Page:EB1911 - Volume 08.djvu/100

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85
DESCARTES


is no less natural to have recourse to authority to silence the doubt. The remedy proposed by Descartes is (while not neglecting our duties to others, ourselves and God) to let doubt range unchecked through the whole fabric of our customary convictions. One by one they refuse to render any reasonable account of themselves; each seems a mere chance, and the whole tends to elude us like a mirage which some malignant power creates for our illusion. Attacked in detail, they vanish one after another into as many teasing spectra of uncertainty. We are seeking from them what they cannot give. But when we have done our worst in unsettling them, we come to an ultimate point in the fact that it is we who are doubting, we who are thinking. We may doubt that we have hands or feet, that we sleep or wake, and that there is a world of material things around us; but we cannot Cogito ergo sum. doubt that we are doubting. We are certain that we are thinking, and in so far as we are thinking we are. Je pense, donc je suis. In other words, the criterion of truth is a clear and distinct conception, excluding all possibility of doubt.

The fundamental point thus established is the veracity of consciousness when it does not go beyond itself, or does not postulate something which is external to itself. At this point Gassendi arrested Descartes and addressed his objections to him as pure intelligence,—O mens! But even this mens, or mind, is but a point—we have found no guarantee as yet for its continuous existence. The analysis must be carried deeper, if we are to gain any further conclusions.

Amongst the elements of our thought there are some which we can make and unmake at our pleasure; there are others which come and go without our wish; there is also a third class which is of the very essence of our thinking, and which dominates our conceptions. We find that all our ideas of limits, sorrows and weaknesses presuppose an infinite, perfect and ever-blessed something beyond them and including them,—that all our ideas, in all their series, converge to one central idea, in which they find their explanation. The formal fact of thinking is what constitutes our being; but this thought leads us back, when we consider its concrete contents, to the necessary pre-supposition on which our ideas depend, the permanent cause on which they and we as conscious beings depend. We have therefore the idea of an infinite, perfect and all-powerful being—an idea which cannot be the creation of ourselves, and must be given by some being who really possesses all that we in idea attribute to him. Such a being he identifies with God. But the ordinary idea of God can scarcely be identified with such a conception. “The majority of men,” he says himself, “do not think of God as an infinite and incomprehensible being, and as the sole author from whom all things depend; they go no further than the letters of his name.”[1] Nature of God. “The vulgar almost imagine him as a finite thing.” The God of Descartes is not merely the creator of the material universe; he is also the father of all truth in the intellectual world. “The metaphysical truths,” he says, “styled eternal have been established by God, and, like the rest of his creatures, depend entirely upon him. To say that these truths are independent of him is to speak of God as a Jupiter or a Saturn,—to subject him to Styx and the Fates.”[2] The laws of thought, the truths of number, are the decrees of God. The expression is anthropomorphic, no less than the dogma of material creation; but it is an attempt to affirm the unity of the intellectual and the material world. Descartes establishes a philosophic monotheism,—by which the medieval polytheism of substantial forms, essences and eternal truths fades away before God, who is the ruler of the intellectual world no less than of the kingdom of nature and of grace.

To attach a clear and definite meaning to the Cartesian doctrine of God, to show how much of it comes from the Christian theology and how much from the logic of idealism, how far the conception of a personal being as creator and preserver mingles with the pantheistic conception of an infinite and perfect something which is all in all, would be to go beyond Descartes and to ask for a solution of difficulties of which he was scarcely aware. It seems impossible to deny that the tendency of his principles and his arguments is mainly in the line of a metaphysical absolute, as the necessary completion and foundation of all being and knowledge. Through the truthfulness of that God as the author of all truth he derives a guarantee for our perceptions in so far as these are clear and distinct. And it is in guaranteeing the veracity of our clear and distinct conceptions that the value of his deduction of God seems in his own estimate to rest. All conceptions which do not possess these two attributes—of being vivid in themselves and discriminated from all others—cannot be true. But the larger part of our conceptions are in such a predicament. We think of things not in the abstract elements of the things themselves, but in connexion with, and in language which presupposes, other things. Our idea of body, e.g., involves colour and weight, and yet when we try to think carefully, and without assuming anything, we find that we cannot attach any distinct idea to these terms when applied to body. In truth therefore these attributes do not belong to body at all; and if we go on in the same way testing the received qualities of matter, we shall find that in the last resort we understand nothing by it but extension, with the secondary and derivative characters of divisibility and mobility.

But it would again be useless to ask how extension as the characteristic attribute of matter is related to mind which thinks, and how God is to be regarded in reference to extension. The force of the universe is swept up and gathered in God, who communicates motion to the parts of extension, and sustains that motion from moment to moment; and in the same way the force of mind has really been concentrated in God. Every moment one expects to find Descartes saying with Hobbes that man’s thought has created God, or with Spinoza and Malebranche that it is God who really thinks in the apparent thought of man. After all, the metaphysical theology of Descartes, however essential in his own eyes, serves chiefly as the ground for constructing his theory of man and of the universe. His fundamental hypothesis relegates to God all forces in their ultimate origin. Hence the world is left open for the free play of mechanics and geometry. The disturbing conditions of will, life and organic forces are eliminated from the problem; he starts with the clear and distinct idea of extension, figured and moved, and thence by mathematical laws he gives a hypothetical explanation of all things. Such explanation of physical phenomena is the main problem of Descartes, and it goes on encroaching upon territories once supposed proper to the mind. Descartes began with the certainty that we are thinking beings; that region remains untouched; but up to its very borders the mechanical explanation of nature reigns unchecked.

The physical theory, in its earlier form in The World, and later in the Principles of Philosophy (which the present account follows), rests upon the metaphysical conclusions of the Physical theory. Meditations. It proposes to set forth the genesis of the existing universe from principles which can be plainly understood, and according to the acknowledged laws of the transmission of movement. The idea of force is one of those obscure conceptions which originate in an obscure region, in the sense of muscular power. The true physical conception is motion, the ultimate ground of which is to be sought in God’s infinite power. Accordingly the quantity of movement in the universe, like its mover, can neither increase nor diminish. The only circumstance which physics has to consider is the transference of movement from one particle to another, and the change of its direction. Man himself cannot increase the sum of motion; he can only alter its direction. The whole conception of force may disappear from a theory of the universe; and we can adopt a geometrical definition of motion as the shifting of one body from the neighbourhood of those bodies which immediately touch it, and which are assumed to be at rest, to the neighbourhood of other bodies. Motion, in short, is strictly locomotion, and nothing else.

Descartes has laid down three laws of nature, and seven secondary laws regarding impact. The latter are to a large extent incorrect. The first law affirms that every body, so far as it is altogether unaffected by extraneous causes, always

  1. Œuvres, vi. 132.
  2. Ib. vi. 109.