The Unfundamental Conversion

Apostate: Rene Descartes (Chapter 4)

June 12th, 2014 | Posted by Lana Hope in Book Reviews | Philosophy

apostateI am reviewing Kevin Swanson’s book Apostate chapter-by-chapter. So far here are the reviews I have written:

Chapter 1 and 2
Thomas Aquinas (Chapter 3)

Since I have not written any reviews in a while, I thought I would recap why I am writing these reviews. Then I will go on to review chapter 4.

Apostate outlines what Kevin Swanson calls the demise of the Christian west. In particular, the book focuses on men, philosophers and other intellects, who Swanson claims broke down the Christian faith and morality and left us with tolerating gay people and voting for liberals. Here’s his latest trailer on his book that will give you the idea at far dramatic Swanson has made this:


The book is a philosophical disaster of random homophobic remarks and sloppy research. Chapter 1 and 2, as I wrote, does not define basic terms he uses in a negative way (like humanism) and fails to correctly articulate philosophical terminology or the tension centering around epistemology. Swanson decides whether or not a philosopher is correct based on how much sexual sin was in their life, and he argues that the Bible is the only source of truth, faulting thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas for asserting that truth can be discovered in the natural world. Swanson continues by assuming that everything secular philosophers think or do is incorrect, and he targets and faults these certain men with destroying the west. His definition of destruction, once again, refers to sexual sins.

It is vastly over generalized and a philosophical disaster. I am trying to underline some of the ways Swanson generalizes his ideas.

Now onto this post on chapter 4 of Apostate. Swanson writes:

We observe that Descartes’ quest for knowledge does not include the great book of Scripture containing God’s revealed truth. He resolves to “no other knowledge” than that found in himself and the “great book of the world.” The words “no other knowledge” are important; they are the fundamental credo of the humanist, since his quest for knowledge is a self-contained search. The humanist believes that man is sufficient of himself to determine truth.


On the one hand, men may seek ultimate knowledge or first propositions within themselves, or they may try to find some truth outside of themselves and process the information in complete reliance on their own intellect. Descartes takes the first approach, attempting to find some incontrovertible truth within himself. Independent of any and all revelation from God, while suspending all believe in God’s existence, Descartes pretends that he can produce the first and most basic truths required to understand the world.

I should begin this critique by stating that Descartes and I part ways in our epistemology. However, Descartes lived a really long time ago. He was born in a different time and context, and he was addressing different needs present to those times. I suggest that he was asking and addressing important needs of his time. I think his project fails, but we need to first understand what Descartes was trying to construct before we deconstruct or criticize his project. This is important, and Swanson skips this step.

Descartes lived in the 17th century in the dawn of the scientific revolution. He wanted to defeat skepticism on its own grounds. But there was another important contribution that came out of Descartes work. He was able to assert the existence of the physical world, which was mathematical in character and paved the way for physics.

For us today, we may say that of course, we can use math to make calculations about the expansion of the universe, and of course, the physical world exists. For most 21st century humans, this is all true, but there was no “of course” in Descartes day. During the dawn of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, skepticism was resurfacing, and thinkers started with the view that we knew nothing for certain, and many thinkers were consciously trying to find a way out of this uncertainty. These thinkers include Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Blaise Pascal, and Rene Descartes. Ironically, all too ironically, Swanson charges the great medieval thinker St. Thomas Aquinas as the root of this skepticism. This is the first two sentences of Swanson’s on Descartes:

In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas proposed two distinct systems of knowledge: one which is revealed through the sacred doctrine and one which is built upon human reason. Four centuries later, the philosopher Rene Descartes accepted the proposition [.]

I have already argued that Swanson misunderstood Aquinas. But Swanson is also wrong that Aquinas influenced Descartes to divide reason from spiritual knowledge. The church had provided so much dogma and certainty for so many centuries, and now all that certainty the church provided was crashing down (R.C. Sproul says the protestant reformation created the crash with more intensity than the scientific revolution; we might debate all the reasons, but nevertheless, the skepticism at this time was understandable and real). Not only was Descartes not copy catting Aquinas, but moreover, it was the great Christian thinkers that had ultimately failed Europe, and that’s why they were sceptical. Descartes also was not the enemy of the church; he was trying to overcome skepticism by defeating it on its own grounds.

