The Harmony of Faith and Reason: Why Believe
by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith (1998)
Part I -- The Failure of Rationalism
How is it that Rene Descartes' (1596-1650) earned the title "father
of modern philosophy?" What was it about his approach to philosophy
that was so different from his predecessors? The answer is found in what
W. T. Jones called Descartes' "supreme confidence in the capacity
of the human intellect to solve all human problems." As Jones
explains, Descartes was "a man of his age in believing that the medieval
alliance of revelation and Scholasticism must be replaced by a new and,
as it were, secular instrument -- an instrument that, following the usage
of the time, he called 'reason.'" Descartes, therefore, was not
unique. His assertion of the autonomy of the human mind was common to
his day. In that sense, Descartes' right to the title "father of
modern philosophy" may be disputable, but it cannot be denied that
he expressed and popularized an idea which was to make an indelible impression
on the mind of Western man.
The most important contribution of Descartes' philosophy and the very
essence of his epistemology is found, according to Bertrand Russell, in
the following quotation:
While I wanted to think everything false, it must necessarily be that
I who thought was something; and remarking that this truth, I think,
therefore I am, was so solid and so certain that all the most extravagant
suppositions of the sceptics were incapable of upsetting it, I judged
that I could receive it without scruple as the first principle of the
philosophy that I sought.
Russell also identifies the fundamental problem in Descartes' cogito.
Descartes committed a logical fallacy. When he said "I think, therefore,
I am," he assumed the existence of what he was trying to prove. The
"I" of the conclusion, "I am," was already included
in the assertion "I think." If Descartes was really doubting
his own existence, where did the "I" come from in the words
"I think"? Following the method of systematic doubt more carefully,
Descartes should have asserted only that he cannot doubt that "there
is thinking." But to get from that proposition to the conclusion
of his own existence would have been an impossible, task.
The result of Descartes' approach brought with it other problems as well.
Again, in Russell's words:
'I think, therefore I am' makes mind more certain than matter, and
my mind (for me) more certain than the minds of others. There is, thus,
in all philosophy derived from Descartes, a tendency to subjectivism,
and to regarding matter as something only knowable, if at all, by inference
from what is known of mind. These two tendencies exist both in Continental
idealism and in British empiricism -- in the former triumphantly, in
the latter regretfully.
Russell went on to say: "[M]odern philosophy has very largely accepted
the formulation of its problems from Descartes, while not accepting his
Because he began with thinking as the indubitable foundation for existence
-- the body could be doubted, but thinking could not -- Descartes led
Western philosophy into dualism and subjectivism. Although the intention
of the project was to deduce all knowledge from an unshakable starting
point, the method of systematic doubt led to a problem: having begun with
the ultimacy and certainty of the human mind, Western philosophy could
find nothing certain outside of the human mind.
Heirs of Descartes' rationalistic project also ended up in failure. Benedictus
de Spinoza's (1632-77) philosophy, for example, consisted of working out
"much more explicitly and consistently than had Descartes, the logical
consequences of these [Descartes'] assumptions." The assumptions
Jones refers to here include more than the idea of the ultimacy of man's
mind. Spinoza also received from Descartes the idea that "mathematical
knowledge is an insight into an objectively existing reality" and
the idea that "substance is a prime metaphysical concept."
But the conclusions Spinoza reached were even more problematical than
those of Descartes. Using geometry for the model of philosophy and employing
his definitions and axioms with inflexible logic, Spinoza concluded that
all reality is one. The rigid application of Descartes' assumptions brought
rationalistic philosophy back to the monistic metaphysics of Parmenides.
In Spinoza's philosophy, all of reality "is ruled by an absolute
logical necessity. There is no such thing as free will in the mental sphere
or chance in the physical world. Everything that happens is a manifestation
of God's inscrutable nature and it is logically impossible that events
should be other than they are." The universe and everything in
it including man is, thus, reduced to a mechanical process. If this is
the logical application of Descartes, his presuppositions have led us
in a direction that very few are willing to follow.
But continental rationalism did not end with Spinoza. Leibnitz (1647-1716),
another rationalist follower of Descartes, came to very different conclusions
from either Descartes or Spinoza while using the same basic assumptions.
In contrast to Spinoza's monism, Leibnitz concluded with an equally radical
pluralism. The basic element in Leibniz's view was called a "monad,"
defined by Jones as "a center of psychic activity." The
details of Leibniz's view are fascinating, but unimportant for my present
point, which is that Leibnitz, beginning with the same assumptions as
previous rationalists propounded a worldview that fundamentally differs
from theirs. The rationalist project led to conclusions fundamentally
diverse and contradictory. What went wrong?
In fact, the ancient Greeks had proposed both monism and atomism, the
same two extremes found in continental rationalists. What was found inadequate
in ancient Greece was again discovered to be deficient in modern Europe.
This is not to say that nothing was learned. European rationalism included
brilliant displays of argumentation and real contributions to knowledge
-- Leibnitz, for example, together with Newton invented infinitesimal
calculus. But rationalism could not solve the basic problems of philosophy.
Why did rationalism fail? Was it a problem in the peculiar nature of
Descartes' assumptions, including a failure to find a self-evident starting
point? In part, yes. Was it that even with the same assumptions men reason
differently? In part, yes. Both of these are real problems. Descartes
could not find the Archimedian starting point from which to logically
deduce all other knowledge. Even if someone made that impossible discovery,
however, we would still face the problem that men would not necessarily
deduce the same worldview from it. The problems of philosophy are too
broad and the processes of deduction too imperfect to lead infallibly
to a single result.
But the deepest problem was in Descartes' most fundamental conviction,
one that he never thought of doubting -- "supreme confidence in the
capacity of the human intellect to solve all human problems."
For the mind of man to be the ultimate starting point it would have to
supply an absolute, something which man, being relative, cannot do. Human
knowledge is always dependent knowledge, something the method of doubt
neglects to take into consideration.
The inadequacy of the mind of man become clear when we think what it
would have been like for Descartes to apply the method of doubt seriously.
He would not only have had to doubt the external world, he would also
have had to doubt the words with which he was thinking, grammar, the uniformity
of experience, and many other things that he did not really question.
Had he really applied the principle of doubt, he would have been reduced
to babbling. In Wittgenstein's words: "If you tried to doubt everything
you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself
Descartes apparently forgot the obvious: "The child learns by believing
the adult. Doubt comes after belief." Faith is the real starting
point for thinking, the question is, which faith is true?
1. W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 3, Hobbes to
Hume, p. 155.
2. Ibid., p. 159.
3. Quoted in Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p. 547.
4. Russell, p. 548.
5. Russell, p. 548.
6. Jones, p. 193.
7. Jones, p. 193.
8. Russell, p. 553.
9. Russell, p. 554.
10. Jones, p. 224.
11. Jones, p. 220.
12. W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 3, Hobbes to
Hume, p. 155.
13. On Certainty (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1969), p. 18e.
14. Ibid, p. 23e.