Weighing René Descartes’ Influence in a World Without Him

A conversation with Arturo Serrano on the core questions of ethics and political theory and why he kills off Descartes in his new novel

Arturo Serrano’s first novel in English imagines that the Mayflower was lost at sea in 1620, the English Separatists were disheartened, and the United States were never born. In this alternate history, rival empires split up the world, and those caught in the middle fight to bring an end to all empires. The novel is called To Climates Unknown and will be released next month. Full disclosure: Arturo Serrano and I are married. Here, for readers of this philosophy blog, I ask him why he chose to put a young René Descartes as a character in his novel.
—Tucker Lieberman


Part 2 of your novel is called “Setback.” This is a chapter imagining René Descartes as a young man in the early 17th century: as a curious, precocious 14-year-old student, then as a 23-year-old plagued by existential dread and confusion, and finally as a 25-year-old who comes face-to-face with an enemy. What inspired you to imagine Descartes as a character in To Climates Unknown?

A photo of the novelist Arturo Serrano.
Arturo Serrano

When I was first researching events in the 17th century to get an idea of what world I would be jumping into, I focused on a particular week in September 1620 that contains the main four events I altered: the return of Danish sailor Jens Munk, the return of Japanese diplomat Hasekura Tsunenaga, the start of the Mayflower’s journey, and the plot to assassinate Chinese Emperor Taichang.

As it happens, that window of time in 1620 contains another key event: the Battle of White Mountain, which had major consequences for the balance of power between Catholics and Protestants. René Descartes was present at that battle, as a soldier in the army of the Holy Roman Emperor. So from the start I knew I wanted to do something with Descartes.

However, I was holding myself to using just one point of divergence from our timeline, and I wasn’t able to find a plausible chain of consequences that would affect that battle. So I let that event go as it went in our timeline, but chose to mess with Descartes at some later point.

Another reason why I kill Descartes is to help me better explore a world without America. It is not enough to remove the particular people in a particular region who founded America, because America is an idea, not a nation. Without that concrete historical event, it’s still entirely possible that someone else would have founded another country on the same principles. So I realized I had to remove the principles entirely, along with the purported nation. The principles are the theories of British liberalism, which are a development from the tradition of modern philosophy. There are other events in my book that negate the preeminent role of Britain in world politics, but to make sure modern liberalism never emerges in that area of the world, the most efficient method was to remove the root of all modern thought.


You portray Descartes as a ruminative character. Do you empathize with him? Is he someone you might have liked to have met?

Both the Meditations on First Philosophy and the Discourse on the Method are written as first-person testimonials. You get a very close impression of how his mind worked and which of the ongoing discussions surrounding the Wars of Religion were obsessing him. You can tell he’s struggling to communicate the importance of skepticism in terms that would be acceptable to an era when your life or death depended on a profession of faith.

More than meeting him in his time, I would have liked to invite him to ours and show him all the ways he won.


The rector at the Jesuit Collège Royal Henry-Le-Grand at La Flèche discusses an abstract question with the young René Descartes. They ask: If God foresees a certain future and then chooses to alter that future, does the originally envisioned future have any kind of reality in God’s mind? Is this question, in this exact form or similar form, one that ever interested you independently before you began writing this book?

That was not one of the original themes, but it became essential as I researched the 17th century. There was an intense discussion going on about determinism vs. human freedom. On the Protestant side, you had Calvinists vs. Arminians, and on the Catholic side, you had Jansenists vs. Jesuits. The starting question was whether human beings got a say in their salvation, but it turned out to have deeper ramifications that involved God’s absolute sovereignty and, ultimately, whether events in human history are fixed beforehand or shaped by our choices.

One author I found fascinating in this debate was Spanish priest Luis de Molina, who tried really hard to find a way to reconcile human freedom with divine foreknowledge. What makes him relevant to the whole conception of my novel was his work on the reality of counterfactuals, imagined scenarios that do not match our world. Since the whole business of writing an alternate history is to treat a counterfactual as a possible reality, you can see how Molina’s theories were crucial to the novel.


