Opinionated History of Mathematics

Cracking tales of historical mathematics and its interplay with science, philosophy, and culture. Revisionist history galore. Contrarian takes on received wisdom. Implications for teaching. Informed by current scholarship. By Dr Viktor Blåsjö.

https://intellectualmathematics.com/blog/

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Maker’s knowledge: early modern philosophical interpretations of geometry


Philosophical movements in the 17th century tried to mimic the geometrical method of the ancients. Some saw Euclid—with his ruler and compass in hand—as a “doer,” and thus characterised geometry as a “maker’s knowledge.” Others got into a feud about what to do when Euclid was at odds with Aristotle. Descartes thought Euclid’s axioms should be justified via theology.

Transcript

Everybody has seen the painting The School of Athens, the famous Renaissance fresco by Rafael. It shows all the great thinkers of antiquity engaged in lively intellectual activity. Plato and Aristotle are debating the relative merits of the world of ideas and the world of the senses, both gesticulating to emphasize their point. Others are absorbed in other debates and lectures, somebody’s reading, somebody’s writing.

But here’s something most people don’t notice in this painting. There is one and only one person in this entire pantheon who is actually making something. Everybody is thinking, arguing, reading, writing. Except Euclid. Euclid is drawing with his compass. He is producing the subject matter he is studying. He is active with his hands. He’s practically a craftsman among all these philosophers.

In the ancient world, the mathematician is the maker. Geometry is the most hands-on of all the branches of philosophy and higher learning.

Today the cliche is that a math nerd is almost comically feeble in anything having to do with physical action.

But ancient geometry was in the thick of the action. You had to roll up your sleeves to do geometry. Even in theoretical geometry you would constantly draw, construct, work with instruments. It was a short step to engineering. The greatest ancient mathematician, Archimedes, is almost as famous for his feats in engineering. Such as mechanical devices for lifting and moving heavy objects, and for transporting water. Archimedes and other mathematicians were also at the front lines of war, building catapults and many other warfare machines according to precise calculations. They were architects. The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul for example, was designed by a mathematician, Isidore, who had written an appendix to Euclid’s Elements.

In early modern modern times, like the 17th century, this link between mathematics and concrete action was well understood and appreciated.

Francis Bacon was sick of traditional philosophy because “it can talk, but it cannot generate.” This frustration led him to the radical counterproposal: to know is to do. “What in operation is most useful, that in knowledge is most true.” And on the other hand “to study or feign inactive principles of things is the part of those who would sow talk and nourish disputations.” So we have to condemn much traditional philosophy and turn more to action, to doing.

Perhaps the most important difference between ancient mathematics and ancient philosophy is precisely this. That mathematics is active, while philosophy merely “sows talk and nourishes disputations.” Perhaps that is the explanation for why mathematics proved so fruitful, still thousands of years later, both for intricate theory, such as planetary motions, and for practice, such as engineering, navigation, and so on. Try doing that with Aristotle’s doctrine of causes or Plato’s theory of the soul. Those things are great for “sowing disputations” but if doing is the goal then you can’t get much mileage out of them.

Thomas Hobbes, another famous 17th-century philosopher, very much agreed with this analysis. Hobbes famously declared that “Geometry is the only science that it hath pleased God hitherto to bestow on mankind.” How so? What makes geometry different from all other branches of philosophy and science?

Constructions, of course. Hobbes is very explicit about this. “If the first principles contain not the generation of the subject, there can be nothing demonstrated as it ought to be.” This is what makes mathematics different. Its principles contain the generation of the subject: Euclid’s postulates correspond to ruler and compass, and these are tools that generate the figures that geometry is about.

All philosophical and scientific theories are based on some assumptions or axioms. But they are not generative axioms. They are not a recipe for producing everything the theory talks about from nothing.

In this light we can readily appreciate for instance Hobbes’s otherwise peculiar-sounding claim that political philosophy, rather than physics or astronomy, is the field of knowledge most susceptible to mathematical rigour. Here’s how he puts it:

“Of arts, some are demonstrable, others indemonstrable; and demonstrable are those the construction of the subject whereof is in the power of the artist himself, who, in his demonstration, does no more but deduce the consequences of his own operation. The reason whereof is this, that the science of every subject is derived from a precognition of the causes, generation, and construction of the same; and consequently where the causes are known, there is place for demonstration, but not where the causes are to seek for. Geometry therefore is demonstrable, for the lines and figures from which we reason are drawn and described by ourselves; and civil philosophy is demonstrable, because we make the commonwealth ourselves.”

