Sunday, November 02, 2008

Science, faith and Descartes

Here is a NYT review of a new book, Descartes' Bones by Russell Shorto. It provides another example of the complexity of science & religion interactions:
The religious quarrels in which Descartes’s ideas embroiled both himself and his followers are too numerous to count, ranging from the character of transubstantiation in the Eucharist to the possibility that the animal kingdom might exhibit something other than the Bible’s apparent “fixity of the species.” Most of these disputes concern, in one way or another, the challenge posed by the new mechanistic science to classical notions of nature and its ends — that is, to the teleology inherited from Aristotle and codified by churchmen. But, as Shorto em­phasizes, there was another side to Descartes’s project. The philosopher thought he had succeeded not in overturning the true faith but in protecting it from the crumbling edifice of ancient natural science. His mind/body distinction, Shorto notes, has long been invoked in defense of “an eternal realm of thought, belief and ideals that can’t be touched by the prying fingers of science.”

Whether Shorto himself falls into this camp is hard to say, but he offers welcome sympathy to those of us who would like to see today’s discussion of the relationship between science and religion placed on a more civil, informed footing. It is a mistake, he writes, to think that the Enlightenment “set reason firmly against faith and the two have ever since been locked in a death struggle.” Radicals among the trailblazing modern thinkers were more than equally matched by moderates who believed that “reason would function alongside faith to increase human happiness and life span, end disease, reduce suffering of all kinds and give people greater power over nature and greater freedom in their lives.” If the founders of the modern sensibility could bridge this divide, perhaps we can, too.
Ok, so the review is written by the chief external affairs officer of the Templeton Foundation - and the last sentence fits into the Foundation's framework. Whether we agree with this particular sentiment or not, it is important to point out these historical examples to illustrate the varieties of science and religion interactions. The book looks good. Read the full review here.