The Rationalist program has long been abandoned, but it is good to cover old ground. The reason is it is important to understand how the history of human thoughts has led us to the relativism of today. While you may not know the names of the rationalist, empiricist, or Kant. They have more impact on your life than what you may imagine.
The term rationalism is commonly used to refer to non-Christian autonomous thinking, but that isn’t how I will use it. In common philosophical conversation, it is contrasted with another movement known as the Empiricism. The Empiricists thought the origin of knowledge came only from sense perception and sense experience. The Rationalists, on the other hand, were very skeptical of knowledge from sensation. They noticed that they could doubt knowledge that comes from their senses. We are often tricked by our senses. This goes back into the debate of how do we distinguish between appearances and reality. The Rationalist wishes to get down to a belief that they cannot doubt. Once they find what truth that is they will infer other truths from it by deduction. The Rationalist wants to have comprehensive certain knowledge from their reason alone. They would start with an infallible belief and use deduction to gather further knowledge. This is where Classical Foundationalism arose. Classical foundationalism maintains that two kinds of beliefs exist, basic beliefs and non-basic beliefs.The difference between a basic and non-basic belief is that a basic belief is a non-inferential that must be evident to the senses, incorrigible, or self-evident.
The Rationalist in the spirit of Plato leans toward thinking very abstractly about the nature of reality and prefers that over trying to understand the world from mere appearences gained from the senses. They favor deductive proofs over that of empirical investigation. Plato started with the forms(an eternal unchanging realm of ideals) that he knew only by intuition and the later Rationalist started with their intuitions. The Rationalist draw a close relationship to the way that they did mathematics to that of their philosophy. In geometry, you would start with certain axioms(Euclid) and from that derive other true statements. This is the same for the Rationalist. They start with their axiom(their own intuitions) and then deduce other truths from them. The Rationalist starts with innate ideas and the Empiricist thinks we are “Tabula Rasa” or blank slates.
1. René Descartes:
For René Descartes, Reason is the source of knowledge, not experience. All our ideas are innate. God fashioned us with these ideas. We discover basic truths by intuition: by grasping basic connections between the ideas we have. We deduce or demonstrate more complex truths.
René Descartes is the first Rationalist and is often considered the “Father of Modern Philosophy”. He was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. He was born as a son to a lawyer and magistrate in the High Court of Justice. His philosophy represents a break from Thomist thought from the past. Descartes considered himself to be a Roman Catholic. He lived in an age of skepticism and when authorities are challenged. Descartes was looking for a response to skepticism. He was looking for some bit of knowledge he could be certain of its truth. Descartes attempts to use methodological skepticism to find a belief that he cannot doubt. Descartes believes that he has refuted the skeptic by finding a truth that can’t be doubted. That truth is in the famous phrase “Cogito ergo sum”. This is also known as “I think, therefore I am“.
Descartes argued that the senses could not provide any knowledge that he desired(that of certainty). The senses were to him unreliable and couldn’t provide us knowledge. He presented this in his famous “Wax Argument”:
“Descartes dismissed the senses and perception as unreliable, and to demonstrate this he used the so-called Wax Argument. This revolves around the idea that a wax object, which has certain properties of size, colour, smell, temperature, etc, appears to change almost all of these properties when it is melted, to the extent that it appears to our senses to be a completely different thing. However, we know that it is in fact still the same piece of wax.”14
In Descartes mind, he by now demonstrating he existed can now further deduce other truths. That leads to him deducing that God exists and because of that only two substances must exist. There are either infinite substances or finite substances. The only substance that is infinite is God and the finite substance included a further distinction between things that aren’t extended(mental) and things with extension(material). The conclusion that followed for Descartes was convinced that since the wax could change its properties such as its shape, colors, taste, and sounds the wax really has none of those qualities. They are rather just properties of the mind and the wax is a composition of solid stuff moving at some velocity(material substance is just extension in motion).
This all feeds into another distinctive of Descartes. That being his Cartesian Dualism. He believes man is comprised of two substances mental substance(soul, mind, selves) and material substances(things and objects). The former is incorporeal and the other has extension in space(depth, width, height, weight).1 The problem arises of causation. He believes that these exist in different spheres, but then how do they relate? How does the mind get the body to act? The body in his view was subject to the world of mechanistic determinism and the soul existed in a domain of libertarian freedom. He tried to offer a solution of the pineal gland, but it hardly answered the issue.
