Rational Optimism and Lame Proofs

Posted: September 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

Part I: Descartes and rational optimism

I don’t know if “rational optimism” is common phrase in philosophy. A quick Google shows me the term exists, but not in the sense that I mean it. Writer Frank Robinson, author of a book by that name, suggests that “humans are fundamentally cooperative, the world is becoming increasingly peaceful, and the causes for it are growing ever stronger.”[1] Now that just seems silly to me and not at all what I mean—though to be fair I haven’t read his book.

No, what I mean is an optimism about rationality itself, a belief that reason—aided perhaps by science—can uncover all mysteries if not solve all problems. It is the philosophical or intellectual version of the Disney motto “All dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”) Maybe I should call it optimistic rationality?[2]

Anyway, this sort of optimism is very much in evidence in Descartes, and it’s one of the things I took especial note of in re-reading Discourse. In Part 2, for example, Descartes maintains that if he sticks closely to his method for investigating truth, “there cannot be anything so remote that it cannot eventually be reached nor anything so hidden that it cannot be uncovered” (16). Likewise, in Part 6, his conclusion, he writes about the possibilities of advancing medicine through research, perhaps even of curing old age, and that he would “infallibly find such knowledge if it were not impeded by the brevity of life or by a lack of experiences” (44-5) (in other words, if he could just live long enough, he could stop aging).

This is a kind of faith in reason and science essential to Descartes’s thought experiment, and one that is still very much with us today, though it has come under fire in the postmodern world.  You might think of this idea as the Detective Formula. If you read detective fiction or watch detective films—at least traditional ones, like, say, Sherlock Homes or “The Purloined Letter”—you see in the writer and his or her protagonist and unflinching faith that all mysteries can be solved if you use the proper method (“simple deduction, elementary my dear Watson”). As a culture, we tend to believe this about nearly all physical, if not metaphysical, phenomenon. Whether it’s unlocking the mysteries of the atom or curing cancer, we, Western Culture that is, have an abiding faith that given enough time and resources any such investigations will be rewarded with answers. Or at least we used to.

We have been able to maintain such faith because we have believed, even in the absence of religious belief, that answers exists, that two plus two always equals four even if an individual doesn’t yet know how to add. Descartes, thus, points out that

since there is only one truth about each thing [ and] whoever discovers it knows as much as it is possible to know about it, and that, for example, a child who has been taught arithmetic and has done an addition in accordance with its rules, can be sure of having found everything that the human mind could find about the sum in question. (17-8)

Once a child has added two plus two she knows as much about it as Einstein. Right?

Ah, it must have been nice to have lived in the seventeenth century. You might not have had indoor plumbing but you had the possibility of certainty. It was possible then to imagine things might be “clear and distinct.” It’s not always so simple for us today.

There are, for example, alternative math systems. Now I’m no mathematician, and I can’t tell you if some of those systems allow two plus two to equal five, but I know in some mathematical systems parallel lines meet. So that we can no longer say there is only one thing to know about parallel lines (that they never intersect). Modern observations about the nature of light are another example. We now know that light is both a particle and a wave. There is not simply one thing to know about light.

Descartes repeatedly uses the terms “clear and distinct” to refer to truths he discovers, but nothing is clear and distinct in the postmodern world. Ever hear of the Heisenberg Principle? It maintains that any object we observe is affected by our observation, so that it’s impossible to conduct a neutral experiment. Now, Heisenberg, himself, was talking about measuring the speed of electrons and was pointing out that to measure an electron’s speed you must interfere with its progress, and hence, you can never be fully certain of what it’s real speed was without interference. But his principle, rightly or wrongly, has been extended beyond physics to nearly every realm of thought in the postmodern world, so that I find as I reread Discourse I am nostalgic for the pure Enlightenment faith in certainty—that truth, one truth, exists even if we cannot discover it, but that we probably can discover it if we employ the right methods and give ourselves enough time.

Many of us still believe that. I certainly used to. I’m not so sure anymore. I’m sometimes afraid if I were to engage in Descartes’ thought experiment, I would become like one of those folks he says would lose their path and “remain lost all their lives” (14). Indeed, I sometimes think that’s exactly what’s happened to our society. It has embraced Descartes’ thought experiment, cast everything—God, religion, politics, even math and physics—into radical doubt; but unlike Descartes it has not imposed on itself strict rules for advancing truth or conducting itself during the period of reconstruction following the demolition of old truths and values. Kind of feels sometimes like we’ve been left out in the cold.

