Alberto begins telling Sophie about Descartes. Descartes was born in 1596, and quickly became interested in the nature of thought and reason. Descartes’s project was similar to Plato’s in many ways: he believed that the only path to true knowledge was reason. In a way, Descartes was the true father of modern philosophy: he built an entire system of philosophy, a worldview that encompassed physics, ethics, metaphysics, etc.
Descartes is one of the most original thinkers since Plato. He doesn’t just polish and modify other people’s ideas—he invents his own, starting from scratch. This reflects the new originality and uniqueness of Western thought following the Renaissance.
Descartes began by attempting to tackle to problem of the relationship between the body and the mind. When the mind thinks a thought, the body translates this thought into a motion—when you wiggle your foot, for example, thought becomes action. But Descartes couldn’t understand exactly how the mind interacted with the physical world.
Descartes isn’t totally original here, ashis ideas about the distinction between the physical body and the abstract, all-reaching mind dateback at least to the Stoics. But Descartes is important in the way he emphasizes the relationship between body and mind, as we’ll see.
Descartes tried to use a process of systematic doubt to understand the relationship between the mind and the body: in other words, he tried to begin by evaluating the truth of the simplest ideas, and then using these simple ideas to build more complicated ones. This was a precise, mathematical way to conduct philosophy, and it’s no coincidence that Descartes was also a talented mathematician—in fact, the father of analytical geometry.
Descartes isn’t a mystic by any means: he doesn’t believe that magic or transcendence have any real place in philosophy. Instead, Descartes tries to use sharp, rigorous mathematical methods to understand the world.
Descartes began his process of systematic doubt by asking himself how he could trust his own senses. While it might seem obvious that what we see or hear is real, it’s also true that when we dream, we think we’re moving through the real world—in other words, our senses our lying to us. In essence, Descartes wanted to ask, “How do I know my entire life isn’t just a dream, playing out in my head?”
Descartes’ question is by no means unfamiliar: we’ve all asked ourselves something like this (especially after watching a movie like The Matrix or The Truman Show). The very fact that we continue to ask ourselves this question shows that Descartes didn’t quite answer his own questions, and reminds us that philosophy is often more interested in asking questions than in answering them.
Descartes’ answer to his own question was, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes’ point was that the most basic quality of a human mind is that it’s capable of thinking (in this way, Descartes has a lot in common with Aristotle, as well as Plato). So Descartes can be 100% certain that he exists, and that his thoughts are logically valid.
Like Aristotle, Descartes has an unshakeable power in the human mind’s ability to think. Descartes also resembles such early rationalist thinkers as Parmenides, who ignored what their senses told them and instead listened to what their minds told them.
Descartes moved on to hypothesize the existence of a God. Descartes argued that he is capable of imagining a perfect entity called God. It’s logically impossible that an imperfect being, such as Descartes himself, could imagine the existence of a perfect being like God, if no such being really existed. The crux of Descartes’ point is that one can’t imagine a perfect entity that doesn’t exist, because nonexistence is a kind of imperfection—a truly perfect being would exist in the real world, as well as in the human mind. Therefore, God exists.Alberto admits that this isn’t very solid logic—many people have criticized Descartes on this count.
Descartes’s proof for the existence of God, sometimes called the ontological argument, has been criticized by countless later thinkers (Immanuel Kant is often credited with hammering the final nail). More broadly, it’s interesting to see how Descartes—who claims to be trying to study the entire world,presupposing absolutely nothing, movesfrom Nothing to belief in Godso quickly.
Descartesthen used his theories about God to demonstrate that the world we perceive really does exist—it’s not just a dream—because no perfect being would confuse and trick its creations. Descartes also argued that the world is dualistic—it’s split into the world of reason and the material realm. Man is unique because he is both a material being—a body—and a thinking being. Descartes even foreshadowed modern neuroscience by guessing that the brain’s pineal glad is the area where reason (the mind) interacts with matter (the body).
For all the flaws of his study of God and perception, Descartes is important to Sophie’s education because of the new emphasis he places on man as a physical, mechanical being (mechanical in the sense of being controlled by the laws of physics). Descartes also reiterates the old philosophical distinction between mind and matter, a distinction first established by the ancient Greeks.
Sophie is particularly struck when Alberto tells her that Descartes compared the human body to a machine. Descartes was a talented doctor, Alberto explains, who saw that all bodies are made of the same finely tuned parts—blood vessels, organs, etc.
Throughout the early modern era, we see man being treated as a less and less “divine” creature. By the time we get to Descartes, man isn’t particularly special, or at least the human body isn’t: it’s just another object.
Alberto tells Sophie to sit in front of a computer in the attic. When Sophie does so, a text appears on the screen, supposedly from a girl named Laila. Sophie asks Laila to tell Sophie about herself, and Laila explains that “she” was built in Atlanta and transferred to Norway—Laila is a computer. Sophie asks Laila about Hilde, and Laila reports that Hilde’s father is a UN worker stationed in Lebanon.
At the time that Sophie’s World was written, there weren’t very advanced artificial intelligences that could communicate with humans. Interestingly, Laila seems tohave information about Hilde’s father, confirming more of the connections we’ve seen throughout the book.
Just as Sophie is about to step away from the computer, she decides to search, “Knag.” The computer begins to type in the person of MajorAlbert Knag. Alberto mutters, “The rat has sneaked onto the hard disc.”“Albert Knag” types a birthday greeting to Hilde, promising to give Hilde a hug soon. Sophie notices the similarities between the name “Alberto Knox” and the name “Albert Knag.”
Perhaps because Sophie has just finished learning about Descartes and the omnipotent God, she finally learns something about Hilde’s father: his name. Just as Alberto had confused Sophie with Hilde, Sophie notices the similarity between Alberto Knox and Albert Knag: she’s beginning to see that her world runs parallel to Albert Knag’s world.