Descartes argues for his own existence and goes on to argue that God must exist. He uses two kinds of arguments. He used a cosmological and an ontological argument. The cosmological argument was that he has this idea of God in his mind. He thinks only if God existed could his mind have been caused to think about God. The ontological argument he provides is that existence is part of the concept of God. He compares that to how having three angles is part of the concept of a triangle. Since we have a concept of God he must exist. That also means for Descartes that God has all perfections. That entails he cannot lie and in virtue of that we can trust our senses and some of our mental intuitions. Dr. John Frame writes:
But we should notice that in all this argumentation, Descartes ultimately appeals to his own subjective consciousness as the ultimate criterion of truth. Here there is no role for Scripture or church tradition. As in 600 B. C., tradition is cast aside. Descartes makes a new beginning. His appeal is to reason, as with the Greek philosophers. But what is reason in this context? For Descartes, the beginning of reason, its presuppositions, is a subjective certainty: that we think. That self-consciousness is an innate idea. And we will see that he acknowledges three other innate ideas: sameness, substance, and God.
-History of Western Philosophy and Theology, page 180.
Descartes thinks God is one of his intuitions. His “clear and distinct ideas”. What is a clear and distinct idea and how does he get them? God gives them in his thought.
Ideas are true that are as clear and distinct as self-consciousness. For Descartes an idea is “clear” when it is intuitively present to the mind; an idea is “distinct” when it is clear in itself and precise in its determination. Innate ideas are those that are clear and distinct and whose evidence is not deduced from any others.5
2. Baruch(Benedict) Spinoza:
The Second of the Continental Rationalist.
Spinoza was a Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Jewish origin. The Jews were forced out of Spain and moved into Northern European countries. He was born in Holland. This cultural tension leads him to writing works defending secularism in the realm of political philosophy. He was later excommunicated by the Jews for his views on God. He worked making glass lenses for telescopes. Spinoza was a fan of Descartes works and actually tries to systematize it. If Descartes was channeling Plato, then Spinoza was channeling Parmenides. He wishes to start with God. The issue is that the God of rationalism isn’t the God of the Bible. He ends up denying that there is a difference between infinite and finite substances. For Spinoza, a substance is more than something that can be the subject of predication. It is also that which is in itself and conceived through itself. That means that anything that is a “substance” must be self-existent and it must be self-authenticating. He argues that there can only be one being can be self-dependent(a se).2 Spinoza thought that any being that has the property of aseity would have all the same attributes as God and therefore each being would limit the other and only one being can be the first principle of knowledge. Spinoza makes ‘God’ or ‘Nature’ the ultimate criterion of truth and falsity.
To simplify this, Spinoza denies that there are any finite substances. A finite substance would be one limited by some other substance; but if both are substances they would have to have an attribute in common, and this was previously proved impossible. Accordingly, there is only one substance, the infinite God.3
Spinoza has entered into a pantheism. He thinks that all is one. How does he get any diversity? Well, he believes we are all modes or modifications of “the One”. He simply reduces us to attributes of ‘God’.
Ordinary people think that Julius Caesar and the Taj Mahal and the sun are three distinct things, each of which exists in its own right. Monists say that there is only one thing that exists in its own right. The ordinary people and the Monists therefore disagree. But what is the exact point on which the ordinary people and the Monists are disagreed? There are actually several points at which the disagreement between the ordinary people and the Monists might be located, each of which corresponds to a possible “version” of Monism.
First, a Monist might say that the ordinary people are wrong to think that Julius Caesar and the Taj Mahal and the sun are things that exist in their own right. The Monist might say that these three things are mere modifications of the One—three different modifications, to be sure, but nevertheless only modifications. They are thus related to the One in a way something like the way three wrinkles in a carpet are related to the carpet. But this analogy is imperfect. For one thing, each wrinkle in a carpet involves a particular part of the carpet, and the One has no parts. (If the One did have parts, each of its parts would be a thing that existed in its own right, just as—according to the Common Western Metaphysic—every part of a carpet, including those parts that happen to be thrust up to form wrinkles, is a thing that exists in its own right.) Thus it cannot be that the sun is a modification of one part of the One and Julius Caesar a modification of another part of the One. The differences between Caesar and the sun (and the differences between Caesar and Brutus) must, according to this version of Monism, arise from the fact that Caesar and the sun are different kinds of modification of the One. This version of Monism was held by the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza.4
Spinoza tries to axiomatize the rationalist scheme. He views knowledge as knowing the context of an object. You need to know all its relations and that will give us knowledge. If you wish to know the bottle you need to know its relationships to every other fact. Who made the bottle? What does it contain? It is through knowing an objects relations we acquire knowledge. Spinoza thought that human thought was not merely correspondent with the world, but rather is identical with the world.6
He seeks for one comprehensive explanation of everything. Spinoza takes from Descartes that an attribute is what the intellect perceives is the essence of an object. Spinoza also thinks that God is comprised of an infinite amount of these attributes. This reduces the world to God and where the phrase “Deus sive natura” arises. That means God or Nature, meaning that they are identical. You may wonder what to do with the issue that things in the world appear to be different substances. These modes shouldn’t be looked at as different parts of the world, but rather different perspectives on the same world.
