Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason

By Russell Shorto, 299 pages hardcover, Doubleday, $30.00.

A missing skull, the French Revolution, the development of the modern museum, and a possibly re-discovered skull all fit together in the story of the building of Cartesian-based modern knowledge. Part-detective story, part-history of philosophy, Descartes' Bones weaves together fascinating historical episodes of individuals and nascent modern institutions with the evolution of science and Western thought.

The great philosopher Rene Descartes died in Stockholm and was buried there in a regal ceremony, only to be dug up a few decades later at the request of the French government, who had the bones brought to France and re-interred in Paris.

In parallel with this story, Shorto discusses Descartes' philosophical method as the foundation of modern thinking, the legs on which science, technology, and democracy stand. Cartesian philosophy uses “methodological doubt” to question every piece of received knowledge and to replace received wisdom with reason.

While most contemporary thinkers place a big space between science and faith, Shorto goes to pains to explain that Descartes was a faithful son of the Church who believed that his duality of mind and matter would actually place faith and science into 2 separate realms of understanding. Shorto shows how the modern scientific-secular takeover of the world and religion's decline was not Descartes' intention at all. In other words, don't blame Descartes, blame (perhaps) Cartesian philosophers.

Soon after the publication of Discours de la Methode, Europe's religious and intellectual movers and shakers felt threatened by the new philosophy because their own thought was based on Aristotelian philosophy and on accepting rather than doubting received knowledge. Naturally, the Church had a lot at stake, Shorto notes: “Aristotle's orientation of knowledge was teleological, which made it easy for the Scholastics to adapt it to conform with a Christian view of creation, so that as the chain of life-forms proceeded from the simplest organisms to more complex ones it also reflected a spiritual hierarchy. In the eighteenth century this system began to lose its usefulness.”

Descartes' Bones gives us a short-and-sweet discussion on the ins and outs of Aristotelian thinking, especially regarding the universe's structure. Aristotle and subsequent science believed that everything was made up of 4 elements, earth, water, fire, and air. By the time of Descartes, this thinking was exhausted, but only great minds like that of the French philosopher could see that.

Descartes aimed with his methodological doubt to rebuild knowledge from the ground up, something that the scientists of the seventeenth century immediately perceived. Public lectures on Cartesian philosophy, even while the philosopher was still alive, were rancorous, potentially violent affairs, with university careers being made or destroyed by taking a side.

Cartesianism spread quickly in the decades following the publication of the short, easy to read Discours de la Methode, and 1 of the great hallmarks of the modern era sprang up -- the belief in progress and future well-being. Cartesians believed that the new thinking, especially when channeled into science, would allow humans to live to the biblical 120 years and would enable the creation of all sorts of fantastic machines as well as give new understandings of the very nature of the universe. Best of all, this was all just around the corner.

Shorto's discussion of the French Revolution focuses on the personalities relevant to the growth of Cartesian-based science and the runaround over Descartes' lost remains. In this discussion Descartes' Bones is particularly effective at explaining the characteristics of modern thinking. Museums were developed, for instance, because many parts of society had by then moved from a God-based to a human-based world view, and so statues and alter pieces could be taken from churches and presented as isolated artistic or cultural artifacts devoid of religious meaning.

One church, a new Ste. Genevieve, under construction at the time of the Revolution, was turned into the Pantheon, where the Revolutionaries wanted to house the remains of those people on whose thinking the Revolution was based. After intermittent debate, it was decided that Descartes' remains were to be put there alongside Voltaire, Rousseau, and other great thinkers.

Yet Shorto reflects on the emptiness of the Pantheon: “In redesigning it so, architecturally replacing faith with reason as a source of worship, the revolutionaries created a unique monument, and visiting it today gives a feel not only for their motivation but for its naiveté and hollowness. The strangeness comes sweeping over you the moment you enter: the vastness is almost as laughable as the idea of dedicating a building to 'great men' and 'fame.' It sounds lampoonable, vacuous. Scenes from myth and French history are painted on the walls, but there is nothing in between. ... Maybe the oddest thing is the unyielding lack of adornment, the painstaking absence of religious motif in a sanctuary devoted to the dead. In a place like this the idea is driven home to you that reason alone is an empty vessel.”

This book gives an added dimension to the current hodgepodge of atheistic, pro-science books trying to convince people of the backwardness of religion. Shorto's book offers a more elegant view of the faith and reason dialectic, showing reason's drawbacks when it is unaccompanied by a spiritual viewpoint:

“Liberty, equality, democracy – all were offspring of the cogito and the orientation of humanity around reason,” Shorto notes, before citing David Hume's warning that it should not be used as the basis for morality: “reason, he knew, could be put to the most unreasonable pursuits. As a tool it can build a new society, but it can also kill and maim, and misusing it – through naïve belief or duplicity – is one of the tropes of modern history.”

Ultimately Shorto believes in the possibility that the materialist-spiritual split in the West, so dominated by the materialists, can be healed only by the heart, something that would not be totally foreign to Descartes the Catholic.

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