Rene Descartes Caused a Revolution in Philosophy


Article #385

by Bill Nugent

Every life tells a story. Today let’s look at the life of one of the most pivotal figures in the history of philosophy. That man is Rene Descartes (1596 -1650). Why do we want to look at philosophy? What does studying the life of a philosopher have to do with defending the Christian faith? I say it has everything to do with it.

Every person has a worldview. Every person has a thought system for decision making. Every person is a philosopher. You may not think of yourself as a philosopher. You may never call yourself that. But in many respects you’re a philosopher. Is your worldview a philosophy rooted in God and based on God’s revelation? Or is your philosophy rooted on self and based on imagination? 

Rene Descartes Revolutionizes Philosophy

Descartes was born in La Haye en Touraine, France in 1596. His mother died a year later. His wealthy father, Joachim, was a member of the Parliament of Rennes. He provided an excellent education for his young son and wanted him to be a lawyer. Rene Descartes was raised Roman Catholic. Many of his critics would later claim Descartes was a Deist. 

A Deist is someone who believes in God but rejects the Bible. The Bible is revelation given by God in plain statements; in plain language. Whether or not Descartes was an actual fully committed Deist or not is a matter of conjecture but actions speak louder than words.

Descartes’ lifestyle and writings clearly indicate that he rejected the Bible. He had a belief in God but rejected biblical revelation. In the early 1600s. every philosopher, every learned person, every lay person, even every plowboy believed in God. God was the starting point of every philosophical system.

The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle believed in God. The ancient Greeks called God the unmoved mover or the causeless cause. God is the one who brought all of existence into being. The ancient Greeks arrived at God logically, not by revelation. The ancient Greeks didn’t have a Moses figure giving the law by revelation.

The ancient Greeks reasoned, if anything exists now, something or someone always existed. There never was a time when there was nothing, absolutely nothing. They believed in the logical maxim “from nothing, nothing comes”. In Latin it’s “ex nihilo, nihilo fit.”

The Protestant Reformation Brings the Bible to All of Europe

I’ve often mentioned in my Defending the Faith articles that the Protestant Reformation had the revolutionary impact of making the Bible available in the languages of the people. It was printed and distributed throughout the entire continent of Europe. The Bible was no longer only available in Latin or ancient Greek and available only to a tiny percent of the people who were scholars or clergymen.

The Bible was read publicly in the British churches by order of King Henry VIII, beginning in 1538. Other nations of Europe made the Bible available to the people in similar fashion. 

The King James Bible of 1611 is called the Authorized Version. It was authorized to be read in the churches. The Bible was read constantly even during Protestant services so that the preacher was partially drowned out by the public reading of scripture while he gave his sermon. This profoundly altered the worldview and the philosophy of all people in Europe.

The Modernist Rejection of the Bible

However, not all the people of the learned classes accepted divine revelation in the Bible. Rene Descartes was one of the high class, scholarly men who rejected revelation. He began a pushback against biblical teaching and the biblical worldview. He started down a path of skepticism and secularism that gave us modern philosophy. 

Rene Descartes is famous for his maxim “I think, therefore I am.” In Latin it’s “Cogito, ergo sum.”

Descartes arrived at his famous maxim by a thought process of radical doubt. Prominent theologian R.C. Sproul has described it as a process of doubt in which Descartes doubted everything. He even doubted his own existence. Descartes wondered if he didn’t really exist but was just dreaming that he existed. He did this thought process as a philosophical exercise.

R.C. Sproul goes on to say that Descartes not only doubted his existence but he doubted that he was even thinking. He even doubted that he was doubting. But then Descartes had the brainstorm of an idea and said to himself that doubting is a form of thinking. If I am doubting I am thinking. To think requires a thinker and therefore if I think, I exist. (The Consequences of Ideas R.C. Sproul pp. 86-87)

To some of us this might not seem very profound and it seems to be a confusing exercise of going in circles. However, to a committed philosopher, “If I think, therefore I am” is really a rather novel breakthrough. Descartes called this the first principle of his philosophy.

I think you can see very clearly that rather than basing his philosophical system upon God and the Bible he was moving away from God and looking to self. 

The Essence of Modernism

Descartes began to build his philosophical system based on his own existence rather than God’s existence. This really is the essence of modernism. That’s where it began in seed form in the mind of Rene Descartes in the early 1600s.

Descartes wrote several books enlarging upon this and bringing in other disciplines, such as mathematics. Towards the end of his brief life, Descartes was one of the most famous men in Europe.

Descartes apparently rejected the biblical commands that sex must be within the context of marriage. Sexual immorality is something Bible rejectors have practiced all down through history. Descartes never married. He had a daughter by an unmarried servant girl.

Decorates founded the rationalist school of modern philosophy. This is a form of modernism which focuses on the laws of logic, deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning to discover truth. Other philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) would be heavily influenced by Descartes and enlarge upon his rationalism. Modern rationalism gave rise to the Age of Reason during the Enlightenment of the 1700s. 

The other major branch of modern philosophy is empiricism which was promoted by Locke, Berkeley and Hume. They claimed the search for truth was best pursued by experience, through the senses, rather than mental exercises in logic. 

Natural Law

One thing that came out of modernism was the concept of natural law. Natural law is the belief that God’s revelation is embedded in nature. In other words, though they rejected the Bible they believed God still spoke to mankind through nature.

For instance if you look at the way birds and mammals live you’ll soon notice that they have territory. A squirrel claims an oak tree as its own personal property and defends it against other squirrels. Here we see the concept of property rights in nature.