The benefit of Spinoza’s thought is that it solves Descartes’ “Mind-Body” problem. Descartes defines mind and body in such a way that they could never have any interaction. The mind was in a disconnected and different domain from the realm of extension. For Spinoza, the body is just an extension of the mind. His solution is to bring extension and mental substance as just attributes of God.
Spinoza denies libertarian freedom and believes that this is the only possible world. He views a close relationship between the necessity of the world to that of his axiom and deducing propositions from it. The world is identical to the logical structures of reason and human thought and it follows as such. This also for him reduced science to deduction rather than induction.
Lastly, his ethical stance is one of the least interesting parts of his philosophy. He was an egoist.7 He thinks nothing is ethically right or wrong. That being said he tries to give an altruistic spin to his philosophy. It is for him that we should seek knowledge and that in gaining more knowledge we will become more virtuous. That we should follow our greatest passion, but our passions should be for the well-being of God(or nature).
3. Gottfried Leibniz:
The Last of the Three Continental Rationalist.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was a German philosopher, mathematician, scientist. It is argued whether he or Sir Issac Newton invented Calculus(whether one stole the idea or they both individually invented it). He comes from a higher class German family and was himself a child prodigy. His father was a professor of moral philosophy at Leipzig University. He was in religious conviction a Lutheran and was unhappy with Spinoza’s metaphysics. Spinoza was the result of Descartes’ philosophy and Leibniz is the reaction to Spinoza’s philosophy. The foundation of his philosophy is in his view of the Monads. Monads are simple, non-reducible, immaterial, points of being.
Leibniz rejects the view that extension— size, shape, motion— is a substance (Descartes) or an attribute of a substance (Spinoza). For Leibniz, the basic substance is a monad or a unit of psychic force. Monads are without parts and have no causal interaction with each other, although they do accommodate each other and harmonize; they are not spatially located. Monads have an internal law-like principle of “appetition” (desire or striving) that causes them to change. They appear to influence each other, but this is merely a reflection of the preestablished harmony by which God created them to mirror each other. A monad’s entire past and present is contained within it, so that whatever a monad does, it does by a kind of necessity. Every monad is unique; all differ qualitatively and occupy different points of view so that each mirrors the world differently and with different degrees of clarity. Every monad has a degree of psychic life[ 288] by which it represents external things. Monads whose perceptions are more distinct and accompanied by memory occupy a higher level. Thus, for example, the dominant monad of a dog has perceptions and memory of those perceptions. Leibniz calls this monad the “soul” to distinguish it from lower or “naked” monads. In a person the dominant monad is a “spirit,” because it is capable of reflective acts. Spirits are able to know the universe and to enter into relationship with the chief monad— namely, God.8
We have seen how Spinoza tries to understand the entire universe as the ultimate nature of being. The other route to figure out what the ultimate reality of our world is is to divide reality to its smallest point and analyze it. Leibniz takes the second route. You will notice that each of these men were focused on mathematics and modeled their philosophies after it. Leibniz starts where the other rationalists start with self-evident ideas. He also denies that any synthetic truths exist because each monad has everything already built into it.9
Leibniz like Spinoza must have everything follow meticulously. The Rationalist tended to be Determinist, denying that libertarian freedom exist. He formulates a principle called “The Principle of Sufficient Reason”. The principle states that nothing ever exist or happens without a sufficient reason. This is where his famous Cosmological argument arises.
Lastly, he is known for his famous Theodicy. He believes the best way to answer the Problem of evil is that this is the best of all possible worlds. God has analyzed all possible worlds and this is the one with the least evil and maximum good. He also takes the privation theory of evil(Evil has no state of being or substance, but is a privation of it).
