This I Believe

Schoenbrun, David

  • David Schoenbrun talks about his introduction to Descartes and Philosophy; the importance of doubting and questioning to liberty and his life; and how, contrary to assumption, his doubt is based on and strengthens his faith and spirituality.
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And now, This I Believe, the living philosophies of thoughtful men and women, presented in the hope they may strengthen your beliefs so that your life may be richer, fuller, happier. Here is Edward R. Murrow.
This I Believe. My friend and colleague David Schoenbrun, who is the CBS Paris correspondent, brings an unusual wealth of sympathy and understanding to his reporting of the news. Part of this comes, I suspect, from his unique background which includes teaching high school at the age of 19, writing articles as a freelance for Click, the Chicago Sun and PM, and covering the war from the very midst of things as a U.S. Army correspondent. Part of it comes, I am sure, from his forthright,
thoughtful beliefs. Here is Dave Schoenbrun.
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.
There the creed of an expert, dedicated reporter. David Schoenbrun is married and the father of a baby daughter. His wife is an illustrator, and they live in Paris, France, where Schoenbrun covers the news for CBS.