As bizarre as this may sound to modern ears, it makes perfect sense when we keep in mind the all-important role of constructions in classical geometry.

Indeed there are many things that only the person who made it truly understand. At this time, the 17th century, various mechanical devices were becoming more common. Such as pocket watches and all kinds of other machines based on gears and cogwheels and so on. The person who made it knows what all the parts are for, but an outsider cannot see this very easily at all. Today another example might be computer programs. The person who wrote it knows how it works, what it can do, how it could be changed, what might cause it to fail, and so on. It would be very difficult for someone else to get a similar sense of how it all works, even if they had access to the code, or they could pop the hood and look at the gears so to speak. Only the maker truly knows: “maker’s knowledge” is a slogan often repeated in the 17th century.

Hobbes took this idea and built a general philosophy from it. His general philosophical program can be read as a direct generalisation of the constructivist precept to the domain of general philosophy. Here’s how Hobbes defines philosophy: “Philosophy is such knowledge of effects or appearances as we acquire by true [reasoning] from their causes or generation.” This is basically a direct equivalent in more general terms of the principle that constructions are the source of mathematical knowledge and meaning.

Indeed, Hobbes explicitly draws out this parallel: “How the knowledge of any effect may be gotten from the knowledge of the generation thereof, may easily be understood by the example of a circle: for if there be set before us a plain figure, having, as near as may be, the figure of a circle, we cannot possibly perceive by sense whether it be a true circle or no. [But if] it be known that the figure was made by the circumduction of a body whereof one end remained unmoved” then the properties of a circle become evident. You understand a circle because you make it, in other words.

Another way of putting it is that “The subject of Philosophy, or the matter it treats of, is every body of which we can conceive any generation.” Just as, classically, the domain of geometry is the set of all constructible figures.

Concepts that are not constructively defined can easily be contradictory or meaningless: a common problem outside of geometry. As Hobbes says: “senseless and insignificant language cannot be avoided by those that will teach philosophy without having first attained great knowledge in geometry.”

Again, as we have discussed before, anchoring geometrical entities in physical reality is a warrant of consistency. Hobbes makes this point as well. “Nature itself cannot err”; that is to say, physical experiences “are not subject to absurdity.”

It is notable that Hobbes and other 17th-century thinkers who invoked geometry did not have in mind simple school geometry and some superficial remarks in Plato or Aristotle. Rather, they were referring to the rich picture of the geometrical method that emerges from a thorough study of advanced Greek geometry and technical writers. When they call upon geometry they mean not some simplistic idea of axiomatic-deductive method but a rich methodology only conveyed implicitly in the finest ancient works of advanced geometry.

This is why the constructive aspect shines through so clearly. It’s importance is evident if you study the mathematicians and build your idea of philosophy of mathematics from there. You’re not going to learn anything about that by reading Plato and Aristotle.

Hobbes is very clear about this. As he says, his philosophy of geometry is “to an attentive reader versed in the demonstrations of mathematicians without any offensive novelty.” Indeed, one must be “an attentive reader,” because one must draw out the philosophical implications left implicit in these sources. And one must be “versed in the demonstrations of mathematicians,” meaning the technical Greek authors. As Hobbes calls them, those “very skillful masters in the most distant ages: above all in geometry Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius, Pappus, and others from ancient Greece.” This is why Hobbes, in one of his works, “thought it fit to admonish the reader that he take into his hands the works of Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius, and others.”

Many other 17th-century philosophers picked up the same themes. Some took it to the epistemological extreme of saying that anything other than concrete, specific experience is strictly unknowable. Gassendi, for instance, did not hesitate to take this leap: “Things not yet created and having no existence, but being merely possible, have no reality and no truth.” “The moment you pass beyond things that are apparent, or fall under the province of the senses and experience, in order to inquire about deeper matters, both mathematics and all other branches of knowledge become completely shrouded in darkness.” Mathematical objects must be “considered in actual things”; indeed, “as soon as numbers and figures are considered abstractly then they are nothing at all.” Those are all quotes from Gassendi, and his point of view makes sense. He merely spells out the consequence of taking concrete construction to be essential to knowledge, just as the mathematical tradition suggests.

Other philosophers agreed too. Vico put it like this: “We are able to demonstrate geometrical propositions because we create them; were it possible for us to supply demonstrations of propositions of physics, we would be capable of creating them ex nihilo as well.” So once again the link between creation and knowledge is all-important, and geometry is the key example of this.

