Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Descartes' Meditations: Fifth Meditations

Fifth Meditation Of the essence of material things and, again, of God, that He exists

Now, before I work out whether anything
really exists outside of myself, I need to work out which ideas are clear in my mind and which are confused. I definitely have a clear idea of length, breadth, depth and time; and lots of mathematical concepts are obviously true: even if there weren't any real triangles in the world, the idea of a triangle is so clear in my mind that I can work out all sorts of things about how a triangle-that-may-or-may-not-exist would work, how its angles would add up, how a2+b2 would always equal c2, and all of this is so obvious that I can't just have made it up. And it can't just be an idea that I've got from seeing triangles in the real world: I can't picture a shape with a thousands sides in my mind, but I can still work out its mathematical properties. And if I can do all that, doesn't that mean that triangles must really exist? And if triangles really exist because I have such a clear idea of them in my head, then God must exist because I have an idea of God in my head that's at least as clear as my idea of a triangle. Look, I totally just proved the existence of God again. I am on FIRE.

Not only is the idea of God the most certain thought in my mind, but everything else I could think about depends on the idea I have of God, so if I can't know God I can't know anything else. Let me explain why. As long as I understand something clearly and distinctly I am sure it is true: in the moment where I really understand Pythagoras' theorem, I am absolutely certain that triangles exist. But then I go off and have my lunch, and then I see a cow in the street, and then before you know it I've totally lost my sense of the absolute certainty of Pythagoras'. If I can only be sure that things exist when I clearly and distinctly understand them, I'd be changing my mind all the time because there are only so many things I can think of at any one time, and as soon as I got distracted by a second thing, I'd totally stop believing that the first thing was true. But once I've grasped that God exists, I know that God isn't a deceiver, and so I can trust my past judgements even if I've lost my grasp on that moment where I really understood why the area of a circle is πr2. God acts as an anchor for everything else that I know and believe to be true. So, being sure of God means I can be sure of all sorts of things as long as I can think about them using pure maths. Now we're cooking with gas.

Photo credit: dullhunk

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Descartes' Meditations: Fourth Meditation

We are now past the half way mark. Are you feeling enlightened yet?

Fourth Meditation Of the true and the false

Over the past few days, I've gotten pretty good at detaching my mind from my senses, and I've observed that there are very few things that I can be sure of. But I've become sure of this: that I exist as a doubting, incomplete, imperfect being, who has a clear idea of a complete and perfect being who must be God and who must exist. Now if God is good, that makes it possible to know other things in the universe: a good God wouldn't trick me, because fraud involves imperfection and the desire to deceive involves malice or feebleness. And my ability to make judgements must also be basically good: why would God create me with faulty thinking equipment? But I know for a fact that I do make errors of judgement: how can that be? Because, basically, I'm not God, and insofar as I'm not God I'm not perfect and so capable of making mistakes. My ability to distinguish truth and falsehood isn't infinite: I can't know everything. But I also feel like there are some things that I should know that I don't; and why couldn't have God made me so that I couldn't screw up?

There are two answers to this: first, given how complicated the world is and how small I am, it's not surprising that some things are too complicated for me to get my head round. Second, we shouldn't ask whether individual things in creation are perfect but whether creation as a whole is perfect: some things that look rubbish are obviously perfect when we think about them in the context of creation as a whole.

There are two reasons why I make mistakes: the capacity of my mind, and my ability to choose. It's not an error to find some things too difficult to understand: I'm finite, and I can deal with that. But my free will is the most perfect quality I possess: I can't imagine a will more perfectly free, and so my free will must resemble God's will pretty closely. God can apply his will to more things because he's more powerful than me, but there's nothing that fundamentally limits my ability to choose. Now, freedom doesn't mean that I don't care what choices I make: the more I prefer one thing over another, the more freely I choose it. So if I could always tell what the best choice was I'd still be perfectly free to choose. So where do my errors come from?

When I screw up it's because my ability to choose is bigger than my ability to understand. When I try to make choices about things I don't understand, I'm not able to work out what the best choice is, so sometimes I choose evil thinking that it's good: maybe I decide to go to war in Iraq because I think that they have weapons of mass destruction but because I'm wrong about that the Iraq war turns out to be a BAD IDEA. When I don't understand things, I should just not make decisions about them, but sometimes I make a decision anyway and as a result I screw up. Now we're making progress: I've worked out why I make mistakes or believe things that aren't true, and I know how to avoid mistakes: stop messing with things I don't understand.

Photo credit: futureatlas.com

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Descartes' Meditations: Third Meditation

More Descartes! Seriously guys, this is the longest I've ever sustained a blog series. Are you having fun? Appreciating the chance to actually spend some time with one thinker, or are you bored and wanting me to move on already? Feedback welcome. F'real. Anyhoo, here's the third meditation neatly summarised for your philosophical pleasure:

Third Meditation Of God, that He exists.

So I've doubted everything except the fact that I exist. Now I'm going to try and lay aside everything except that one thing I'm certain of. I'll close my eyes, block my ears, and try to forget everything I've seen or heard or felt, and get to know this I that I'm so sure of. I am a thing that thinks. Can I be sure of anything else? There are lots of things that seem obvious and certain, but at the end of the day, I can never prove that they're real; I can never prove that I'm not just being messed with by an evil demon or a bad God.

