Portrait of René Descartes (1596-1650) by Fran’s Hals 1649. Statens Museum for Kunst, Coppenhagen
No one comes close to the ingenuity of the man who changed our fundamental understanding of nature (and ourselves) like the legendary French philosopher, scientist and mathematician Rene Descartes. He was not an inventor like Graham Bell or Galileo but he did something iconic. At a time in history when curiosity was suppressed in the name of conformity to the authority of religion and prevailing philosophy, he was the first among (the other was Francis Bacon) to assert that: “There is need of a method for finding out the truth.” As one of the history’s most intriguing minds, Descartes laid the foundation to reason and critical thinking.
There is need of a method for finding out the truth – René Descartes
What happens when a random flash of insight is coupled with an incredible capacity to comprehend and expand upon it? Rene Descartes life is filled with such impactful epiphanies. After determining that the typical path to a standard career wasn’t for him, Rene Descartes made a huge (and uncharacteristic) leap of faith by moving to Holland to join the military. Quickly realizing that he wasn’t necessarily cut out to be a soldier, Descartes made his mark as an engineer, relying on his keen mathematical sense rather than his physicality.
Years of intense education convinced him of only one thing – he could learn more by way of his own philosophy and studying science alone, without the distraction of textbooks and the authority of teachers. He was right. One seemingly ordinary day, as Descartes lay in bed daydreaming, he idly watched a fly buzz about his room. He came to a realization at that instance – the position of the fly at any time could be represented by three numbers – providing a distance from the three walls that met in the corner. We know these today as the Cartesian co-ordinates. In school, we learned that any point on a graph is represented by two numbers, corresponding to the distance along the x axis and up the y axis.
What did this mean? It meant that any shape could be represented with just a set of numbers related to one another by mathematical equation. The discovery, once published, transformed mathematics from its roots. This discovery made geometry able to be analyzed using algebra – the consequence of which went on to inspire both the theory of relativity and quantum theory in the twentieth century.
You might also remember using the beginning of the alphabet (a, b, c) to represent known quantities, and letters at the end of the alphabet (especially x, y, z) to represent the unknown quantities. It was Descartes’ who inscribed this language into mathematics.
René Descartes, L’homme…. These drawings show the influence of Descartes’ knowledge of mathematics and geometry on his perception of how the body works.
At the age of 24, Descartes left the military in 1620 and sold his estate he’d inherited from his mother, using the proceeds to finance his continued dedication to independent studies. From 1629 to 1633, Descartes worked tirelessly on his treatise Le Monde ou Traité de la lumière, which detailed his ideas on physics. Unfortunately, in a seemingly knee-jerk reaction, Descartes stopped publication immediately upon hearing news of Galileo’s trial for heresy as he was convicted for Copernican beliefs. Luckily Descartes was later able to recycle much of his work in different projects.
René Descartes, L’homme…. “…I desire you to consider, I say, that these functions imitate those of a real man as perfectly as possible and that they follow naturally in this machine entirely from the disposition of the organs-no more nor less than do the movements of a clock or other automaton, from the arrangement of its counterweights and wheels.”
René Descartes, de Homine figuris. In this work Descartes posited that much human behavior can be explained by mechanical responses rather than the actions of the soul. Through a better knowledge of the mechanics of the body, he hoped to cure and prevent disease, and even to slow aging.
His first publication after retracting his original treatise was The Method, published in 1637, which covered meteorology, optics and geometry. Perhaps most profound about this particular work was that it was one of the first essays that attempted to explain meteorology with science and not with the tales of higher beings. While a man of God, Descartes showed us that life and the world around us can be understood through science – all the Earth’s inhabitants obeying laws of which can be determined through experimentation and keen observation. These observations, along with the thoughts and studies of Francis Bacon, laid the groundwork for the scientific method we know today.
According to René Descartes (1596-1650), the universe operated as a continuously running machine which God had set in motion. Descartes argued that the universe was composed of a “subtle matter” he named “plenum,” which swirled in vortices like whirlpools and actually moved the planets by contact. Here, these vortices carry the planets around the Sun. The vortex theory did not require a gravitational force, so when Isaac Newton proposed a universal force of gravitation in 1687, many preferred Descartes’ explanation, because Newton’s force was not a mechanical force. However, Newton’s gravitational theory worked so well in explaining such matters as the tides, the shape of the earth, and the variation in pendulum clocks with changes in latitude, that cosmic vortices were in general dissipation by 1750, and Descartes’ swirling matter swirled itself into total and complete invisibility by the end of the century.
