Rene Descartes: the father of us all?

Descartes' Bones

The paradox, of course, is that after Descartes horrified the church by splitting mind from body, the church now relies on Descartes’ work in its frantic attempts to stop their reunion. And thus the French philosopher triggered the “faith versus reason” debate that continues to this day, while providing both sides in the battle with their principle weapons.

Russell Shorto chronicles a fascinating history of modern thought in his Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. Taking the fate of the philosopher’s remains as a skeleton (sorry) upon which to hang his narrative, Shorto follows the growing debate that resulted from a simple declaration: “I think, therefore I am,” or in Latin, “Cogito, ergo sum.

It’s almost impossible, now, to grasp just how revolutionary Descartes’ work was. But Shorto does a thorough job of trying to describe the massive shift in thinking between the Before and After. In fact, as Descartes’ bones were continually dug up and moved from place to place over the years, the process of evaluating their authenticity mirrored the latest developments of thought that this shift created.

Before, one viewed the world through “received knowledge,” that is, assumptions about the world decreed by some authority. In Descartes’ time, that authority was the church, combining the biblical and Aristotelian world views. These assumptions weren’t justified by anything — they were simply there, and everything else was derived from them. For example, no one thought to ask whether angels actually existed; people devoted all their efforts instead to imagining the angelic hierarchies and angels’ divine substance.

Descartes changed all that, using doubt as a method and stripping away everything that was believed simply because “someone said so,” trying instead to find the absolutely certain, bedrock fact upon which we could build an edifice of reliable knowledge. He found it inside our own minds, where there was a “thinking thing.” If thinking was going on, something was there, doing the thinking. You couldn’t even deny the claim without thinking about it, and thereby proving it.

From that point, the floodgates opened. One’s own mind became the instrument of acquiring knowledge, the use of doubt and the requirement of proof becoming its method. From this seed grew countless new scientific enterprises, and even in religious and political circles, one’s individuality before God or the state became paramount.

But this use of doubt and this “thinking thing” became a problem, separating mind from body. Nobody could devise a way to meld the two again, or to explain how an immaterial mind could have any influence on a physical body. Except the materialists, who were quite prepared to identify the mind with the physical brain, so that nothing like a “soul” was required to explain anything about a human being.

And this was when the church found itself having to keep mind and body separate, to prevent the human soul from being done away with entirely, and to prevent itself from going out of business. Never having wanted the split in the first place, it recognized that healing it in this fashion would be even worse. So the religious establishment is still forced to use modern thinking and modern methods — all stemming from Descartes’ revolutionary work — to battle other results of the same work. It’s not a pleasant dilemma.

Shorto follows the historical debates with meticulous research, yet his narrative never becomes dull, nor the facts too heavy. He clearly explains how today’s “culture wars” constantly replay the battle that began in 1637 with the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on Method. Many philosophers have abandoned the idea that the mind/body problem can ever be solved, though Shorto believes that Descartes himself might have been close to finding an answer, by adding human love to the equation.

Unfortunately, the philosopher died before he could succeed, and so the “faith versus reason” battle continues raging. Russell Shorto has done a thorough and fascinating job of chronicling how it developed, as he followed the journey of Descartes’ bones through space and through history.

(For a bonus treat, check out Russell Shorto himself, in this video, discussing his book.)

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