Paolo Sarpi made much the same point: “We know for certain both the existence and the cause of those things which we understand fully how to make [just as] in mathematics someone who composes [that is to say, demonstrates synthetically, in the manner of Euclid] knows because he makes.”

It’s striking how many of these early modern thinkers who were well versed in the Greek tradition seized upon the constructive element as the essence of the more geometrico, “the manner of the geometers.”

But there were of course other perspectives on mathematics as well. A lot of people read too much Aristotle and not enough Archimedes. Then as now, one might add. Anyway, these Aristotelians didn’t like mathematics much, and they tried to undermine its authority.

Here is their main point of attack: Mathematical proofs, such as those in Euclid, show that the theorem is true, but not why it is true. In other words, mathematics does not demonstrate “from causes,” as a true science should, according to Aristotle.

Here’s one typical expression of this argument, from Aristotelian philosopher Pereyra in the 16th century:

“My opinion is that the mathematical disciplines are not proper sciences. To have science is to acquire knowledge of a thing through the cause on account of which the thing is. However, the most perfect kind of demonstration must depend upon those things which are proper to that which is demonstrated; indeed, those things which are accidental and in common are excluded from perfect demonstrations.”

Euclid’s geometry is not a “science” in this sense, according to this point of view. For example, Pereyra, says, consider the theorem that the angle sum of any triangle is two right angles (Euclid’s Proposition 32). “The geometer proves [this theorem] on account of the fact that the external angle which results from extending the side of that triangle is equal to two angles of the same triangle which are opposed to it. Who does not see that this middle is not the cause of the property which is demonstrated? [The external angle] is related in an altogether accidental way to [the angle sum of the triangle]. Indeed, whether the side is produced and the external angle is formed or not, or rather even if we imagine that the production of the one side and the bringing about of the external angle is impossible, nonetheless that property will belong to the triangle; but, what else is the definition of an accident than what may belong or not belong to the thing without its corruption?”

So in other words, Euclid’s proof of the angle sum theorem does not reveal the actual reason why the theorem is true. Instead it proves the result via a non-essential thing, the external angle sticking out from the triangle. This external part was obviously added by the geometer quite gratuitously; it’s not essential to the very nature of the triangle. So it’s a kind of artificial trick to add this extra angle and base the proof on it. Truly explanatory and causal demonstrations should not be based on artificial tricks but on what is truly essential to the situation.

Schopenhauer later ranted against Euclid along similar lines. That’s in the 19th century. These ideas were more important and influential in the 16th century, when Aristotelianism was a dominant philosophy. But it’s fun to quote Schopenhauer anyway, because he expresses the same ideas in a charming way. Here’s what he says:

“Perception is the primary source of all evidence, and the shortest way to this is always the surest, as every interposition of concepts means exposure to many deceptions. If we turn with this conviction to mathematics, as it was established as a science by Euclid, and has remained as a whole to our own day, we cannot help regarding the method it adopts, as strange and indeed perverted. We ask that every logical proof shall be traced back to an origin in perception; but mathematics, on the contrary, is at great pains deliberately to throw away the evidence of perception which is peculiar to it, and always at hand, that it may substitute for it a logical demonstration. This must seem to us like the action of a man who cuts off his legs in order to go on crutches.”

“Instead of giving a thorough insight into the nature of the triangle, [Euclid] sets up certain disconnected arbitrarily chosen propositions concerning the triangle, and gives a logical ground of knowledge of them, through a laborious logical demonstration, based upon the principle of contradiction. We are very much in the position of a man to whom the different effects of an ingenious machine are shown, but from whom its inner connection and construction are withheld. We are compelled by the principle of contradiction to admit that what Euclid demonstrates is true, but we do not comprehend why it is so. We have therefore almost the same uncomfortable feeling that we experience after a juggling trick, and, in fact, most of Euclid’s demonstrations are remarkably like such feats. The truth almost always enters by the back door, for it manifests itself per accidens through some contingent circumstance. Often a reductio ad absurdum shuts all the doors one after another, until only one is left through which we are therefore compelled to enter. Often, as in the proposition of Pythagoras, lines are drawn, we don’t know why, and it afterwards appears that they were traps which close unexpectedly and take prisoner the assent of the astonished learner. The proposition of Pythagoras teaches us a qualitas occulta of the right-angled triangle. In our eyes this method of Euclid in mathematics can appear only as a very brilliant piece of perversity.”

