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The IEP article on Descartes states that

Descartes states that his purpose in showing that the human mind or soul is really distinct from the body is to refute those “irreligious people” who only have faith in mathematics and will not believe in the soul's immortality without a mathematical demonstration of it.

And yet at the time (Early 17th century Europe) there would have been few if any openly irreligious or atheist philosophers. The Church still dominated European intellectual life, and people like Galileo got prosecuted for less radical transgressions than being atheist or declaring that men didn't have souls.

Moreover, literalist interpretations of one or the other monotheisms were so dominant and influential, that the idea that people had immaterial souls would have been so obvious as to be self-evident. The Enlightenment, with its questioning of existing dogmas, wouldn't start for a few more decades.

So who was Descartes exactly trying to refute when he came up with his cogito? Were there any openly materialist/atheist philosophers in his day?

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The charge of atheism was a "living" issue in Reanaissance and Early Modern philosophy; see at least :

Natural Philosophy in the Renaissance

Pietro Pomponazzi

Francesco Patrizi

and of course Giordano Bruno, tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition on charges including denial of several core Catholic doctrines (including the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and Transubstantiation). The Inquisition found him guilty, and in 1600 he was burned at the stake in Rome.

Descartes' friend, the French theologian Marin Mersenne devoted two huge books :

and

to confute : atheists, skeptics and "libertins", the purported members of a freethinking circle of French philosophers and intellectuals who were collectively known as libertinage érudit and which included Gabriel Naudé, Élie Diodati and François de La Mothe Le Vayer.

Following Galileo's sentencing in 1633, Descartes decided to withdraw the pubblication of his Le Monde; thus, the danger of an accusation of atheism was still high during Descartes' time.

  • You made a small but funny mistake when writing "La vérité des sciences contre les septiques ...". You should look at translations for the two French words "septique" as in "fosse septique" and "sceptique", which is connected to "scepticisme". So, he is arguing against sceptics. – user19051 Jan 19 '16 at 16:14
  • That Marin's book is dedicated "A monseigneur l'illustrissime Cardinal de Richelieu" is very funny, when you consider that Richelieu is parodied as the ultimate power hungry religious hypocrite in some incarnations of the the three musketeers. – Alexander S King Jan 19 '16 at 18:27
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The main opponents of Descartes were the advocates of Aristotelian metaphysics, many of them Jesuits.

Descartes learned the scholastic method of philosophy from his Jesuit teachers at the school of la Flèche.

I quote from Cottingham, John: The Cambridge Companion to Descartes 1992. Descartes later writes about the scholastic method of philosophy „despite being cultivated for many centuries by the best minds, contained no point that was not disputed and hence doubtful.“ (p. 3) Descartes in his youth was fascinated from mathematics and its method to obtain knowledge. Already as ayoung man Descartes solved three mathematical problems.
Descartes wrote „as far as principles are concerned, I accept only those which in the past have always been common ground among all philosophers without exception, and which are therefore the most ancient of all.“ (p.4) From here a direct path leads to accept only insights which are „clare et distincte“.

I would not overestimate Descartes‘ dedication of The Meditations to the theological faculty of the Sorbonne to be a proof for Descartes' apologetic religious intention. Already the first sentence of the dedication makes clear that Descartes' expects that the influential theologians defend his work and make it public.

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    Makes sense, but Descartes was referring explicitly to "irreligious people", did he mean that the Jesuits were irreligious? – Alexander S King Jan 19 '16 at 18:23
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    @Alxander S King Descartes did not mean that the Jesuits were irreligious. On the contrary he hoped to introduce "undercover" his new philosophical method at the Jesuits. - Descartes published The Meditations in 1641. In these years he was involved in a dispute with Voetius, the rector of the university of Utrecht. Voetius had published „Philosophia Cartesiana in which he charged that Descartes‘ philosophy led to scepticism and atheism.“ (same source as in my answer, p. 395) – Jo Wehler Jan 19 '16 at 19:16
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    @Alexander S King The editor of Descartes‘ Meditations (Meiner Verlag) conjectures that Descartes‘ attack on „the atheists“ in the dedication aims at Voetius. This would illustrate that it was common practice in this time to denunciate the philosophical opponent as atheist, see books.google.de/… – Jo Wehler Jan 19 '16 at 19:17
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Descartes' Meditations were aimed at two distinct philosophical schools:

  • The Aristotelian Scholasticism of late medieval and early modern France;

  • The Anti-Aristotelian Skeptics of his time;

In the 16th century Europe, Skepticism became fashionable. Specially some forms of Pyhrronic Skepticism, which sought to undermine all knowledge in general (as in Agrippa's De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum atque artium declamatio invectiva, and Francisco Sanches' Quod nihil scitur). Pierre Gassendi, a rival of Descartes, was a moderate Skeptic. So were the people in Gassendi's circle, which Mauro ALLEGRANZA refers to.

In his Meditations, Descartes sought to reply to such Skeptic concerns. Though assuming at first that he knew nothing, he nonetheless couldn't doubt he himself existed. Armed with this, and with a revived ontological proof, he aimed at turning the Skeptic's game against itself. By starting from absolute uncertainty, he would arrive nonetheless at truth, winning back the whole world which he doubted at first.

These are most likely the "irreligious" people he was referring to.

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I think (1) that the IEP is not actually right in presenting Descartes' purpose and further (2) the question presupposes that he is trying to refute somebody which is not really the case.

(1) The introductory Dedication asks more or less directly the Doctors to endorse his Methode. What he presents to them is an example. He reminds them them that immortality of the soul is ultimately a dogma and the Church has asked for arguments that support it. He knows just as well as any other reader that Aristotle is not in line with the dogma.

(2) "Atheist" had became a snarl word since the Reformation and both Protestants and Catholics used it while killing each other. Skepticism was a stance that allowed cultivated people to avoid taking sides. Seen from the other side, people also wanted to know what is ultimately true - that was Descartes' motivation. (Steven Toulmin's Return to reason offers a good sketch of the historical context.)

  • I'm confused by the claim "Aristotle is not in line with that dogma". Aristotle posits an immortal soul for humans at several places in his corpora including NE Book X. – virmaior Jan 20 '16 at 2:12
  • De Anima is self-contradictory enough(<a href="plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-psychology/…) to be misaligned. – sand1 Jan 20 '16 at 12:42
  • Not sure what you mean by "misaligned" but I'm not the one making a claim here -- you're writing in your answer that "He knows just as well as any other reader that Aristotle is not in line with the dogma [of the immortality of the soul]." But considering the SEP article you link, that seems like a difficult to substantiate claim since the interpretations Descartes would have known are from his Jesuit education which building on Aquinas' commentaries would not lead one to conclude Aristotle did not believe in an immortal soul (regardless of raw interpretive difficulties in de anima and ne) – virmaior Jan 20 '16 at 13:00
  • The Averroist interpretation is something that he would have heard about. – sand1 Jan 20 '16 at 21:56
  • That doesn't really get you to what you write in your comment. Possible awareness that Aristotle might have an incompatible view doesn't equal what you wrote. – virmaior Jan 20 '16 at 22:54

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