Descartes, Perception, and Society

Descartes, pretty much singlehandedly with his Meditations on First Philosophy, managed to make science and the scientific method acceptable to the Catholic church.

He also unwittingly managed to really screw up human interactions for centuries afterward.

If you’re not familiar with Descartes other than "I think, therefore I am", I don’t blame you. Meditations on First Philosophy is somewhat painful to read. I counted one sentence with seven negatives. Have a hard time visualizing that? "I am not not not not not not not drinking soda right now." Like I said, painful to read. So let me sum up for you: [1]

The part that everyone knows – "I think, therefore I am" – is actually the end of Descartes’ brilliant way of dismissing any and all objections of the Church to the scientific method. He gets rid of every counter argument by pointing out that the only thing a person can be sure of is that they think, and therefore, that they exist. Then he sells the whole idea of scientific inquiry to the Church with this concept:

We must be able to trust external reality, because we and our senses are created by God, who is by definition perfect, and deception is by nature, imperfection. Specifically, this phrase from Meditation 3:

In the next place, I am conscious that I possess a certain faculty of judging or discerning truth from error, which I doubtless received from God, along with whatever else is mine; and since it is impossible that he should will to deceive me, it is likewise certain that he has not given me a faculty that will ever lead me into error, provided I use it aright.

Which is a great phrase for convincing the Church to stop interfering with scientific inquiry. Heck, it’s great for scientific inquiry in general: science doesn’t care whether or not you believe in it.

It is also completely wrong about our faculties of perception, and that has caused no end of trouble.

Our perceptions lead us into error constantly. Here’s three (quick!) videos that highlight some of these errors. [2]

And that’s just physical things. It gets far more complicated when we start talking about how we interpret the perceptions we have, or even worse, how we interpret – and even how we perceive our interactions with each other.

You’ve almost certainly run into this before. Where what you did and said were – to you – completely clear and transparent, and yet, someone else interpreted it all very differently. Or the reverse – where you were sure of someone’s intent and meaning, only to have them later claim they meant something else entirely. [3]

I do not just mean a simple misunderstanding here. I mean situations where things were experienced completely differently, in the same fashion that Paul Giamatti experienced that rubber hand being his own hand. Even when confronted with recordings or transcripts showing an "objective truth" that differs from what was experienced, that person’s experience remains.

I put "objective truth" in quotation marks on purpose, because that’s the problem that Descartes left us with. Humans have a really hard time holding two seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time. We have this framework that there can only be a single possible "true" experience, and that all others are "errors" and "wrong".

And that ends up being interpreted as a kind of gaslighting at best, and too often as an existential threat.

Rather than just "I interpreted that differently", it comes across as negating the other person’s experience, instead of acknowledging their experience and then finding ways to reconcile the two.

I’ve been there. On both sides of that equation. And it is rough to simultaneously hold your own experience in your brain while accepting that someone else’s experience of the same event was completely different.

Because we believe the way we experience reality is what reality is objectively like… and it simply is NOT.

So yes, we should absolutely praise Descartes for getting religion off the back of scientific inquiry.

And at the same time, we need to remember that our perceptions – both of people and of physical reality – may have nothing to do with how others experienced the same event… or even what actually happened.

Featured Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

[1] A slightly more "academic" toned summary of mine is here:
[2] If you can’t see the embeds, they’re at,, and
[3] Yes, predatory, narcissistic bad actors take advantage of this, and complicate the matter. We’re ignoring them for the moment.

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