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Guest: Russell Shorto

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The conflict between faith and reason in the West is as alive in today’s world as it was when René Descartes fueled the Enlightenment with “I think, therefore I am”, says journalist Russell Shorto. He follows Descartes’ bones and ideas through four centuries, convinced Descartes’ willingness to challenge authority is especially relevant now.

“We're in this era of competing fundamentalisms which you could say started with Descartes, with that generation. You had this theological world view. And suddenly it had something opposed to it, a world-view based on reason.
“Very quickly what developed was not a two-way but a sort of three-way split, and here I'm using the categories of Jonathan Israel. You had a radical Enlightenment in which the modern thinkers really opposed themselves violently to the old religious perspective.
“But you also had a moderate Enlightenment which said part of the job of reason is to figure out how to incorporate the irrational within the human sphere. Because that is in fact part of what we are.
“And so, over the course of the modern centuries you see these three forces at play. The more fundamentalist ones will tend to try to say, no, it's just the two of us and it's a fight to the death. But there is this other as well.
“Certainly Descartes himself said that there is in fact a third substance. Reality. He himself realized that dividing into the mind and body -- the medical, material world -- didn't work.
“What he came to late in his life in his last book, The Passions of the Soul, is to me a very prescient notion. It foreshadowed a lot of what people in the past thirty or forty years have been working on. The ‘passions’ in the 17th century were emotions. And our emotions work on our physical beings and our mental beings. So here's the best I've come up with. Descartes, while being very humble at this point late in his life -- saying maybe our minds are structured so that we can't figure this out -- is saying that the emotions part are a kind of bridge that wraps itself around mind and body. So that that experience of reality is maybe the ultimate human experience of reality.
“I would say that these years of the Bush Era has, we've seen such a rise of fundamentalists that I think a lot of people are yearning for some leader to come forward and say, ‘There's another way to do this.’”
Descartes is a stand in for all of us, for everyone who came after, Mr. Shorto concludes.
“The challenge to us is that with these great mountains of evidence. A lot of effort is necessary on the part of individuals to sort through it. The internet is the example. This is what I say to my daughters all the time. You got it from the internet -- is this how they're taught to do research? How do you trust your sources?”


We’re deeply pleased that Russell Shorto put “trying times” in the world-at-large to work by writing Descartes’ Bones. A continued exploration of the Enlightenment’s powerful ideas is a service to humanity. It is also fun!
*— a pleasant surprise from our discussion with Mr. Shorto and of readingDescartes’ Bones is the multiple three-point patterns which emerged: 

  • mind—body—God,
  • mind—body—emotions
  • fundamentalism—enlightenment (in opposition)—enlightenment (inclusive),
  • authoritarian—French Revolution–American Revolution,
  • black—white—grey. 

The point, of course, is that our world is not assembled from binary pairs of opposites.  Treating it thus is both naive and dangerous, as the last eight years in America have amply demonstrated.
Cogito, ergo sum readily becomes sum, ergo cogito.


Related Links

Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason is available in hardcover and as an ebook from Doubleday, andThe Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America is published in hardcover and ebook by Doubleday and in paperback by Vintage.
More information about Russell Shorto is available on his website.
Frederick Ferré has done a masterful job of reviewing and augmenting western philosophy in ways appropriate to the 21st century.
In The Next EnlightenmentWalter Truett Anderson takes an even broader view of "enlightenment" and its role in our future.
Stuart Kauffman's Reinventing the Sacred reconsiders the basics of science, and knowledge based on science, in ways that complement Mr. Shorto's enlightenment views.
In The Religious Case Against BeliefJames Carse argues that when scientists attack religion they are actually attacking "belief systems" having, erroneously, turned science into such a "belief system."  He would likely agree with Mr. Shorto that enlightenment thinking is open-ended ("horizonal" in Dr. Carse's description) and must include the emotions.
Paul Ekman is probably the world's leading expert on the expression of emotions in the human face (following Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals). Dr. Ekman's work with His Holiness the Dalai Lama has resulted in a jointly authored book, Emotional Awareness.
Lotfi Zadeh has done heroic work in overcoming the misapplied notion (going back at least to Aristotle) of the "excluded middle." The world we inhabit and discuss is not binary (black and white/yes or no) but many-shaded grey.
And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.

This Program was recorded on Tuesday, October 21, 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia, US

Tags: continental enlightenment Descartes' Bones dualism duality emotions english enlightenment enlightenment faith faith and reason God materialism mind-body reason reductionism Rene Descartes Russell Shorto