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Rene Descartes

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Rene Descartes was born on March 31, 1596 in La Haye Touraine, France. Descartes was considered a "jack of all trades", making major contributions to the areas of anatomy, cognitive science, optics, mathematics and philosophy. He has been referred to as the father of modern rationalism, soldier of fortune, scholar, pilgrim, traveler, and a firm adherent of the Roman Catholic faith.

He was educated at the Jesuit college of La Fleche in Anjou. He entered the college at the age of eight years, just a few months after the opening of the college in January, 1604. At La Fleche, Descartes formed the habit of spending the morning in bed. His health was poor and he was allowed to remain in bed until 11 o'clock in the morning. This habit and custom he maintained until the year of his death. While in bed he engaged in systematic meditation. During his meditations, he was struck by the sharp contrast between the certainty of mathematics and the controversial nature of philosophy. He came to believe that the sciences could be made to yield results as certain as those of mathematics. While at La Fleche he studied classics, logic and traditional Aristotelian philosophy. He also learned mathematics from the books of Clavius.

Descartes left La Fleche in 1612. He spent the next 16 years traveling, contemplating, and corresponding. School had made Descartes understand how little he knew. The only subject which was satisfactory in his eyes was mathematics. This idea became the foundation for his way of thinking, and was to form the basis for all his works. He spent some time in Paris; apparently keeping very much to himself. He studied at the University of Poitiers. He received a law degree from Poitiers in 1616. Immediately following his studies he set out for the Netherlands and the Dutch army. In 1618 he started studying mathematics and mechanics under the Dutch scientist Isaac Beeckman. It was at this point that he began to seek a unified science of nature. After two years in Holland he joined the Bavarian army. It was during this time with the army that Descartes wandered through Europe seeing parts of Hungary, Germany, Italy, and France. During his travels to Paris he made contact with Mersenne. This was an important contact because it kept him in touch with the scientific world for many years. In late 1628 he gave a speech in Paris in which he argued that the sciences must be founded on certainty. He was encouraged by Cardinal Pierre de Berulle to develop his own philosophical system.

By 1628 Descartes tired of all the traveling and decided to settle down. He gave much thought to choosing a country that suited his nature and decided on Holland. He felt Holland would offer him seclusion and more intellectual freedom. Soon after he settled in Holland Descartes began work on his first major treatise on physics, Le Monde, ou Traite de la Lumiere. This work was near completion when he received the news that Galileo was condemned to house arrest. He decided not to risk publication.

His work, the world's first extended essay on physiological psychology, was published after his death. While in Holland Descartes had a number of scientific friends, they encouraged him to publish his ideas. Although he was adamant about not publishing Le Monde, he did write and publish in 1637 a treatise on science under the title Discours de la mehod pour bien conduire sa raison et chercher la verite dans les sciences.

For Descartes, certainty in philosophy and mathematics was gained through understanding. It may be known that two apples and two apples makes four apples, but Descartes believed that mathematics transcended the senses. He believed that mathematics contributed to an overall mathematical order to the universe that was independent of senses. Senses were at the center of his Meditations on First Philosophy. This piece of work was said to be the principal philosophical work of his life. It was first published in 1641, the year before Galileo died and Isaac Newton was born. This piece was designed for the philosopher and for the theologian. In this work Descartes explored the concepts of self, God and mind. He began by shaking our belief in the senses. He questioned if our senses are all an illusion created by a malicious deceiver, what can we trust? His answer is that we can doubt, and that the deceiver cannot cause us to doubt our own existence. Thus, the famous "cogito ergo sum", "I think, therefore I am". This was the beginning of Cartesian Dualism. This theory supported the idea that there were two fundamental types of entities, mind and matter. The physical bodies existed extended in space, with depth, width and breadth. However, minds were entirely immaterial and no spatial. They were the "I" he referred to. Since the mind is the only entity that can think, Descartes used the cogito argument to prove the existence of a mind.

One of his two main aims in philosophy was to provide a conceptual foundation for the new mechanical physics based on the Copernican system. This system tried to explain everything in the created world external to human beings solely by shapes, sizes, and motions of bodies. Because he lived at a time when traditional ideas were being questioned, he also sought to devise a method for reaching the truth. This concern and his method of systematic doubt had an enormous impact on the subsequent development of philosophy.

Descartes adopted the strategy of withholding his belief from anything that was not entirely certain and indubitable. To test which of his previous beliefs could meet these conditions, he would subject them to a series of skeptical hypotheses. For example, he asked himself whether he could be certain he was not dreaming. His most powerful skeptical hypothesis was that there was an evil genius trying to deceive him. This challenged not only the belief that the physical world exists, but also the belief in simple statements of fact. This would then seem to call into question the validity of reason itself. But not even an evil genius could deceive someone into believing falsely that he existed. Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" is thus beyond skeptical doubt.

Descartes was known as the



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