What do you see as some of the direct or indirect effects of Descartes’ philosophy in our world? Or, from a different angle: How might our world be different if he had not written anything?

Because we live in a Cartesian world, it’s hard to imagine what it looked like before he appeared. Descartes introduced the notion that we should not believe what we don’t know for a fact to be true. Without that first principle, you can’t have serious science, or the entire legal theory of freedom of conscience and religious tolerance. Descartes did his best to challenge, without exposing his neck too much, the authoritarian nature of dogma.

In Catholic theology, a dogma is a belief defined as mandatory. Not mandatory like an axiom, which is considered self-evident and thus doesn’t need much demonstration, but mandatory like a law, in the sense that the Church is ordering you to assent to this belief. Descartes opposed that and gave us tools to evaluate beliefs without regard to authority.

This is a truly radical notion, that truth ought to suffice on its own without compulsion. If an idea survives examination and questioning and debate, it deserves to be believed. Later developments in the philosophy of science have added refinements to this guideline, and thus now we accept that all scientific truths are provisional until we reach better ones, but the whole attitude of rejecting authority as a justification for belief starts with Descartes. That is a huge break from the ipse dixit approach that prevailed in Medieval philosophy, and it is the key reason why Medieval philosophy ends when Descartes shows up.


A big theme in To Climates Unknown is imperial power, colonization, and the march to war. What role can philosophers play, if any, in promoting peace?

Philosophy deals with the questions that matter. You can actually differentiate between branches of philosophy by looking at the core question each asks. The core question of ethics is “What do I do?” But then you look at political theory, and its core question is “What do we do?” This illustrates the point that political theory grows from ethical theory; it is one part of the whole discipline of ethics.

So all political questions are ultimately ethical questions. The way you treat other human beings depends on what you believe about human beings. The way you treat their rights and their lives depends on what you believe about rights and lives (even if you’re not aware of what beliefs you’re operating from). When you choose war, when you choose that the deliberate application of violence is favorable to your interests, you’re making a moral calculation, and the role of philosophers in helping put an end to wars is to show the true weights involved in that calculation.


The part of your book about René Descartes begins with two epigraphs: “Things that appear unrelated actually have some sort of natural link” (Cicero, On Divination) and “It is beneath God’s majesty to know how many gnats are born every second” (Saint Jerome, Commentaries on the Minor Prophets). Why did you choose these?

This chapter follows immediately after one where I show how the last descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers become lost to history. Since the plot is no longer going to be about the Pilgrims, I use those quotes to reassure the reader that the completely different characters and scenarios I’m about to use do have a connection to what I’ve told so far and do belong to the same overall story, even if what I do to Descartes renders him an irrelevant figure in history—a gnat, so to speak.


Book cover: To Climates Unknown by Arturo Serrano
To Climates Unknown

Who do you hope will read To Climates Unknown and what do you hope they will experience or take away?

My first version of this novel was written in Spanish. My choice to make the final version in English stems from the function I hope this book serves. Questioning America’s role in the world is an exercise we’ve done hundreds of times in the rest of the world, but one Americans themselves haven’t done enough. The mere postulation of this timeline is a challenge to the creed of Manifest Destiny (yet another incarnation of Calvinist determinism).

There is a brand of American conservatism that insists America is a nation in the traditional sense as opposed to an idea. Such a position leads to a lot of nasty xenophobic implications, and it needs constant questioning. Of all countries currently in existence, America is the one with the least claim to being a “nation.” If there’s any basis in reality to the hyperinflated story of American Exceptionalism, one has to recognize that what makes America special is not an ethnic origin or a religion or a language. America is not a particular group of people, but a set of principles that are completely opposed to the nation state. And that set of principles is not exclusive to an ethnic origin or a religion or a language. My novel ends with the emergence of a political entity much like America, but woven from more diverse threads.

