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Meditations on First Philosophy

by Rene Descartes

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Several men have been described as the “father” of the Enlightenment, and of course the debate will continue—it’s never easy to pinpoint the beginning of an epoch. If I had to choose, I would single out Francis Bacon (my reasons will become obvious once you have read his utopian vision, New Atlantis). But there are many historians who point to Rene Descartes as the catalyst for the Enlightenment.

Descartes is famous for his philosophical experiment that led him to conclude, “I think; therefore, I am.” Though the phrase itself does not sound earth-shattering, Descartes’s methodology was: he sought to find out what he could know for certain if he rejected all external authority and distrusted his own five senses. While medieval thinkers took it for granted that man could not know anything for certain absent authority, Descartes believed that the individual could come to certain knowledge about many things—all by himself.

Christian students should see the problem right away. The Bible makes it clear that Original Sin corrupts both man’s will and his intellect—which means that we can’t depend upon ourselves to arrive at any certain knowledge. In this sense, Descartes does the Church a service—he reminds us how dependent we are upon God’s revelation in the Bible. He asks the right question, but he gets the wrong answer.

To see this, you’ll need to closely follow Descartes’s argument in his Meditations. As you do, you’ll come to recognize just how crucial this work was. From this point forward, you can hardly discuss a great book without referencing Descartes and his experiment. He clearly impacts Blaise Pascal’s thought in his Pensees, and the echoes from that debate are still heard in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and Francis Schaeffer’s Escape from Reason.

In short, there’s a reason Descartes is often described as the founder of modern philosophy. And even if you don’t view yourself as a fan of modern philosophy, you need to understand where Descartes went wrong, so that you can see how deeply Christians depend upon the Word of God.

by Jeff Baldwin