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This article is about the relevance of the French philosophe Rene Descartes and his rationalising of religion


The position of Rene Descartes as a thinker of consequence for the modern world is rather underwhelming.  People in the aftermath of the Renaissance and the Reformation movements in Europe found it not too necessary to give too much importance to Descartes considering the fact that his thought is steeped sometimes in what is considered to be too abstract as a methodology and no direct political underpinnings.  Looking at Descartes in this way and ignoring his work could be a great mistake since the Cartesian conception of religion and the basing of it in rationality has great significance for politics.  It is well known that politics gained autonomy from the stranglehold of religion only after the rejection of religion as being consequential in the temporal realm of human activity.  Cartesian thinking is much more important in the present world than it has been in many years since the world today is moving towards a conservative cynicism that is so well recorded in the Clash of Civilizations as seen by Samuel Huntington.  As the world gets embroiled in religious politics and the identities derived from religion, it is of paramount importance to humanity to once again study Rene Descartes and see how there could be the possibility of co-existence of religions when there is a rational explanation to religion and the basis for religious beliefs.

Descartes sought to make the rational element the most significant in all thought, so much so, that it became the sole method by which man could ascertain his existence.  His much proclaimed dictum ‘cogito ergo sum’ (I think, therefore I am) is of crucial importance.  In the Middle Ages it was felt that man existed because God wanted him to exist.  It was as if God said ‘let there be man’ and so there was man.  Human Beings were considered to not have the apparatus or the right to question the acts of God, for the rationality of God was felt to be far superior to that of the human being’s.

Descartes was a skeptic, in the sense that this argument of the Christian Church did not make too much sense to him.  He believed that there could be and was a faculty in man which would enable him to clear all his doubts.  For him the thinking faculty was the definitive faculty which would help man to establish his existence.  So the reason why man is exists is because he is thinking.  What does this mean for the traditional belief of God?  Is Descartes looking at the possibility of a Godless Universe?  Quite to the contrary, God forms an important component of Descartes’ philosophy.  In order to understand how God comes into the philosophy of Descartes, it needs to be mentioned that at this point that Descartes tried to understand the world through the construction of a cause-effect chain or the method of causality.  It means that every cause is a cause of for an effect which would occur in the future while it is an effect of a cause that has already occurred in the past.  Therefore, a cause is both a cause and an effect at the same time.

This conception of things can generate a doubt.  If every cause is an effect as well, then how does one stop the process of an infinite regress wherein the beginning of everything will never be and never can be established?  To put an end to the problem of infinite regress it was therefore imperative on Descartes to find the first cause which was pure cause or a cause that is not an effect of anything.  To overcome this problem Descartes puts forward the principle of God.  God is the primary cause or a cause which is not an effect of anything and therefore the pure cause.  Even though Descartes uses the idea of rationality as being the basic determinant of human existence he does not see the ability of the human mind to grasp the truth of God’s existence and power as being ever ready.  This is because he feels the power of the rationality of the human mind which applies simple categories like opposites to establish the existence of anything as being insufficient to ascertain the existence of God.  “But though in truth, I cannot conceive a God as existing, anymore than I can a mountain without a valley, yet just as it does not follow that there is any mountain in the world merely because I conceive a mountain with a valley so likewise, I conceive God as existing, it does not seem to follow on that account that God exists, for my thought imposes no necessity of things; and as I may imagine a winged horse though there may be non such, so I could perhaps attribute existence to God, though no God existed. But the cases are not analogous and a fallacy lurks under the semblance of this objection; for because I cannot conceive a mountain without a valley, it does not follow that there is any mountain or valley in existence, but simply that mountain or valley, whether they do or do not exist inseparable from each other: whereas on the other hand because I cannot conceive God unless as existing, it follows that existence is inseparable from him and therefore that He really exists, not that this brought about my thought or that it imposes any necessity on things, but on the contrary, the necessity of the existence of God, determines me to think in this way, for is it not in any power to conceive a God without existence, that is a being supremely perfect, and yet devoid of absolute perfection, as I am free to imagine a horse with or without wings”.1

It appears from the above statement of Descartes that he while clearly stating that man can assert his existence by using his thinking power, also states that the rationality of man may not be sufficient to explain the existence of God comprehensively.  This constitutes an interesting break from The Medieval thinking that preceded his own time.  The Medieval form of thinking was that one should believe that man existed because God wishes so; Descartes felt that man could explore the universe through reason though he cannot do the same about God.  One can discern some changes already.  Descartes also believed in the laws of nature and he pronounced and he propounded that these laws were created at the instance of God.  He felt that causation was necessary for movement of both universe and society.  He thought that most often even the simplest causes could not be detected easily, leave alone complex ones.  He had a conviction that there might be some general principles governing the movement of the universe.

