By Jon Cogburn
This semester, I'm re-reading Descartes' Meditations for the first time in I think over twenty years, and it's a vastly weirder book than I remember.
The letter of dedication of the work to the University of Paris' Faculty of Sacred Theology is a masterpiece of Eddie Haskel style passive-aggression. Descartes' response to having to lick the boots of these unjustly esteemed doctors is to ramp up the praise so high that a fair minded reader can't take him seriously. This is obviously a dangerous game for Descartes, one he wasn't altogether successful playing, as his book was ultimately put on the Index. In any case, the ironic passive-aggression is is so effective because it works to undermine his equally over the top condemnation of atheists in the same dedication. One gets the feeling that Descartes is telling the reader not to mind too much what follows. This is just stuff he had to write to please the jerks in charge. The real action is the first three sections of the Discourse and in the Principles.
Unfortunately, philosophers don't tend to be the best at recognizing subtle cues concerning how to parse interlocutor's speech acts. The results of this in the case of Descartes has unfortunately been a complete misreading of his book, which he clearly intended as a reductio ad absurdum of the ideas contained therein.
Your authority will cause the atheists, who more often than not are dilettantes rather than men of intelligence and learning, to put aside their spirit of contrariness, and perhaps even to defend the arguments which they will come to know are regarded as demonstrations by all who are discerning, lest they appear not to understand them. And finally, everyone else will readily give credence to so many indications of support, and there will no longer be anyone in the world who would dare call into doubt either the existence of God or the real distinction between the soul and the body.
This is one of many hilarious implausibilities in the Dedication.
Descartes was worried that his readers might not get the joke, but couldn't be too clear about it. Things went pretty far south for Galileo, and who could forget the wretched spectacle of Giordano Bruno screaming past the spike driven through his mouth as he was burned alive? Certainly not Descartes, who'd seen enough of that kind of thing fighting in the Thirty Years War. So he has to drop a hint near the end of the Preface:
But now, after having, to some degree, conducted an initial review of hte judgments of men, here I begin once more to treat the same questions about God and the human mind, together with the starting points of the whole of first philosophy, but not in a way that causes me to have any expectation of widespread approval or a large readership.
This directly contradicts what he's just said to the theology faculty! Could there be any clearer signal that we are to ignore every other ridiculous thing he says in the dedication.
Then, when we turn to Meditation 1, it becomes even clearer that Descartes is writing a work of irony. Consider:
Nonetheless, if it were repugnant to his [God's] goodness to have created me such that I be deceived all the time, it would also seem foreign to that same goodness to permit me to be deceived even occasionally. But we cannot make this last assertion.
Why couldn't he? Cf. the bit about poor Bruno. We can't make this assertion if we don't want very evil people to torture us to death. And then, in the very next paragraph:
But by because being deceived and being mistaken appear to be a certain imperfection, the less powerful they take the author of my origin to be, the more probable it will be that I am so imperfect that I am always deceived. I have nothing to say in response to these arguments.
Why does he have nothing to say in response to them? Might it be that he agreed with the arguments?
There's actually a lot of this kind of thing in the Meditations. When read with the proper sensitivity, it's obvious that Descartes intentionally goes on to offer awful arguments against skepticism, for the existence of God, and for the separation of mind and body. The Meditations is a con job on the religious orthodoxy of the day in the hope that Descartes' Anti-Aristotelian metaphysical physics can scrape by. The thought was something like this: Don't worry esteemed professors of theology and your goons with the pincers and flames. God's still up there doing his thing and we all survive death. Now please, please, please let me get back to developing the corpuscular theory of light in peace.