Descartes and Design

In his arrival at what he called “the first principle of the Philosophy for which I was seeking,” Descartes famous “I think, therefore I am,” demonstrates the validity of the idea of design. That is, where we find design, we assume thought, and where there is thought, there is an existent being. Here is the excerpt from Descartes, Discourse on Method, Part IV, the first paragraph and part of the second:frans_hals_-_portret_van_rene_descartes

I do not know that I ought to tell you of the first meditations there made by me, for they are so metaphysical and so unusual that they may perhaps not be acceptable to everyone. And yet at the same time, in order that one may judge whether the foundations which I have laid are sufficiently secure, I find myself constrained in some measure to refer to them. For a long time I had remarked that it is sometimes requisite in common life to follow opinions which one knows to be most uncertain, exactly as though they were indisputable, as has been said above. But because in this case I wished to give myself entirely to the search after Truth, I thought that it was necessary for me to take an apparently opposite course, and to reject as absolutely false everything as to which I could imagine the least ground of doubt, in order to see if afterwards there remained anything in my belief that was entirely certain. Thus, because our senses sometimes deceive us, I wished to suppose that nothing is just as they cause us to imagine it to be; and because there are men who deceive themselves in their reasoning and fall into paralogisms,[1] even concerning the simplest matters of geometry, and judging that I was as subject to error as was any other, I rejected as false all the reasons formerly accepted by me as demonstrations. And since all the same thoughts and conceptions which we have while awake may also come to us in sleep, without any of them being at that time true, I resolved to assume that everything that ever entered into my mind was no more true than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately afterwards I noticed that whilst I thus wished to think all things false, it was absolutely essential that the ‘I’ who thought this should be somewhat, and remarking that this truth ‘I think, therefore I am’ was so certain and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions brought forward by the sceptics were incapable of shaking it, I came to the conclusion that I could receive it without scruple as the first principle of the Philosophy for which I was seeking.

And then, examining attentively that which I was, I saw that I could conceive that I had no body, and that there was no world nor place where I might be ; but yet that I could not for all that conceive that I was not. On the contrary, I saw from the very fact that I thought of doubting the truth of other things, it very evidently and certainly followed that I was;[2]


[1] a piece of illogical or fallacious reasoning, especially one that appears superficially logical or that the reasoner believes to be logical (

[2] Haldane and Ross (trans.), The Philosophical Works of Descartes, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 100-101.

Philosophical Theology: Why it Matters

What it is . . .

Let me first give a simple working definition of philosophical theology. If philosophy is an attempt at a rational interpretation of reality, and if theology is the study of God, then philosophical theology is an attempt to arrive at rational conclusions concerning the question of God. It is the study of how philosophical theologians have come to conclusions about the existence of God and how they have answered all of the impending questions attached to various responses to that ontological question.

Why it matters . . .

So, what is the inherent value in a study of philosophical theology? A significant outlay of time and dedication is required in order to properly address its various issues and subjects. Is it worth it? I have determined that it is for the following reasons:

1) A great shift away from God happened as a result of what some have referred to as “the modern ‘turn to the subject’.”

It was, however, the modern “turn to the subject” that proved decisive. Kant’s call for “autonomy,” for the individual’s “release from a self-incurred tutelage” to such heteronomous [external] authorities as the Bible and the Church, embodied the spirit of the Enlightenment. Increasingly, individual reason and conscience became the arbiters of religious truth. Although the Romantics rejected the appeal to autonomous “reason alone,” they nevertheless shifted the source of spiritual authority to the “religious self-consciousness,” that is, to religious experience. The entire nineteenth century can be viewed as an effort to resolve the increasingly problematic issue of authority (emphasis mine).[1]

This “shift away from God” did not begin with Kant; he merely codified and canonized it. The shift began in the decades prior to the Reformation. Even the Reformation itself can be seen in the light of self-focus and rebellion against authority. As the discoveries and assertions of Kepler, Copernicus, and Galileo brought about a mechanistic view of the universe, God began to drift into the background, being replaced by self in the foreground.

2) Western culture is still in the throes of Enlightenment, mechanistic thinking and is particularly focused on the self. Understanding the roots of our present frame of mind gives insight into the issues of Christ and culture thus making this type of study potentially relevant to the Church.

Rene Descartes in his Rule for the Direction of the Mind, Rule III, wrote:

In the subjects we propose to investigate, our inquiries should be directed, not to what others have thought, nor to what we ourselves conjecture, but to what we can clearly and perspicuously behold and with certainty deduce; for knowledge is not won in any other way.

He goes on to endorse the study of what “the ancients” have taught while warning us not to “become infected with their errors.” He advocates for intuition and induction as the only two ways to “arrive at the knowledge of things.” And yet, he allows (Paschal would say grudgingly)[2] for the belief of matters “divinely revealed” though he expects those truth to be discernible through the two ways he prescribes.



[1] Livingston, Fiorenza, Coakley, and Evans, Jr., Modern Christian Thought: Twentieth Century, Second Edition, Vol. 2, (Fortress Press, 2006), 2.

[2] See Paschal, Pensees, Section II, no. 77.