Thursday, June 12, 2008

The foul rag and bone shop....

Is forgiveness rational?

I'm listening (as I write) to a local radio program, and Stephen Kinzer is promoting his book about Rwanda, so he's talking about the Rwanda genocides, and mentions that people are starting to forgive their attackers, the murderers of their family members, etc. Forgiveness, he says, is not rational, so he's convinced this forgiveness springs from religion, from what believers understand God wants. He repeats it several times: forgiveness is not rational.

I put this in the context of a book I finished last night, one that won't be out until October: Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason, by Russell Shorto. The subtitle is a bit unfortunate for the emphasis it puts on the very Western, very Enlightenment, distinction between faith and reason, as if the two were oil and water and can never mix. But that is Shorto's thesis, for which he uses Descartes' bones, and specifically his skull, as a metaphor.

Shorto's central thesis, in brief, is that Descartes is, more than any individual, responsible for the Enlightenment. Shorto is smart enough to know that any one person is a thin reed to rest all of modernity on, and he does so with the appropriate caution, but his argument is basically in agreement with his quote from Cartesian biographer and scholar Richard Wilson:

Descartes laid the foundations for the dominaince of reason in science and human affairs. He descraclized nature and set the individual human being above church and state. Without Cartesian invidualism, we would have no democracy. Without the Cartesian method of analyzing material things into their primary elements, we would never have developed the atom bomb. The seventeenth-century rise of Modern Science, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, your twentieth-century personal computer, and the twenty-first-century deciphering of the brain--all Cartesian. The modern world is Cartesian to the core..."
It's a sweeping generalization, and almost immediately subject to criticism. The issue of Descartes and democracy is already a strained case. France's revolution, as Shorto points out from the historical record, rested heavily on Descartes, and failed miserably. Any student of Chaucer and Shakespeare can already see another kind of democracy beginning in England, one which actually gave rise to the democracy of America without any real nod to the influences of Descartes ("We are British, and will nothing pay, for the wearing of our own noses!", the Bard wrote, long before Descartes was around to think and therfore be, anything). But set aside critique and focus on the general picture, because Descartes is one of the most important philosophers of history, certainly foundational to modern French culture and philosophy (for good and ill), and still a touchstone for the central issues of modern thought, such as the concept of "mind," and the high value we still place on the "rational."

Shorto has his own idea about the influence and importance of Descartes, and they don't necessarily adhere to those of Wilson. He explains his history of Descartes' remains this way:

...I think in its idiosyncratic way the history of Descartes' bones sketches the long journey, filled with false starts and blind alleys, that led to modern society--but as it narrows, this line of thinking darkens. I suspect that much of the talk about valuing the western traditions is a cover for a brutish us-or-them impulse. In these pages I have taken up Jonathan Israel's thesis that there was a three-way division that came into being as modernity matured. There was the theological camp, which held onto a worldview grounded in religious tradition; the "radical Enlightenment" camp, which, in the advent of the "new philosophy" [i.e., Cartesianism], wanted to overthrow the old order with its centers of power in the church and the monarchy, and replace it iwth a society ruled by democracy and science [Shorto details this in his discussion of the French Revolution]; and the moderate Englightenment camp, which took a middle position, arguing that scientific and religious worldviews aren't truly inconsistent, but that perceived conflicts have to be sorted out [the "American position," especially the impetus for the American Revolution]. All three of these factions remain with us today.
Notice, first, the resilience of the idea that all human history was meant to lead to this moment. That is, I must say, a very religious idea. It is the idea that some force, call it God, call it history, call it the zeitgeist or the gyres or what-have-you, is impelling human existence in a direction, and that direction is forward, and this point in time is the zenith of that effort, and if it wasn't inevitable that it led to us, it's a darned lucky thing it did because, well, we are so deserving! That's not a Greek idea, not at all. Read a Greek tragedy: all "progress" by the tragic hero inevitably ends disastrously. There is no progress, there is only survival and taking responsibility for your errors. That's the best we can do, according to the foundational culture of Western civilization, according to the supreme rationalists that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and modern thinking admire. Any idea that we have moved "forward" to this magic moment in time is entirely non-rational.

