On the cartesian disease

The wording “cartesian disease”, already used in this post (see also my comments there), means an abuse or misuse of the cartesian method. I shall use in the argumentation  the citation available at the last given link, because there is a concentrate of the method, formulated in such a precise, equilibrated and  astonishingly actual words.

The abuse of some part of the method consists in the excess of use of one ingredient, in parallel with a lack of use of another ingredient provided by Descartes’ method.

In the following  are examples of cartesian disease,  listed according to the  place in the citation which is relevant for the abuse characteristic in the respective example. (Please read, however, the whole text in order to identify the countermeasures which the respective abuses ignore.)

  • architectural constructs where many, if not most, of people live.  The relevant citation from Descartes is: “Thus it is observable that the buildings which a single architect has planned and executed, are generally more elegant and commodious than those which several have attempted to improve, by making old walls serve for purposes for which they were not originally built. Thus also, those ancient cities which, from being at first only villages, have become, in course of time, large towns, are usually but ill laid out compared with the regularity constructed towns which a professional architect has freely planned on an open plain; so that although the several buildings of the former may often equal or surpass in beauty those of the latter, yet when one observes their indiscriminate juxtaposition, there a large one and here a small, and the consequent crookedness and irregularity of the streets, one is disposed to allege that chance rather than any human will guided by reason must have led to such an arrangement.”  Horror, boredom, social problems appeared from living in such functionally designed, but culturally void places, despite the good will of the creators.
  • the cohort of dictators, along with their respective ideologies, specific to the 20th century. The relevant citation from Descartes is: “In the same way I fancied that those nations which, starting from a semi-barbarous state and advancing to civilization by slow degrees, have had their laws successively determined, and, as it were, forced upon them simply by experience of the hurtfulness of particular crimes and disputes, would by this process come to be possessed of less perfect institutions than those which, from the commencement of their association as communities, have followed the appointments of some wise legislator.”
  • giving value to uninformed, ignorant common sense, encouraging simple reasoning, hence less energy consuming, more viral, over more sophisticated reasoning. Devaluing  knowledge. The relevant citation from Descartes is: “In the same way I thought that the sciences contained in books (such of them at least as are made up of probable reasonings, without demonstrations), composed as they are of the opinions of many different individuals massed together, are farther removed from truth than the simple inferences which a man of good sense using his natural and unprejudiced judgment draws respecting the matters of his experience.”
  • the almost eradication of geometrical thinking in mathematical education and research, performed mainly in the 20th century, with great success. The relevant citation from Descartes is: “Then as to the analysis of the ancients and the algebra of the moderns, besides that they embrace only matters highly abstract, and, to appearance, of no use, the former is so exclusively restricted to the consideration of figures, that it can exercise the understanding only on condition of greatly fatiguing the imagination; and, in the latter, there is so complete a subjection to certain rules and formulas, that there results an art full of confusion and obscurity calculated to embarrass, instead of a science fitted to cultivate the mind.”
  • running for the ultimate explanation, for the grand theory of everything, ultimately confusing the compression technique which is the cartesian method, designed for being able to fit into our small brains this huge reality at once, with the reality itself. The relevant citation from Descartes is: “The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.”
  • abuse of division, creation of a myriad of problems, which is a tremendously efficient technique for advancing little by little our understanding of something, but it has the disadvantage of giving the impression that said problems are the goal and not just a mean for understanding. Excessive division of research interests. A very good resource for nowadays publishers, as well as for thousands and thousands of researchers specialized into solving problems for the sake of it. The relevant passage from Descartes is: ” The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.”
  • using, for compression needs, of an  unnecessary and unnatural one dimensional formulation of understanding and then thinking exclusively in such terms, forgetting that this streaming is a technique for easier understanding and not a part of the subject of the study. This abuse is present everywhere in CS and probably is the main barrier in front of a better understanding of how the brain, or more generally how the living world works. Neurons have “tasks”, edges “are detected” and so on. The relevant passage from Descartes is:”…   assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.  And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.”

I invite you to discover in the exceptional text of Descartes the countermeasures.

6 thoughts on “On the cartesian disease”

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