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He is at wits' end and is prepared to go to extremes if necessary in order to regain the security of a world in which things can be trusted to be as they seem. George Santayana, 300 years later, echoes this desperation as he prepares to undertake a similar enterprise: The brute necessity of believing something so long as life lasts does not justify any belief in particular; nor does it assure me that not to live would not, for this very reason, be far safer and saner. To be dead and have no opinions would certainly not be to discover the truth; but if all opinions are necessarily false, it would at least be not to sin against intellectual honour.
Dread must be matched by dread. One way for Descartes to provide himself with a strong incentive for breaking the friendly habits of a lifetime would be to convince himself that the problems of error and misdirection in his experience were due to some weakness lurking in the first principles of philosophy. If one or more of his foundational beliefs were fundamentally flawed, the result would be widespread damage throughout the whole network of lesser truths, assumptions, and practices. It would be as though my spy novel's hero were to suspect that the traitorous security mole was someone located at the highest echelons of the intelligence apparatus.
His seventeenth-century reflections on knowledge and the proper method for acquiring it have defined the issues, and the possible solutions to those issues, that we who are his successors have since struggled to resolve. So if philosophic precision and systematic rigor are needed in order to answer my questions about the reasons for the character of the experienced world, Descartes is a required companion. I settle back in my chair and page through the volumes penned by Descartes. I turn also to the writings of those who have taken Descartes as their point of departure.