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Descartes' Bones

12/01/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

A couple of years ago I culminated a personal odyssey by standing in
the basement of a Paris museum exchanging stares with the skull of the
French philosopher René Descartes. It seemed a surprisingly small and
delicate vessel to have contained the brain that once thought "I think
therefore I am" and other phrases of world-class weight. But a brain
scientist will tell you that size doesn't matter: indeed, if saints' bones
served as touchstones in the Middle Ages, this grim little object I beheld
is arguably the touchstone of our time, the very relic of modernity.

On the eve of a presidential election that holds the possibility of
historic change, it's worth pondering the significance of this relic. One
reason for the hunger for change is that the years of the Bush presidency
have coincided with a worldwide rise of fundamentalisms: Christian, Muslim,
and secular. As we approach November 4, people are longing for a way out of
a situation in which competing value systems continually threaten one
another with extinction. No doubt this partly explains the choice of John
McCain -- a non-ideologue who has spent his career at a distance from the
Christian conservative wing of his party -- as the Republican nominee, and may
also explain the rise of Barack Obama, a pragmatic, legalistic thinker who
brings, to boot, the hope of a new epoch in America's long racial struggle.

The war of competing fundamentalisms in which we are caught goes
back a long way. The modern era began with an outburst of efforts to probe
the natural world: with telescopes, microscopes and dissections. The Church
and absolutist states saw this activity as a threat to power, but mostly
tolerated it as long as it remained random. Descartes made the threat more
real by providing an intellectual foundation to the work of Galileo, Pascal,
William Harvey and others. In 1637, this irascible, vain, restless Frenchman
wrote a 58-page essay -- "The Discourse on the Method for Rightly Conducting
the Reason" -- with the modest proposal to ground knowledge not on received
wisdom from the Bible or kingly power but on human reason. The Cartesian
method became the basis for both the scientific method and the reason-based
political philosophy of the Enlightenment.

Yet Descartes himself was keenly sensitive to Church criticism. He
tried to safeguard faith from science by creating a wall, splitting reality
into two distinct parts: mind/soul and matter. However much "natural
philosophers" probed the material world, he reasoned, they would never touch
the eternal. But as the decades wore on and scientists were able to explain
more and more of reality strictly in terms of matter, faith began to seem
irrelevant.

At the same time, however, some of the "new philosophers" realized
that reason was insufficient to deal with many aspects of life. It did very
poorly at handling joy, transcendence, love, and the meaning of suffering.
Thus the modern conundrum -- a split in our consciousness -- which is Descartes'
legacy.

Curiously enough, Descartes' mind-body split has a literal side. So
revolutionary did Descartes' contemporaries think his work that 16 years
after he died his remains were dug up and people began taking pieces of
them, some as tokens of the change he had wrought -- souvenirs of the birth of
science -- others actually seeing his bones as religious relics, since, at the
time, any inquiry into the heart of nature was deemed spiritual.

For several years I followed the twisting trails Descartes' bones
took down the centuries. I uncovered varied stories involving scientists,
priests, thieves, soldiers and politicians who bought, stole and puzzled
over this philosopher's physical remains. But there was a common thread.
Each story contained at its core a struggle over where meaning should be
placed, in the religious or the secular. It happened in the 1780s, when the
leaders of the French Revolution debated enshrining Descartes' bones in the
Pantheon, a church-turned-secular temple, seeing him as a hero of democracy.
It happened in the 19th century, when Descartes' (rather small) skull was
used in the new field of anthropology to refute the prevalent theory that
greater skull size was an indication of greater intelligence, and became
caught up in that era's science-versus-faith debate.

Descartes' literal mind-body split continues today: his skull is
housed in a science museum; the "body" of his remains are in a church. And
the split in the modern value system continues as well. Of course, it's in
the nature of fundamentalism to set up a strict divide. In fact, however,
from the time of Descartes things were never black and white. As modernity
matured, a three-way division that came into being. There was the
theological camp, which held onto a worldview grounded in religious
tradition. And there was a "radical Enlightenment" camp, which wanted to
overthrow the old order, with its centers of power in the church and the
monarchy, and replace it with a society ruled by democracy and science. But
there was also a "moderate Enlightenment" camp, which argued that the
scientific and religious worldviews aren't truly inconsistent, but need to
be reconciled.

The radical secularists of today are right to be fed up with
religious fundamentalism, but radical secularism has its problems too. For
one, it thinks too highly of reason, or at least of the ability of humans to
employ it. And it takes a too narrow view of reality. Religion, like art,
is a way of negotiating the conundrum of existence. The French Revolution
was the ultimate expression of the radical Enlightenment, in which attempting
to cut religion away from society led to death and chaos. The American
Revolution, by contrast, embodied the moderate Enlightenment values of
inclusion and tolerance.

The intense interest in this presidential election may be due to a
yearning to return to those values. It's our bad luck that 9/11 happened
in the early days of an administration that was already disposed toward a
theological worldview, fueling its own extremism, which in turn inflamed
other fundamentalisms. Whoever wins on November 4, we can hope -- and pray -- for
a leader who knows what René Descartes bequeathed us, right down to his
bones.