12 episodes

René Descartes, the ‘father of modern philosophy’ wrote his essay Meditations (published 1641) not long after Shakespeare published the Sonnets (1609). The change from Shakespeare to Descartes represents the shift from the Renaissance to the era of Modernism. The humanism of the Renaissance gives way to rationalism and a faith in the emerging sciences.

The Philosophy of Descartes La Trobe University

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René Descartes, the ‘father of modern philosophy’ wrote his essay Meditations (published 1641) not long after Shakespeare published the Sonnets (1609). The change from Shakespeare to Descartes represents the shift from the Renaissance to the era of Modernism. The humanism of the Renaissance gives way to rationalism and a faith in the emerging sciences.

    The Relation of Mind and Body

    The Relation of Mind and Body

    Descartes' dualism of mind and body is a lasting legacy. Nowadays many people still believe the body is less well-known than the mind and that there is a mystery about how the mental and the physical can interact. His correspondence with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia prompted him, late in life, to explore the union of mind and body in his last work, The Passions of the Soul. In retrospect, Descartes seems to have had two views of how mind and body might be related, one that the mind interacts with the body via a gland in the brain, the other that mind is spread all the way through body and intermingled with it. While neither view is satisfactory, it is still not clear nowadays how best to think about the relation of the mental to the physical.

    Copyright 2014 La Trobe University, all rights reserved. Please contact for permissions.

    • 43 min
    The Relation of Mind and Body (handout)

    The Relation of Mind and Body (handout)

    Descartes' dualism of mind and body is a lasting legacy. Nowadays many people still believe the body is less well-known than the mind and that there is a mystery about how the mental and the physical can interact. His correspondence with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia prompted him, late in life, to explore the union of mind and body in his last work, The Passions of the Soul. In retrospect, Descartes seems to have had two views of how mind and body might be related, one that the mind interacts with the body via a gland in the brain, the other that mind is spread all the way through body and intermingled with it. While neither view is satisfactory, it is still not clear nowadays how best to think about the relation of the mental to the physical.

    Copyright 2014 La Trobe University, all rights reserved. Please contact for permissions.

    Last-minute Creation

    Last-minute Creation

    It might seem that Descartes' appeal to God in Meditation 4 as a guarantee that for the most part our memories can be trusted is not well-founded. By looking at the question of last-minute creation, a solution is proposed. Can we prove that we and our memories did not all come into existence just five minutes ago, or – as creationists have suggested – that the world and all its fossils did not just come into existence in 4004 BCE? Last-minute creation fantasies raise scenarios that are merely logically possible, but are not compatible with our best theories in geology, biology and other sciences. Descartes' appeal to God faces a different challenge, and objections to it are removed once the logic of his argument is made clear.

    Copyright 2014 La Trobe University, all rights reserved. Please contact for permissions.

    • 43 min
    Last-minute Creation (handout)

    Last-minute Creation (handout)

    It might seem that Descartes' appeal to God in Meditation 4 as a guarantee that for the most part our memories can be trusted is not well-founded. By looking at the question of last-minute creation, a solution is proposed. Can we prove that we and our memories did not all come into existence just five minutes ago, or – as creationists have suggested – that the world and all its fossils did not just come into existence in 4004 BCE? Last-minute creation fantasies raise scenarios that are merely logically possible, but are not compatible with our best theories in geology, biology and other sciences. Descartes' appeal to God faces a different challenge, and objections to it are removed once the logic of his argument is made clear.

    Copyright 2014 La Trobe University, all rights reserved. Please contact for permissions.

    A Secure Foundation for Knowledge?

    A Secure Foundation for Knowledge?

    By the end of the Meditation 2, Descartes is caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, everything can be doubted and so there is no prospect for secure and certain knowledge of the world. On the other hand, pure reasoning shows that he is undoubtedly a thinking thing, and this fact looks like a foundation from which other beliefs can be built. In order to proceed from the subjective certainty of the cogito, Descartes needs some basis on which to say that our memories (of previous investigations, deductions and insights) can generally be trusted. For this task, he introduces the idea of God, a being who has made the natural world and us, and has designed us so that we work well in the world. The lecture argues that nature, through evolution and natural selection, can substitute for God in scientific approach to solving Descartes' problem.

    Copyright 2014 La Trobe University, all rights reserved. Please contact for permissions.

    • 46 min
    A Secure Foundation for Knowledge? (handout)

    A Secure Foundation for Knowledge? (handout)

    By the end of the Meditation 2, Descartes is caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, everything can be doubted and so there is no prospect for secure and certain knowledge of the world. On the other hand, pure reasoning shows that he is undoubtedly a thinking thing, and this fact looks like a foundation from which other beliefs can be built. In order to proceed from the subjective certainty of the cogito, Descartes needs some basis on which to say that our memories (of previous investigations, deductions and insights) can generally be trusted. For this task, he introduces the idea of God, a being who has made the natural world and us, and has designed us so that we work well in the world. The lecture argues that nature, through evolution and natural selection, can substitute for God in scientific approach to solving Descartes' problem.

    Copyright 2014 La Trobe University, all rights reserved. Please contact for permissions.

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