Descartes’ Foundationalism: Presuppositions & Christianity

Descartes portraitUnlike the arguments for God that Aquinas bandied, which were a posteriori, relying upon inspection of the world, Anselm’s ontological argument is classed as an a priori argument. Studying Descartes one cannot help hear a clear resonance of Anselm’s ontological argument in Descartes’ perfect being. Descartes had arrived at the perfect being, by saying that it must exist; he tried to show that the perfect being gave the best explanation of our universe (McGrath, The Twighlight of Atheism, p32). But it is more how he got there, as well as the ramifications of that process, which I am interested in discussing. Descartes, though a confessed theist, has been rightly called a swing figure in the move towards naturalism. This is not obvious from the outset because Descartes was in fact a rationalist, and his philosophical Foundationalism relied solely upon thought, and not empirical examination of our world.

Firstly we will consider his process. His establishment of being by observing that he was thinking, even if that thinking was the act of doubting, was a brand new approach to epistemology. James Sire says it is here that we see the essence of the modern: the autonomy of human reason. Foundationalism meant liberation from all ancient authorities. It is important that we realize what was happening here; Descartes made the self primary in knowing. Truth was now available through human reason, nothing else was needed. So, even though Descartes next step was to invoke the perfect being as the reason that (a) our rationalism could be trusted and that (b) study of the world can proceed, it was too late; the repercussions of his rationalism, that was prior to the perfect being, would have results Descartes he never foresaw.

Secondly I will point out where Descartes’ approach took us, the ramifications of his philosophical system. It did not take long for the criticism that Descartes’ Foundationalism highlighted to conclude that this world does not really need a perfect being to explain anything, it is perfectly capable of running itself. The primacy of reason in explanation had replaced the primacy of God, Scripture or divine revelation. The next step was naturally to question whether the perfect being was needed at all. Surely, a system with human rationalism as primary did not need God at any point; a closed mechanical and material system removed Descartes’ second step, the perfect being, and shifted to trusting reason to explain reality. Another result was the accusation that this supposed perfect being cannot explain why our world is imperfect. With Descartes’ enthronement of reason and subsequent instalment of its prince, the perfect being, came difficult questions regarding pain and suffering and whether a perfect being sufficiently deals with them.

Finally, if we look at Descartes’ Foundationalism we see that there is in fact no such thing as ‘starting from nothing’; all systems are built on assumptions. Classic Foundationalism assumed that there are basis beliefs which guarantee their own truth. Descartes was that by thinking he knows that he exists. But why reach that conclusion? He assumed that thinking was proof of existence. It was from this basic assumption that he derived non-basic beliefs: first God and secondly that God’s existence means we can trust our senses and carry out inductive study of the world. But he constructed a system that assumed senses couldn’t be trusted in the first place, and reason could. The point is that all systems come with a preset of principles, or assumptions, which justify that system. Foundationalism, or rationalism, is no different.

Blake's Newton monotypeIn closing off I want to point out, drawing mostly from my last observation, that Christians need not fear philosophy. We have grounds to interact with and ask our own hard questions about other philosophical systems. Modernism, in whichever subcategory, firmly believes in the autonomy of human reason to carry out inductive and deductive study of our world. Most prominent atheists today, such as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, are pulling the wool over the world’s eyes when they point out that theism is based on the false presupposition that God exists. I say this because they will not, for the sake of maintaining the strength of their own argument, acknowledge that they operate within a system based on assumptions about reality. They are working from the assumption that God does not exist, that he did not create the world. So there is strong rationalism. But what reason can they provide for the amount of trust that they place in the human mind alone? And there is strong empiricism. But, again, what reason do we have for trusting in our senses alone?

Because all systems are built on assumptions and beliefs are derived from them, our task is to examine the truth of both basic and the contingent beliefs as they relate to each other and to our world. People are in pursuit of a system that is consistent with itself and our experience. I believe that Christianity holds its own. The accusation that Christianity argues from a priori is misleading if the accuser fails to admit that they have their own basic beliefs. Christians believe that God created our world; he ordered it and gave us minds to study what has been made. In that statement alone we have grounds for inductive and deductive reasoning, the study of order installed by a Creator.

Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover and the Argument for God’s Existence

Turtles all the way downThere is a famous anecdote, retold by Stephen Hawking, about a scientist who was accosted by an old lady after delivering a lecture on how the planets orbit the sun, as our sun orbits the centre of our galaxy. She told him his lecture was utter rubbish for the earth is, in actual fact, flat and supported by the back of a giant tortoise. He replied by asking what the tortoise might be standing on, to which the lady retorted: “very clever young man, but it’s tortoises all the way down!”

The significance of this story to a post on Aristotle is not that he was potentially one of the first men to argue for a spherical earth as opposed to a flat plate; it is that the anecdote rushed to my mind when we studied Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, or final cause, in Philosophy at college. Aristotle came to the conclusion that there must be some cause outside of our world, otherwise nothing would ever happen. Later, theologians such as Thomas Aquinas repacked Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover as the First Mover, and channelled his philosophy into an argument for the existence of God. Whether or not this is a valid argument for the existence for God is not really my interest. Richard Dawkins has shown that the argument relies on a regress to which God must be invoked to terminate, but this assumes that God himself is immune to the regress.

William BlakeMy interest in Aristotle is the sometimes difficult and gnawing question Christians are asked or ponder. What was before God? What made him? Aristotle’s answer: besides this Unmoved Mover there is and can be no cause, no teleological purpose and therefore nothing at all. But the question still begs: where do we locate the beginning? Aquinas thought that we must look beyond the infinite regress to the First Mover, while Dawkins shows that an infinite regress is intellectually plausible. Only, Aristotle was not thinking about a beginning in history, he was merely explaining change. So there is a warning here against imposing modern frameworks on ancient philosophy. Aristotle was not trying to find God; the result of his philosophy of causation was something that was later called ‘Aristotle’s god’. But apart from being like the God of Bible in matters of first, or primary, cause, Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover is merely explained change in the world; creation was not in Aristotle’s mind. Aristotle held that this Unmoved Mover knew nothing of this world, it had to be utterly transcendent otherwise it would be affected by our world’s cause. Instead of focusing on the beginning, wherever that might be, Aristotle sought the teleological purpose to which every object moved. Coming back to questions I sometimes find myself asking: Aristotle does not provide us with the answer, he never intended to.

Word became fleshI will wrap up this post with a contrast between the Unmoved Mover and the God of the Bible; a contrast between cause and revelation. Dawkins, of all people, helpfully reminds us that even if God is the terminator of the regress that does not mean we can ascribe properties that are normally considered godlike, such as omniscience, goodness, creativity in design, answering prayers, forgiving sins, and so on (p101, The God Delusion). He is right, and Aristotle would have agreed with a hearty “amen”. If this is the god that we believe in then we are limited to speak of it in negative terms, describing what it is not like. However, Christians believe in revelation. The LORD shows us what he is like and addresses humans personally. God loves, cares, cries and despairs. We are able to speak in positives when describing what our God is like, for God has spoken to us in human language. In addition to God speaking to us in our language, he met us as one of us: the Lord Jesus Christ.  What happened at the incarnation was an almost complete reversal of the trend in history to project human attributes onto the concept of ‘god’. When Christ takes on flesh we see all of God in a man, which explains why he was a man unlike any other in history. Going beyond our language, the Son took on our form and came to earth that we might know God, see the Father. God is not only personal; he is a person, in every sense of the word (and more).