Part II: Lame Proofs

I always meet Part IV of discourse with admiration and disappointment. Admiration for the simplicity and self-evident truth of “the cogito.” Descartes’ success of discovering at least one thing that cannot be disputed in this world is not to be taken lightly. Though it has its limitations—it proves to me that I exist, but not that you do—I don’t think anyone yet has been able to disprove Descartes here. He has demonstrated that at least something is clear and distinct, something I think even postmodernists can’t dispute. And that’s a relief.

But he follows this piece of brilliant simplicity with one of the most obscure/obtuse passages in the book:

I knew from this that I was a substance the whole essence or nature of which was to think and which, in order to exist, has no need of any place and does not depend on anything material. Thus the self—that is, the soul by which I am what what I am—is completely distinct from the body and is even easer to know than it, and even if the body did not exist the soul would still be everything that it is. (25)

Huh? How does Descartes go from very reasonably proving (to himself) that he exists to proving that he is “a substance the whole essence or nature of which [is] to think” and which “has no need of any place and does not depend on anything material?” I understand Descartes must have known relatively little about the operations of the brain, but still, by what leap of the imagination did he arrive at the notion that the mind is independent of the body? Where is the mathematics here? What is the logical train of thought? He doesn’t spell it out, even a little.

Of course, I can’t help but read all this through the lens of modern science, which tells me, for example, that personality traits can be radically altered by modifications to the brain. (see the famous case of Phineas Gage http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage).[3] And even so, I don’t necessarily agree with a friend of mind who has studied brain chemistry and consciousness who tells me that every thought we have, every feeling, every emotion is reducible to an electro-chemical reaction. But if I were to follow strict logic, strict mathematics, it seems to me much more sensible to suggest that the body can exist without the mind than vice-versa (as in ants, say).

Don’t get me wrong, part of me agrees with Descartes that there is something distinct from the body (call it a soul if you like, like he does). But I can’t prove it, and it seems to me he can’t either, or at least doesn’t explicitly do so. It’s a startling misstep, but not quite as serious a flaw as his “proof” of God.

Some people speculate he inserted these (lame) “proofs” of the soul and God’s existence to satisfy the Catholic Church, which had punished Galileo for undermining religion. But I don’t get that sense here. What I sense is a kind of desperate urgency to prove what would be too frightening to live without, a need so strong to hold onto these two pillars of existence—God and the soul—that Descartes (unconsciously) overrode his own investigative principles.[4] That’s understandable, but, again, disappointing coming so shortly, immediately really, after the cogito.

Then again, maybe there’s just something here I’m not getting?[5]


[1] Robinson, Frank S. “The Case for Rational Optimism.” Web. 17 January 2011. http://www.fsrcoin.com/k.htm.

[2] A more recent version of this optimistic view of reason, especially with regard to technology, may be seen in the memoir, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. There William Kamkwamba, who hopes to improve life in his native Malawi by building windmills to provide electrical power, says, “In science we invent and create. . . We make new things that can benefit our situation” (pg249) and latter, echoing Disney,  opines about “all the things made possible when your dreams are powered by your heart” (280).)

[3] Actually, Descartes does realize this on some level. In Part 6, he writes: “even the mind depends so much on the temperament and the disposition of one’s bodily organs that, if it is possible to find a way to make people generally more wise and more skilful than they have been in the past, I believe we should look for it in medicine” (44)

[4]Kind of like Dr. Zaius overriding Cornelius’ archeological discoveries, only this time Dr. Zaius is “internalized.” Dr.  Z is the part of Descartes’ unconscious that simply can’t tolerate the inconsistencies between science and religion–Freud, as we will see later in the course, would have something to say about all this.

[5] Descartes does say that he explains in another (until then) unpublished work how “the rational soul . . . could not in any way be drawn from the potentiality of matter . . . .but that it has to be specially created” (42). The book in question, as our notes point out, is The World. Maybe someone out there wants to read it and report back as to whether Descartes satisfactorily explains there the mind/body split?

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