Descartes vs. Pascal
For centuries, human beings have been debating over the validity of the use of reason. This is a very, very difficult subject to
discuss, as one is forced to study something which is at that moment being used in their study. Two classic thinkers who contrasted on their view of reason were Descartes and Pascal. Though both saw reason as the primary source of knowledge, they disagreed over the competence of human reason. Descartes, the skeptic, said that we could use reason to find certain truth if we used it correctly, while Pascal said that we can't know certain truth, but reason is the best source of knowledge that we have.
Reason is the tool by which we know everything that we know. But most people make the mistake of basing their reasoning on assumptions which are not known with 100% certainty. As I've said, «I am greatly astonished when I consider [the great feebleness of mind] and its proneness to fall [insensibly] into error» (K&B, p. 409). But it is possible to avoid falling into error if we use the valuable tool of reason correctly. In order to do this and find certainty, we must find something that we cannot doubt. This is impossible, as we can logically doubt anything. A certain truth must be something that is not logically possible to be false.
We must doubt, as that is the only way to find certain truth. It is the only way to wipe the slate clean of all of the uncertain assumptions which are believed and taught in the universities today. Just as mathematics will lead to uncertain assumptions if it is not built on certain truths, so will all use of reason lead to uncertain assumptions if it is not built on certain truths. There is a way to use doubt, though, to find certainty. If 100% certainty equals 0% doubt and we are certain that we can doubt everything, then we can use doubt as our certainty. We cannot doubt that we are doubting.
With our one certainty, we can now methodically use reason to find more certainties. For example, we can use the certainty «I am doubting» to find out that «I exist.» If I am doubting, than there must be an «I» who is doubting, which means that I must be. Like I've often said, «I think, therefore I am.» We can continue building on our certainties using rational reasoning. Now that we know that we exist, we can logically deduce that our ideas also exist. If our ideas exist, then something has caused them to exist. This is a very useful step, because I can take my idea that a perfect being (God) exists. Since this idea is greater than myself, there must be a perfect being who has caused this idea in me. Continuing on, if there is a perfect God, than I can logically deduce that a perfect being would not give me a deceptive faculty. If we do not have deceptive faculties, than we can know for certain that we can trust our senses with certainty.
The certainties that I have arrived at by starting with the one certainty can be known with complete certainty because they were arrived at using rational, logical reasoning. It is true that we can doubt that God exists, yet this skepticism is superseded by rationality. We used a rational argument which is based upon certainties; therefore, we know with 100% certainty that God exists.
Rene Descartes must realize that our world is not like mathematics. As I have stated, «Let man consider what he is in comparison with all existence; let him regard himself as lost in this remote corner. . . What is a man in the infinite?» (Pascal, #72). How can we expect to gain a grip on certain knowledge when we cannot even grasp where we are in relation to all of reality. Descartes was right in saying that reason is the basis of all of our knowledge, but he must realize that we have severe limitations in our use of reason.
We have been deceived, as I've previously written, «Man is only a subject full of error. . . Nothing shows him the truth. Everything deceives him. These two sources of truth, reason and the senses, besides both wanting in sincerity, deceive each other in turn» (Pascal #83). But, as I've also written, «Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed» (Pascal #347). Therefore, our use of reason is retarded, but we do have reason and can use this reason to find truth. We can doubt these «truths» as Descartes thoroughly explained, but we have no choice but to find truth. As I've argued about the existence of God, «Shall he doubt whether he [God] exists? We cannot go so far as that; and I lay it down as a fact that there never has been a real complete skeptic. Nature sustains our feeble reason, and prevents it raving to this extent» (Pascal #434).
We can trust our senses, as Descartes concluded, with the realization that we cannot rely solely on empirical knowledge. We also have intuitive ideas from which we learn truth. As I've said, «The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things» (Pascal, #277). I think Descartes would disagree with this based on the ability to doubt the feelings of the heart. I hold true to it based on the fact that we cannot know certain spiritual truths by the use of our reason. We must learn of these things by the use of intuitive knowledge, realizing that this intuitive knowledge does not contradict reason. Reason, in fact, supports the realizations that we receive from intuitive knowledge.
I agree with Pascal on his view of the capabilities of reason. We are feeble, misled creatures in the midst of a reality which we cannot know. Descartes was correct in his attempt to use mathematical logic to get rid of uncertain assumptions and find truth, but he needs to realize that most truth is beyond our reach. We, as thinking humans, do have the remarkable ability to study ourselves. Yet we have limitations in this study and cannot expect to be able to get a complete grasp of ourselves. Pascal was right on when he said that there are no complete skeptics. There are many things which we must accept, using reason, that we cannot prove with certainty.
I don't lean quite as far in Pascal's direction on his view of intuitionism. I believe that there is intuitive knowledge which we know with our heart. But this knowledge is only believed correctly when it is rationally processed. As with almost everything, we must find a balance between the use of reason and intuition. We err on the side of believing unreasonably if we use too much intuition, we become too skeptical if we ignore intuitive knowledge.
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