I definitely think Descartes system fails, but if I had walked in Descartes day, I would have been addressing the same concerns. The people in Europe needed to recover a sense of certainty in something, and without verifying the importance of reason and the existence of the physical world, even the certainty of science would not have been possible. (Descartes was a rationalist and was more sympathetic to reason than the senses.)

Swanson also writes:

The first and most believable propostions is that which God speaks. “Thy word is truth” says Christ (John 17:17). However, according to Descartes, his own existence and his own doubt are more fundamental truths.

That is not completely accurate. In fact, Descarctes said that it was because God exists that we can be certain that an evil demon is not deceving us into thinking we have a body or that that the external world is there. So in one sense, Descrates knows that God is the foundation of the world, even if it was reason that first led Descartes to that conclusion that God exists (side note: why is it such a big deal that reason led Descartes to the conclusion that God exists; does everyone have to be born a theist or something?). Swanson even goes on to call Descarates a diest, but I should also note that Descartes was Catholic.

Not only is Swanson not able to discuss the importance of Descartes, but he goes on to attack all Descartes predecessors:

The modern humanist [Hegel] is very much indebted to the work of Descartes.

Swanson is correct that philosophers are indebted to the work of Descartes. To discover the importance of Descartes, all one needs to do is pick up any epistemology book in any bookstore. However, Hegel and Descartes part ways. Just because Hegel says Descartes provides “the groundwork on which philosophy is based” does not mean that Hegel and Descartes agree on everything.

Descartes epistemology is systematic. Descartes believed that he could overcome personal biases by making himself an object of contemplation. Literally he began there. Descartes outlines a system beginning with clear and distinct ideas, riding oneself of foggy ideas, and processing information from the most simple to the most complex. Hegel did not do this. Hegel said that awareness and knowledge comes through the way that consciousness is mediated through the other. In other words, Descartes’ method of knowing was one of a detached objectivity. Hegel’s method was one in which one is always being assimilated through the whole; Hegel’s thought paved the way for Martin Heidegger who said that pure objectivity is not possible and even counterproductive.

Not only does Swanson fail to make any meaningful connections between Descartes and what he was trying to address, but he also uses Descartes to further rant about sexual immorality.

Descartes got a woman pregnant who was not officially his wife, and Swanson criticizes him because we do have documentation of his repentance. Although the child died at a young age, Descartes did take care of the child and the mother, something that Swanson does not acknowledge. Instead Swanson just uses this as an opportunity to rant about how “humanists destroyed both morality and the family in the western world, which boosted illegitimacy rates above 60% in some nations. The Bible takes the sin of fortification very seriously.” Swanson then compares Descartes to his favorite thinkers:

It is truly remarkable that the great father of modern philosophy lacked such moral integrity. What would we say about the influential Christian writers such as John Calvin, Thomas A’Kempis, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, and Jonathan Edwards if their ministries had been interrupted by a similar tragic incident of moral failure? Granted, there are godly men who fail, but their repentance is undeniably present in their writings. This is not true of Descartes , who as a humanist considered moral integrity unimportant.

How does Swanson know that Descartes believed that moral integrity was unimportant?  What about the controversy surrounding Calvin and his community who put a heretic to death at stake? What about Luther’s misogyny? Also, Calvin was a humanist. Ironically, Calvin studied philosophy and history, and he was a Latinist.

In conclusion, Swanson has made three mistakes. First, he fails to make correct connections. Aquinas did not cause Descartes to doubt, and Desartes did not cause people to sin in future generations. Secondly, Swanson shows no understanding towards what Descartes was trying to address and no sympathy towards the tension people felt in those days. Thirdly, in an unprofessional manner, Swanson once again uses sloppy research to focus in on his hang ups with sexual sin.

In the next chapter we will get to Locke.

Stay tuned. I have many more posts in my drafts.

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