Descartes says, “I have essayed to find in general the principles, or first causes of that is or can be in the world, without taking into consideration for this end anything but God himself who has created it, and without deducting them from any other source than from the certain germs of truth naturally existing in our minds.  In the second place, I examined what were the first and most ordinary effects that could be deduced from these causes; and it appears to me that, in this way, I have found heavens, stars, and the earth, and even on the earth, water, air, fire, minerals and some other things of this kind which of all others are the most common and simple and hence the earliest to know.  Afterwards, when I descend to the more particulars, so many diverse objects presented themselves to me, that I believed it to be impossible for the human mind to distinguish the form of the species of bodies that are on earth, from an infinity of other which might have been, it had pleased God to place them there, or consequently to apply them to our use, unless we rise to causes through their effects and avail ourselves of many particular experiments.  There upon, turning over in my mind all the objects that had ever been presented to my senses, I freely venture to state that I have never observed any which I could not satisfactorily explain by the principles I had discovered”.2  This shows that Descartes did perceive the universe as a complex, but as complex that could be comprehended by using the scientific method.  It also shows that he did not make a total break with religious thinking when says that world is a creation of God, a conclusion consistent with God placing things where he pleased. T.L.S. Sprigge says, “In my opinion Cartesianism provides a particularly persuasive underpinning for Christianity.  Descartes himself hoped that his point of view would become the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church.  His hoped proved vain, for the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church remained what it was; Thomism”.3

One of the major impacts of the Renaissance was the recreation of self-consciousness of man.  An element of narcissistic scholarship characterized the post-Renaissance mind.  This consciousness became capable of ‘turning over in my mind all the objects that ever been presented to my senses’ (in Descartes’ own words) and Descartes asserted that he never observed any phenomenon which could not be explained satisfactorily.  He did not however celebrate the complete independence of man’s capacity to comprehend the reality without the interference of God.  But he wanted to stress on the power of man’s thinking to find out the root of his own capacity to reason and comprehend the nature of reality.  He traced this capacity to God.  Even without denying the existence of God, Descartes could criticize the barren scholasticism of the medieval schoolmen and their ideas about God, nature and men.  The defiance of Luther, ably supported by Erasmus received a philosophical boost from Descartes.  It is now evident that even though Descartes would have liked his philosophy to be officially accepted by the church, it was not.  But the reason why it was not accepted could be that Descartes, even though not denying the existence of God, makes many changes in the official doctrines of the church.  If these were accepted then the church would have undermined its own superiority.  Politically Descartes’ ideas lent credence to the position that there could be two realms, the spiritual and the temporal.

Interestingly though, Descartes ideas could be used to breakdown the principle of Unity built by the church, Descartes himself was building up his own variety of a Unity.  At the head of everything is a Sovereign Being called God.  Descartes says that it must not be “alleged here as an objection, that it is in truth necessary to admit that God exists after having supposed him to possess all perfections, since existence in one of them, but that my original supposition what not necessary; just as it is not necessary to think all quadrilateral figures can be inscribed in the circle since, if that supposed this, I should be constrained to admit that the rhombus being a figure of four sides can be there in inscribed, which however is manifestly false.  This objection is, I say, incomplete, for although it may not become necessary that I shall at any time entertain the notion of Deity, yet each time I happen to think of a first and Sovereign Being, and to draw, so to speak, the idea of him from the store house of the mind, I am necessitated to attribute to him all kinds of perfection, though I may not then enumerate them all nor think of each of them in particular.  And this necessity is sufficient, as soon as I discover that existence is a perfection, to cause me to infer the existence of this first and Sovereign Being”.4