So Schopenhauer agrees with the 16th-century Aristotelians that Euclid’s proofs are not explanatory. Instead they proceed by some kind of trick. Euclid is constantly setting logical mousetraps that force the reader to accept the conclusion even though nothing has truly been explained.

It’s interesting though that Schopenhauer uses the example of a machine that is shown to someone who doesn’t know how it was made and therefore is baffled by it and cannot understand how it works. The people of the constructivist tradition we discussed earlier of course used the same image to prove the opposite point: namely that in geometry we are the makers of the machines we use and precisely for that reason that we have genuine knowledge and understanding of it. The people who looked at it that way were basing themselves on mathematical sources. Schopenhauer and the 16th-century Aristotelian who hated mathematics so much were also the ones who knew the least about it. They had not studied the technical Greek writers like Archimedes, Apollonius, and Pappus. Some of these technical sources had not even been translated into Latin yet at the time the Aristotelians were writing in the 16th century. And by the time of Schopenhauer they had been forgotten again among philosophers.

But these Aristotelian guys in the 16th-century also had further interesting arguments to support their point. For example, consider Euclid’s area theorems for parallelograms and triangles in Propositions 35 and 37. The theorems say that same base and same height implies the same area. The first theorem says this for parallelograms and the other one for triangles. The proof of the second theorem is based on the first one: a triangle is just half a parallelogram, so since we already have the result for parallelograms it follows almost immediately that it is also true for triangles.

But we could just as well have done it the other way around: we could have proved the theorems first for triangles, and the infer the result for parallelograms by saying that parallelograms are basically just double triangles.

Euclid chose to start with the parallelogram and then do the triangle, but this was essentially an arbitrary choice. It doesn’t reflect any causal relation. The two theorems are equivalent. It’s not that one of them is more fundamental and therefore explains or causes the other. Neither of the two theorems is more of a cause than the other. So Euclid’s procedure doesn’t fit Aristotle’s decree that demonstrations should proceed from causes.

These guys, like I said, didn’t keep in mind the whole construction business. They were not aware of that because they had not read much mathematics. Later, Leibniz, who knew both the mathematical and the philosophical traditions very well, argued that the construction perspective solves the problem that the Aristotelians raised. Here’s what Leibniz says:

“[Geometry] does demonstrate from causes. For it demonstrates figures from motion; from the motion of a point a line arises, from the motion of a line a surface, from the motion of a surface a body. Thus the constructions of figures are motions, and the properties of figures, being demonstrated from their constructions, therefore come from motion, and hence, from a cause.”

So basing geometry on constructions imposes a natural order—a causal hierarchy, as it were—on its theorems whence Aristotle’s ideal of demonstrative understanding can be maintained. According to Leibniz anyway.

Let’s have a look at Descartes as well. He also had interesting ideas about what made mathematics such a special type of knowledge, and how its success could be emulated in other fields.

In his Discourse on Method of 1637, Descartes explained his philosophical program and how he arrived at it. In an autobiographical introduction he explains:

“I was most keen on mathematics, because of its certainty and the incontrovertibility of its proofs. Considering that of all those who had up to now sought truth in the sphere of human knowledge, only mathematicians have been able to discover any proofs, that is, any certain and incontrovertible arguments, I did not doubt that I should begin as they had done.”

Those are the words of Descartes, famous for doubting everything; his very method has been called the method of doubt. Yet as he himself says: “I did not doubt” that I should follow the mathematicians.

You just had to extend the mathematical method to other areas as well, to philosophy in general. As Descartes says:

“Believing as I did that its only application was to the mechanical arts, I was astonished that nothing more exalted had been built on such sure and solid foundations.”

Just imagine the amazing things that could be achieved if other fields were as successful as mathematics. This was a common sentiment. Here’s how Hobbes put the same point:

“The geometricians have very admirably performed their part. For whatsoever assistance doth accrue to the life of man, whether from the observation of the heavens, or from the description of the earth, from the notation of times, or from the remotest experiments of navigation; finally, whatsoever things they are in which this present age doth differ from the rude simpleness of antiquity, we must acknowledge to be a debt which we owe merely to geometry. If the moral philosophers had as happily discharged their duty, I know not what could have been added by humane Industry to the completion of that happiness, which is consistent with humane life.”

