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.

Exercise your brain!

Several Thought Experiments

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William James’ squirrel:

 

SOME YEARS AGO, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel – a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? [Stop for discussion] In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Every one had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared therefore appealed to me to make it a majority. Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”

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Happy Birthday, Descartes

DESCARTES’ DREAM

from Descartes’ Dream, by Phillip J. Davis and Reuben Hirsh

THE MODERN WORLD, our world of triumphant rationality, began on November 10, 1619, with a revelation and a nightmare. On that day, in a room in the small Bavarian village of Ulm, Rene Descartes, a Frenchman, twenty-three years old, crawled into a wall stove and, when he was well warmed, had a vision. It was not a vision of God, or of the Mother of God, or of celestial chariots, or of the New Jerusalem. It was a vision of the unification of all science.

The vision was preceded by a state of intense concentration and agitation. Descartes overheated mind caught fire and provided answers to tremendous problems that had been taxing him for weeks. He was possessed by a Genius, and the answers were revealed in a dazzling, unendurable light. Later, in a state of exhaustion, he went to bed and dreamed three dreams that had been predicted by this Genius.

In the first dream he was revolved by a whirlwind and terrified by phantoms. He experienced a constant feeling of falling. He imagined he would be presented with a melon that came from a far-off land. The wind abated and he woke up. His second dream was one of thunderclaps and sparks flying around his room. In the third dream, all was quiet and contemplative. An anthology of poetry lay on the table. He opened it at random and read the verse of Ausonius, “Quod vitae sectabor iter” (What path shall I take in life?). A stranger appeared and quoted him the verse “Est et non” (Yes and no). Descartes wanted to show him where in the anthology it could be found, but the book disappeared and reappeared. He told the man he would show him a better verse beginning “Quod vitae sectabor iter.” At this point the man, the book, and the whole dream dissolved.

Descartes was so bewildered by all this that he began to pray. He assumed his dreams had a supernatural origin. He vowed he would put his life under the protection of the Blessed Virgin and go on a pilgrimage from Venice to Notre Dame de Lorette, traveling by foot and wearing the humblest-looking clothes he could find.

What was the idea that Descartes saw in a burning flash? He tells us that his third dream pointed to no less than the unification and the illumination of the whole of science, even the whole of knowledge, by one and the same method: the method of reason.

Eighteen years would pass before the world would have the details of the grandiose vision and of the “mirabilis sientiae fundamenta”— the foundations of a marvelous science. Such as he was able to give them, they are contained in the celebrated “Discourse on the Method of Properly Guiding the Reason in the Search of Truth in the Sciences.” According to Descartes, his “method” should be applied when knowledge is sought in any scientific field. It consists of (a) accepting only what is so clear in one’s own mind as to exclude any doubt, (b) splitting large difficulties into smaller one, (c) arguing from the simple to the complex, and (d) checking, when one is done.

March 31 is Descartes’ birthday! Happy Birthday.

Go here for a slide show review of his Meditations.

Here is an earlier birthday post.

Read the entry from Stanford Encyclopedia.


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