I recently came across this interview, dated 2001/1649.
Interviewer: Bonjour, Monsieur Descartes. Can I call you René?
Descartes: Allô, allô. Mais of course!
Interviewer: I have come back from the twenty first century to ask you a few questions. People there are very interested in your ideas, but you have been getting some bad press lately. Are you happy to take part?
Descartes: I think so.
Interviewer: I gather that you lived at an interesting time, when ideas were in ferment and the old certainties were being undermined?
Descartes: Well, you can say that again! Aristotle’s ideas had ruled the roost for over a thousand years. Suddenly, there were all these new ideas around, rediscovered from other ancient Greeks. There were people trying to hang on to the old certainties, and others pushing their pet new ideas. Chaos!
Interviewer: What led you into becoming such an influential philosopher and scientist?
Descartes: As a young army officer, I had a vision, then a sequence of dreams,whose meaning became quite clear to me. This led me to devote my life to philosophy and the future unity of the sciences.
Interviewer: First, can we clarify your role in the development of science, and your main influences. What about Copernicus?
Descartes: Well… some people did use copper bracelets for medicinal purposes…
Interviewer: I meant the astronomer Copernicus!
Descartes: Oh… Well, the old Aristotelian science wasn’t working, wasn’t getting anywhere. When Copernicus came along and said ‘the earth went round the sun’, it was like a breath of fresh air.
Interviewer: And Galileo and Giordano Bruno?
Descartes: Galileo said ‘if you can’t measure it, it ain’t worth bothering with’, and invented loads of instruments for measuring, along with his telescope. Brilliant! He also explained inertia – why a rolling ball keeps on rolling.
Poor old Bruno, quite a heavyweight. Picked up this idea that everything was atoms from the Greeks. Neat! Unfortunately he was a bit careless with what he said in church circles. Always spoiling for a fight! Too radical. Threat to the old dogma. They bumped him off. What a pantomime!
I really just put all these ideas together, though I couldn’t get a handle on why things fell to the ground, or why the earth went round the sun, not in a straight line.
Interviewer: Isaac Newton later sorted that out with his theory of gravity.
All these predecessors were attacked by the church, and even the inquisition. I guess you also had to be careful?
Descartes: Yeah, in the end they put my books on the ‘banned’ list, but at least it wasn’t as hard for me as those other guys.
Interviewer: As a philosopher, you were seeking a basis for certain knowledge in these changing times?
Descartes: I certainly was. Intelligent people no longer trusted what the church or royals said. And there was a new scepticism in philosophy, again coming from the Greeks.
Interviewer: What was the basis for this certain knowledge?
Descartes: It seemed to me that only mathematics and critical rational thinking gave certainty. The senses themselves are unreliable – you only have to look at a straight stick dipped into water – it looks bent! The only thing we could be sure of was our own consciousness and thinking. So I coined this strap line cogito ergo sum, which seemed to catch on. ‘I think therefore I am.’
Thinking was separate from the physical world, which seemed pretty mechanistic to me. So we could take an objective look at this world and derive truth by reason. That was one up on the church establishment with their ‘revealed truth’!
Interviewer: This was the famous Cartesian dualism?
Descartes: Yes, we could be totally rational about the objective physical world- res extensia in the lingo of my time. This is distinct from the subjective world of mind and soul – res cogitans – that can only be experienced.
Interviewer: So, the dreams that originally inspired you came out of the res cogitans?
Descartes: Yep. They weren’t rational, were they?
Interviewer: What did you have to say about animals?
Descartes: Animals are just machines. They don’t have souls, so are not capable of feeling.
Interviewer: Religion had been very important to people. Where did God fit in your scheme of things?
Descartes: Obviously, God created the world. He was outside it, the fount of all truth, the great architect. I proved it! Although I have to admit that my proof made certain ‘obvious’ assumptions. Of course, I was a devout catholic. I wanted the Jesuits to take on and propagate my ideas, but they didn’t.
Interviewer: What did you see as the benefits to humanity from adopting these ideas, which became known as the Cartesian revolution?
Descartes: How flattering!
Breaking the stranglehold of the old theology on European thought was the big one – freedom to make progress after a thousand years of stasis. I also wanted to get rid of the superstitious organic and magical view of nature that was popular after what you later called the Renaissance. Science and rationality were the way forward.
Interviewer: The development of history since your time shows great improvement in material well-being, with untold wealth, for a fair percentage of the earth’s population. However, there has been a decline in religion and a loss of contact with God, soul and spirit. And the earth itself shows signs of stress. Innumerable species of plant and animal, that you could only dream of, are dying out. Could your ideas have contributed to this?
Descartes: Gosh, something seems to have gone wrong with your res cogitans. Sorry mate, I didn’t spend much time on that one. I was too busy sorting out rationality.
Anyway, I didn’t say anything about abandoning God and soul. And what you lot are doing isn’t really rational anyway, is it?
Interviewer: You have a point.
Thank you for that, M Descartes. Would you like to come back with me for a glimpse of the twenty first century?
Descartes: I think not. [disappears]
Featured image of Descartes After Frans Hals – by André Hatala via Wikimedia Commons