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Between Athens and Jerusalem: Descartes for Adventists

Descartes’ thought is often taken to be the starting point of modern philosophy. In this post, we’ll revisit some of the themes of his ideas. I’ll suggest that the same problems that plague Descartes’ thought plague theological approaches that either knowingly or unknowingly model themselves after his outlook.
The starting point of our inquiry is Part II of Descartes’ Discourse on Method. In it, we get the metaphor of knowledge being like a building. Descartes notes, “So it is that one sees that buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect are usually more beautiful and better ordered than those that several architects have tried to put into shape, making use of old wall which were built for other purposes.”
Similarly, Descartes notes that cities, along with the laws that govern them, are more orderly when designed or promulgated by an individual. Likewise, Descartes’ reasons, the knowledge that one acquires through others (reading books) “being composed and enlarged little by little by the opinions of many different people, does not approach the truth as closely as the simple reasoning of a man of good sense.”
This emphasis on the individual is a major distinguishing feature of modern thinking. Before Descartes, generally-speaking, the starting point of rational inquiry was thought be tradition and authority. This did not mean that one blindly parroted what others have said, but the idea was that that knowledge was something transmitted through tradition and gained through critical dialogue with those that had come before. References to other thinkers are noticeably absent from Descartes’ writings, whereas, for example, in Aquinas, references to Aristotle and others abound.
A brief examination of Descartes’ historical and cultural context, as with most thinkers, helps us appreciate the epistemological problem he was trying to address, preventing us for dismissing his thought perfunctorily as the idle speculation of someone who had a bit too much time on his hands. One of the relevant biographical facts of Descartes’ life is that he was a soldier in the Thirty Years War, a war legitimated by the conflicting religious claims of Protestantism and Catholicism. The problem of conflicting religious claims inevitably leads to questions about how one adjudicates between them.
Descartes observes that, sometimes, when buildings are in danger of falling down and their foundations insecure, they are entirely demolished and rebuilt. Likewise, Descartes claims that the same is needed for all he had previously considered to be knowledge—“I could do no better than undertake once and for all to be rid of them in order to replace them either by better ones, or even by the same, once I had adjusted them by the plumb-line of reason.” This is better than building upon old structure that most likely includes false beliefs.
After razing the old edifice of probable beliefs, Descartes proposes to carefully rebuild it using the proper method; this will result in a body of certain knowledge. The model of knowledge Descartes has in mind is one inspired by Euclidian geometry; starting with self-evident axioms, one extends their knowledge deductively to many other theorems.
The first step of the Cartesian method is to never accept something as true unless it cannot be doubted. One must be absolutely certain of its truth. In his Mediations, after doubting all the beliefs he had acquired through his senses, Descartes concludes there are some beliefs he cannot doubt. Descartes is certain of his own existence (cogito er sum) and from this, of God’s existence, the general trustworthiness of his senses (which must be used properly), and the existence of the world. These beliefs are linked together like a chain, forming the axioms of Descartes’ system, or to use the building metaphor, the foundation of his house of indubitable comprehension.
Needless to say, Descartes’ foundationalist understanding of knowledge, his emphasis on the individual, and his articulation of a method for attaining knowledge has been tremendously influential. The empiricist that followed Descartes disagreed with his rationalism; they included the data of their senses as the being foundational. But the idea that ideally knowledge is best understood as a building, carefully constructed by the individual using the right method is unquestioned.
Descartes’ thought is taken to express and influence the ideals of the Enlightenment. Human individuals are to use their God-given reason properly to free themselves from false beliefs and attain certain knowledge. This ideal, however, unlike Descartes, will lead some to atheism or agnosticism. Finding Descartes’ proof, and other proofs offered in their stead for God’s existence unconvincing, some that come after Descartes will follow Descartes’ dictum of never accepting something as true, unless given apodictic proof.
Beyond this, Descartes’ understanding of knowledge has been influential in theology, as well. As Descartes associated knowledge with certainty, many people understand faith in a similar fashion, i.e. a system of beliefs one should be certain about. This certainty can and is attained by the individual using the correct method. The starting point, or foundation, is understood to be the Bible. One way to understand the liberal/conservative debate, in the classical Protestant sense, is a disagreement over what is really foundational for theology, revelation or experience/reason.[i]
Furthermore, debates within circles that take the Bible to be foundational can be understood as debates about which doctrine, book, precept, or practice is really the most foundational to the teachings of the Bible. Romans? Genesis? Revelation? Creation? Atonement? The Second Advent (or the First)? The Golden Rule? Communion? Sabbath? The fear for some people is that once one undermines either the veracity or centrality of whatever they identify to be foundational, the whole system topples like a stack of Jenga blocks. Hence, the heated debates about the truth of this or that belief or relevance and importance of a particular practice.
Beyond his foundationalism, one can trace Descartes’ influence in understandings of faith that place emphasis on the individual (in opposition to the errors of tradition), although some might argue it was Luther influencing Descartes (and nominalism shaping the thought of both thinkers)), and are concerned with method—proof-texting, historico-critical, historico-grammatical, or otherwise.
Descartes is undeniable influential. However, was he right? Critics of modernism argue that Descartes’ was naïve and misguided on the important issues he explores.
Some have argued that a building is an inadequate metaphor for knowledge (and building razing and constructing, for thinking), offering their own metaphors in its place. “We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials,” writes Otto Neurath.[ii] Influenced by this metaphor, Quine offers his own of knowledge being a “web of belief.” On this model, knowledge is a dynamic, interconnected set of beliefs, instead of ones stacked or built on top of each other.
Others have pointed out Descartes’ blindness to his own dependence on tradition. MacIntyre notes that Descartes did not notice “how much of what he took to be spontaneous reflections of his own mind was in fact a repetition of sentences and phrases from his school textbooks. Even the cogito is to be found in Saint Augustine.”[iii] Tradition, whether we acknowledge or not, inevitability shape and form not only what we think and talk about it but the way we think and talk about it. As Descartes’ was influenced in fundamental ways by his tradition, many of us, at least in the West, have been influenced by Descartes. Denying this is like denying one has parents.
Lastly, there is Descartes’ emphasis on method. Very briefly, concerns can be raised that seeking to apply method to something leads to its objectification, and aside from being ethically problematic, in some arenas, doing so actually blinds us from seeing what is really there. Such a stance is especially inappropriate in the life of faith, where ultimately God, or God’s Word, is understood to be scrutinizing us, not vice-versa![iv] Furthermore, certain truths transcend method.[v]
Obviously, if these criticisms and concerns are valid (I think they are.), there are serious implications for the way we think about theology and the life of faith. I’ll leave the discussion of what these implications are for the discussion below. But very quickly, against an approach inspired by Descartes, I’d like to suggest that it’d be more fruitful to think of theology as being a collaborative and communal endeavor, one that is in appreciative, but critical dialogical with both others and the tradition(s) that formed us and precede us, and one that is open to truths that transcend our questions, methods, and answers derived from those methods.
[i] Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism.
[ii] Otto Neurath. 1959. “Protocol Sentences”, 201.
[iii] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science”, 144.
[iv] Hebrews 4:12-13.
[v] Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church.

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