Descartes’ Triumph

Descartes’ Triumph

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In 1992 when the Western world was trying to celebrate Columbus’s discovery with great fanfare, there were many (legitimate) protests from the victims of that discovery and their sympathizers.  The moral transgression (whether originally intended or not) in the adventurous accomplishments of Columbus et al. cannot be overlooked from our current framework, but few can call into question the many positive consequences that ensued (for a vast number of people) from that phase in human history.

A somewhat similar circumstance has arisen around the birth of classical science that occurred some four hundred years ago.  Rene Descartes, born in 1697, formulated the view of science as an effort by the observing mind (res cogitans) to comprehend an observed objective reality (res extensa); and like Columbus, he too has been receiving quite a beating at the hands of many thinkers of the post-modern age as the tercentennial of his birth approached.

For more than three centuries, the positive sciences, erected on the Galilean-Cartesian-Newtonian framework, had been bagging success after success in their tireless efforts to explore, explain, and exploit countless aspects of the physical world.  By the close of the 19th century, to many it seemed as if all our problems, material and even moral, would eventually be solved if only the whole human race followed the emancipating path of science.  Something had to happen to mollify this unadulterated optimism before the practitioners of science became too cocky and contemptuous of other modes of human creativity.  And something did.

Already by the beginning of our century, cracks began to develop in this potential omniscience, symbolized by the name of Descartes.  But Descartes’ trouble actually started in the 1920s with Heisenberg’s innocuous uncertainty principle which put into evidence the inevitable interaction between a measuring device and a measured entity in the microcosm.  Its epistemological interpretation as a reflection of the limitation of human knowledge, its revelation of the role of the mind in the description of physical reality, and its recognition of the inseparable interconnection between subject and object, all conspired to do much damage to the dichotomy of Descartes.  The principle of uncertainty bluntly stated said that there was a limit to the precision with which one could simultaneously specify measurable attributes of microcosmic entities.  “Big deal!” one may be tempted to exclaim sarcastically.  But big deal it really was, since this was taken as a repentant confession on the part of scientists that they were not all that powerful.  More seriously, one began to question the possibility of objective knowledge and external reality.

Philosophers and pious people pounced upon classical science’s claims and methods to understand an external objective world, with a glee almost resembling that of a populace when an arrogant billionaire files for bankruptcy.  By its own admission, science had drawn its self-limiting line.  Essentially, it all amounts to the following:

Delta x times delta p More than h must always be.

So there’s no objectivity, nor an external Reality.

Reflective thinkers and perceptive poets, awakened mystics and simple people, and thoughtful scientists too, whose hearts had been touched by the majesty of the starry heavens and the joy of love, have recognized for ages that that there is more to human experience than gross matter, ordered laws, and cerebral interactions with these, and that the Ultimate will for ever be a mystery.  However, to regard these as valid perspectives because physics says so seems to add greater weight to minds which are itching to debunk modern science and re-instate ancient ones.

Naively forgetting or cleverly re-interpreting the superstitions, magic-mongering, and abject fears that characterized (and still do) societies untouched by scientific awakening, some also began to belittle the Enlightenment, that reason-riddled child of the scientific revolution, which had dared to consider possibilities of ethical behavior without expectation of Heaven or fear of Hell, and committed the sacrilege of initiating an examination of saints and sacred books in historical terms.

Since Heisenberg proved that science can achieve only incomplete descriptions of the world, and Goedel revealed the limitations of logic even in mathematics, it has been argued in erudite tomes and popular presentations that the time has come to reject Descartes and his intellectual offsprings.  So, they have been writing eloquently against the scientific method and poetically on the connections between quantum physics and meditative mysticism.

Then again, the environmental mess created by reckless technology and greedy industry began to create aversion even for the so-called fruits of science, especially in those countries of the world which have those fruits in excess.  After all, instead of simply enhancing our creature comforts and diminishing our muscular effort, technology has succumbed to raw greed and threatens our very existence as a viable species on the planet.

Also, aside from the epistemological implications of quantum mechanics which cast doubt on the Cartesian subject-object demarcation, there is the instinctive longing for the utterances of distant ancestors in different lands and climes.  Ancient visions have a magical continuity and consoling power that not all the equations of Einstein and all the symmetries of the standard model can even approximate.  Transient hadrons and weakly interacting leptons are no match for the hymns grandly chanted in hallowed places of worship, when it comes to soothing the heart or uplifting the spirit.  All this has helped fuel the movement whose goal is as much to show that Descartes was dead wrong as to establish that ancient sacred texts are revelatory of deeper truths beyond the grasp of crude and logic-based science.

So, hundreds of books and articles have come to be written to proclaim that science cannot know everything, as if there is some other enterprise from which one can know everything.  From this, it was only one more step to deny that science says anything right at all, and yet another to revel in the glorification of the irrational and the absurd. So it has been suggested, it is time to bid farewell to Descartes, and some have even held him responsible for the inner fragmentation of the spirit. He and his ilk, they declare, have dragged humanity to its present precarious predicament.

It must be allowed that much of this anti-Descartes and anti-Enlightenment noise is insightful, interesting and intellectually stimulating, certainly so as long as we have electric power, thermostats, long distance telephones, vaccines and vitamin pills (to list only a few of the countless convenient outgrowths of Classical Cartesian science).  In scholarly anti-Descartes expositions, it is not always recalled that three hundred years of Galilean-Cartesian-Newtonian science have given the world a far deeper understanding of perceived reality, and put into evidence the existence of more entities and principles otherwise unreachable, than was accomplished during ten thousand years of recorded history; much less that useful and very valuable knowledge and information, contributing greatly to human thought and experience, are still being accumulated all over the world in such fields as geology and observational astronomy, polymer chemistry, molecular biology and much more, by adopting the old Cartesian prejudice of a subject-object dichotomy.

So, even if the conundrums of quantum epistemology encourage us to ponder mystical interconnectedness cosmic wholeness and transcendent reality, it may perhaps be somewhat premature, not to say ungrateful, to bid good-bye to Descartes and to classical scientific methodology.  One may write books proclaiming Descartes’ Error, but it was a magnificent error, nevertheless: perhaps the most fertile, consequential, and revelatory error in all of human history.

Scholars who disparage Descartes are like spacemen who look down upon earthlings because the new magnificent view is so much more thrilling than what appears from down below, but they forget they could never have reached their soaring heights and perspectives if the folks below hadn’t done the needful.  We should therefore be thankful to Descartes et al. for launching humanity on the eye-opening and mind-freeing path of modern science from which still more wondrous things are yet to emerge!  So, I’m inclined to say, Hooray Descartes! on the 300th anniversary of his birth.