Belief in American Exceptionalism has been weaponized to cause serious harm, but there is a spark of truth in that idea. The positioning of “All are created equal” as a self-evident axiom of collective life is the kind of principle that breaks away with all nationalisms and tribal identities. It is a guiding idea that America has forgotten and badly needs to be reminded of.


To Climates Unknown is available for preorder and will be released on November 25, 2021, the 400th anniversary of the mythical first Thanksgiving. You can also engage on Goodreads.

Otto was a farmer – repost

wheatMy step-father was a dry-land farmer. He worked with his hands all of his life. He worked with mules, horses, and later tractors. Otto was primarily a wheat farmer. He took pride in his farming. Straight rows [once when my brother was home on leave during WWII, and was new to farming, Otto had him working in a field where he was supposed to drive the tractor at an angle across the face of a hill, Bud’s rows got so crooked that he decided to fix the line by working up and down the hill to correct the line! The result was a disaster as the rows now ran up and down the hill side instead of across its face.], sowing at the right time, cultivating, knowing when to harvest. There was a German Lutheran toughness to him and a real pride in growing crops and beasts to feed the people.

It was a real shock to him when he made his first trip to the east coast. He went up to the top of the Empire State Building and looked out over the city. He noticed barges in the Hudson River that were dumping their loads into the river. He asked what they were dumping. He was told they were dumping excess wheat and also milk. He could not believe it.

Why would they do that he asked. For the futures market he was told. Too much wheat brings the prices down now and in the future.

When he came back to the farm he was changed. Those barges had stolen his life’s purpose.

At about the same time Camus was writing his Notebooks 1951 – 1959. He writes (35) :

According to Melville, the remora, a fish of the South Seas, swims poorly. That is why their only chance to move forward consists of attaching themselves to the back of a big fish. They then plunge a kind of tube into the stomach of a shark, where they suck up their nourishment, and propagate without doing anything, living off the hunting and efforts of the beast.

The remora reminds me of the Wall Street speculators of today. They do not produce any wheat or corn – they merely bet on its price in the future. And they don’t manufacture anything to use for anything – they specialize in gambling. Oh, and gas prices? Betting on the futures is responsible for a large share of the price.

Oh, yeah, and Otto paid his fair share of taxes.

More stories.

The Fly

Two things about the 2020 vice-presidential debate will go down in history – the significance of Kamala Harris as the first woman-of-color contender, and a fly landing on Mike Pence’s head and staying there for two full minutes.

At first, you assume it’ll just fly away and it’ll be as unremarkable a moment as when a fly landed on Hilary‘s face in 2016 debates. But then it just stayed there, huge and prominent against Pence’s snow white hair, through his grandstanding on law and order and his steamrolling through the moderator’s six attempts to keep him within his own two-minutes. Combined with him looking generally unwell, including some kind of pink eye situation, it was the happiest I’ve ever been watching reality TV. In that moment life was imitating art, and I saw God.

People on the internet went nuts. Pretty fly on a white guy. One fly over the cuckoo’s nest. Pence the shithead. Lord of the lies. Just so many good ones. The Biden Campaign, doing everything right, immediately put flyswatters on their merch site and they sold out by morning. Then the jokes died, along with the last gasps of Pence’s soul once he realized what had been the most memorable part of his performance.

Of course what made this moment a lasting thing of beauty is the fact that Pence is the most prominent evangelical Christian in modern U.S. history. According to the reality that he is living in, the fly meant more to him than it did to us. We know the fly probably just got stuck in his hairspray, or is residing on a stationary object, but he and his base of fundamentalists have to reckon with the fact that the fly is considered the bearer of death in their religion, symbolizing rot, decay, and corruption to nobles. Satan himself, Bezelbub, is named “Lord of the Flies.” So as the head of the alleged Coronavirus Task Force (*gestures to the situation*) the symbolism is undeniable. Why the fly landed there, then, for that long, at such a crucial moment of his political career while his base ostensibly is praying for him, this cannot and will not be so easily dismissed by the people it matters to most.

