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.)

Leaving fundamentalism

Leaving Fundamentalism, ed. G. Elijah Dann

Leaving Fundamentalism, ed. G. Elijah Dann

We’re like a bunch of PTSD sufferers comparing notes on how we all got shell-shocked. We’re all a bit…twitchy.

A reviewer should maintain some objectivity to do justice to the book she reviews — as I’m attempting, with Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories, from Wilfrid Laurier University Press. The catch is that like the book’s editor, University of Victoria Research Fellow G. Elijah Dann, and like those who tell their stories in this book, I myself am an ex-fundamentalist.

A fundamentalism-survivor, as it were.

But that’s the point, the common theme running through these stories: the writers were damaged by that world view, many giving the impression they only just escaped with their sanity.

Virtually all describe their experience of being convinced of the doctrines of their church, convinced they have a personal relationship with God, and often making plans to “do God’s work” through some sort of ministry. They frequently enter via an emotional appeal, and firmly believe that through the indwelling power of God’s Spirit, they can overcome sin and live a victorious life.

Then the cracks appear. Sin is not overcome — and it’s never the fault of the teachings — it’s always the believer’s fault, no matter how devout and prayerful and committed they are. Or a dissonance appears, between what fellow believers say in public and how they behave in private. Or — the worst sin of all — the believer asks a question.

Fundamentalism insists on adherence to a rigid set of doctrines, so even an honest question is viewed suspiciously. Pat answers are provided, but if questions continue, other believers attack the questioner, reinforcing the impression that fundamentalism’s simplistic, black-and-white world view can’t handle the real world.

Some of these writers retained a belief in God or some form of spirituality, while others, trained in the fundamentalist “all or nothing” mentality, decided, “Well, then — nothing.” But always their departure from this movement was a painful, seismic upheaval.

Jacob Shelley, in “Life Stages,” describes the “contempt and scorn” with which his wife’s family treated both of them: “…a letter in which she beseeched her parents to accept her decision to marry me … resulted in the bulk of her family — in the name of God, peace, and love — cutting her out of their lives. Their righteous indignation has also led them to reject any interaction with our newborn daughter, their only grandchild so far.”

Julie Rak, in “Looking Back at Sodom,” relates how she could no longer deny she was a lesbian, despite fundamentalist teachings about homosexuality. Her honesty led to a divorce, with the resulting repercussions for her husband and children.

This book will enlighten ex-fundamentalists along with those having no experience in the movement. The fundamentalist mindset appears in places I’d never have expected, such as a group with Marxist beliefs, living as the early Christians did in the Book of Acts. Yet the church I attended would have attacked these people too, for not being “real Christians.” Such is the rigidity of fundamentalism.

I had few issues with anything in this book. In the earlier stories, I felt the writers skimmed over their internal thought process, so I didn’t fully understand why they left. I kept wondering, “What were you actually thinking at the time?”

Many gave detailed descriptions, though. In “The Jesus Lizard,” James Fieser’s story closely resembles mine: an intellectual inability to believe the fundamentalist story, for lack of evidence or coherence. Fieser also encapsulates one of the most poignant reasons why a believer would begin to question. He describes how his friend’s family was swept away in a flood, and “while he wasn’t bothered by the good Lord’s handling of the situation, I was. I felt it was odd that while Alan prayed for the safety of his family, all that was granted was the life of his dog.”

This book will give non-fundamentalists some astonishing insight into how otherwise rational, humane people might plunge into such an anti-rational, harsh world view, and why it’s so hard for them to escape.

But for former fundamentalists, reliving their — our — own traumatic experiences through these stories, the understanding will go much deeper. We will think to ourselves, in relief and empathy, “I was not alone.”

[Note: Thanks so much to Mini Book Expo, where I learned about this book and was able to request a review copy.]

It’s all fun and games until someone does an interview

The huge Snakes & Ladders drop cloth

The huge Snakes & Ladders drop cloth

Stand on a snake, you get a tough question. Stand on a ladder, an easy one.

This may sound like some weird torture ritual from the Inquisition, but it was actually a simultaneous Interview and Snakes & Ladders game, at last night’s This is Not a Reading Series event at the Gladstone Hotel. Indeed, the whole evening was nothing but fun and games. Literally. Every table in the room was set up with bowls of chips, tacos, and dip, and bore at least two boxed games.

