Rene Descartes (1596 – 1660) is widely acknowledged as the first modern philosopher. He was one of the leading figures in the European Enlightenment. Descartes’ philosphy depended heavily on both reasoning and science, and one of his most widely known concepts is his model of reality.
For Descartes, reality was made up of the dual realms of the physical and the mental. The physical aspect of reality being matter, and Descates included the human body under this heading. Because the properties of the body can be measured and are more or less constant, they can be explored and examined by scientists. Descartes saw the body as, in effect, a biological machine.
As one might expect, the mental realm concerns the mind, rather than the body. So Descartes’ reality was the dual and separate existence of mind and matter. The concept was not a new one – centuries before, Plato espoused a similar concept of duality. Descartes saw mental properties as incapable of measurement – in order to be measured, something has to have a physical presence. The properties of the mental realm are thoughts and ideas, which are not physical and therefore cannot be measured.
Thus the mental realm of reality is outside the bounds of science, dealing with philosophy and religion. This rather clever separation was important in the 17th century, when people were still being burned at the stake for heresy – it allowed scientists the freedom to work outside the jurisdiction of the Church.
In Descartes’ vision of reality, the mind and the processes of the mind – thoughts, ideas and beliefs – existed separately and independently from the brain, which formed part of the body. While the body – including the brain – was commanded by the laws of science, the mind had no such constrictions. From this rather naive premise came Descartes’ most famous pronouncement, ‘Cogito, ergo sum.’ ‘I think, therefore I am.’
Both the mental and physical realms of reality are created by God, and cannot exist without Him. The world is a perfect, mechanical machine, just as the body is a biological machine, and God’s ‘piece de resistance’ – the crowning achievement of His creation.
However, the Descartes vision of reality has impacted through the centuries, influencing both science and culture. Until recently, medicine has been a rather mechanical discipline, with little importance being placed on the doctor-patient relationship, while the world of the mind was placed outside science.
Today the concept of Cartesian duality is somewhat discredited, and a more holistic approach is preferred for everything from education to environmental issues. In his time, however, and for many years after his death, Descartes’ vision of reality was highly respected in both scientific and theological circles.