Origins of today’s “God is Dead” Morality: Descartes and the Father of Lies

René-Descartes by Frans Hals

René-Descartes by Frans Hals

In North America, October 31 is celebrated as an opportunity for children and adults to dress up in strange, often elaborate and occasionally gruesome costumes. What was once the Feast of All Hallow’s Eve has been transformed and secularized into what is now called Halloween. In the United States, over two billion dollars are spent on candy that will be distributed to children who go door to door on Halloween night. That amount of money is second only to the amount spent on Christmas. Unfortunately, Halloween is also a day that is celebrated by various pagan and occult groups who often gather to perform particular rituals and sometimes, sacrifices.

This year my family and I spent Halloween at a conference in Toronto entitled Angels and Demons; the guest speakers included an expert in demonology and the occult and an exorcist from the Diocese of San Jose. While their catechesis, insights and stories enlightened and fascinated the sold out crowd, there was a constant theme that kept coming back to me—that the Evil One is the Father of Lies. Lies are exactly what our modern society is based on.

If I were to describe the intellectual and philosophical foundations of Western Civilization in the twenty-first century, it would be as a house of cards built on a thin slip of paper floating on water. The house of cards represents all the social, economic, political and educational structures of modern society. The paper represents the philosophical ideas that modernity has accepted as truth and are used to justify and perpetuate those structures. Water represents reality. While the surface of the water may be flat and calm, time will soon cause the paper to dissolve away and weaken. Without a foundation the house of cards comes tumbling down. We can actually see this happening around us today.

In the Book of Genesis, the serpent tempts our first parents with the promise that they will be like God should they partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This symbolism represents the intellectual desire to determine for ourselves what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false, what is real and what is not. This is a desire to partake in something that only God has authority over. To act in such a way is to overstep our natural limitations as creatures.

Martin Luther had previously instigated a revolt from the Catholic Church and Machiavelli counseled leaders to forsake unattainable moral ideals for obtainable political objectives by whatever means necessary. However, the most insidious idea led a revolt against humanity itself and that idea is centered on the notion that the only thing I can know is that I think and therefore I exist.

Rene Descartes: Cogito Ergo Sum

Rene Descartes was a seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher. He wrote his Discourse on Method in 1637, and earned himself the title of “Father of Modern Philosophy.” His Discourse sought to establish a single, solitary, irrefutable philosophy that would do away with all other conflicting philosophies. He desired a philosophy that would have the exactitude and precision of mathematics. What he created was the exact opposite.

Descartes started with the beginning premise that everything was false—that all was to be doubted—so that in the midst of that absolute skepticism one fundamental, irrefutable truth would stand out and become the cornerstone of this new philosophy. What Descartes found himself left with was the idea that all he could be absolutely sure of was that he was thinking, and as a consequence, that he existed. This gave rise to the famous “cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am” maxim. Descartes wrote that “noticing that this truth—I think, therefore I am—was so firm and so certain that the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were unable to shake it, I judge that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.” (Descartes, Discourse on Method, 17)

In his book 10 Books that Screwed up the World, Dr. Benjamin Wiker writes:

“Sound convincing, doesn’t it? If it does, congratulations! You’ve just walked into a trap that has ensnared the Western mind for four centuries. It is a strap from which there is no escape because Descartes has presented it as itself an escape—but it is an escape from a trap that doesn’t exist.

“Skepticism is a problem in our minds. It is a deadly trap only if we retreat into our minds to escape it. That is, if we let our doubt turn into doubt about reality. The place to run to escape skepticism is not our own minds, where the spider of solipsism waits to devour us, but straight into a tree to remind ourselves that, whatever our fancy to the contrary, the real world outside our minds has been factually solid all along.”[i]

In the Garden of Eden, the Serpent first introduced skepticism by getting Eve to doubt the truth of what God had commanded. By introducing doubt into the mind of our First Parents, it was only logical that they would seek some type of certainty and what could be more certain than their own ideas, their own opinions—after all, they originated with them, they were the most real and trustworthy!

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was in the center of the garden. It was therefore the most beautiful of all the trees. Adam and Eve could touch the tree, “grasp” it, so to speak, but not eat of its fruit. Our intellect is created to grasp truth, not so that we can change it but so that we can contemplate it, admire it for what it is, conform ourselves to it and thus direct our actions accordingly so as to find happiness. This is why we were ordered not to “eat the fruit” of this tree. This “eating” would be an attempt to alter the truth, redefine reality, and, well, you know the rest of the story. Sin and death entered the world and here we are with our intellects clouded and malice in our wills.

Dr. Wiker continues his analysis on Descartes by writing: “On a deeper level, the snappy dictum ‘I think, therefore I am’ contains one of the most pernicious confusions possible, so destructive that we might very well call it the first sin.”[ii] If we stop to think about it for a second, with just a sliver of common sense, we would recognize that in order to think I would first have to exist, and I keep existing even when I’m not thinking.

