Who’s Afraid of René Descartes?

In 1637, French philosopher René Descartes decided to doubt everything. Nowadays, we call this being a teenager. 

Descartes believed that if he challenged himself to doubt all his long held beliefs, he would eventually find some piece of knowledge that he couldn’t doubt. He believed that only a radical doubt could lead him to certain knowledge. 

This is how I know that Descartes didn’t have anxiety. 

Here’s the thing: I have lived my entire life in a state of deep Cartesian doubt, without even having to try. Most people believe in their own inherent worth and morality, but I am proud to say I never have. I doubt my health, my life, my friends, my family, and then, just for good measure, I doubt the sanity of my own doubts. And if my doubts are insane—well, it’s not much of a stretch to doubt if I’m entirely sane, myself. 

I know what it’s like to doubt everything, always. And because of that, I know that there isn’t any end. There’s no point that a person can get to where they’re sure, where they just can’t doubt any more. I will always find something to doubt, and that’s a shitty way to live. 

So, what if there’s some alternative to Cartesian doubt, something that’s more suitable to everyday life? What would happen if, instead of challenging ourselves to doubt everything we’ve been taught to believe in, we challenged ourselves to believe in everything we had been taught to doubt?

Probably, we’d all become Q-Anon conspiracy theorists. 

So, okay, that doesn’t work. We can’t believe in everything. Things like politics, relationships, our own actions and mistakes: these require some critical thinking. Belief is a potent thing, and a lot of people indulge too much in it. 

Still, is it possible that there are some specific pieces of knowledge to which we can apply a kind of Cartesian belief? Can we say things like “I believe that I am valid”, “I believe that humans are inherently good”, “I believe that life has meaning” not because we’re sure that those things are philosophically certain, but because we have to believe those things just in order to live everyday. 

Think of it like this: we have no way of knowing that the sun will rise tomorrow. Just because it has risen, every morning, for the entire span of human memory, doesn’t prove that it will rise tomorrow. We just can’t know for sure. 

That said, I won’t be sleeping in a bunker tonight. The chances are pretty good that the sun will rise tomorrow. And you know what? The chances that I’m a real and valid person are pretty good too. 

In the end it took Descartes six books and half his life to find a piece of certain knowledge. Eventually, he realized that the fact that he was thinking at all proved that he must exist—I think, therefore I am. 

This realization took Descartes such a long time because he didn’t know my trick. It’s a trick that all anxious people know. When we begin to doubt, when we begin to say, “What if I get a bad grade and a bad school and a bad job and nobody loves me and the world is ending and I’m dying and my cat likes my sister better”, we close our eyes for a second and we challenge ourselves to believe. We say “I believe that people are kind and I believe that the world will go on and I believe that I will go on with it.” Because, sure, I might not exist. Everything I’m seeing and feeling could be an illusion. But it sure feels like I exist. And for the sake of doing my homework and cooking my dinner, I exist just as certainly as I need to.