's Thoughts

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The Philosophy of Descartes - The Rationalist and the Skeptic

Cartesian philosophy asserts that anything which can be clearly and precisely understood is certain; Descartes tried to live his life according to moral beliefs he could trust as evidenced by this certainty in terms of his moral beliefs.

Descartes uses the Causal Adequacy Principle to demonstrate that anything objectively contained in an idea must also be contained formally or eminently within its cause; this includes ideas concerning bodies.

The Rationalist

As his name implies, Descartes' philosophy was grounded in reason. To illustrate his holistic approach, he used a tree metaphor: metaphysics were at its roots while physics provided support; from there came various other sciences such as medicine, mathematics and mechanics that eventually sprouted branches that eventually comprised his full philosophy.

He began with his Cartesian dualism, believing there to be two fundamentally distinct kinds of substances: body and soul or spirit. While bodies must abide by natural laws, spiritual things (minds) possess free will. Furthermore, He holds that both mind and body could exist independently without God being required to create either of them.

Descartes made sure his ideas would be understood clearly by creating an intellectual perception of mind and body that was guaranteed as accurate, and then inferring from this view that everything that is physically possible must follow from it - for instance when one is sick, seeking health is futile; freedom cannot be attained via human effort alone.

He held that the properties of substances were determined by their essence and therefore that each body must possess a specified number of particles or atoms with weight and volume; using his mathematical and geometrical principles on this concept of matter he made predictions as to its behavior.

The Skeptic

Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) by Descartes remains an influential text at many university philosophy departments today. He is widely recognized as having developed infinitesimal calculus and analysis, and was considered a leader of the Scientific Revolution.

Descartes' central philosophy was that, by questioning everything, nothing can be false - thus helping him overcome errors that plagued his predecessors. Descartes was also known for being a rationalist; believing humans derive knowledge from within via God-given ideas transmitted directly into their brains; in contrast to John Locke (1632-1704), an empiricist philosopher who believed all knowledge derived through experience.

Although Descartes believed the body and mind to be distinct entities, he struggled with how they interacted. Both Pierre Gassendi in the Fifth Objections and Princess Elizabeth in her correspondence with him made note of this problem. Descartes eventually provided his answer by proposing that physical movement can be caused by thought while thought also can move physical structures.

Cartesian dualism emerged as a result, setting the agenda for discussions of mind-body relationships for decades to come. See Secada, Jorge. Cartesian Metaphysics: The Late Scholastic Origins of Modern Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000 for an in-depth yet accessible account of Descartes' metaphysics within late Scholastic metaphysics.

The Epistemologist

Descartes' method of skeptical inquiry remains widely employed today in logic and science. He believed that true knowledge could only be gained through logic and rational thought, rather than through faith or direct perception.

Cartesian philosophy upholds that an idea's truth can only be measured by its clarity and distinctness, such as Descartes' notion that mind and body were two separate entities without any shared characteristics; for him this provided evidence that his intellectual perception was accurate.

According to this theory, ideas represent objects which exist outside the mind and serve as evidence that it is indeed materially true. This aspect also helps ensure its representative quality.

This theory rests on the Cartesian principle of least action, which states that an object must move to generate enough force to cause it to change position. This principle can be applied to rotating wheels, arch bridge movements over time or any other physics problems.

In 1625 Descartes met Father Marin Mersenne who encouraged him to make his philosophical thoughts public. Over the next two decades he developed his Cartesian theories of science, mathematics and philosophy while experiencing religious visions which he claimed helped inspire breakthroughs in logic and mathematics. Finally he accepted a commission to establish a scientific academy in Sweden before leaving this earth for good (Gaukroger).

The Logician

Logicians are versatile thinkers who take an unconventional approach to many aspects of life. As innovators with an insatiable curiosity for all things, logicians are frequently attracted to asking big questions that other may not dare pose.

Descartes' most notable philosophical works - which would challenge centuries-old Aristotelian concepts and usher in a new era in natural philosophy - include Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (1641), Principia Philosophiae (1644), and Les Passions de L'ame (1649).

Descartes' theory of mind-body dualism remains a contentious one today. How do we know that mind and body are united as one being? Additionally, how can the mind cause certain limbs (e.g. raising your hand to answer a question) to move when their natures differ so significantly from one another?

Descartes' theory holds that ideas are real in the sense that they represent something tangible; for instance, lightning bolts can be created when two clouds collide, sparking off an electrical spark to ignite gases stored inside them and release electricity as electricity passes between them. His theory of mind-body union rests upon this concept of objective reality for ideas.

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