Faith Springs from the Soul

David Schoenbrun - Paris, France
Broadcast during the 1950s
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Every man and woman who goes through college in these United States gets to hear about a French philosopher called Descartes, and his famous formula, “I think; therefore, I am.” Few have read Descartes’ works, and even fewer ever stopped to think what he meant by that. I did. Not because I’m smarter than anybody else, but I was studying to be a French teacher and I thought I ought to read France’s greatest philosopher myself, and not just take someone else’s word for what he meant. I didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of a new life for me and a pattern of thinking that has governed my conduct every since. Perhaps it would have happened anyways since I’m the sort of fellow who never takes anybody’s word for anything. I always wanted to find out for myself.

But Descartes, who lived and wrote almost four hundred years before I was born, gave me a rational basis for my own temperament and opened up a whole new life of the mind and of the spirit. Descartes’ formula was not complete and it was only half understood. What he really meant, and what I learned from his later work, The Metaphysical Meditations, could be expressed this way: I doubt; therefore, I think; therefore, I am. For doubting is the very essence of thinking. Doubting is the very essence of democracy. It’s the mainspring of what we like to call “Western Civilization.” In doubt is freedom; without doubt, slavery and totalitarian tyranny.

If you swallow whole everything you’re told, you’re a dead man. That’s what Descartes meant by saying, “I think; therefore, I am.” If you don’t think and doubt then you’re a machine, not a man. Does that mean that you must doubt everything? Wouldn’t that lead to confusion, to paralysis? Certainly not. Every day, every minute, I take decisions and act on the basis of evidence before me. We all do, we must. But I go right on doubting the validity of that decision. I think about it the next day, and the next, again; re-examine it constantly to see if it’s still true. That’s the essence of free will. That is freedom itself.

In industry, doubt means constant striving to find a way to build a better mousetrap. In medicine, constant search and research for new cures; rejecting, doubting the prejudices of the past. In my own chosen profession of journalism, doubt is the very essence of a reporter. The reporter who stops doubting becomes a propagandist, not a reporter. It was my reading of Descartes that led me to give up teaching for journalism, the most exciting profession of all, I think.

But what of the soul, what of the spirit? Doesn’t Descartes’ doubt mean a denial of God? Again, certainly not. Descartes, himself, professed his faith in God. He said that doubt was an awareness of imperfection. Therefore, there must also be perfection. But since he never found perfection on Earth, he must assume that there is a divinity. That is perfection. And Descartes’ reasoning is the very denial of atheism, for if you doubt the existence of God, you must also doubt the non-existence of God. This is not just a matter of belief. It is, rather, an act of faith. And faith springs from the soul, not the mind. This I believe.