The Philosopher of Little Knowledge

Joshua Payne
10 min readNov 21, 2020


Before last Monday, I’d always thought of philosophers as wise scholars packed with knowledge. Reading into some of the teachings of Socrates, Plato and Nietzsche was enough evidence for this conclusion.

However, ever since looking into Rene Descartes my perspective has changed. In case you don’t know, he was also a philosopher — as well as a mathematician and an interesting guy. Unlike other philosophers I’ve researched, he wasn’t super knowledgeable about much. My idea of a philosopher has been challenged.

Rene Descartes | Source

Don’t get me wrong, he’s still super smart. Despite not knowing a ton, he was an extraordinary thinker — case in point, his creation of the Cartesian plane and highly thought-provoking philosophies and ideas.

Descartes lived in a time where radical skepticism was a huge barrier to the adoption of philosophies and ideas. Some people loved to poke holes and play contrarian, regardless of how unlikely their doubts were to be true. I could’ve said “My name is Joshua”, and they probably would’ve replied “How do you know that? What if we’re all being controlled by an evil witch and we’ve forgotten our real names?” (Similar to Yubaba).

I don’t think a lot of us would buy into an idea like that — the problem is they use the unfalsifiable fallacy. It’d be extremely difficult to, with bulletproof evidence, prove that some wicked entity doesn’t control our minds. We simply believe and assume it not to be true because we have no evidence that it is — but that doesn’t disprove the claim.

Extreme contrarianism like this was a huge hindrance for Descartes and other philosophers. Every single piece of logic, knowledge or assumption used to form a claim had to be completely irrefutable for the skeptics to chill out. The problem? Skepticism that falls under unfalsifiability is almost impossible to defeat.

Because of this, Descartes sought out a way to find concrete reasoning for all knowledge that he possessed so that his philosophy could be logically bulletproof. Or more simply; arguments/ideas that skeptics couldn’t disprove.

To do this, he asked “why?” and found ways to doubt everything he knew. He did this until he could arrive at first principles of knowledge which were indisputable.

He spent so much time deconstructing and questioning knowledge instead of amassing it. Thus, Descartes was a man of high intelligence but relatively low knowledge — because, for him, all knowledge had to be completely bulletproof.

One of these core knowledge principles was Cogito Ergo Sum. Or, as you may know,

“I think, therefore I am”.

How did Descartes get there?

Descartes thought that knowledge based off of observation wasn’t strong enough, because he couldn’t prove that we could trust our senses. We “know” that the sky is blue because we see the sky to be blue — but this wasn’t good enough for him. We know that our senses aren’t perfect, like how our eyes trick us in optical illusions. But Descartes was unsatisfied with that margin of doubt.

In his quest for core principles, that led Descartes to the idea of thinking. “2 + 2 = 4” isn’t based on sensory observation, it’s based on reasoning and logic.

But still, this couldn’t work in a society of extreme skeptics. Descartes wondered; how do we know that an evil demon isn’t playing tricks on us, and tricking us into thinking that we’re thinking?

However, Descartes thought he could prove one thing; the fact that he can think at all, even if his thoughts are hypothetically manipulated, was certain. Thus, “I think therefore I am” — he knew he existed because he could think, and this was one of his core principles of knowledge.

My thoughts on this → what if we actually aren’t thinking because some wicked entity is fooling us into that conclusion? It feels like the Cartesian level of doubt is insurmountable for finding any principles of knowledge. Technically, anything you perceive or judge could be incorrect, if you use hypothetical, far-off scenarios like an evil demon.

While I think it’s admirable that he sought out ways to find bulletproof principles as a basis for amassing knowledge, I’m not sure if anything is truly beyond unfalsifiable skepticism. Instead, in my opinion, most humans just ignore and assume life is it’s observed.

Descartes, seeking knowledge that withstands skepticism: | Source

For example; what if we’re living in a simulation? What if no one around us is real? It’s interesting to think about these questions, but technically, any of them are unfalsifiable. There could be some way that we’re living in a simulation that we just can’t understand — the same logic could apply to other, similar questions.

That being said, I think his approach to seeking unquestionably ”true” knowledge is interesting and valid. His strategy of first principles thinking is a common mental model actively used today. Descartes seems to be one of the first in human history to do it. Pretty cool.

Rationalizing God’s Existence

Rene Descartes also sought a way to prove the existence of a God through reasoning, to use as a core principle of knowledge.

He needed to rationalize a God’s existence so that he could prove that his worries of deception (ex. the evil demon controlling thoughts/senses) were untrue. He needed to prove that he and his senses weren’t being deceived, so he could use them for forming arguments. To do this, he thought that “an infinite, perfect being God would never deceive us, so therefore we can be certain that what we see about the world is the way that is actually is”. Thus, he strived to find a way to prove the existence of an infinite, perfect being God.

I’m worried that I’ll explain his argument for God’s existence incorrectly. If you’re interested, a great summary can be found here.

Personally, I don’t think trying to rationalize that God exists makes sense. I don’t think extreme skepticism is practical and feasible, considering how virtually every first principle could have some potential contradictory factor, to the extremes of Descartes’s idea of an evil demon.

Just like how it’s impossible to think of a colour that doesn’t exist, I don’t think it’s possible to fully conceptualize the idea of God — much less rationalize its existence. An Abrahamic God would violate most understandings of the universe we have — being an omnipotent, omniscient being without a previous creator. The Bible teaches that God has always existed. The idea of something existing forever, with no starting point or creator, seems like something humans would have difficulty conceiving of because we’ve never understood nor seen something similar in our universe. Bear in mind, this is based on my infinitesimal knowledge of physics or astronomy.

