Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason
by Russel Shorto
Vintage Books, 2008
Descartes’ Bones tells the story of the life, death, and influence of Rene Descartes. It speaks of Descartes’ ideas and how they influenced those around him and those in subsequent generations. The book takes a very interesting path, that of following the skeleton of Descartes, as it is moved, removed, scattered, and traveled around Europe for over 300 years. Shorto describes how the bones travel and who they touch, telling a very interesting story as they go. It seems Descartes’ skeletal remains have been handled by some rather interesting people over the generations, most of whom have been influenced not only by Descartes’ bones, but by his ideas as well. The book is part detective story, part history of science and philosophy, part description of social change due to the people wrestling with faith and reason.
The subtitle of the book tells the contrast of ideas, that between faith and reason. Shorto describes the history of the conflict, which is generally accredited as starting with Descartes, and describes how faith and reason have been dealt with by scientists and thinkers over the centuries since Descartes’ death.
Shorto tells a very interesting story. With a basic concept as broad as ‘faith and reason’ he must narrow the scope of the story somewhat, and he does so using those who have handled Descartes mysteriously wandering skeleton.
The book’s strengths are that it is very readable and engaging. The few sections on the philosophical influences might be tedious to those who have no background in philosophy, but they are short, and enough of an overview to be educational, which is Shorto’s goal. The book is also quite good at using accounts of individuals to show how ideas have influenced large sections of society. So for these reasons, the book is worth reading.
On the downside, Shorto’s main problem is the same as that of most of those who deal with the issue of faith and reason. The subtitle speaks of the confluct between faith and reason, a conflict which does not have to exist. Faith does not have to be opposed to reason; in fact, our Christian faith is a reasonable faith, not an unreasonable one. Somehow over the centuries the secular and the sacred communities have come to believe that faith is somehow unreasonable. In the Bible, nothing could be further from the truth. Biblical faith is reasonable and built on solid intellectual ground. Based on the reasonable evidence, we are merely asked to take the next most logical step of faith. On the other hand, all reason has some degree of faith. No system is built on pure reason, and all fields of study have some basic assumptions that are accepted as foundational, and accepted without proof. We believe in the rational, but we do not believe in rationalism.
In one section of the book, Shorto deals with those who started the field of anthropology, and deals with the racism that was inherent in the field at that time. Shorto comments: “They weren’t out to prove that whites were superior for the simple reason that they assumed it from the start. It was so obvious to them it didn’t need proving. The proper use of science was in figuring out why this was so.” (p.187). Such a comment is very insightful, for these people were no idiots, they were the most learned people of the day. Their capabilities and drive are equal to anyone today. Yet Shorto rightfully shows their rather glaring blindspot. But Shorto does not raise the next most obvious question: If these learned people could make so obvious of a mistake, is it not possible that the same type of blindspots are going on today in science as well as in faith?
But overall the book is a fair representation of the history of the ideas, and is structured around a type of detective story about the people who come into contact with Descartes’ bones. I found it to be a very interesting book, a pleasure to read.