“But if you will not let My people go, I will send swarms of flies upon you and your officials and your people and your houses. The houses of the Egyptians and even the ground where they stand will be full of flies. ” – Exodus 8:21

There no better symbol for the man that Mike Pence is, and no more meaningful time for it to present itself. He knows it, his base knows it. You don’t even have to be religious to see that Pence’s role these last four years has been very vulture-like, hovering somewhere behind or beside the cancer that is Trump, waiting…and now ushering.

Pence the Prince of Pestilence. Even the name fits.

‘Agnotology’: The study of ignorance

Prof. Robert Proctor, who teaches History of Science at Stanford University, is the co-editor of Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance. He coined this term for “the study of ignorance.” On July 8, 2020, he was a guest on Alie Ward’s “Ologies” podcast (episode: 1 hour, 8 minutes).

“Ologies with Alie Ward” podcast, July 8, 2020 episode with Robert Proctor.

In this interview, Proctor explains: We begin in ignorance when we are born. Then—because human eyes are focused, and for any number of other reasons—“we ignore almost everything. We have the focus of a predator and not the eternal watchfulness of prey.” Most of what we do notice, we must forget; that is the only way we can absorb and remember the most important information. And some kinds of ignorance are “virtuous” in their intent—for example, when a person means to protect privacy or maintain neutrality in an appropriate situation—while, by contrast, people have often practiced willful ignorance regarding the causes and effects of forms of social oppression including racism and sexism.

Outright brainwashing is one way to foster ignorance, but “misdirection campaigns” are more “subtle” and “clever” strategies to manipulate others’ thought. Big Tobacco, for example, “knew that cigarettes cause cancer,” Proctor says. “And their whole goal was to create ignorance, to stave off people learning the truth, by creating doubt, by throwing up a smokescreen, by throwing sand in the gears. And they were able to instrumentalize science by doing that. By funding genetics, by funding the study of viruses, they created all these blind alleys and false etiologies” to deflect from the fact that certain diseases were really caused by tobacco. Through trade groups, such industry agendas coordinate to become “engines of uncertainty, engines of ignorance.” Proctor studies “how science itself can become corrupted.”

“I think we live in the Golden Age of Ignorance,” he said. “Ignorance spreads at the speed of light now, and—with the rise of conspiracy theories, with the rise of denial campaigns, with the siloing of people into reinforcing ‘like’ communities through Facebook or whatever—it’s easy to find self-reinforcing bubble worlds, and that’s a huge problem.” He continued: “That democratization has also been a kind of a dumbing-down. I think a lot of media is very easy to circulate. If everyone can pop off anything they want on Twitter, and that’s all you read—there’s no quality control there.”

Proctor cited the “commercialization” and politicization of Christianity as a problem, as well as its theological exclusivity (especially in the United States, where it is uncommon—as contrasted with India—for people to claim multiple religious identities). This exclusivity limits people from examining and choosing what might be good from other religions.

“We’re going to have to rethink our metaphors,” he said, regarding how we can persuade people away from science-denialism having to do with, for example, climate change. “We’ve got to think much more creatively about how to bond people in the stories we tell—the allegories—the stories we tell about why we need to act differently from how we’ve acted in the past.”

Empathy allows us to see that much ignorance is driven by fear. To begin addressing situations in which people are acting fearfully, Proctor recommends that we take a step back and ask: “What is at stake? Who benefits? What are the alternatives?”

Is a ‘political lie’ different from a garden-variety lie?

Cover of the magazine Pesquisa Javeriana.
Cover of the magazine Pesquisa Javeriana.

The traditional definition of a lie is intentional delivery of false information to mislead someone else into believing that it’s true. Juan Samuel Santos, Andrea Catalina Zárate and Gustavo Gómez, philosophers at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia, suggest that political lies are different from other kinds of lies. The university held a symposium on the subject last August.

An article in the latest issue of the university’s Spanish-language magazine describes their positions.

