René Descartes and Empiricism

The transition from the pre-modern era to the modern era began to take shape through the thinking of René Descartes (1596-1650) and his philosophy of rationalism and empiricism. Because of the uncertainty present in the attitudes of the culture of his day, Descartes set out in search of absolute certainty for his beliefs. To build a system to achieve absolute certainty, Descartes needed to find a foundation to build on: an idea that couldn’t be doubted. Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore, I am. Descartes concluded that you cannot doubt your own existence because if you’re doubting, you must be thinking, and thus you must exist. Based on this foundation, Descartes said we could be skeptical of everything else and only believe those things we can prove with absolute certainty. Eventually in Western culture, Empiricism became the method to accomplish this, by using the data from our physical senses. These ideas subsequently influenced philosophers and scientists such as Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Isaac Newton.

Plato, Aristotle, and the Scientific Revolution

Two ancient Greek thinkers who had an immense influence on Western thought and philosophy were Plato and Aristotle. Plato is known for his belief that universal truths, such as good or beauty, existed in and of themselves, not just in our minds. Plato believed that these objective, universal, absolute truths existed in a transcendent realm outside of us. Hundreds of years later, Augustine was greatly influenced by the ideas of Plato and said that Plato didn’t know it, but what he was actually describing was the mind and nature of God. Whereas Plato emphasized the reality of a transcendent realm and thought the physical world was merely shadows, Aristotle disagreed and thought the physical world was also important and could be studied and understood. Hundreds of years later, Aquinas took Aristotle’s ideas to heart in believing that both the transcendent and natural realms were important and could be understood. These ideas, emphasizing that the physical world could be studied and understood, led to the Scientific Revolution.

Emergence of Consciousness: Friend or Foe?

By Adam Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D.


In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Emergence”, the crew’s spaceship, the USS Enterprise, developed its own consciousness. The crew members were perplexed as to how this could have happened until Lieutenant Commander Data, a conscious synthetic android with artificial intelligence, explained that

[c]omplex systems can sometimes behave in ways that are entirely unpredictable. The human brain, for example, might be described in terms of cellular functions and neurochemical interactions. But that description does not explain human consciousness, a capacity that far exceeds simple neural functions. Consciousness is an emergent property.1

Data theorized that the ship’s newly formed consciousness was a similar emergent property.