Descartes further develops the issue of why God is the Sovereign Being.  He says, “For indeed I discern on many grounds that this idea not factitious depending simply on my thought, but that it is a representation of a time and immutable nature, in the first place, because I can conceive no other being except God, to whose existence (necessarily) pertains, in the second, because it is impossible to conceive two or more gods of this kind; and it being supposed that one such God exists, I clearly see that he must have existed from all eternity, and will exist to all eternity, and finally because I apprehended other properties in God, none of which I can either diminish or change”.5

This implies that God is omnipotent once again like in the Christian conception, but with a difference.  The Cartesian position in this respect is close to the Lutheran position.  Luther sought to remove the church from its position as the mediating agent between human being and God.  What Descartes is saying here is furthering the logic of Luther.  God should be perceived individually through the faculty of reason, which means that reason is no longer subsumed by faith.  It once again puts reason on a totally different footing.  God, nevertheless, is still treated as sovereign, absolute and undiminishable.  At this point at least one thing should be made clear.  Even though Descartes refers to God occasionally as Him, it need not be though that he is talking of an anthropomorphic God.   Descartes seems to be inclined to think that there is really one physical substance, the physical universe as a whole of which all individual things are parts distinguished for some particular purpose.  But all these parts are imperfect and this applies not only to physical objects or bodies but to minds as well.  Sprigge says, “But God who is an infinite mind is the only example of perfectness.  Everything there is was created by a single infinite mind, known as God who is also responsible for sustaining everything in existence from moment to moment.  God himself is a mind so that he comes under the division of everything into the mental and the physical.  However, as its creator he is not part of the created world and he contrasts with everything in it by his absolute perfection”.6

Descartes then seems to be dividing the world into three: One is the absolutely perfect, and for this category God is the only example.  The other is the imperfect, which can be divided into the imperfect finite minds and the imperfect physical objects.  Descartes contends that the idea of God is such an infinitely magnificent idea that it could only have come into the human mind through the operation of a really Super mind i.e. God even if one got the idea of God from one’s parents, there must be an explanation of how it first originated in a human mind at all, and in fact, parents could only elicit the idea in their off spring only if it was implicitly there already, and this requires that it must have been put there by God himself.  For Descartes then, man is the finite mind if God is the infinite mind.  Due to its own finitude the human mind may not be able to grasp the working of the infinite mind.  Therefore Descartes opines that, “the first thing that occurs to me is the reflection that I must not be surprised if I am not always capable of comprehending the reasons why God acts as he does, nor must I doubt of His existence because I find, perhaps, that there are several other things besides the present respecting which I understand neither why nor how they were created by him, for knowing already that my nature is extremely weak and limited and that the nature of God, on the other hand, is immense, incomprehensible and infinite, I have no longer any difficulty in discerning that there is an infinity of things in his power house, causes transcend the grasp of my mind; and this consideration alone is sufficient to convince me, that the whole class of final causes is of no avail in physical or natural things, for it appears to me that I cannot, without exposing myself to the charge of temerity seek so discover the impenetrable ends of God”.7

Descartes in fact believed that one could know the intention and purpose in God’s acts only if God revealed them.  This is because God did not form a part of the world that he created.  This idea is very much echoed in one of the Descartes’ letters to Hyperaspistes.  In this letter Descartes states in no uncertain terms that “it is self evident that we cannot know God’s purposes unless God reveals them. From the human point of view adopted in either, it is true that everything was made for God’s glory, in the sense that we must praise God for all that he has made, and it is true that the sun was made to give us light, in the sense that we see the sun does give us light”.8

This passage adequately demonstrates that the acceptance of God and His creation have to be on rational grounds.  Descartes thought that it would be absurd to assert to assert that God, like some vainglorious human being has no other purpose in making the Universe than to win man’s praise, or that the sun, which is many times bigger than the earth, was created for no other purpose than to give light to man, who occupies a very small part of the earth.  Descartes says that the existence of God should be proved rationally.  In his letter to Mersenne he says, “the idea of we have of God, a supremely perfect Being is quite different from the proposition that ‘God exists’ so that one can serve as a means or premise to prove the other”.9  In the same letter he also says, “I based the proof of the existence of God on the idea which I find myself of a supremely perfect Being, which is the customary notion we have.  It is true that the simple consideration of such a being leads us so easily to the knowledge of His existence that it is almost the same thing to conceive God and conceive that He exists”.10

