René Descartes and Information Asymmetry
My Reflections on "Meditations on First Philosophy"
The first thought associated with René Descartes is his quote, "I think therefore I am". Like the work of most musicians the best songs are not the hit singles but the ones found deeper in the album. For Descartes what resonated with me was not his flashy quotes or his conjectures about the existence of God but the points of information asymmetry he had and how that influenced his argument.
To preface this article, this past week I read Descartes magnum opus "Meditations on First Philosophy". It took me 5 hours to get through 70 pages. There was a lot of reading, re-reading, annotating, and re-reading again to understand his main arguments. So I should disclaim that my interpretation of his work and what he was trying to express may be inaccurate. Meditations is notoriously known for being misinterpreted and oversimplified.
To summarize, the purpose of Meditations is to demonstrate that God exists from first principles. Descartes wants to remove all of his preconceived beliefs and knowledge and he critically analyzes any new opinion that tries to enter his mind. The result of this is that he concludes that God exists and along the way determines minds are separate from our bodies. In this article I'm not going to delve into how he got to these conclusions simply because there are other articles that already do this.
Information Asymmetry, which is what I am most concerned about, is an economic concept when one party has more information regarding a topic than another. In economics an example would be like a shady car dealership where the car salesman knows a car is a lemon but the customer thinks it works perfectly fine. In other words there is a lack of information on one side that causes someone to make an err decision.
For the context of Meditations Descartes is the customer, the car is the knowledge he is trying to acquire through his reasoning process and we are the car salesman with the more advanced information at hand.
In the present day, we understand more about the world and our human bodies than Descartes. If one gave this present-day information to Descartes, I would conjecture he would disagree with his conclusions that God exists, the mind is separate from the body.
On Why God Exists
To oversimplify the reason Descartes argues that God exists is that there had to be a cause to put in everyone's mind that God exists. To grossly over simply he argued that a cause could not be less "real" than the effect and since God is the highest form of reality there must have been a God to put into everyone's mind that there is a God.
Descartes grew up in 17th century Europe where everyone around him was likely Christian and more so monotheistic. If he had access to the same communication and understanding of other religions that we have today he would not be able to make that same argument. How could there be other people in the world that do not believe that God is the highest form of reality like I do? Without knowing it Descartes may have still been holding on to some preconceived beliefs without fully realizing it because that was all he was surrounded by in that time period.
On The Mind Being Separate From the Body
Descartes also argues that the mind (our consciousness) is separate from our physical brain. That there was some spirit/soul that was eternal even after your body failed. Descartes argued that your physical body was "divisible" ( you can cut an arm off) but your cognition is not. Of course in later centuries as empirical evidence has shown physical damage to areas of our brain (such as Phineas Gage) are causal to changes in cognition. Changes in the function of our cognition are now widely known to be associated with physical damage to our brain. In Descartes's time this was not a clear association.
I would be really curious to see if this new information and understanding would change how Descartes made his argument. If we could time-travel and bring Descartes to 2020, aside from quarantining for 14 days, what would be his initial actions to revise his argument?
The reason I bring up information gaps specifically for Descartes is that he makes reference to them repeated in Meditations. He talks about how we do not really know if what we sense by our senses is real because it is hard to distinguish what is a dream from reality so therefore it is possible that everything is just a dream. He talks about the omnipotence of God and how he is all-knowing while we can be deceived by food that looks normal but is actually poisonous.
For almost any philosopher of any time period, you can go back and pick out some of the information gaps off things they did not understand at the time. In 100 years from now, people will look at our generation's philosophers and scoff at our limited understanding of how the universe works. The reason I bring this up for Descartes since information gaps were so central to his argument how did he not have the foresight to be aware of these shortcomings and address them?
Hey! 👋 I’m Aaron, a 16-year-old who’s super passionate about human longevity, philosophy, and the world’s biggest problems. Feel free to connect with me on Linkedin or check out my full portfolio!