Our table had three: Monopoly, Pictionary, and Trivial Pursuit (the 80s version).

Shaun Smith autographs books

Shaun Smith autographs books

Author Shaun Smith, whose YA (i.e. Young Adult) novel Snakes & Ladders was featured at the event, experienced a bit of a homecoming. He was one of the two co-founders, five years ago, of This is Not a Reading Series itself (along with Mark Glassman of Pages Books & Magazines). He had left to do other things, but now returned to experience one of these evenings from the other side of the fence.

Nathan Whitlock, Books For Young People editor of Quill & Quire, interviewed Smith as the two moved around an actual Snakes & Ladders drop cloth that covered most of the stage, their moves determined by the roll of a gigantic air-filled die (note to the unfamiliar: the singular form of “dice”). It was a fun concept, though the randomness of where they moved meant that the interview was a bit random too. Ah well, that’s how the dice roll, I guess.



The two main characters in Smith’s book, set in 1971, are a young girl and her younger brother, spending the summer at the family cottage in Ontario’s Muskoka region. They get involved in trying to help save a duck’s eggs from being eaten by a snake, and in trying to save the beloved tree where the sister has her private retreat. Several plot streams run through the book: that of eco-activism, family difficulties, and a lot of dark things that might make some adults wonder if young readers can handle this story.

But Smith maintained that kids can deal with deeper stories than we often give them credit for, when the tales are told carefully.

The purpose of this not-reading series is “to get to the roots of the creative process,” as Mark Glassman often states. Smith revealed that he only discovered he was doing a kids’ book as the story evolved during the writing and this discovery necessitated his editor helping to remove a few racy elements. Another thing he learned, once the book was finished, was that YA writers have great camaraderie, and are usually eager to help each other.



Before the rather sporadic interview ended, Smith left the audience with one important tidbit. When asked, knowing what he knows about the publishing industry, why he wrote a book at all, his answer was simple: “Real writers stick with it.” Serious writing is a vocation, and he’s in it for the long haul.

It should be encouraging to his future prospects that the entire room burst into applause at this pledge.

Wacky Stacky

Wacky Stacky

And then the “book part” was over, and the games began! One small group immediately launched into a Scrabble match at one table, while another set up a checkers board nearby. While several people headed for the bar to get refreshments, another duo built a small tower on their table with rectangular wooden blocks, and then began the game of trying to pull blocks out of the middle of the tower without the whole thing collapsing.

Did this event make me want to read Shaun Smith’s book? Perhaps. As I said, the interview was a little disjointed, so we got our information in random little chunks. But the atmosphere in the room was cheerful and playful enough that I would definitely approach the book with a positive feeling.

To Whom it May Concern: King Lear Rules!

I admit, given the very cold temperatures outside, I wasn’t sure how big a crowd there would be at last night’s This is Not a Reading Series event by Pages Books, promoting Priscilla Uppal’s new book, To Whom it May Concern. To my great pleasure, and I’m sure the author’s as well, the Gladstone Hotel ballroom was packed. With people carrying heavy coats.

It was King Lear’s fault. I’m sure of it. He’d been conscripted to help promote the book – it was built on the underlying motif of his own story, after all – and everyone was dying to see how he’d push it.

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“What God Can Do For You Now” – maybe not much, actually

What God Can Do For You Now, by Robert Levine

by Rabbi Robert N. Levine

This book is a bit of a mixed bag, and may defeat its own purpose. What one expects from the title is the encouraging, even inspiring material in the last half of the book. There, Rabbi Robert Levine’s goodness and compassion shine through, and make you wish you could spend a few hours talking with him. He demonstrates that people can behave morally and kindly whether or not (sorry, Rabbi) they believe in God.

But the fact that this inspiring material is preceded by something less inspiring may turn away people that Levine clearly hopes to reach, and who could have benefited from what he teaches.

Through the initial chapters, Levine’s defense of God seems rather…defensive. And full of straw men.

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The Man Game – I still don’t know what it’s about

I was so looking forward to hearing about The Man Game by Lee Henderson, especially since the launch of this, his second book, was part of the first week of a new season of This is Not a Reading Series. I had such a great time last year at Pages Books’ not-readings that I positively bounced as I entered the Gladstone Hotel Ballroom.

