from Descartes' Dream, by Phillip J. Davis and Reuben Hirsh
THE MODERN WORLD,our world of triumphant rationality, began on November 10, 1619, with a revelation and a nightmare. On that day, in a room in the small Bavarian village of Ulm, Rene Descartes, a Frenchman, twenty-three years old, crawled into a wall stove and, when he was well warmed, had a vision. It was not a vision of God, or of the Mother of God, or of celestial chariots, or of the New Jerusalem. It was a vision of the unification of all science.
The vision was preceded by a state of intense concentration and agitation. Descartes overheated mind caught fire and provided answers to tremendous problems that had been taxing him for weeks. He was possessed by a Genius, and the answers were revealed in a dazzling, unendurable light. Later, in a state of exhaustion, he went to bed and dreamed three dreams that had been predicted by this Genius.
In the first dream he was revolved by a whirlwind and terrified by phantoms. He experienced a constant feeling of falling. He imagined he would be presented with a melon that came from a far-off land. The wind abated and he woke up. His second dream was one of thunderclaps and sparks flying around his room. In the third dream, all was quiet and contemplative. An anthology of poetry lay on the table. He opened it at random and read the verse of Ausonius, "Quod vitae sectabor iter" (What path shall I take in life?). A stranger appeared and quoted him the verse "Est et non" (Yes and no). Descartes wanted to show him where in the anthology it could be found, but the book disappeared and reappeared. He told the man he would show him a better verse beginning "Quod vitae sectabor iter." At this point the man, the book, and the whole dream dissolved.
Descartes was so bewildered by all this that he began to pray. He assumed his dreams had a supernatural origin. He vowed he would put his life under the protection of the Blessed Virgin and go on a pilgrimage from Venice to Notre Dame de Lorette, traveling by foot and wearing the humblest-looking clothes he could find.
What was the idea that Descartes saw in a burning flash? He tells us that his third dream pointed to no less than the unification and the illumination of the whole of science, even the whole of knowledge, by one and the same method: the method of reason.
Eighteen years would pass before the world would have the details of the grandiose vision and of the "mirabilis sientiae fundamenta"-- the foundations of a marvelous science. Such as he was able to give them, they are contained in the celebrated "Discourse on the Method of Properly Guiding the Reason in the Search of Truth in the Sciences." According to Descartes, his "method" should be applied when knowledge is sought in any scientific field. It consists of (a) accepting only what is so clear in one's own mind as to exclude any doubt, (b) splitting large difficulties into smaller one, (c) arguing from the simple to the complex, and (d) checking, when one is done.
Return to Honors PS1500 home page
Last modified: Friday, March 26, 2004 11:10 AM