Joe asked:

Hi, I was wondering what Descartes view of the body is after death? Does he believe in resurrection of the body as in the Christian doctrine?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

What did Descartes believe? who knows? Threatened with torture by the Inquisition, Galileo was forced to recant the Copernican doctrine ‘the Earth moves’. It was a lesson not lost on Descartes, writing just a few years later. In the seventeenth century, it was no easy thing to be a man of science — a seeker after truth — and a ‘true believer’.

We can get a clue to Descartes’ religious beliefs from his enthusiastic young follower Spinoza, who wrote his first book on the Principles of Cartesian Philosophy (1663). In the spirit of Cartesian rationalism, Spinoza actively challenged the accepted Jewish view of God that had come down from the Torah and through centuries of Rabbinic commentary, arguing instead for a religion based on reason alone. He was rewarded with solemn excommunication from the Jewish community of Amsterdam.

The subtitle to Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy is ‘In which the existence of God and the real distinction between the soul and the body of man are demonstrated.’ That would have been enough to placate Inquisitors who didn’t think too hard about what it meant to possess a Cartesian soul. Perhaps they did not realize that the older, Aristotelian view of the soul as the ‘form’ of a living body is far more conducive to the Christian doctrine of Resurrection (a point noted by David Wiggins in his book Sameness and Substance 1980).

For Aristotle, the notion of a soul (in Greek psuche or ‘breath’) existing apart from a living body is unintelligible. For Descartes, on the other hand, although needing a body in order to perform physical actions, the soul is a non-physical substance in its own right. The more philosophical Inquisitors might well have reasoned (perhaps some did) that this could be considered the basis for a charge of heresy. As the idea wasn’t taken further, the point is moot.

Why insist on resurrection? Because without a body, the notion of ‘reward’ or ‘punishment’ is all but meaningless. If there is no reward or punishment, in any real sense, then the idea that God has ordered the world ‘for the best’ is no longer believable. The guilty who escape punishment in this world must be made to pay for their sins. The innocents who suffer will be compensated by a blissful afterlife. Meanwhile, the majority who have sinned but not sufficiently for eternal damnation, can look forward to a few hundred or thousand years in Purgatory examining in detail each and every time they strayed from the path of Christian virtue before they are finally released.

As an atheist, I value the philosophy of Descartes for the questions it raises our conception of the mind and its relation to the physical world. This isn’t about belief but about logical argument. It remains the case that the Cartesian view of the soul is compatible with resurrection of the body, so if you are a Catholic then you do not have to feel that your beliefs have been challenged at the root. That was perhaps enough to save Descartes from the grasp of the Inquisitors.