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?

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.

How much effort should you expend debunking a conspiracy theory?

When someone gives you obvious misinformation, you are in a no-win situation.

You need to reject the information as false and possibly harmful. You need to tell the person you aren’t interested in joining their cult. You may feel ethically obligated to try to persuade that person, too, to abandon their idea, just as they believe it is important to persuade you to adopt it.

The problem is that, if it is even possible for you to demonstrate the nonsense and persuade the person to take another path, you’ll be working on that a very long time. Your day (and possibly your week or month) will be significantly disrupted. If the claim is something like “Aliens killed Julius Caesar,” how would you begin to explain why you don’t believe that? And why would you pause your important business to do so? On the other hand, if you blow it off and keep walking, the conspiracy theorist will believe they have “won.” It may not matter if they are pleased with themselves, but it does matter if they are emboldened to continue to misinform others. If their theory is harmful (racist, anti-science, etc.), this may be an undesirable outcome. if you have a real opportunity to educate them, you may want to seize it, difficult and annoying though this task may be.

Lily Simpson compares this interaction with misinformation to a farmer’s confrontation with a plague of locusts. You want to combat the locusts, but stomping one at a time is a losing strategy. The misinformer can pump out strings of nonsense words much faster than you can search and grab onto reality anchors.

Understanding the opponent

When Menachem Kaiser traveled to Poland to investigate the property that his grandfather had lost during World War II, he spoke to the treasure hunters of Nazi-era relics, and his initial inclination was to be quietly polite toward these people who were telling him about supposed Nazi time machines.

“Even to justify why I wan’t taking them seriously is in effect to take them seriously; I did believe and still do believe that it is a valid position not to engage the crazy. What would be the purpose? To methodically demonstrate the dubiousness of Nazi time travel? The conclusions we would eventually reach are the conclusions we have immediately reached.”

Menachem Kaiser, Plunder, Chapter 8

Not a single falsehood, but a structure of falsehoods

But here’s another level of the risk posed by nonsense ideas. A conspiracy theory is not a single, small piece of misinformation. When nurtured, it develops into a whole worldview.

Last year, I blogged for Episyllogism about this point, which a recent UCLA study had explored. Kaiser also mentions the general idea in Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure.

It turns out, Kaiser says, that Project Riese, which he was investigating, “is the epicenter, the catalyst, the cauldron for all sorts of fantastic, absurd, lunatic beliefs about the Nazis. Pull on any thread and very quickly you get to ancient civilizations; aliens; ancient alien civilizations; UFOs; Roswell…” These are not “standalone delusions,” but rather “systems of beliefs.” For example, if you believe the Nazis developed antigravity, eventually you have to assert a supporting worldview; for example, you might say that, since that time, world powers have concealed the Nazis’ scientific breakthrough and have successfully taught everyone (including today’s scientists) a fake version of physics. A conspiracy theory framework usually features “a special blend of skepticism and unskepticism, of irrationality and hyperrationality.”

These are not ‘standalone delusions,’ but rather ‘systems of beliefs.’

Though Kaiser’s first inclination was to dismiss the conspiracy theories as nonsense, he decided to research them to understand them better. When he learned, for example, that the false belief in “Die Glocke, the Nazis’ bell-shaped device that could manipulate time and gravity” was promoted by Igor Witkowski, he decided to speak to Witkowski to learn more. The people who say they believe these things “aren’t trolling”; in Kaiser’s assessment, they really believe.

And yet. And yet. He circled back to his starting point.

“To indulge the theories, even via mockery, is to grant them a power,” he concludes. This is a problem with Nazi-related conspiracy theories especially because they tend to be antisemitic: at least by downplaying the moral weight of the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews, if not by going further and suggesting that the Jews were responsible for secret cabals and cover-ups. Sometimes what is most needed is not to explore the illogic of the conspiracy theory but rather to object to it on ethical grounds. It would be “much more fun,” Kaiser says, “to discuss Nazi flying saucers. But there is a cost to laughing at what should be condemned.”

Condemning misinformation implies that you are asking the misinformer to stop speaking that way.

‘Escaping the Rabbit Hole’ sees hope for conspiracy theorists

Mick West’s 2018 book Escaping the Rabbit Hole promotes respectful dialogue with your friends and acquaintances who might happen to be in the grips of a conspiracy theory. People sucked into communities that promote elaborate false beliefs may “get out much quicker if they are helped by a friend,” West says.

The psychological need for a ‘conspiracy theory’

A conspiracy theory is a false set of ideas, but it may seem appealing for various reasons. It may relieve the stress of unanswered questions; it may make a person feel clever or important because it tells them that they have privileged information or a higher state of awareness; or it may take hold in their lack of education or their extreme political beliefs.

Current events tend to breed strange stories to “explain” new developments. West classifies the subtypes of event-based conspiracy theories “in increasing order of implausibility”: (1) The conspirators didn’t cause the event but are pleased that it happened and will exploit it for their own ends. (2) The conspirators were aware that something would happen and they allowed it to happen. (3) The conspirators took action to cause the event. (4) The media has faked the entire event, and anyone supposedly affected is an actor. (This four-part classification feels almost theological to me—as if it were a parallel to types of theodicy?)

West discusses four specific conspiracy theories in detail: chemtrails; the notion that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was a controlled demolition; the suspicion that various violent incidents (like mass shootings) are “staged” as “false flags” to place blame on one’s enemies; and the claim that the Earth is flat.

How to intervene

Some conspiracy theories can be burst by focusing on a single salient feature. So, for example, an early timestamp on a breaking-news tweet might seem to indicate that an action was somehow known before it happened or was said to have happened, but a person won’t draw this conclusion if they’re aware that a tweet’s timestamp displays differently in different timezones. Or a person might be startled to hear of the toxic content of everything that surrounds them, until they learn that basically all chemicals have “chemical safety data sheets” because anything can be toxic depending on the amount and concentration.

Each conspiracy theorist typically has a “line of demarcation” between what they think is sensible skepticism and what goes too far for their tastes. “Be clear,” West counsels, “that you are not trying to lump them in with people on the other side of their line. Tell them (honestly) that it’s good that they haven’t been sucked deeper in,” and do so in a way that doesn’t mock them. Question “the aspects of their belief that are very close to the line,” and ask them whether the authority figures in this community meet their standards of reasonableness.

Some people may, as West puts it, be “simply unaware” of the “conventional explanation” for why the world works a certain way. If they are provided with the accurate explanation in a digestible format, they may readily embrace it.

Normal recommendations for civil dialogue apply in these situations, including the recognition that you won’t be able to convince or change everyone.

Mick West. Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect. New York: Skyhorse, 2018.

When to wager that a conspiracy theory is false

Stories about conspiracies have different narrative structures depending on whether the stories are true or false. That gives us hope that we can learn to spot fake stories.

A UCLA study, published in June 2020, used “sophisticated artificial intelligence and a deep knowledge of how folklore is structured” (according to a UCLA press release) to examine conspiracy theories.

A true story rests on a large number of facts. Various facts may come to light slowly—over years, even—as journalists ferret them out. If one fact is missing, discarded, forgotten, or even debunked, the rest of the story remains intact. Without knowing all the facts, it will take longer to tell a coherent version of the story and have confidence that we have learned the truth, but we can still approximate the story and get ever closer.

A false story, by contrast, often hangs on a single falsehood. The UCLA researchers examined so-called “Pizzagate” as a quintessential example of a fake conspiracy theory. (The Pizzagate story maintains that politicians in Washington, D.C. operated a child sex-trafficking ring in a network of caves under a pizzeria.) One of the researchers, Timothy Tangherlini, said they discovered “that if you take out Wikileaks as one of the elements in the story, the rest of the connections don’t hold up.” For the Pizzagate story, he said, the storytellers’ interpretation of Wikileaks material is “the only glue holding the conspiracy together.”

Detail of a diagram from the UCLA study. From an area labeled "Wikileaks," starting from points labeled "james_alefanti" and "handkerchief," lines radiate toward an area labeled "Satanism."
Detail of a diagram from the UCLA study.

[Novelists, take note: A fiction is stronger if its narrative threads do not all pass through a single hub. A good fiction probably should anchor to multiple believable spots.]

The study authors are not telling us how to write benign fiction, however, but rather how to identify harmful fiction so that we can reject it. If we can recognize that a certain story’s “narrative framework…has the hallmarks of a fictional conspiracy theory,” the authors write, we might thereby reduce our gullibility.

See also my previous posts for this blog: “The effect of conspiracy theories” and “Is a ‘political lie’ different from a garden variety lie?”

‘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?”

Puzzles, Paradox, and Discovery

English: Russell's Teapot Español: Tetera de R...
English: Russell’s Teapot Español: Tetera de Russell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

– from 6 years ago; proving that the Philosophers’ Cafe is a tradition!


The Philosophers’ Cafe, a forum for intellectual discussion and enlightenment, held at Mrs. Riches Dinner Club in Nanaimo on Monday, began like no other; it began with a test!

Bob Lane, the speaker for the evening, was in fine form, asking his audience to digest more than their dinners.

After an energetic and colourful introduction, Bob told us to forget everything the moderator had just said; he then introduced the theme for his discussion: Paradox and Discovery, and began to administer his test.

“No talking,” Bob said. “And each question on the test will be asked once and only once.” As a former student of Bob’s, I was dreading what I thought would come next: “And wrongs will be subtracted from rights” I was waiting for him say; but he didn’t. The audience was up for the test – pens and paper came out – some used napkins – but we all began the same way: by trying to follow Bob’s deliberately twisted and convoluted tale of an airplane which goes off course, twice, and crashes on the Canada/US border. Question one: “Where do you bury the survivors?” Question two: “Who is closer to the baby bull – the mama bull or the papa bull?” Question three: “Draw a small cased “I” with a dot over it”. And finally number four began: “Imagine you are a bus driver…” Pens were heating up as the audience tried to keep track of the number of passengers getting on and off the bus, until, finally, Bob poses his question: “How old is the bus driver?”

There were a few “sharpies” in the audience who got all four questions right (me, included, but I had heard these puzzles previously in “Rhetoric and Reasoning” and epistemology classes, so I had a just a slight advantage over some of the others who were puzzling over these puzzles for the first time). The puzzles were just the warm-up, for what was to follow, however.

Bob suggested that we look at philosophy as a process of Paradox and Discovery. “Puzzles” he said, “are at the heart of philosophy and of science”. Then, he read us: “The Swirl” – a verbal paradox first suggested by pragmatist William James, in which we try to determine if, in circling a tree, we “go around” the squirrel, while the squirrel “goes around” the tree. Feeling a little dizzy? Puzzled perhaps? There’s more.

Following the warm-up puzzles, Bob poses another question; this one is not on the test: “How do you know that you are NOT a brain in a vat on Venus?” In an attempt to solve the puzzle, and remove some puzzled looks from puzzled faces, Bob reviewed DescartesMeditations on First Philosophy in which Descartes proposes puzzles of his own.

Suppose there’s an evil genius bent on deceiving you. Everything you thought to be true would be false. One member of the audience asked: “Does it matter that we can be deceived?” Bob’s answer, after a short clarification of what he meant by describing Descartes’ skepticism as “corrosive,” (the way in which Descartes systematically erodes every day beliefs) was a clear and succinct: “You can’t hold false beliefs”.

In attempt to to assist those who were truly puzzled, by this point in the discussion, moderator, and sometimes mediator,  reminded us of Neo, the hero of the sci-fi movie: The MATRIX, and his reality. “Our senses or perceptions are not the same for everybody” said one audience member. And, I think unbeknownst to himself, a Criminologist solved the philosophical problem of solipsism, by arguing that we have “shared experiences of reality, although our experiences are of different colours, shades, or hues”. “Truth corrodes – truth is arbitrary” said the same audience member who had earlier asked: “does it matter?”

Moderator’s answer: “It matters (at least sometimes) when we say: Truth, or Really”.

“Reality and truth turn the cranks of philosophers” Bob said.

And he closed with Russell’s Teapot:

“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

And in case we digested the discussion thus far, Bob offered us dessert by giving Richard Dawkins the last word:

“The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don’t exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don’t stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t knee-cap those who put the tea in first.”

I enjoyed much more than my tea at the Philosopher’s Cafe. But I’m still puzzled – and I guess, as a Philosopher (not a scientist), that’s the way it should be!!

Thanks, Bob. As usual, it was more than good; it was great!

[Photo credit:
Erik M. Lane, BS, BSc]

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