Modern philosophers don’t believe God gave the eighth commandment which says “Thou shalt not steal.” However, they nevertheless believe that “thou shalt not steal” is illustrated in nature by the behavior of animals and also by the way people have regarded owning land and owning personal property down through the centuries.

Modernists who appreciate natural law also rejected homosexuality because the natural order of reproduction requires a man and a woman, not two men or two women.

Therefore, many modernists believe in absolute truth. Modernists believe there are principles of absolute truth revealed in nature that apply to all people in all cultures at all times. Murder is wrong. Racism is wrong. Lying, cheating and stealing is wrong.  Modernists just come about it in a different way than a theologian would. Modernists still need to turn to Christ to receive forgiveness of sins and receive grace to live holy lives.

The 1700s saw the rise of the secular Enlightenment in which modernism came to full flower especially in France. The secular Enlightenment, led by Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau and others led to the French Revolution and the reign of terror led by Maximilian Robespierre.

At the same time, there was also the Christian Enlightenment led by Montesquieu, Burke and others that resulted in the American Revolution. The American and French revolutions were two very different revolutions! 

Modernism Ultimately Led to Postmodernism

Modernists and Christian theologians found some agreement on traditional values and social norms. However, in the centuries that followed, postmodernism began to rise. Postmodernism not only denies the divine revelation of the Bible but even rejects natural law and modern conceptions of absolute truth.

Postmodernists believe “different strokes were different folks.” Postmodernism promotes moral relativism and cultural  relativism. Every culture makes up its own absolutes; it’s own rules.

Who are we to judge if a society in some far, distant place murders it’s unwanted infants? Christian philosophers and modernist philosophers are both appalled at murder of infants. Postmodernists don’t want to be judgmental. They’d say “Let them kill their babies.” I think you can see where this is going. 

Postmodernism at first seems very liberating, open-minded and non-judgmental. However the social chaos unleashed by postmodernism soon requires a heavy hand of authority in order to bring social order. That heavy hand of postmodern authority is exercised in fascism and communism by people who have no concept of absolute morality given to us by God or even given to us by rational modernism.

Postmodern Totalitarian Government

We have seen the rise of fascism in which Adolf Hitler said “Why can’t we be as brutal as nature?” Animals in nature slaughter one another and eat one another. Why can’t we do the same? It was a perversion of natural law taken to follow the brutality of nature not just the revelation of morality sometimes seen in nature. It led to the Nazi Holocaust, the most brutal orgy of violence in all of world history.

The Black book of communism has documented that more than 70 million people were murdered by the communist regimes in the Soviet Union, communist China, Cambodia and in other places. That’s postmodernism in action. It all started with a rejection of biblical Revelation in the early 1600s by a certain segment of the learned people, led by Rene Descartes.

The Broad Way and the Narrow Way

Jesus said: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14 NASB).

So we see two paths that began to diverge in the early 1600s. One was a path of godless modernism led by Descartes. The other was the path of Christianity led by  Protestant theologians and missionaries who preached The Gospel according to the Bible.

In our present day, the social chaos and brutality of totalitarian governments based on postmodernism is beginning to come to full manifestation. People are waking up. People are seeing the evil fruit of secularism. They’re also seeing the good fruit of Christian concepts of human rights, dignity of man, morality and restrained government. 

The Outer and Inner Proofs of Christianity

The outer proof of Christianity is that Jesus came in fulfillment of over 300 Old Testament prophecies and He worked miracles of healing in front of eyewitnesses. The apostles who followed Him also worked miracles. Even down to our own day, miracles occur in answer to Christian prayer. 

There is also the inner proof of Christianity. Romans 8:16 says “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit, that we are children of God” (NASB). In other words the Holy Spirit who dwells within each believer speaks to the spirit of the believer saying he is a child of God destined for heaven. This inner witness is also mentioned in John 14:23, Galatians 4:6 and 1st John 3:24. This results in “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (I Peter 1:8).

Jesus came to die for the sins of the people. He took the penalty of our sins upon Himself and died and rose again. Since Jesus took the penalty upon Himself there is forgiveness of sins for all who turn to Him in repentance. I invite you to turn to Christ today to receive forgiveness of sins!

Steps to salvation:

Jesus said “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7).

  • 1) Believe that God created you and loves you and sent the Messiah (Messiah is Hebrew for Christ) to redeem you.
  • 2) Believe that Jesus Christ came in fulfillment of over 300 Bible prophecies to die for you, to take upon Himself the penalty of your sins (Isaiah 53:5-6, John 6:29, Romans 4:5, First Peter 3:18).
  • 3) Turn from sin and call on the name of Jesus to receive forgiveness of sins (Romans 10:13).
  • 4) Receive Jesus as Savior and experience the new birth (John 1:12, Acts 2:38).
  • 5) Follow Jesus Christ as Lord (John 14:21).

Prayer to receive salvation:

“Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).

To receive the salvation that Jesus purchased for us at the terrible cost of His suffering and death on our behalf I invite you to pray this simple prayer:

“Dear heavenly Father, I thank you for sending Jesus, the promised Messiah, to die for my sins. I admit that I am a sinner. I repent of my sins and I ask for your forgiveness on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I ask you to fill me with your Holy Spirit to empower me to serve you under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

If you prayed this prayer in the humble sincerity of your heart then you have received everlasting life, which includes power to live right in this life and entrance into heaven in the afterlife!

(C) 2016 William P. Nugent, permission granted to email or republish for Christian outreach.

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