The division into three camps is a bit convenient, too, because it puts the rational above the theological, and it gives the rational its place of authority because of Rene Descartes; as if Socrates and Plato had never discussed anything, and all Aristotle had bequeathed us was the static categories of Scholastic philosophy. Reason, Shorto argues, that is not skeptical is not reason at all; except it is, of course; and Descartes' skeptical reason presents simply what Thomas Kuhn would call a paradigm shift, and not access to absolute truth at all.

And what is truth? Is is true that faith is always, and has always been, unalterably opposed to reason? Augustine and Aquinas would laugh at the notion, as would most of the early church fathers (try reading Ignatius or Antiochus, or even Paul, and tell me their arguments don't bristle with reason. It is not reason we set against faith, but premises. Descartes' true bequest to us is Socratic skepticism, not logic (that was Aristotle). Descartes' taught us to question our premises, but as David Hume showed just a few centuries later, follow that line of reasoning and you end up unable to rationally establish anything worth knowing at all. Rather where Socrates went, too; at least according to Kierkegaard. And it took Kant and German Idealism to give us something to talk about again, and Wittgenstein's mysticism and Godel's logic to mark paid to the last attempt at pure certainty of knowledge, logical positivism. But I digress....) And it is the premises where Shorto shortchanges the history, and his argument; although, excellent writer and researcher that he is, he realizes it.

In the epilogue to the book, Shorto tells us of his visit to Father Jean-Robert Armogathe, once chaplain at Notre Dame in Paris, director of studies of the "History of Religious and Scientific Ideas in Modern Europe" program of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes at the Sorbonne, and one of the three pre-eminent Cartesian scholars in the world. Pere Armogathe points out to Mr. Shorto that:

For five years...he had been studying vision and optics from the seventeenth-century to the present day. His argument was that from its beginning science took its ideas about vision from medieval and Renaissance Catholic notions of spiritual visions and inner light. The thesis he was formulating was that our scientific understanding of the sense of vision is built around spiritual metaphors. "I'm against the idea that there is a clear cut between the Renaissance and the modern ages," he said. "I think modern thinking gets its patterns from the theological realm. Biblical concepts allowed science to progress."
Central to any discussion of Descartes, of course, is a discussion of the "mind/body" problem. It is through Pere Armogathe that Shorto (finally!) acknowledges that this problem is endemic to Western civilization; that it goes back at least to Plato, if not before. But this doesn't answer the question: if mind and body are separate, how do they connect to each other? How is the Cartesian explanation (which, after all, sounds very much like the Catholic notion of the immortal soul in an earthly container?) not simply a metaphor of a "ghost in the machine"? Armogathe says Descartes answered that, in one of his last works:

"In his last book, Descartes states that in effect there must be a third substance, which is not really a third substance but a compound of both mind and body," Armogathe said. "I should treat is as a code, an encoding, which allows mind to react on body and body on mind."...This "encoding" is one of the commonest parts of our lives, and also the most precious. Its importance was what Descartes hit on near the end of his life."
What Descartes hit on, says Shorto, was connected to the death of Descartes' only child, one born out of wedlock to a woman he loved but never married. Recent scholarship has uncovered that this woman was married a few years after the child's death, in a town where Descartes lived at the time, and her dowry was paid by Descartes. "Social standing," writes Shorto, "prevented their truly being together even if Descartes would have wished it; he did however feel responsible, and in the end he provied a future for her."

Descartes' last book was about the "encoding" that connects body to mind.

The seventeenth-century terminology for this encoding was "passion." We might call it heart. This became the subject of Descartes' last work. Heart, he decided, was the interface between mind and body. Love, joy, anguish, remorse: we experience these in both body and mind, and somehow, Descartes became convinced, these passions link our two selves. He thus anticipated another modern field--psychology--in concluding that emotional states are tied to physical health, and also to, as he would put it, "the soul."
So: is forgiveness irrational? It must be. But it is also human. Just as, as a Christian...dare I say it?...God is human. And yet not human at all. It is the central mystery of Christianity: the Incarnation. Perhaps it is fitting that the "connective tissue" there is thought to be emotions, too. After all, Luke proved Jesus human in the Garden of Gethsamane; and John proved it with two words: "Jesus wept."

*I should have mentioned that the bust in the photograph is of Descartes. It was formed on a cast of a skull thought to be Descartes; the bust proved it to be so. The work was done in the early 20th century, with technigues very different from those used today to reproduce faces from skulls. It was pioneering work in its time, and gets much attention in Shorto's book.

No comments:

Post a Comment