Saturday, June 23, 2012

Middle Ground

My second son was born earlier this week.  Like most people who have babies, I started thinking about the future as I stared at him.   I also had the opportunity to read more this week, and I finished a book started earlier in the month.

In Descartes' Bones we learn how rationalist philosopher Rene Descartes' remains traveled through Europe and the centuries.  Descartes is most famously known for the Latin phrase cogito, ergo sum by which he reduced certain knowledge to, 'Some being of which I am part, is thinking right now.'  Since he began the rationalist journey in his Discourse on Method, Descartes has been dandy and devil to both religious and naturalistic thinkers.  In his own lifetime, he was seen as both a heretic and devout Catholic, often at the same time. 

Author Russell Shorto  crafted a fine book with a strong thesis.  He claims to show how Descarte founded modernity by attempting to stay on the middle ground between atheistic rationalism and religious faith.  He uses several examples to show how both sides have used Descartes' bones and ideas to serve their own purposes. 

Instead of acceding to either fanatical side, Shorto attempts to show the pitfalls of total ascription to either.  Shorto makes the case of the moderate. Prominently, the debate in mid-19th Century France over the relationship between brain size and intelligence provokes some fun historical reading.   


All that remains of the famous (and contentious) philosopher is his skull. Fitting for someone known, whether rightly or not, for dividing the mind and the body in a dualistic framework. The following poem is inscribed in Latin on the forehead. It provides an odd poetic context for the moderate appeal made by Shorto. 

Latin
Parvula Cartesii fuit haec calvaria magni,
exuvias reliquas gallica busta tegunt;
sed laus ingenii too diffunditur orbe,
mistaque coelicolis mens pia semper ovat.
English
This small skull once belonged to the great Cartesius,
The rest of his remains are hidden far away in the
land of France;
But all around the circle of the globe his genius
is praised,
And his spirit still rejoices in the sphere of heaven.


Although I disagree with some of Shorto's conclusions, I greatly respect and appreciate this work.  It is well researched and reads like a novel.  

There are several individuals who could be considered responsible for sparking modernity- Machiavelli, Galileo, Newton, Hume (just to name a few important people).  However, it is clear no one person produced modernity and its cultural descendants.  Descartes played an important role, but he was not solely or even probably chiefly responsible for such a sea change.  At the same time, this book does a superb job of bringing the philosopher back into his proper place in history.   

I also believe Shorto still writes about religion from a naturalists' perspective on religion.  It is clear he does not believe any one religion may know truth.   Although I agree individuals may not know truth, it is silly to believe a religion should exist as merely partially true.  Shorto seems to believe religion is important for making sense out of the world, in much the same way art and other non-rational (different than irrational) endeavors and experiences help us make sense of the world.   If this is the best we can say religion, then I believe we should jettison it all. It is just not worth it if only serves a pragmatic epiphenomenal purpose in our world.

If on the other hand, religious experience can lead us to truth, then it is worth it.  This is what I mostly thought about in relation to my son.  I pray for him.  I also pray for my older son.  I do want both of them to be moderates in a few things.  For example, politics need more moderate people who are willing to compromise with those they don't share beliefs with. That is how I believe a secular democracy should work. I also believe we need moderates when it comes to the way we engage in civil, public discourse.  

When it comes to faith and meaning- I want my sons to be sold out on what they believe in.  

Does that mean I want them to have complete confidence in themselves, as if they know it all? 

No. 

Not all...because that type of attitude breeds extremism.  

Extremism sees other people as less than human, or as not part of my tribe. I don't want that for my boys.  

But I do want them to have confidence in things like the resurrection, and God's love for all people, and in the necessity of seeking God's will as we navigate the Bible, life, and those times when we aren't sure we have all the facts. I also want them to be completely sure of right and wrong, the need for empathy, and a purpose for their lives. These are just a few of the areas I probably am divergent from Shorto.  

I highly recommend reading Descartes' Bones. It should get you thinking about your place in this world. Most of us think we are moderates, but what does that mean?  What does it mean to walk the middle ground? When is it appropriate to walk the middle ground? Should we ever avoid the middle ground? When should we embrace the middle ground (and does such an embrace implicitly deny such a thing as moderation)? 
  


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