René Descartes, 1596-1650

[Mentioned in No and Yes, p. 22]

Descartes , the creator of analytical geometry, is also the father of modern philosophy. Desirous of accepting as true only that which could be proved or inferred with mathematical certainty, he made skepticism his starting point. In his "Second Meditation" he declares that the one thing which cannot be disproved is his own existence. "I must exist, in order to doubt, or to be deceived. And what, essentially, is this 'I'? A thinking thing; cogito. ergo sum." He concluded that this thinking being must be of a non-material nature. He also reasoned that because the ideas of omniscience, eternality, immutability, and perfection could not originate in his idea of himself, they must originate in God; therefore God exists. In addition to these two certainties, he accepts the reality of an external world—matter, which he explains mechanically, although he says it depends upon God.

Most of Descartes's schooling was received at a college in La Flèche. Being a frail child, he was allowed to stay in bed as late as he liked, and he has attributed the beginning of his philosophical and mathematical musings to these long quiet mornings. The proficiency he acquired in the classics made it natural for him to write the Meditations in Latin. Later they were translated into French.

After studying law at the University of Poitiers, living a short time in Paris, he volunteered with different armies during the Thirty Years' War. His motive was to acquire wisdom through his own observations and experiences. He moved to Holland in 1628, where he stayed 20 years and where most of his writing was done. News of Galileo's recantation of Copernicus' teaching that the earth revolves round the sun kept Descartes from publishing his treatise "Le Monde" (The World), which set forth what he thought the writer of Genesis would have written had he known the material science and philosophy that Descartes did. He was convinced that Copernicus was right.

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Signs of the Times
March 10, 1956

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