The art of various kinds all over the walls really captured the attention, since the ballroom walls are usually bare for these events. But I’d heard two things about the upcoming evening, one being that art relating to the book would be featured. And the other…

Well, interviewer Nathan Whitlock (Books for Young People editor at Quill & Quire) put it best. He said that as a writer’s second book, the industry often looks for a “sprawling historical epic.” And perhaps they got it, in The Man Game, except “the sprawling has mainly to do with male nude wrestling.”

Yep. That was the other thing I’d heard: that the book was about a rough and tumble game dreamed up by a woman in late 1880s Vancouver, where men released their aggression by engaging in a strange naked dance/game in the streets. Naturally I wanted to learn more. Wouldn’t you?

The problem was…we didn’t, really.

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We can’t get where we’re going till we know where we are

We packed the Gladstone Hotel ballroom Monday night, several hundred of us at tables, in tight rows of chairs, or shoulder to shoulder along the walls, most of us there to do what Torontonians are very prone to do. We were there to talk about ourselves.

Not the way the rest of Canada imagines, though. Sure, we can’t figure out why other Canadians think Toronto is cold, unfriendly, and snobbish when it’s pretty much the exact opposite. So we’re always fretting about that, but not in a “we’re better than you and why don’t you agree” sort of way.

The topic preoccupied us for different reasons this time. At the latest event in Pages Books’ This is Not a Reading Series, Key Porter Books launched Toronto: A City Becoming, an anthology of essays by several prominent Torontonians, edited by David Mcfarlane. What we dearly wanted to know was — “becoming what, exactly?”

As five contributors to the book discussed their ideas about the city, moderated by CBC Radio One’s Jian Ghomeshi, there were as many separate conceptions of Toronto as there were panelists.

One idea that took some unexpected battering was the “city of neighbourhoods” characterization. It’s my most cherished Toronto label, yet Globe and Mail city columnist John Barber finds it meaningless. He asks what city isn’t a “city of neighbourhoods,” and fears the concept is being corrupted along ethnic lines lately. Meanwhile, architecture and urban design professor Michael Awad believes it’s a fragmenting, “adolescent” conception, meaning Toronto needs to grow up and be whole. And architect and urban planner John Van Nostrand points out that there are no “neighbourhoods” north of Eglinton anyway, in the sense most Torontonians mean when they use the word.

That “north of Eglinton/south of Bloor” divide entered the discussion frequently. Linda McQuaig, political author and Toronto Star columnist, decries the growing gap between the inner city rich, and the poor being shoved to the suburbs. Van Nostrand agrees this is a problem, though for structural rather than class-related reasons. Poorer people have always taken root at the more affordable edges, but the city then reached out with services (e.g. streetcar routes). Today, most municipal money goes inward, south of Bloor, and not outward to connect poorer citizens with the wider city.

The panelists concurred that there’s no single idea that sums up Toronto. Awad goes further, deriding the “branding” that the city repeatedly attempts. (What did the ad campaign of two years ago, “Toronto Unlimited,” actually mean?) If there’s any unifying aspect to the city, says Awad, it’s Toronto’s “history of failed Master Plans.” Which, incidentally, is a Good Thing. He agrees with Van Nostrand that we need less grandiose planning, allowing Toronto just to be itself.

What “really” goes on in Toronto, says David Mcfarlane, is barely connected to what visitors see; he views tourist attractions as “impostors.” Of tourists, he says you almost “want to invite them to your home so they don’t have to go to Casa Loma.” He means that the ongoing, day to day richness of Toronto life can’t be encompassed during a short stay. In fact, Mcfarlane reverses the old saying: this is a great place to live, but not to visit.

One moment stood out that perhaps belied the panelists’ belief that Toronto can’t be characterized by a single idea. A questioner from London, England, asked what Toronto contributes to the “human project” that can possibly compare to what London contributes. John Barber responded firmly that nothing like Toronto’s ethnic mix has ever happened in the world before. This is the one city on the planet where that is being worked out, and we will get it right (implication: because we have to, or else), and we will teach the rest of the world how to do it.

Perhaps, as Jian Ghomeshi suggested, Toronto should come to terms with not being and having everything, and recognize that that “cultural product” is what Toronto is ultimately known for. That alone would be a pretty spectacular legacy.

Do I want to read this book? Given the fact that these and many more fascinating perspectives await me in this volume — and given the fact that I’m a Torontonian, and like to read about myself — of course I do.