The Discourse on the Method (French: Discours de la méthode) is a philosophical and autobiographical treatise published by René Descartes in 1637. Its full name is Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences. The Discourse on The Method is best known as the source of the famous quotation “Je pense, donc je suis” (“I think, therefore I am”), which occurs in Part IV of the work. (The similar statement in Latin, Cogito ergo sum, is found in Part I, §7 ofPrinciples of Philosophy.)
Albert Einstein, his wife Elsa and his stepdaughter Margot with Rabindranath Tagore, Pratima Devi, Tagore‘s daughter-in-law, and Professor and Mrs. Mahalanobis in Berlin, 1930
When the two scintillating geniuses of the East and West – Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein – met in 1930, Dimitri Marianoff, a relative of Einstein, described the conversation “as though two planets were engaged in a chat.”
Rabindranath Tagore was a genius polymath of India. A prolific poet, play writer, and songwriter, he wrote 2,000 in his lifetime, one of which was adopted as the national anthem of India. He was also famously given a Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 for his collection of poems Gitanjali. In 1915, Tagore was knighted but he returned it after the Amritsar massacre in 1919.
Albert Einstein is the better known of the two to the world, who received Nobel Prize in 1921 not for his famous Theory of Relativity but for the lesser known theories on photoelectric effect. Einstein searched for universal truths that could be expressed through mathematical equations – an objective verification was required for him to ascertain truth. To him, every theory had to have mathematical simplicity, structure, and order. He not only wanted to understand the “mind of God” but to deduce it into a unified theory.
Rabindranath Tagore (7 May 1861 – 7 August 1941)
Tagore visited Einstein’s house in Caputh, near Berlin, on July 14, 1930. The discussion between the two great men was recorded and subsequently published in a 1931 issue of Modern Review. Einstein with his signature frizzy hair was 50; Tagore with long, flowing beard was 70.
Einstein 1921 by F Schmutzer
Interestingly, when they met, Tagore did not know German and Einstein’s English was too weak to converse. Hence they had to use interpreters for conversation.
Neither Tagore nor Einstein was happy with the recorded conversation, as the translations lost their charm. So, they themselves corrected their parts before making the conversation public.
When Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore met in 1930
In the afternoon of July 14, 1930, Tagore went to meet Einstein at his house at Kaputh, near Postdam, Germany
Here is an excerpt of their conversation that started with the most fundamental existential question, “Nature of Reality,” the interplay of chance and predetermination. They went on to discuss the ordinary everyday events relating to family, the youth movement of Germany, and finally ended with discussing classical music.
EINSTEIN: Do you believe in the Divine as isolated from the world?
TAGORE: Not isolated. The infinite personality of Man comprehends the Universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the Truth of the Universe is human Truth.
I have taken a scientific fact to explain this — Matter is composed of protons and electrons, with gaps between them; but matter may seem to be solid. Similarly humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationship, which gives living unity to man’s world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe. I have pursued this thought through art, literature and the religious consciousness of man.
EINSTEIN: There are two different conceptions about the nature of the universe: (1) The world as a unity dependent on humanity. (2) The world as a reality independent of the human factor.
TAGORE: When our universe is in harmony with Man, the eternal, we know it as Truth, we feel it as beauty.
EINSTEIN: This is the purely human conception of the universe.
TAGORE: There can be no other conception. This world is a human world — the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man. There is some standard of reason and enjoyment which gives it Truth, the standard of the Eternal Man whose experiences are through our experiences.
EINSTEIN: This is a realization of the human entity.
TAGORE: Yes, one eternal entity. We have to realize it through our emotions and activities. We realized the Supreme Man who has no individual limitations through our limitations. Science is concerned with that which is not confined to individuals; it is the impersonal human world of Truths. Religion realizes these Truths and links them up with our deeper needs; our individual consciousness of Truth gains universal significance. Religion applies values to Truth, and we know this Truth as good through our own harmony with it.
EINSTEIN: Truth, then, or Beauty is not independent of Man?
EINSTEIN: If there would be no human beings any more, the Apollo of Belvedere would no longer be beautiful.
EINSTEIN: I agree with regard to this conception of Beauty, but not with regard to Truth.
TAGORE: Why not? Truth is realized through man.
EINSTEIN: I cannot prove that my conception is right, but that is my religion.
TAGORE: Beauty is in the ideal of perfect harmony which is in the Universal Being; Truth the perfect comprehension of the Universal Mind. We individuals approach it through our own mistakes and blunders, through our accumulated experiences, through our illumined consciousness — how, otherwise, can we know Truth?