I wish to maintain that Rationalism is by its very nature false and impossible. Each of the Rationalist philosophers thoughts they were starting with self-evident truths and ended up with three radically different systems. These truths were clearly not self-evident. Was it self-evident that reality is made up of only one substance or of infinite monads? As stated in the past:
Just think of the Continental Rationalists (Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz), who began with supposedly clear and distinct, “self-evident” ideas(notice their internal, subjective character), and yet derived from them radically and embarrassingly divergent conclusions about reality(dualism, monism, pluralism).Then consider the British empiricists (Locke, Berkeley, Hume), who traced the mind’s ideas back to individual sensations (notice again the internal, subjective locus), only to render “substance” that unites properties inexplicable(Locke), to dispense with material substance(Berkeley), and then to lose altogether any mental substance or “self” that unites perceptions(Hume). As Kant concluded, to the degree the mind knows its inner contents( constituted by its own activity in forming the input of the senses), it still has no knowledge in the things-in-themselves outside the mind. The predicament is that man as a knower can never “get outside” the ideas formed within himself. When the unbeliever begins his philosophizing with himself at the center, he ends up unable to escape himself(subjectivism); and since every unbeliever faces the same dilemma, nobody can speak with authority about objective reality for anybody else(relativism).10
It is regarded by many that Plantinga has refuted classical foundationalism. He has argued that it is “self-referentially incoherent”. The belief in Classical Foundationalism is not evident to the senses, incorrigible, or self-evident.
Descartes seems to be arguing in a circle. He uses his intuitions to prove God’s existence and we need God’s existence to show the reliability of our intuitions:
There is a circularity to Descartes’s starting point and his belief in God. He notes that even his principle that all the things that we clearly and distinctly perceive are true— an extension of his cogito, ergo sum— is only certain because God exists. Similarly, because our clear and distinct ideas flow from God, they must be true. Nevertheless, Descartes is quite clear that we should only ever take something to be true on the basis of reason.11
Spinoza’s pantheism leaves him a couple issue. Spinoza can’t have atomistic truths. For anything that isn’t the complete whole isn’t completely true. So, anything that is part of the whole isn’t completely true. He can’t, therefore, start with his axioms. He can never start his system at any one point in the system. He must start with the entire whole. He would need to be completely omniscient to know anything. This is incompatible with human properties(fallibility, finite, ignorance).
In the world of Spinoza, diversity is illusory, but diversity seems more self-evident than the idea that everything is just one with many different perspectives. The even more damaging criticism of pantheism is the fact this substance contains contradictory properties. This view allows for things that are radically different to be of the same substance. Oceans are no different in substance than a desert. It seems to me and others that substance reduces to an unknowable nothing.
Now, Spinoza, far from denying that God has attributes, asserts that God has an infinite number of attributes. yet one may wonder whether Spinoza’s substance with all its attributes is not after all much the same as an unknowable nothing. for two reasons. In the first place the two known attributes of god seem to be so incompatible that they could not both attach to any conceivable substance. The reason Descartes had admitted two created substances was that thought and extension are so desperate that they are mutually exclusive. A universe exhibiting diversity may contain some extended things or modes and some thinking things; but the more the unity of substance is stressed, the less we can conceive of the same thing being both extended and conscious. A body can be heavy and can fall with an acceleration of thirty-two feet per second, but a thought cannot. A thought can be witty and one thought can imply another, but bodies have no such potentiality. When these disparate attributes are said to inhere in the same substance, substance comes close to being an empty name.12
Spinoza is forceful that God is not a God that we would think of, but rather is impersonal. That leaves him no grounding for objective moral norms and that collapsed him into a moral relativism. If all norms are relativistic, then we have no obligation to think relativism is true or even the rationalistic scheme he is putting forth.
Leibniz has accepted pluralism, that the universe is comprised of infinite monads. The problem is that we have a world of unity as well as diversity. That we have laws, relations, and other universals, but if reality is ultimately diverse we have no unity.15
Leibniz theodicy reduces God to a demiurge. God is forced to create the best possible world because he would be unjust if he didn’t. Something and some standard is external to God and dictates his actions. That makes goodness something external and superior to God.13
If all we have are a priori ideas and everything deducible from, then we don’t have that much of knowledge at all. We would only have knowledge of our own mind. The only things that follow from a priori truths are more a priori truths. As said:
Knowledge of the laws of logic, of our own mental states, and of the existence of objective truth, at least, may plausibly be argued to be a priori ideas (ideas that are independent of sense-experience) that are, perhaps, even innate. We can, however, deduce very little from such a priori ideas. Certainly, we cannot deduce the whole fabric of human knowledge from them or even enough knowledge to constitute a meaningful philosophy. Nothing follows from the laws of logic, taken alone, except possibly more laws of logic. From propositions about our own mental states, nothing follows except further propositions about our own mental states. From the statement “there are objective truths,” nothing specific follows, and a statement that tells us nothing specific (which has no “applications”) is not a meaningful statement. Thus if knowledge is limited to the sorts of propositions we have just examined, we will know only about our own minds8 and not about the real world. We cannot reason from our mental states to the real world because our mental states often deceive us. Thus rationalism leaves us not with the body of certainties that Plato and Descartes dreamed of but with no knowledge at all of the real world. And so in the final analysis, there is no difference between rationalism, on the one hand, and subjectivism and skepticism, on the other.16
1. A substance is something that can be a predicated of in a sentence. They are expressed in language as nouns that are a subject in a sentence. This is traced back to Aristotle. This is “that is which is in itself” and not an attribute of something else.
