Monday, March 16, 2009

Descartes' Bones: a skeletal history of the conflict between faith and reason

by Russell Shorto

Wow! Beautiful literary nonfiction about one of my favorite subjects. (See also my posts about The End of Faith and The Closing of the Western Mind; in addition, I haven't written about it, but not too long ago I really enjoyed a DVD lecture series called Tools of Thinking: Understanding the World through Experience and Reason.)

This book is more entertaining than academic, but it's absolutely chock full of facts — no small number of which I've made an effort to commit to memory for trivia-game purposes. It's also remarkably nonjudgmental about the "conflict" to which the title refers. The author takes an objective, journalistic approach, remembering to anticipate and present the counter-arguments, and saves his speculation for a Sherlockian flourish near the end. (And the speculation has to do with the actual fate of the actual bones, not with any grand metaphor or metaphysical conclusion.)

Ultimately, though, the book isn't about faith versus reason, or radical versus moderate Enlightenment philosophy, it's about the way the conflict itself, which results from and at the same time is the very essence of Cartesian dualism — the often misstated and misunderstood "mind-body problem" — how that duality is at the heart of both theological and secular ideas about the world since Descartes, and how the modern world — everything from scientific advances to the globalization of culture, and much more — grew from the philosopher's great quest for a solid foundation on which to build the edifices of knowledge.

Final analysis: highly readable, surprisingly smooth and quick given some of the weighty ideas it explores; short-listed for my nonfiction Top 10, if I ever get around to making such a list.

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