EINSTEIN: I cannot prove scientifically that Truth must be conceived as a Truth that is valid independent of humanity; but I believe it firmly. I believe, for instance, that the Pythagorean theorem in geometry states something that is approximately true, independent of the existence of man. Anyway, if there is a reality independent of man, there is also a Truth relative to this reality; and in the same way the negation of the first engenders a negation of the existence of the latter.
TAGORE: Truth, which is one with the Universal Being, must essentially be human, otherwise whatever we individuals realize as true can never be called truth – at least the Truth which is described as scientific and which only can be reached through the process of logic, in other words, by an organ of thoughts which is human. According to Indian Philosophy there is Brahman, the absolute Truth, which cannot be conceived by the isolation of the individual mind or described by words but can only be realized by completely merging the individual in its infinity. But such a Truth cannot belong to Science. The nature of Truth which we are discussing is an appearance – that is to say, what appears to be true to the human mind and therefore is human, and may be called maya or illusion.
EINSTEIN: So according to your conception, which may be the Indian conception, it is not the illusion of the individual, but of humanity as a whole.
TAGORE: The species also belongs to a unity, to humanity. Therefore the entire human mind realizes Truth; the Indian or the European mind meet in a common realization.
EINSTEIN: The word species is used in German for all human beings, as a matter of fact, even the apes and the frogs would belong to it.
TAGORE: In science we go through the discipline of eliminating the personal limitations of our individual minds and thus reach that comprehension of Truth which is in the mind of the Universal Man.
EINSTEIN: The problem begins whether Truth is independent of our consciousness.
TAGORE: What we call truth lies in the rational harmony between the subjective and objective aspects of reality, both of which belong to the super-personal man.
EINSTEIN: Even in our everyday life we feel compelled to ascribe a reality independent of man to the objects we use. We do this to connect the experiences of our senses in a reasonable way. For instance, if nobody is in this house, yet that table remains where it is.
TAGORE: Yes, it remains outside the individual mind, but not the universal mind. The table which I perceive is perceptible by the same kind of consciousness which I possess.
EINSTEIN: If nobody would be in the house the table would exist all the same — but this is already illegitimate from your point of view — because we cannot explain what it means that the table is there, independently of us.
Our natural point of view in regard to the existence of truth apart from humanity cannot be explained or proved, but it is a belief which nobody can lack — no primitive beings even. We attribute to Truth a super-human objectivity; it is indispensable for us, this reality which is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind — though we cannot say what it means.
TAGORE: Science has proved that the table as a solid object is an appearance and therefore that which the human mind perceives as a table would not exist if that mind were naught. At the same time it must be admitted that the fact, that the ultimate physical reality is nothing but a multitude of separate revolving centres of electric force, also belongs to the human mind.
In the apprehension of Truth there is an eternal conflict between the universal human mind and the same mind confined in the individual. The perpetual process of reconciliation is being carried on in our science, philosophy, in our ethics. In any case, if there be any Truth absolutely unrelated to humanity then for us it is absolutely non-existing.
It is not difficult to imagine a mind to which the sequence of things happens not in space but only in time like the sequence of notes in music. For such a mind such conception of reality is akin to the musical reality in which Pythagorean geometry can have no meaning. There is the reality of paper, infinitely different from the reality of literature. For the kind of mind possessed by the moth which eats that paper literature is absolutely non-existent, yet for Man’s mind literature has a greater value of Truth than the paper itself. In a similar manner if there be some Truth which has no sensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will ever remain as nothing so long as we remain human beings.
EINSTEIN: Then I am more religious than you are!
TAGORE: My religion is in the reconciliation of the Super-personal Man, the universal human spirit, in my own individual being.
In the ancient past, material knowledge and spirituality went hand in hand, in fact all knowledge was a synthesis of the two. Medical knowledge was no different.
Art by Freydoon Rassouli. In many ancient traditions, dreaming is understood to be the link between matter and spirit.
Matter was studied and understood through this loaded concept called the spirit. But this led to much speculation, numerous doctrines and theories came into being. Lineages were established – in the west, the Aristotle’s theories dominated philosophy. Hippocrates and Galen’s theories dominated medicine. Medical books were frequently written with terms pertaining to the union of the soul and flesh.
But after a while, certain elements of the religious establishment started to control the study of every aspect of matter, every aspect of the study of nature. Doctrines became rigid; study of human biology was stalled and there was no advancement in medicine. Dissections and experiments were prohibited in the name of religion. All knowledge was controlled by the precepts of what religions preached. The spirit side was dominating the study of matter.
Up until the 17th century, all the work done was the work of great masters like Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, and Galen – the knowledge passed down by generations of sincere followers of past wisdom.