So the goal of philosophy is to be as good as mathematics. So let’s see what Descartes considers to be the foundations of mathematics. He formulates a method for how to philosophise in general, and he intends for this to be a generalization of the mathematical method.

So you might say his methodological program is part descriptive and part prescriptive. It is descriptive because it describes how geometry works; it’s an analysis meant to capture what made Euclid so great. And at the same time it is prescriptive in that it gives orders as to how one should philosophise. Namely, whatever Euclid did in geometry, that philosophers should do in every field, such as physics, ethics, theology, and so on.

Here’s what Descartes says about the axioms or starting points of a theory. We discussed before whether the axioms should necessarily be obvious. Descartes comes down very firmly on that issue.

“The first [principle of my method] was never to accept anything as true that I did not incontrovertibly know to be so; that is to say, carefully to avoid both prejudice and premature conclusions; and to include nothing in my judgements other than that which presented itself to my mind so clearly and distinctly, that I would have no occasion to doubt it.”

So we should start only from the most obvious things, in other words. Things that are so clear that they cannot be doubted. Things known by immediate intuition, in other words. That’s supposed to correspond to the axioms of Euclid.

So Descartes has a lot of faith in innate intuition. As Descartes says, there are “basic roots of truth implanted in the human mind by nature, which we extinguish in ourselves daily by reading and hearing many varied errors.” So this inner “natural light” is more reliable than book learning.

So we should, Descartes says, “conduct thoughts in a given order, beginning with the simplest and most easily understood objects, and gradually ascending, as it were step by step, to the knowledge of the most complex.” And for the sake of this stepwise process, it is necessary to “divide all the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible.”

You can see how philosophy is going to look a lot like Euclid if people follow these rules that Descartes lays down.

It is interesting that Descartes also specifically says that one should “posit an order even on those [things] which do not have a natural order or precedence.” This is a kind of reply to the Aristotelian point we mentioned above.

The Aristotelians were arguing that when two theorems are equivalent—such as the areas theorems for triangles and parallelograms—then it is artificial and unscientific to impose a particular order that makes one logically prior to the other, as Euclid does. Because then you haven’t given a causal explanation, as Aristotle says one should.

Descartes turns the tables on this. Instead of criticising Euclid when his method seems to go against philosophical sense, he makes Euclid the boss of philosophy. Whatever Euclid does, that’s good method. So if Euclid imposes an artificial logical order on equivalent theorems, then that’s what one should do in philosophy, Descartes concludes.

It goes against Aristotle—so what? Those people I quoted from the 16th century, a hundred years before Descartes, they thought Aristotle had more authority than Euclid, so they used Aristotle to criticise Euclid. Now, a hundred years later with Descartes, it is the other way around. Descartes would rather use Euclid to criticise Aristotle.

A lot had happened in those hundred years. A lot of new science: Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, etc. Science had made terrific progress by using Euclid and ignoring Aristotle.

By the time of Descartes, the Aristotelians were dinosaurs. Descartes didn’t pull any punches when making this point: he condemned the Aristotelians as “less knowledgeable than if they had abstained from study.”

This new hierarchy, where mathematics has greater authority than philosophy was soon widely accepted. John Locke, the famous philosopher, put it like this half a century later: “in an age that produces such masters as the great Huygenius and the incomparable Mr. Newton, it is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge.” So philosophy is just an under-labourer to mathematical science. The real geniuses, the real creative forces are mathematicians such as Huygens and Newton. Philosophers take on a subordinated role. The task of the philosopher is to explain to others how to follow the lead of the mathematical sciences. This is why Locke calls himself a mere under-labourer.

So that was the general methodological influence of mathematics on Descartes. But Descartes was not content with merely adopting the Euclidean method in philosophy. He also wants to justify this method; to explain why it is so reliable. He does this in his Principles of Philosophy of 1644.

In the very first sentence of this book, Descartes says: “whoever is searching for truth must, once in his life, doubt all things.” As we just saw, in his earlier work he had said that he did not doubt the method of the mathematicians. Now he’s going to fix this gap.

Let’s say you did doubt the mathematical method, the method of Euclid. According to Descartes, as we saw, the foundations of the method was intuition. Euclid starts from axioms such as “if equals are added to equals, the results will be equal.” Intuitively, these basic truths feel completely undoubtable. We are so convinced that they must be true, even though we cannot prove these things.