The dictum should actually be “I exist, therefore I can think” and so: “…reality exists before our thinking, so that our thinking depends on reality, and this in two ways. First, our thinking depends on the reality of our own existence. If we don’t exist, we can’t think. Second, our thinking correctly depends on our properly conforming our minds to what really exists.”[iii]

Ideas Have Consequences

I could write volumes on all the consequences that flow from this flawed philosophy of Descartes. As this series progresses we will see some of those consequences in more detail. For now I would like to list those that Dr. Wiker mentions.

The first major consequence arising from Descartes’ philosophy is subjectivism, which Wiker describes as “a thinly disguised form of egotism.”[iv] Much as Luther and Machiavelli did, Descartes declares that there is no wisdom in the past, or in any external authority, and that whatever seems to be true to us now is what is actually true. We can see this when we run into people who have strongly held but unexamined opinions and no amount of factual evidence or logical argumentation will sway them from that opinion. Their opinion is their opinion and because it is THEIR opinion then it must be true. Period. Full Stop. (Personally, I find people like this frightening, especially if they have money and influence! There is just no reasoning with them!)

The second evil is “the confusion of true wisdom about God with whatever one happens to think about God. This, of course, is the ultimate egoism, since in defining God by our own thoughts, we define everything else accordingly.”[v] This is a good description of Cafeteria Catholics, those who pick and choose which teachings of the Church they will accept and who determine what the nature of God is; usually the all loving—read: all permissive—version that is popular today.

The third evil, which I mentioned before, is that we define reality by what we think it to be. Prior to Descartes, there was a maxim that read: God measures Nature and Man; Nature is Measured by God and Measures Man; Man is Measured by God and Nature. The word “measure” here means, “defines.” Now the maxim, which was originally posited by Protagoras in Ancient Greece and was resurrected as a consequence of Descartes, is MAN IS THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS. We can see this so clearly in the area of gender identity where a man will say “I identify as a woman” meaning “I think I am a woman, therefore I am a woman,” regardless of what his DNA actually is.

Dr. Wiker finishes with a fourth evil which flows from the second and third. “Since God was caused by our thinking Him, then He must only be a thought and not a reality, a mere subjective projection of our own ego.” Since there is no God to stand in our way we are free to manipulate our bodies, our human nature, according to our own plan. Wiker concludes “Rather than taking ourselves to be made in the image of God, with all the moral limitations that entails, we believe that we are self-creators with no limit but our own ever-increasing power.” [vi]

The serpent, the “father of lies,” convinced our First Parents that they should be skeptical of the commands and motives of God and to look to themselves for wisdom and truth. The History of Salvation culminated with the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity in Jesus of Nazareth who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” For the next fifteen hundred years, the Catholic Church embedded that reality into Western Civilization until the intellectual, theological and political revolutions instigated by Luther, Machiavelli and Descartes. That revolution reintroduced the ancient seduction so that, once again, humanity was hearing that pernicious lie “you will not die, you shall be like God.”

Final Thought

Halloween is a time where both young and old can recreate themselves to be something other than what they are. Some dress up in strange, often elaborate and occasionally gruesome costume. Pope St. John Paul II said that we live in a “culture of death.” Would it be an exaggeration to say that it now seems like every day is Halloween?

Footnotes

[i] Wiker, Benjamin, Ph.D.; “10 Books That Screwed Up The World”; Regnery Publishing, Inc.; 2008; pg22-23

[ii] Ibid, p. 23

[iii] Ibid, p.23

[iv] Ibid, p.28

[v] Ibid, p.28-29

[vi] Ibid, p.29

Print this entry

About the Author

As of February, 2015, Dennis Buonafede has been teaching High School Religion and Philosophy in Ontario, Canada for the past 14 years. Dennis grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia before moving to Ontario where he completed his B.A. in Philosophy at St. Peter’s Seminary at the University of Western Ontario, his M.Div. as a lay student at St. Augustine’s Seminary at the University of Toronto and his Bachelor of Education degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Prior to transferring to St. Augustine's, he studied at Holy Apostles Seminary in Connecticut from 1990-1992.

Dennis has been married to Teresa for 20 years and they have two children aged 16 and 18. Dennis is an active member of his parish and has been a member of the Knights of Columbus since 1995. He was a Charter Member of Council 11708 and PGK of Council 8851. He co-developed a leadership program for the KofC sponsored Ontario Catholic Youth Leadership Camp and was the camp director for 3 years. Dennis is currently a Civilian Instructor with Air Cadet 242 Squadron where his son is a Warrant Officer 2nd Class. Dennis is a voracious reader, likes to ride motorcycles and enjoys fishing. He follows hockey (Toronto Maple Leafs) and football (Chicago Bears).

Author Archive Page