It is hard to overstate the importance of René Descartes for science and society today. Applying algebra to geometry is the backbone of modern science and Cartesian coordinates enable satellites to orbit distant planets and passing comets. On a more mundane level, GPS helps us find our destination when we are lost. Descartes himself saw a strong correlation between his scientific and his philosophical work, but an integrated view on the combination of scientific and philosophical themes in Descartes has yet to be formulated.
Descartes considered natural truths to be encoded in the human mind and scientific investigation to offer the code with which to read human experience. Descartes’ interpretation of science as a way of decoding information marks the turn towards a typically modern awareness of the gulf between inward experience and outward, ‘third-person’ description. The project Decoding Descartes not only aims at reconstructing Descartes’ position on its own terms, but also aspires to explain why this position is still of relevance for understanding both science and ourselves.
The project combines state-of-the-art text-editing for the new Oxford University Press edition of Descartes’ correspondence (sub-project 2) with a wholly original interpretation of Descartes’ philosophical legacy (sub-project 1 and sub-project 3). Linking the philosopher’s letters to his works, the project specifies in detail how Descartes foresaw the metaphysical implications that came along with the emergence of natural science and gave rise to the idea of a clash between science and common sense, in other words, a gulf between processes explained and processes experienced.
Still immensely studied today, the philosopher and scientist René Descartes (1596–1650) is an iconic figure who paradoxically appears to have gone out of fashion. Decoding Descartes aims to show why this contradiction is only apparent: Descartes is indisputably the father of modern philosophy and a pivotal figure in the rise of modern science, even though much of his own scientific views were considered outdated 50 years after his death. The NWO-funded research project Decoding Descartes redefines Descartes’ role in modern philosophical thought and contribute to our understanding of modernity itself by highlighting the emergence of the idea of a clash between science and common sense.
Descartes considered natural truths to be encoded in the human mind and scientific investigation to offer the code with which to read human experience. Decoding Descartes will present his contribution to the development of the modern worldview in terms of a proposal to substitute the pre-modern practice of reading causal agents into nature with a new epistemology that sharply distinguishes between natural processes and their third-person description (the world of science) and first-person experience itself (the world of common sense). The project is highly innovative for the way in which it will integrate a comprehensive study of Descartes’ works and correspondence with a new approach to some of today’s most pressing issues in neuroscience, artificial intelligence and philosophy.