So lets think about this idea of a bad God. I don't have any reason to believe that there's a God yet, let along a bad God. But I'll try to figure it out. I'll start by categorising the different sorts of thoughts that I think. Some of my thoughts are ideas, images of things: I have the idea of a goat, a cake, a tree, a library. But other thoughts are actions of my mind which add something to those ideas: I want a goat, I'm afraid of the cake, I approve of the tree and I deny the library. These thoughts are volitions, affections and judgements. Ideas in themselves can't be true or false: when I think about a goat or a dragon-goat I really am thinking about them. It's only judgements that are the problem, when I think that the ideas I have bear some sort of relation to real things outside of my mind.

Now, the different ideas I have come from different places. Some I was born with, some came from experiences I've had, some I totally invented (like the goat-dragon: crazy, no?). Now, what is it that makes me think that some of my ideas correspond to things in the real world? First, some things just seem obviously true. But how can I be sure? Other things that I experience I obviously can't control myself, and that makes me think that they're real: fire burns me when I put my hand in it whether I want a burnt hand or not. But I can't be sure that that's not just the evil demon up to his tricks again. And even if the things I experience are real that doesn't mean my ideas correspond to what things are like: science shows that even though the sun doesn't look all that big, it's actually gi-freaking-normous.

But what about the idea I have of a good God who is eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, the creator of all things? Well, the cause of something must be at least as real as the thing it causes, right? So not only is it impossible for nothing to come from something, but it's not possible for something more perfect to come from something less perfect. That's true of ideas as well as things, and so the idea I have of God must have been caused by something at least as perfect as the idea and the idea is of something completely perfect in every way, so where could it have come from if not from a being that really is completely perfect in every way? Therefore, God exists, as demonstrated by the fact that the idea of God is the clearest, most distinct, most objectively real idea I have.

Besides, if God didn't exist, where did I come from? From myself? But then if I'd made myself, surely I'd have been smart enough to make myself so that I was sure of myself, was perfect, and had everything I wanted. From my parents or some other being less-perfect than God? But that just shifts the problem back a step: where did my parents come from? No, I must have been made by a perfect God, who placed the idea of God in me like the trademark a master craftsman stamps on his work. My nature could not be what it is; I could not have the idea of a perfect God which I do, if God did not exist. And if God is perfect, that implies that God is also good, and not some evil demon who has set out to convince me that the world is different to what it actually is. That's a relief.

Friday, 19 November 2010

An attempt to enter more fully into the spirit of the blogosphere

My husband is fond of saying that you should try everything once, bar incest and morris dancing; in that spirit, I thought I'd have my first ever go at one of those blog posts where you point people to other blog posts. So, here are some theology-related posts I've been enjoying recently:

Experimental Theology has a nice post on why 1 Peter 3 is maybe not the best text to use if you want to argue that women should submit to your husbands, as well as a discussion of James Alison's On Being Liked, which suggests that liking the world is a harder and higher call than loving it.

Religion Bulletin has a meditation on the theology of Google autosuggest and a competition to find the worst religious book cover.

And lastly, Stalin's Moustache has a fun post on the perils of taking the Old Testament literally.

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Descartes' Meditations: Second Meditation

Are you feeling ready for Meditation number 2? Remember, Descartes recognises that you may be too stupid or vulgar to keep up with him, so if it's all blowing your mind a bit much you can just admit that you're not good enough, and drop out. No? Fair enough. Here goes.

Second Meditation Of the nature of the human mind; and that it is more easily known than the body.

How trippy was yesterday's meditation? Everything I was sure of is falling apart. But there must be something that's certain. Here it is: whatever the evil demon does to trick me, this one thing is certain: I exist, there is an I, a person who may or may not be being deceived by an evil demon. I think, therefore I must exist, right?

But what am I? A thing that thinks, which doubts, understands, conceives, wills, imagines, feels. But can that really be more certain than the physical things I see and feel in front of me? Take this piece of wax, right in front of me. I can still smell honey on it; it's in a particular shape and is a particular colour. But if I put it near the fire, everything changes: its taste, smell, colour, shape are all different. It goes from solid to liquid, it changes size, it gets to hold to touch. Is it still the same thing? Everyone would say yes: but what makes it the same? Only an idea in my mind, and we've already talked about how easily I believe things that aren't be true. Isn't it obvious, now, that the fact that I think is more certain than anything I see or experience in the world? I can't be sure it's the same piece of wax; but I can be sure that it is me who sees it.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Descartes' Meditations: First Meditation

First Meditation Of the things which may be brought within the sphere of the doubtful

Years ago, when I was about 22, I started to realise how many things that I'd believed all of my life just weren't true. I decided then that I should work hard to get rid of all my false assumptions and start again so that I didn't believe anything I wasn't absolutely certain to be true. But I thought I was too young to start then, so it's only now that I'm 32 that I'm really getting down to business [Note: if you are 20, 30 seems old. For those of us who are not 20 any more, it does not seem all that old any more]. I've arranged my life so I don't have to worry about anything, and I can just sit by the fire all day thinking really hard. I don't need to take apart each of my beliefs one by one: if I destroy the foundations, everything I've built on them will collapse too.

