Descartesian Deconversion

October 28, 2012    By: Jeff G @ 8:09 pm   Category: Happiness,Life,Truth

In my last post – which fell stillborn from the wordpress – I articulated my position as a Darwinian Anti-intellectualist. Briefly – and somewhat differently – I rejected the practice of construing all beliefs as if they were automatically answers to some question or another, the premises or conclusions to some argument. The two stalking horses in this project of mine have come to be Socrates and Descartes with their respective question/answer dialectic and methodological skepticism. In this post I will roughly follow Aladair MacIntyre in framing my own de-conversion from Mormonism in terms of a (mistaken) Cartesian framework.

But first, let me relate a few points regarding MacIntyre himself as his story is fairly interesting in its own right. MacIntyre began his career as an academic philosopher who was very much steeped in the analytic tradition wherein he would study and publish papers on this subject and then that in a largely independent and piecemeal fashion. Upon reading Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, however, he literally torn up the manuscript he had been working on at the time and revamped both the methodology and content of his entire philosophical mindset.  Since then, he has articulated a sort of pre-modern Neo-Thomism which sees all normative criteria – epistemological, moral, etc. – as the products of some tradition or another. Accordingly, all attempts to pass judgment on tradition from some tradition-free and objective standpoint are essentially farces:

“Until [a person] has adopted some particular schema as his own he does not know what to treat as evidence; until he knows what to treat as evidence he cannot tell which schema to adopt.”

This stands in stark contrast to Descartes’ project of systematically doubting all traditions and all beliefs inherited from such traditions unless they were utterly indubitable in their clarity and distinctness. (“I think, therefore I am” is supposed to be one such indubitable belief.) Thus, Descartes believed that we should doubt as many things as we possibly could. The question is did he doubt that belief? What about his beliefs regarding what constituted indubitability?

“Descartes’ doubt is … to be contextless doubt. Hence also that tradition of philosophical teaching arises which presupposes that Cartesian doubts can be entertained by anyone at any place or time. But of course someone who really believed that he knew nothing would not even know how to begin on a course of radical doubt; for he would have no conception of what his task might be, of what it would be to settle his doubts and to acquire well-founded belief. Conversely, anyone who knows enough to know that does indeed possess a set of extensive epistemological beliefs which he is not putting in doubt at all.”

This extensive set of beliefs which Descartes was not putting into question can be called – much to his chagrin – a tradition which he inherited.

“Much of what he took to be the spontaneous reflections of his own mind was in fact a repetition of sentences and phrases from his school textbooks.”

Crucially, the sentences and phrases upon and around which Descartes built his project of systematic doubt along with their relevance to the context at hand were themselves exempt from doubt.

Hopefully the parallels between Descartes’ and the sophomoric train of thought which led me (and many others) out of the church are somewhat obvious by this point. At the heart of my de-conversion was an unquestioned acceptance of where “the burden of proof” lay in questions of theistic belief. I felt that given the existence of numerous and conflicting traditions, the burden was on them – each and every one of them – to give me a reason to invest myself in them.  The default answer to all such traditions was “no thanks” unless they could meet the burden which I had assigned them.

Like Descartes, then, I thought that I could conceptually remove myself from the tradition in which I was raised in order to objectively and dispassionately consider the issue at hand. But I was wrong. The only way in which I could possibly remove myself, conceptually speaking, from the bias and passion of my parents’ tradition was by a biased and passionate acceptance of Descartes’ tradition.  I hope the subtlety and disingenuity of Descartes’ tradition is transparent by now. “Doubt all (other) beliefs.” “The burden of proof lies on all (other) traditions.” “All (other) biases and passions must be sidelined in the name of rationality.” And so on.  These are the very trappings of tradition, faith and bigotry which Descartes’ method was supposed to have overcome.

*All quoted passages are from “Epistemological Crises and Dramatic Narrative” by Alasdair MacIntyre


  1. Very nice Jeff. I am digging your tear down, but I am still interested to hear how you think something can reasonably be built up in the face of the intellectual quicksand you are highlighting.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 28, 2012 @ 8:57 pm

  2. Who says we need to build anything up, intellectually, academically or philosophically speaking? These are such small aspects of life, it would be foolishness to let them rule the roost.

    So much has already been built for us in the form of traditions, even if we don’t know it. We shouldn’t be so arrogant to assume that if we haven’t built it or surveyed the entire structure for ourselves that it must not be rational or even exist.

    More to the point of this post, I was simply showing how philosophy is not an escape from tradition, bias and faith. In my opinion, this takes a lot of the wind out of the scientistic sail.

    Comment by Jeff G — October 28, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

  3. So much has already been built for us in the form of traditions, even if we don’t know it. We shouldn’t be so arrogant to assume that if we haven’t built it or surveyed the entire structure for ourselves that it must not be rational or even exist.

    This is a great summary of my Darwinian Anti-Intellectualism

    Comment by Jeff G — October 28, 2012 @ 9:23 pm

  4. Very interesting, Jeff. Reconversion stories are twice as interesting as stories of mere conversion.

    Comment by Dave — October 29, 2012 @ 7:31 am

  5. So should we all follow whatever tradition we were raised in? Can we even ask what we “should” do? Or should we ask?

    Comment by Jacob J — October 29, 2012 @ 9:30 pm

  6. I definitely feel the pull of those questions. (I was expect just that response to my Darwin post. )

    I’m not really trying to embrace any kind of know-nothing-ism. My main goal is simply to undermine the tendency to see philosophy and science as the ultimate guardians of truth. Sure, they are good and useful, but lets not get carried away.

    I should also clarify that I’m not advocating a blind reentrenchment in whatever tradition we are born in. I’m simply saying that any such choice can only be justified from within some tradition or another. I’m not ruling out the possibility that a tradition has standards which encourage its people to embrace another. Perhaps some traditions are simply better than others, regardless of whose standards we measure them by.

    Comment by Jeff G — October 29, 2012 @ 10:43 pm