Santos notes that politicians often speak to motivate their audience to feel something or take some action, but not necessarily with the intent that the audience will believe the statements. Sometimes politicians claim certain accomplishments when the audience already knows those claims aren’t quite true. These political lies nevertheless (regardless of the politician’s intent) do perpetuate false beliefs and are dangerous.

Zárate focuses on why some lies are more believable and popular than others. She examines the relationship between specific speakers and listeners, especially in light of modern mass communication and social media that allow lies to be easily replicated.

Gómez, beginning with Plato’s dialogues and citing Derrida’s notion of a “truth effect,” discusses how a publication or a repetition can create the semblance of truth even if that is not the speaker’s intent. Authors and readers alike, he says, have the responsibility to evaluate the truth of what is communicated.

To sum up: In political contexts, speakers and listeners may not care primarily about factual information. Political speech may instead serve another purpose, and people may replicate those messages because of their existing relationships and platforms, not because of the quality of the information. When they pass on the message, others may begin to perceive it as true, even if it was never intended as a factual communication.

Source

The article in the magazine of Pontificia Universidad Javeriana.
The article in Pesquisa Javeriana.

“¿La mentira política es diferente a las otras mentiras?” Alejandro Tamayo Montoya. Pesquisa Javeriana. Sept-Nov. 2019 (available free online as PDF). pp. 10-11.

At the end of the article, these sources were recommended as further reading:

The effect of conspiracy theories

“Conspiracy,” a photo by Fleeting Pix. Colorized and digitally altered by Tucker Lieberman.
Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0 license.

How do conspiracy theories arise? Why, despite how implausible they sound to most people, are they so “sticky” for others?

Telling stories that aren’t true

If Only by Neal Roese.

Neal Roese, in If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity (2005), discusses the role of counterfactual expressions—that is, things that just aren’t so. At their best, they help us analyze a situation and seek a better path. One type of counterfactual is “it could have been worse” which is supposed to serve as consolation.

Here’s one of Roese’s examples. An employee of Cantor Fitzgerald—a company that suddenly lost hundreds of employees in New York City when the World Trade Center fell on September 11, 2001—survived because he happened to be inquiring about a gym membership and was not in the office when the plane hit the building. The counterfactual narrative that he easily might have died does not meaningfully explain why he lived. The simple observation of his near-brush with death, applied to this situation of survivor’s guilt and when taken up as an existential perspective, “is a counterfactual that shoots blanks,” Roese says. Such an approach “can get in the way of successful coping by conjuring phantom explanations and phony sense making or simply by failing to provide resolution and understanding.”

The man’s survival is random, yet that answer leaves most of us itching. Some will contort themselves to come up with a different explanation.

What existential function might a conspiracy theory serve?

A conspiracy theory—pick one, any one—is, in my view, a more elaborate kind of counterfactual. It asserts itself to be true, or at least plausible and meriting more inquiry, but it is not true. Like other counterfactuals, it serves the need to point out unresolved questions and find some way to make sense of the world.

Power Corrupts: “Conspiracy Theories.” Launches May 2, 2019.

This is explored in the “Conspiracy Theories” episode of the Power Corrupts podcast that launches today (May 2, 2019) on iTunes, Spotify, RadioPublic, and Stitcher. Brian Klaas, the podcast writer and narrator, says that the tendency to adopt conspiracy theories

“seems to be part of a coping mechanism: a human instinct to deal with large, unexpected, and often tragic events. Sometimes things just happen randomly; not for any reason, not because of sinister forces. And in human psychology, randomness is much more threatening than discernible causes, even if those causes are shadowy or sinister.”

Paranoid by David J. LaPorte.

We tend to want to believe that Someone (or Something) is calling the shots and that what happens to us (or to our known world) matters within some grand plan.

Conspiracy theories are often products of paranoia. A paranoid person believes that “you can’t trust what you see, so you need to interpret and see behind the surface presentations of situations,” David J. LaPorte wrote in Paranoid: Exploring Suspicion from the Dubious to the Delusional (2015). Such people report experiencing a “sudden clarification,” which feels as if they “immediately recognize [an event] for ‘what it really is.’” Their sudden clarification feels true even if it is not.

A believer in a conspiracy theory, Klaas says, is “choosing to discount evidence and rational thought in favor of snippets of ‘What if?’ speculation.” In this case, unfortunately, “the normal way of convincing someone of an idea by presenting rational thought and evidence just isn’t very effective.” It is hard to persuade someone to abandon these theories. They are constructed in such a way that they cannot be falsified, and criticism only triggers a paranoid person’s suspicion of outsiders.

I have never knowingly been a conspiracy theorist on any matter. Generally, such stories are repugnant to my occasionally obsessive fact-checking habits, to my worldview in which ethics does not reduce to a battle between good and evil, to my personality that tends to be more trusting and less paranoid, and to the social bonds I form with people whose attitudes are similar to my own.

I do, however, see how conspiracy theories might appeal to someone else. Counterfactuals more generally—the past that wasn’t, the future that isn’t yet—are “entertaining,” according to Roese, because they are imaginative variations on a known theme, and they are “cognigenic, meaning that they spur further creative thought.” I suggest that conspiracy theories, too, fit this description. They are intricate fictions and mostly self-contained worlds. If I were to allow myself to spend time with one and if I were to engage it on its own terms, I could see myself growing fond of it.

One of Klaas’ interviewees for Power Corrupts says that believing in a conspiracy theory predisposes one to begin believing in yet another, even if the two theories are unrelated or contradictory. Klaas describes conspiracy theories as having “a weird way of metastasizing: they morph as they spread; they grow more outlandish; the conspiracy gets weirder and weirder as people build on the unhinged beliefs of others.” For this reason, to me, such stories feel a bit dangerous, like ideological gateway drugs, and I have always avoided them when I recognize them.

What we become

At the end of the road of a multitude of conspiracy theories, a person may be well trained in the consistent rejection of logic.

Denialism by Michael Specter.

According to Michael Specter, author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives (2009), the rejection of science is a coping strategy for living in an increasingly technological society that every day becomes a little harder to understand. When people are fearful and “decide that science can’t solve their problems,” they may abandon scientific process and findings, gravitating instead toward some other answer on the merits of its perceived popularity. This is a problem: “Either you believe evidence that can be tested, verified, and repeated will lead to a better understanding of reality,” Specter warns, “or you don’t. There is nothing in between but the abyss.”

In politics, similarly, embracing a multitude of conspiracy theories may lead a person to distrust and reject democratic principles. Ultimately, experts are not believed; leaders are not trusted; process is not given credibility; norms are not understood; facts cannot be verified; no one can be held accountable. This is a terrible outcome, but it is hard to stop conspiracy theories from starting and spreading. Perhaps being aware of their psychological function can prompt us to think of other ways to confront the human fear of random, small, and impersonal causes.

Camus

More than fifty years after Algerian independence, Albert CamusAlgerian Chronicles appears here in English for the first time. Published in France in 1958, the same year the Algerian War brought about the collapse of the Fourth French Republic, it is one of Camus’ most political works—an exploration of his commitments to Algeria. Dismissed or disdained at publication, today Algerian Chronicles, with its prescient analysis of the dead end of terrorism, enjoys a new life in Arthur Goldhammer’s elegant translation.

“Believe me when I tell you that Algeria is where I hurt at this moment,” Camus, who was the most visible symbol of France’s troubled relationship with Algeria, writes, “as others feel pain in their lungs.” Gathered here are Camus’ strongest statements on Algeria from the 1930s through the 1950s, revised and supplemented by the author for publication in book form.

In her introduction, Alice Kaplan illuminates the dilemma faced by Camus: he was committed to the defense of those who suffered colonial injustices, yet was unable to support Algerian national sovereignty apart from France. An appendix of lesser-known texts that did not appear in the French edition complements the picture of a moralist who posed questions about violence and counter-violence, national identity, terrorism, and justice that continue to illuminate our contemporary

Book Review: Algerian Chronicles
Book review:  By Phillip C. Naylor