Thus, if a full understanding of God is beyond human conception, it’s likely that we’d have difficulty rationalizing it. I think arguments for and against God’s existence are interesting, thought-provoking, and worth having — but I think finding bulletproof logic for either side would be difficult. What we theorize and take as objective truths in science could evolve based on new data and new entities over time. Rationalizing something as otherworldly and physics-defying as a God seems impossible when it’s beyond human conception in the first place. That doesn’t totally invalidate the arguments I’ve seen made, but I don’t think it’s possible to find concrete and objective rationale for either side from a lens of extreme skepticism. Descartes literally had to factor in whether an evil demon was controlling all his thoughts — if you had to account for such extremes, literally everything we ‘know’ could be flawed and manipulated by some otherwordly being. The only thing we can be certain of is that we’re thinking.

I think this is why we have the concept of belief. If imitating Descartes, extreme skepticism for finding core principles would take an immeasurable amount of time for most logic trees and would take especially long to form a conclusion about something as complicated as God. Most people don’t have that time. I also think most people don’t want to consider whether we really have an evil demon, outside of Earth, controlling all of us. So we believe that there isn’t and go about our business. Because if we didn’t believe, and instead relied on bulletproof reasoning for all of our thoughts, seeing as how long it’d take to find bulletproof reasoning for most of what we consider truths, we likely would have zero truths for quite a while. I don’t think a ton of people want that.

I find the pursuit of reason admirable, and I think it’s a worthwhile goal. But I don’t think it’s pragmatic, nor feasible, for everything humans believe to face extremely skepticism — or else we wouldn’t know anything, because of unfalsifiable arguments. Without commonly accepted knowledge, I wonder if humanity would be able to do anything — it’d definitely cause the collapse of society as we know it.

The Cartesian Moral Code

I also had some thoughts on Descartes’s moral code. He lays it out as:

  1. To obey the laws and customs of my country, holding constantly to the Catholic religion, and governing myself in all other matters according to the most moderate opinions accepted in practice by the most sensible people.
  2. To be as firm and decisive in action as possible and to follow even the most doubtful opinions once they have been adopted.
  3. Try to master myself rather than fortune, and change my desires rather than the order of the world.
  4. Review the various professions and chose the best.

First Maxim

Descartes defines a ‘sensible person’ as someone who ‘someone who avoids extremes and takes the middle road’. His view was that he would follow their guide to action temporarily until his own morals had been certainly established.

I wonder why he decided a sensible person was the type of person that made the most sense to follow. Their moderate opinions might be the least controversial and the easiest to go with, but it seems weirdly normal and basic for Descartes to want to follow their opinions over anyone else. At least from what I’ve researched of him so far.

Why not govern yourself by the thoughts of the kindest person in the world? Or the smartest? A ‘sensible person’, by his definition, sounds like an average, peaceful person. If you could find adequate ways to seek out the kindest and smart people to follow, wouldn’t they be better alternatives? If you follow a sensible person, you’d resemble a sensible person. If you follow someone extremely kind, you’d resemble an extremely kind person, etc. I don’t think I see the logic in Descartes’s decision here. However, I could be missing something.

Second Maxim

As for the second maxim, I also don’t fully understand his logic here. I agree that a bias towards action is important → but why follow “even the most doubtful opinions”? Isn’t that bound to end up with averse consequences, determined by the magnitude of doubtfulness?

Why not just balance judgement with a bias towards action? Like if you find yourself overthinking something, you could simply make a list of fair options/opinions and randomly choose. I think the layer of judgement, ie narrowing down to “fair options/opinions” makes more sense than going with any decision at all — considering how poor some decisions can be. Or, maybe, in the process of Descartes’s adopting his opinions, he judges them quickly already. If not, I disagree with this maxim.

Third Maxim

I don’t think the last maxim is that interesting, but I find clear disagreements with this one. For context, Descartes thought that the only thing in control was his thoughts and nothing else, and so most things are out of his control. For example, Descartes could have his own opinion on how to tackle climate change, but he’d view climate change itself as out of his control.

The first implication here is that if Descartes’s failed to achieve something, it simply meant it was not meant to be and was out of his control. He thought that, instead of putting in exorbitant amounts of effort into things he can’t ultimately control, he should solely focus on what he can control.

The second implication of this maxim continues this point further; only desire things that are in your control — control desires instead of trying to master things beyond your control.

I really disagree with Descartes’s thoughts here. He’s basically exemplifying the opposite of ownership mentality. When something doesn’t go your way, it “wasn’t meant to be” and “was out of your control”, so you change your attention to something else.

Is anything really “out of your control”? Just because something is external to your mind doesn’t mean you don’t have some sort of control over it. Like with the climate change example — sure, climate change is its own concept, but humans can take action and reverse its consequences. Maybe we don’t have full control over everything, but I think the idea that nothing external to you can be controlled by you doesn’t make sense.

I define control here as the power you hold over something to act upon it or influence how it operates.

Instead of merely “changing your desires” when something doesn’t go your way, why not refine your approach or increase the effort spent? I don’t think there are many things that are completely uncontrollable. With enough attention, I think you can achieve or fulfill desires for most things — regardless if they’re external.

I think Descartes is such an interesting thinker — he literally wanted to completely redefine and rebuild human knowledge, and sought reasoning and rationale to prove concepts as large as God. I don’t agree with all of his teachings, but regardless, I found his philosophies fascinating.

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