You might argue: there will always be something we cannot prove. In a deductive system, one thing is deduced from another, but you have to start somewhere. If I tried to prove Euclid’s axioms, I would have to deduce them from something. Whatever those somethings are, they will become the new axioms. So then they have to be assumed. We can never escape this cycle. We always have to assume something.

Unless. Unless we find axioms that are somehow logically self-justifying. This is the idea of the consequentia mirabilis that we discussed before. Axioms can be self-justifying if it is incoherent to try to refute them. If asserting that the axioms is false actually implies accepting the axiom, then the axiom is self-justifying. That way we can find an end to the problem of infinite regress; the problem of always having to prove everything from something else in a never-ending cycle.

This is going to be Descartes solution. He will give an axiom of that type, and then derive the Euclidean axioms from it. Then he will have closed the loop: there are no loose ends, nothing unjustified, anymore.

Here’s the axiom: I think therefore I am. This is the undeniable truth which cannot be denied because denying it would be contradictory.

Here’s how Descartes puts it: “We can indeed easily suppose that there is no God, no heaven, no material bodies; and yet even that we ourselves have no hands, or feet, in short, no body; yet we do not on that account suppose that we, who are thinking such things, are nothing: for it is contradictory for us to believe that that which thinks, at the very time when it is thinking, does not exist. And, accordingly, this knowledge, I think, therefore I am, is the first and most certain to be acquired by and present itself to anyone who is philosophizing in correct order.”

Ok, so that’s the axiom that cannot be denied because to deny it would be contradictory. How are you supposed to prove Euclid’s axioms from there? That seems difficult. How am I supposed from prove geometrical statements from “I think therefore I am”? Well, Descartes has an answer.

“The knowledge of remaining things [including geometry] depend on a knowledge of God,” because the next things the mind feels certain of are basic mathematical facts, but it cannot trust these judgments unless it knows that its creator is not deceitful. “The mind discovers [in itself] certain common notions [such as the axioms of Euclid], and forms various proofs from these; and as long as it is concentrating on these proofs it is entirely convinced that they are true. Thus, for example, the mind has in itself the ideas of numbers and figures, and also has among its common notions, that if equals are added to equals, the results will be equal, and other similar ones; from which it is easily proved that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, etc.”

But the mind “does not yet know whether it was perhaps created of such a nature that it errs even in those things which appear most evident to it.” Therefore “the mind sees that it rightly doubts such things, and cannot have any certain knowledge until it has come to know the author of its origin.”

So mathematics depends on intuition, and intuition is something implanted into the mind. So God made us have these intuitions. So justifying our innate intuitions depends on the nature of God.

Here is Descartes’s proof that “a supremely perfect being exists”: “That which is more perfect is not produced by a cause which is less perfect. There cannot be in us the idea or image of anything, of which there does not exist somewhere, some Original, which truly contains all its perfections. And because we in no way find in ourselves those supreme perfections of which we have the idea; from that fact alone we rightly conclude that they exist, or certainly once existed, in something different from us; that is, in God.”

“It follows from this that all the things which we clearly perceive are true, and that the doubts previously listed are removed,” since “God is not the cause of errors,” owing to his perfection, because “the will to deceive certainly never proceeds from anything other than malice, or fear, or weakness; and, consequently, cannot occur in God.” “Thus, Mathematical truths must no longer be mistrusted by us, since they are most manifest.”

So, in summary: Euclid’s axioms are true because we innately feel them to be true, and this intuition was implanted into us by God. Our intuition is reliable because God is not a deceiver because he is a perfect being. God must be perfect, because we have the idea of perfection, and we could only get that idea from actual perfection. Since we can conceive of perfection, there must be perfection, there must be a perfect being, a perfect God. That God has hardwired truths such as the Euclidean axioms into our minds. And they must be right because God wouldn’t be perfect anymore if he tricked us by implanting false beliefs in our minds.

That’s Descartes’s argument. I think it’s interesting how we can tell this entire story as driven almost completely by the analysis of Euclid. This whole thing about God and so on it almost like an afterthought, or a minor stepping-stone. The real goal is to justify the geometrical method or explain why Euclid’s axioms should be believed. All this philosophy and theology stuff—I think therefore I am, the existence of God—those are just supporting characters or secondary concerns. Or at least that’s one way of reading Descartes.

In any case, in Descartes as in the previous philosophers we have discussed today, we have seen the very profound influence of ancient geometry. Euclid was still setting the course for philosophy, two thousand years after his death. All the more reason to study him further.


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 2021-05-10  49m