Perhaps, until Karl Marx, philosophers with ideas used God and religion to either provide doubts or explain rational phenomena of the Human mind- including being, doubt, wisdom, and the ability to adapt. Given this thesis, one can search for some sort of compatibility between Augustine and Descartes- both believing that God is the ultimate truth, and that the doubts that seem to occur in one’s life-time are human traits. If Augustine searches for truth and finds it in the Judeo-Christian concept then Descartes searches for reality, which, he claims in his Meditation, can only be found if one refuses to doubt the existence of God.
It is interesting to note that Augustine seeks to connect semantics with reality- words that have meaning are a form of truth that he finds indisputable. The Creation, to him, is a fact. Descartes has doubts, but says that if you believe in God and that God is real, then most of those beliefs are to be taken without doubt. Religion, therefore, plays a vital role in determining truth, as seen through human eyes, and spoken with human voices.
In reading both Augustine and Descartes, assembling them with class notes, one has to reach a conclusion that Augustine believed (and preached) that “knowing Creation means knowing that God brought all things into the world by naming them”, but Descartes believes in classification, not by God or some other divine being, but by scientists and mathematicians and medical men. In other words, Augustine does not require the “overwhelming evidence” theory of Descartes. He accepts the Creation without doubt or dispute. He is so convinced that “naming” is a God-created inspiration that he considers in “the linchpin of human existence that knows the truth about itself and is capable of committing itself to saying the truth”. Descartes, it seems, is far more of a skeptic. Truths to him begin with self-doubt, it would seem. Truth cannot exist without some sort of self-belief and trust in that non-material essence which is “thought”. He comes to the conclusion that “I am. I exist”. Even though Descartes admits he has not enough information to understand what or who “I” is, the mere fact of I’s existence makes him refuse to doubt that existence. It is a fact. It is a truth. If one can reason about himself- surely, this is where the cogito ergo sum originates…That is, I can think, therefore I am real. One can almost suppose that the exception to anything doubtful is that person or that society that can distinguish what is real and what is doubtful. If it can be established that the thought process infers that God is without a doubt real, then reality can be found in Man’s acceptance of his Creation. The real YOU, according to Descartes, is not your material body but some sort of thinking substance. Material substance, or “ordinary matter” has dimension- width, height, depth and breadth…a body, in other words, rather than the mind which is not measurable.
However, as he explains in his “Meditations”, questioning and thought-experiments are really a tight organization of thought. Part of that process is to determine “What are you as a human person? What characterizes you as a thinking being? In other words, where Descartes questions the thought process, and deems it without doubt only if God is “real”, Augustine (perhaps a better and unquestioning Catholic) accepts God as a reality, and the Creation along with it, without any thought that it could not be as described in the Bible. God is only meaningful, he writers, to those who are believers in God. There is no permissible other way of seeking and accepting truth, except through religious “freeways”- that is, the shortest distance to finding and accepting Truth, is finding and accepting God. Augustine has much more trust in faith than Descartes. It would seem, therefore that while Descartes dismisses “common sense” as something fleeting and unworthy of scientists, Augustine considers it part of the relationship between the Creator and those in his image.
Also, while Augustine accepts the Greek philosophers’ concepts as “visual phenomena explaining truth”, Descartes (living centuries later) has far less respect for Plato and Aristotle. In the same sense, Descartes shows respect for people like Voltaire who detested Catholicism, and indeed distrusted any organized religion; Augustine, had he lived in the same time frame, would surely have denounced the Voltaires of the world as being apostates and unworthy of receiving the “trust” of their Creator. It is interesting to note, speaking of “trust” in a religious aspect, that one lecture dealt with the 5 to 10% of peers who would claim they are atheists, but, like so many who believe in God, will also say that faith is weak, or potentially weak. Augustine would immediately go after this percentage, and also to those who proclaim that their faith is weak, to try to convert them to the understanding that, while weakness is permissible (as a human trait) it still maintains a belief in something stronger. Descartes, on the other hand, might consider the weakness of faith merely as one interpretation of his theories about doubt and self-realization. It is a weakness of the flesh, rather than of the thought process.
Nevertheless, Augustine and Descartes have something in common- a firm belief that there is only one true God, and, as Descartes writes in his Fifth Meditation: “the certainty and truth of every science depends exclusively upon the knowledge of the true God, to the extent that, prior to my becoming aware of him, I was incapable of achieving perfect knowledge…” Augustine would agree, since he considers his God to be “experienced” while humans search for finitude and a sense of time.
Still, as we live in both a computer age and an Atomic one, as Einstein has surveyed the speed of light and the understanding of relativity, whether this is simply a discovery of something that has always existed, but took one man (or in some cases, a team of men) to create and achieve. Is “exact” science impossible for an atheist? Does it require a belief in the existence of God to find cures for disease?
Perhaps we will never really “solve” the problem of what is without doubt, what is true, and what is just somewhere in Man’s existence, or his poor power (as opposed to the overall power of God). So, is it fair (or intellectually honest) to ask if there can be Being without Knowledge, or Knowledge without being? Can there be assumption without truth, and truth without conjecture? Do atheists go to heaven, or is it enough for them NOT to believe in God as a reality?
If Descartes said I think, therefore I am, would Augustine have said, God thinks, therefore I am? If Creation is a myth, then what is real? Are black holes part of divinity, Being, or Knowledge? Perhaps we should think like the cartoon goldfish who asked: “If there is no God, who changes the water?” If there is no science or reality, who changes the world? What does God know that we do not? Or is this one of life’s unsolvable mysteries?