Are you sure about that?

On ‘An Eye for an I’ this week, we tell you about Rene Descartes, who believed that the only way to reach a true conclusion was to doubt everything

Updated - June 09, 2014 02:03 pm IST

Published - June 09, 2014 12:30 pm IST

Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes

Did you believe everything your read last week about kinescopes and how they played a big role in broadcasting Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation? It’s okay if you did because it’s all true, but it’s great if you didn’t, too. If you’re the type who questions practically everything, let me assure you that you are doing something that Rene Descartes did on his way to codifying scientific method.

Descartes was born in France in 1596. He was raised well and taught subjects that was standards for Jesuits in those days — Greek, Latin, mathematics and classical philosophy. Even though he studied, he came out dissatisfied as he had been told that he would find knowledge and certainty in his schooling.

When he quit standard education at the age of 20, he was filled with ever increasing doubts. He decided to do a bit of travelling, learn about different cultures, meet people, speak to them about their specialities and get to know their customs.

It was when he was in Germany that he had his turning point. On a harsh winter day, Descartes was stuck indoors for the entire day in seclusion. Alone with his thoughts, Descartes called into doubt all his former beliefs and opinions and decided to dedicate his life in building it all up on a solid foundation.

It was this decision that led him to publish his works in a philosophical, autobiographical treatise in 1637 by the name Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences , or simply Discourse on the Method .

Descartes describes four rules in the Discourse, which he established in order to always come to true conclusions.

1. Doubt everything, or, as Descartes wrote, “... never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such…”.

2. Divide the problem into the smallest parts necessary to solve it.

3. Move step by step, starting from the simplest and moving on to more complex issues.

4. Be meticulous, or in his words, “make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.”

His first rule led him to doubt everything that formed his perception of reality till then, which in turn led him to the one fundamental truth on which to base everything else. Descartes wrote “...whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat;...” enabling him to accept that he existed. He summed this up in Latin as cogito ergo sum , which means “I think, therefore I am”.

Descartes published three essays — on optics, meteorology and geometry — along with the Discourse that were to serve as examples of how his method could be applied. His essay titled Geometry, which shows his preference to mathematics, introduced the Cartesian coordinate system that is still in use and which also led to the development of calculus.

Even though the Discourse only provided the outlines for a larger argument, it remains one of the most popular and influential works in the history of science. In fact, it is considered to be one of the building blocks for the Scientific Revolution, making Descartes one of the finest architects of modern science.

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