Our favorite philosopher John Gray on René Descartes, by way of a book review, is a pleasure to read — and a reminder that the great rationalists of Western thought owe a heavy, too heavy, debt to their religious origins and impulses.
It’s not just that “Hegel’s philosophy reproduced a Christian view of history”; or that “Locke’s liberalism was rooted in his version of theism”; or that Descartes, an “avowed Catholic believer,” had “an affinity with hermetic and occult thinkers” and may have been — take your pick — something of a Rosicrucian wacko or something of a Jesuit secret agent spying on Rosicrucian wackos.
Gray’s point is that, by failing to take account of their religious origins and impulses, we acquire a deep misunderstanding of much Western philosophy, to say nothing of the pernicious roots that feed our murky 21st century. “For all his advocacy of methodical doubt,” Gray writes of Descartes, “he adopted the moral prejudices of his time slavishly.”
This is nowhere more clearly shown than in his view of animals as insensate automata — a ridiculous view whose truth he attempted to demonstrate in some disgusting experiments. Modern philosophy might have developed very differently if its founder had followed the example of Montaigne in applying a degree of genuine scepticism to the anthropocentric prejudice that consciousness is a uniquely human phenomenon. We might have a more interesting body of ethical theory, and a wider philosophy of mind. …
The notion that we alone are conscious is an error inherited from western religion, not a result of scientific inquiry. The fantastical theory of Cartesian dualism — the idea that brain and mind are radically distinct but somehow interact — could probably never have arisen except in a culture whose view of humanity was formed by Christianity.
But the influence of Christianity has no monopoly on vile human affairs. Far from it. We need only cite the front page of this morning’s New York Times, which quotes the nauseating shouts of a radical Muslim, as he watches an old video showing the decapitation of Nicholas Berg by his Iraqi captors:
“Go to hell, enemy of God! Kill him! Kill him! Yes, like that! Cut his throat properly. Cut his head off! If I had been there, I would have burned him to make him already feel what hell was like. Cut off his head! God is great! God is great!”
Yeah, God’s terrific. And so are all those Muslim true believers.
We asked the other day: “Isn’t it time to drop religious faith from human belief?” The answer is self evident.
— Tireless Staff of Thousands