Now, everything I've believed up till this point I've learned through my senses, through things I've seen or heard or felt. But can I trust my senses? Surely I can: I know for a fact that this is me, sitting by the fire in my dressing gown. Or do I? Some mad people think that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they're pumpkins, or that they're made of glass. Am I mad? Well, I do dream, and let me tell you now that my dreams are ker-azy. But how can I be sure that I'm not dreaming all of the time? But wait, even if I can't tell the difference between awake and asleep, there are still some things I can be sure of: whether I'm asleep or awake, 2+3=5, right? But what if the world wasn't created by a good God but by an evil demon who went to a lot of effort to fool me into believing in a world that's completely made up [yes kids, just like in the Matrix]? It seems pretty implausible, but there's no way to prove that that's not what's going on. I shall have to think about this some more.

Photo credit: G Travels

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Descartes' Meditations: Introductions

Regular readers of my blog may have noticed that I sometimes struggle to complete blog post serieses. Honestly, I just get bored or run out of steam or get distracted by something shiny, or...

BUT! I have a magical new solution to my series dilemma. This time, I have finished it before I started. That's right. I have pre-blogged a whole series, so we'll spend the next few weeks going through Descartes' magnum opus, the Meditations or, to give them their full name, the Meditations on the First Philosophy in Which the Existence of God and the Distinction between Mind and Body are Demonstrated. And that's just the title. We already met Descartes (link below in case you missed that post), so hopefully you feel you know him a little already. But helpfully, he also wrote a couple of letters of introduction to the Meditations, so we'll start there and then crack on with the first of the six Meditations next time.

To the most wise and illustrious the Dean and Doctors of the Sacred Faculty of Theology in Paris

When you understand what my little book is about, you'll be so convinced that it's brilliant that I'm sure you'll, y'know, tell all your friends about how great it is and make them all read it and agree that I'm a genius. Let me explain what it's all about.

There are several good reasons to talk about God and the soul from a philosophical rather than a theological perspective. First, we need to persuade the heathens to convert to Christianity, and you can hardly appeal to the authority of the Bible when you're talking to them, can you? Second, most people would do bad things if they thought they could get away with it: the only reason they don't is because they're scared of going to hell, so we need to persuade them that Christianity is true so everything doesn't go to crap. Also, you (oh, and the Bible) say that the truth about God is so obvious that atheists only have themselves to blame for their ignorance of God and so I thought it was worth trying to prove that, y'know, you and the Bible are right. Oh, and Pope Leo X has been encouraging Christian philosophers to prove that the soul really does exist, so I'm only doing what he suggested. And finally, most people who don't believe in God or don't believe that the body and soul are distinct say that no one's ever proved it, and although they're obviously wrong, I thought someone should prove it so convincingly that no one would ever not believe in God or the soul again. Oh, one last thing: people keep asking me to write all this stuff down because they've heard of all my snazzy new methods for finding stuff about.

So, part of my book is some arguments for the existence of God. They're not new, but I don't think it'd be boastful to say that no one has ever explained them as well as me, like, ever. They're still a bit complicated, but then even people who are too stupid to understand geometrical proofs still believe in geometry, so hey, worth a shot, right?

So, that's what my books about. And I thought that, you know, seeing as how everyone really respects you, I thought that if I sent it to you, you could make any changes you thought would make it clearer and then tell everyone to read it?

Thanks a bunch!


Preface to the Reader

Dear Reader,

Gee, thanks for reading my book. A couple of quick points: I decided to write it in Latin rather than French, because I thought that Latin would put off all the stupid people who wouldn't be able to understand it anyway. Also, some people have criticised my work, but they're all wrong and I'm right. But I didn't expect vulgar people to appreciate my work anyway. By the way, this book's not for the lighthearted: you have to be prepared to really meditate with me and let go of all your prejudices. Are you sure you're committed enough?

Coming up next time: The First Meditation
In case you missed it: Meet Descartes

Photo credit: wallyg

Thursday, 4 November 2010

A relic-related puzzle

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will probably have seen already, but there was a nice interview in Wednesday's Guardian with Zygmunt Bauman, who I blogged about last week. He's still alive, kicking, and apparently being very influential on Ed Miliband.

But on to more important things. I've been reading a lot of Aquinas recently, and remembering why I love him so much. A case in point is a question in part three of the Summa Theologica, where he discusses the nature of Christ's post-resurrection body and his ascension to heaven. He raises a perplexing issue: if Christ's whole body ascended into heaven, what about all the bits of his blood kept as relics by churches? Does that mean the body of Christ which ascended was incomplete, and that he left little bits of himself scattered all over Christendom? No no, says Aquinas, that won't do: Christ took his whole body with him into heaven, and all the blood that had spilled out of him while he was on the cross went with him. The relics are really Christ's blood, though, only their bits of blood didn't flow from his side while he was on the cross but came flowing out of images of Christ when people hit them. So that's alright, then.

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk