Rule 1 states that whatever we study should direct our minds to make “true and sound judgments” about experience. The various sciences are not independent of one another but are all facets of “human wisdom.” Possession of any kind of knowledge—if it is true—will only lead to more knowledge. Rule 2 holds that we should only study objects about which we can obtain “certain and evident cognition.” It is better not to study at all than to attempt a study when we can’t tell what’s right or wrong, true or false. All that is speculative or probable should be rejected and knowledge should be defined as what can be proven by reason beyond doubt. Rule 3 states that we should study objects that we ourselves can clearly deduce and refrain from conjecture and reliance on the work of others.
Rule 4 proposes that the mind requires a fixed method to discover truth. A method is defined as a set of reliable and simple rules. The goal of study through the method is to attain knowledge of all things. The human mind begins life in a pure state, and from the moment learning starts, the mind grows clouded. The method’s purpose is to return the mind to that pure state so that we can be certain of knowledge we attain.
Rule 5 holds that complicated problems should be reduced to their simplest parts. We then apply our “intuition” to the simplest parts and work our way back to the larger problem. According to Rule 6, we must not only find the simplest parts of the whole problem but also figure out how simple each nonsimple aspect of the problem is compared to the most simple. The simplest, or “absolute,” things are universal and cannot be broken down into simpler parts. Nonsimple, or “relative,” aspects of any problem share some qualities of the absolute parts and can be deduced from examination of the absolute parts.
Rule 7 demands that no steps be skipped in the examination of chains of relationships between simple and nonsimple aspects of a problem. After we have gone over the chain of relationships enough times, we will be able to see (without deducing) how each step relates to all of the others. Rule 8 calls for avoiding complexity to prevent confusion. Just as a blacksmith cannot forge a sword without first having tools, we cannot grasp truth without a method for attaining it. The method is a set of tools for learning, not a trick for leaping to complicated conclusions. Anyone who masters the method will either be able to come to the truth or be able to demonstrate that what he wants to know is beyond the grasp of human knowledge.
Rule 9 calls for focus on a problem’s simplest elements. If we concentrate on these simple elements, we’ll eventually be able to intuit their simple truths. Rule 10 states that the previous discoveries of others should be subjected to investigation. It is best for an individual to discover the truth by his own methods rather than accepting the arguments of others. Not all minds are made for this, however. Therefore, the hardest problems should not be tackled first. Instead, students of the method should immerse themselves in simple, well-ordered tasks, such as embroidery, weaving, number games, and arithmetic. These activities train our minds to order, and human discernment is based almost entirely on the observance of order.
Rule 11 recommends that if a chain of simple intuitions leads us to deduce something else, we should subject this deduction to further scrutiny, reflecting on how each part is related to the others. If we think of the chain often enough as we run through our series of deductions, we will eventually be able to conceive of all aspects of a problem at once, thereby increasing our mental abilities.
Does Decartes say anything about the Oneness of God?