A couple of issues need to be cleared here.  The Cartesian ‘proof’ of the existence of God may not correspond to the notion of proof as we understand in the context of contemporary science.  It should be seen more as a methodological attempt to not imbue God with characteristics that are mainly human or those which contain within themselves concerns which are human.  The entire logic of Descartes revolves around the notion that God’s existence is independent of human consciousness and that a rational attempt has to be made in order to apprehend the existence of God.

For Descartes, in order to philosophize seriously and to discover the truth about all things which can be known, all prejudices must be abandoned or else one must carefully avoid trusting any of the accepted opinions of the past, unless it is ascertained and established that they are true, by submitting them to a new examination.  Descartes also hints at the existence of an innate knowledge of things in man.  He say, “in addition to the notions of God and of our mind there is also in us the knowledge of many statements of external truth, for example, that nothing can be produced from nothingness and similarly there is the knowledge of a certain corporeal nature, or one extended divisible, mobile etc., and also the knowledge of certain sensations which affect us, for example, pain, colours, flavours, etc”.11 This then can be seen as a consideration of a non-egoistic consideration of the principles of the Universe and God.  An understanding of both the Universe and God is rational when it is not mediated by the needs of the human being which are projected forward by the ego. 

The Cartesian conception of faith is significantly different from the normal notion of faith that abounds in society.  The commonsensical notion is that which believes that faith and revelation are necessary for enlightenment.  But the twist that Descartes gives to faith and revelation is one that places complete emphasis on the rational faculty.  Traditional conceptions of faith meant ‘unquestioning’ adherence to rules laid down by texts that had been revealed to prophets who in turn brought that revelation to society.  In this notion any reliance on the rational faculty was considered to be a pursuit of heresy.  However, in Descartes there is an interesting bridging of the traditional gap between faith and reason.  Descartes makes rationality the basis for faith and believes that it is through the process of constant questioning that one gets to see the revealed knowledge of the Super Mind that is God.  In his system, God is to be realized through a process which is a rationalized religion, and one that is applicable to all people in the world.

This conception of his ensures that ultimately by relying upon the rational faculty people could bridge the gaps that are there in their thinking and in their perceptions of religion.  Descartes is therefore the precursor of Kant and Hegel and created a conception of God and religion that unite people in the world rather than divide humanity.  The following of this school of philosophy means would mean the rejection of cynical theses of the clash of civilizations variety, which is based in a spurious conception of religion and civilization.  Theses such as these have a pragmatic basis which makes it easy for people to believe in divisions whereas the higher morality that is attached to Cartesian thinking could be the trigger that pulls people out of their cocoons of divisions and puts them on one footing in the whole world.  This rational religion proposed by Descartes could actually be the way forward for a new world order where people live in a situation that is constantly derived out of deliberation and contribute to the good of all rather than assume that good is always of the few against the others.  This new world order could be capable of ridding humanity of its fissiparous and parochial tendencies and create a society that is based in a true rational order.

[1] Descartes, Rene, A Discourse on Method, London, England, Dent and Sons Ltd., 1986 p.123

[2] Ibid p. 51

[3] Sprigge, T.L.S., Theories of Existence, Middlesex, England, Penguin Books Ltd.,1986, p. 14

[4] Descartes, Rene, A Discourse on Method, London, England, Dent and Sons Ltd., 1986 p.123


[5] Ibid. p. 124

[6] Sprigge, T.L.S., Theories of Existence, Middlesex, England, Penguin Books Ltd.,1986, p. 14


[7] Descartes, Rene, A Discourse on Method, London, England, Dent and Sons Ltd., 1986 p.113

[8]Descartes, Rene, Philosophical Letters (Translated by Anthony Kenny), Oxford, England, Basil Blackwell, 1970, p. 117

[9] Ibid p. 107

[10] ibid

[11] Descartes, Rene, Principles of Philosophy, Dordrecht, Holland, Reidel Publishing Company, 1984, p.35