Indeed, Aristotle tells us that a thing like “a certain man” or “a certain horse” is an example of what he calls a primary ousia. The term ‘ousia’ is built out of the Greek verb we translate as ‘to be,’ and the idea behind the title ‘primary ousia’ is that of a full-fledged reality or a paradigmatic instance of a to be-er. The standard translation for ‘ousia’ is ‘substance.’
Loux, Michael J.. Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy) (Kindle Locations 2809-2813). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
2. For something to be a se it must be self-existent, uncaused, and not dependant on anything else. The term is also known as aseity.
3. Gordon H. Clark; Thales to Dewey (pg. 331)
4. Van Inwagen, Peter., Metaphysics: Fourth edition (Page 36).
5. Bartholomew, Craig G.; Goheen, Michael W.. Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction (p. 121). Baker Publishing Group.
6. The Ancient and Early modern rationalist was setting the scene for the movement known as Idealism(materialism is false, the world is comprised of thought and mind).
7. Egoism (or Ethical Egoism) is the ethical position that moral agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest.
8. Bartholomew, Craig G.; Goheen, Michael W.. Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction (pp. 131-132). Baker Publishing Group.
9. This is built out of the “Analytic-Synthetic distinction”. This distinction is used to showcase the distinction between truths known by the mind(or intellect) without regard to empirical inquiry, but merely in virtue of the meanings of its terms. An analytic statement is one known to be true in virtue of the meaning of the terms. A synthetic statement is one known in virtue of knowing something about the world. As such:
“An “analytic” sentence, such as “Ophthalmologists are doctors,” has historically been characterized as one whose truth depends upon the meanings of its constituent terms (and how they’re combined) alone, as opposed to a more usual “synthetic” sentence, such as “Ophthalmologists are rich,” whose truth depends also upon the facts about the world that the sentence represents, e.g., that ophthalmologists are rich.”
10. Greg L. Bahnsen: Van Til’s Apologetic Readings and Analysis (pg. 314)
11. Bartholomew, Craig G.; Goheen, Michael W.. Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction (p. 121). Baker Publishing Group.
12. Gordon H. Clark; Thales to Dewey (pg. 331)
13. For more: http://spirited-tech.com/COG/2017/10/12/panentheism/
15. This is noted by philosopher John Frame in his writings:
Essentially the same point can be made in somewhat different terms. Van Til says that human thought seeks to relate “unity” to “plurality” in the world. It seeks to unify the particulars by finding patterns among them that help us to understand them. Thus philosophers (especially rationalists) have often sought abstract rational concepts that are broad enough to include many particulars under their scope. Bear, for example, includes all the bears in the world; tree includes all the trees; living thing includes all trees, bears, and much more; and being includes everything. The more abstract our concepts become, the less they tell us about the particular things. Dog includes more animals than Welsh corgi, but it is less descriptive of the animals it designates. Being includes everything but says almost nothing about anything. Rationalism seeks the most abstract knowledge possible, but in doing that it finds it can make no specific claims about the world (see c above). The idolatrous quest for exhaustive human knowledge always leads to emptiness, skepticism, and ignorance.
Another way to make the same point has been described as the “paradox of analysis.” Pretend that I try to gain knowledge of kangaroos by formulating various equations such as “kangaroo = mammal,” “kangaroo = marsupial mammal,” “kangaroo = marsupial mammal found in Australia,” and so forth. Such a process might be called an “analysis” of the concept “kangaroo.” It works fine, until I decide that there must be an absolute identity between the two sides of the equation, which is the desire for perfect or exhaustive knowledge of the kangaroo. When I make that de mand, I can satisfy it only by the equation “kangaroo = kangaroo.” Although that equation gives me an absolute identity, it gives me absolutely no useful information. The moral is the same: when we seek Godlike, exhaustive, infallible knowledge, we are likely to achieve only total ignorance. Rationalism begets irrationalism.
John M. Frame. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, The (A Theology of Lordship) [pages 114-115]
16. John M. Frame. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, The (A Theology of Lordship) [pages 113]