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
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.