But in the 17th century, several individuals found this approach was not working to understand the bodily functions. So, we had to separate spirit from matter. Matter has to be studied using quantifiable evidence – the human body was seen as a collection of mechanisms which could be studied using chemical reactions, physical laws, and mathematical equations.
Spirituality and philosophy are concerned with subjective experience so cannot be quantified, and therefore not a subject of scientific study. Spirit and matter, therefore, cannot go hand in hand in the study of nature. The separation thus happened around 17th century.
Old methods should die, writes Francis Bacon, who many attribute as the founder of the scientific approach. He proposed methods for a new beginning. He listed unsolved problems in every field of human endeavor. He thus became the prophet of this new institution called science.
Francis Bacon actually called this the “new philosophy.” This was different from any other philosophy because it aimed at practice rather than theory, in search of proof, rather than a doctrine, something concrete rather than speculation. Knowledge, according to him is not an opinion, but a work that has to be verified. Knowledge should have utility and power, he declared. Here, for the first time, was the voice and tone of modern science.
Science is aimed at practice rather than theory, in search of proof, rather than a doctrine, something concrete rather than speculation.
The scientific method emerged as the universal equalizer for all those who wanted to study nature. One peculiarly unique attribute about this scientific method is its process of investigation. The celebrated physicist Richard Feynman candidly articulated how the experimental method works:
Suppose if your experiments prove your theory to be true, it doesn’t mean that your guess is absolutely right. It is simply not proved wrong. Because in the future, there may be a wider range of experiments and a wider range of computations that may prove your theory is wrong…. You can never prove a theory to be right.
Feynman’s assessment remains true. Today, a typical scientific discovery relies on three factors: First, a hypothesis (an intelligent guess); second, the ability to test and re-test the hypothesis in a reputable, controlled experiment; and third, publication of the results. Anyone who correctly follows the steps laid out in a particular study design, no matter who they are, must be able to say, “Yes, I got the same result.”
Since then every claim we make had to be put to the test. For instance, if we claim that brushing our teeth twice a day, once in morning and once before bedtime, is better for the health of teeth, this claim should be validated. Only if it passes the grind of scientific study is it deemed appropriate to follow this practice – of brushing twice a day. If it fails, the habit would be simply discarded.
In this world of science, there is no room for existential questions such as – why have we come into this world? What is the nature of self? What is the goal of life? What is the basis of ethics and morality? These existential questions cannot be quantifiable and therefore cannot be tested.
The words spirit, or god were never to be written in any respectable scientific journal.
This was the birth of what we call Classical Mechanics, as founded by Isaac Newton. Nature behaves according to certain predetermined laws and by discovering those laws we can understand nature and its functions. “Spirit” has no place in this study. In other words, there are laws in nature, but a law maker is not necessary for those laws to function.
Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica – Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy is a work in three books by Isaac Newton, in Latin, first published 5 July 1687. The Principia states Newton’s laws of motion and Newton’s law of universal gravitation, forming the foundation of classical mechanics. The Principia is regarded as one of the most important works in the history of science.
“Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is truth.” – Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Cambridge University Library holds the largest and most important collection of the scientific works of Newton. Click image for more.
The founders of scientific method, in the 16th and 17th centuries felt that the universe is similar to a clock-like machine, independent of any law maker. The scientific community loved this idea, not because they truly believed in this assumption, but because only through such assumption, we were able to let go of ourselves of the iron fist of religion that was chocking the study of nature. And so it was reluctantly omitted from all scientific endeavors.
This approach worked. We discovered many mechanisms of nature, and invented many instruments that makes our lives comfortable. For over three centuries, scientists believed that the laws of nature are absolute, and by discovering them, we can understand nature and its functions.
After a while, scientists started to discover that these laws of nature weren’t as absolute as was originally theorized. They discovered that what we can perceive about the universe is grossly limited. The forces of the universe that is not yet reachable to human mind has come to be known as – the dark energy – the unknown force that is not reachable to the scientific study. Instead of calling it the “universal energy,” they called it “the dark energy.”
Many scientifically educated modern day gurus try to rationalize a synthesis of these two approaches – science of matter and the knowledge of spirit into one.
On the other hand, it feels that we may find a medium where we can reconcile the differences. We have surprised ourselves from time to time what the human mind is capable of. May be, we will at some point reconcile the differences between matter and spirit.
In all honesty, I feel that it is impractical to synthesize these two into a unified approach. This is because science, as a branch of studying nature was created to rid of the subjective theories and doctrines from the study of nature. Science and spirituality are two separate approaches to understand our nature and ourselves.
Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996) relentlessly advocated skeptical inquiry and encouraged applying the scientific way of thinking to everyday life. He believed that scientific thinking refines our intellectual and moral integrity.