The Enlightenment and its critics

The Enlightenment began about three centuries ago. It was an intellectual movement centered upon the realization that the world is not impossibly mysterious, but makes sense; that science and rationalism can give us authentic truth, and thus the means for better lives. This is the essence of the modern mindset. Yet it has its detractors, who mainly paint it as mere Western ethnocentrism. The Enlightenment did arise in the West. However, its appeal was not its Westernness but, rather, its human universality. Multiculturalists who say that rationalism is something peculiarly Western are actually insulting non-Western cultures.
Some deeper cynics even reject the values of the Enlightenment. Everything seen as bad in subsequent history has been laid at the Enlightenment’s doorstep. It took us directly to Auschwitz, we are told; it promoted a misplaced, inhumane deification of reason and science, a foolhardy optimism, and that mainstay of the misanthropic hit parade, hubris. This indictment is symptomatic of the postmodernist infection, denying that we can know anything or that anything is really true.
But the Enlightenment did not represent a Pollyanna belief that reason can solve everything. To the contrary, its whole point was to deal with the world’s hard realities, without fairy tale delusions. The Enlightenment did stand for truth and reason; and for freedom, justice, equality, and tolerance. It opposed superstition, witch burning, torture, unearned privilege, and the kind of fatalism that actually refused to combat evils and misfortunes because they must be God’s will. The Enlightenment was self-critical, subjecting its own assumptions to the same rigor it applied to others. It held that people have a right to happiness, and can reasonably hope for it. Progress was not deemed inevitable—merely possible.
That’s hardly a cockeyed optimism. But in fact Enlightenment thinking has given us progress way beyond anything its originators could have dreamt, and not only in material conditions of life. The American Revolution was its direct product; the Declaration of Independence was an Enlightenment manifesto. Those ideals, as well as reason and science, have utterly transformed the world, and we are vastly the better for it.
Sneer at all this, reject it if you like, but that’s of no help whatsoever in living our lives and improving them. Most who disdain the Enlightenment would not even be around to do so were it not for the scientific advancement it spawned.
Some pessimists nevertheless hold that the Enlightenment has basically failed, because in the conflict of reason and science versus faith and superstition, the latter still have the upper hand. The religious impulse is indeed deeply embedded in human psychology, perhaps even wired in somehow by evolution. Yet by no means are we prisoners of this mentality; religious belief has plummeted in Europe in recent decades, showing that people can free themselves of it.
Biologist Stephen Jay Gould tried to paper over the divide by arguing that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria” that concern entirely different things, and hence are not in conflict. However, it’s no coincidence that the centuries when Christianity ruled supreme were called the “Dark Ages” and scientific knowledge actually retrogressed. We all remember how the church stomped on Galileo, and even today we see religious efforts to suppress evolution science. But fortunately the Dark Ages are behind us, with religion’s power waning. And, having struggled for millennia prising out the truth from nature, we are hardly about to turn our backs on the answers. Spirituality may still have a place in human culture, but if so, it increasingly must find accommodation with a world of reason and science.
It is true that religious fanaticism has perennially been a source of conflict and bloodshed, and the religious-based violence coming from the Muslim world today might be seen as merely the latest recrudescence of a perpetual malady. Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, details how murderous religiosity has been throughout history. And yet, it seems clear that the advanced nations have finally outgrown this. While many Americans take their religion pretty seriously, the day is long past when even the truest of believers would entertain the idea of killing people with different beliefs. Instead, the psychology of pluralism and tolerance has taken such firm hold that for all their religious fervor, Christian fundamentalists are wholly acquiescent in living amid synagogues and mosques and even secular humanist associations. In the wake of 9/11, it was remarkable not that a few American Muslims were violently attacked, but that it was so few, and the nation was practically unanimous in condemning such attacks.
If this Enlightenment spirit of peaceful toleration has not yet been attained by all human societies, one can quite reasonably hope, and foresee, that in due time those other laggards will catch up, and grow up.
We can’t expect it overnight. An awful lot of blood was shed before we Westerners at last gave up torturing and burning people over religious issues. But we have come a long way, and our better ideas are spreading. Taken as a whole, humanity is on the right path.


11 Responses to “The Enlightenment and its critics”

  1. breadandsham Says:

    You are doing more than championing Enlightenment. You are attempting to use it to squelch Christianity. Why is it one or the other?

    Galileo was a Catholic when he received the Catholic church’s rebuke for his theory. Likewise true Christian believers continue to be rebuked by various aspects of organized religions, even their own. Not just from atheists. Does your faith necessitate that a Christian’s faith is a superstition?

    What’s the trouble with a faith that is not polarized against science, but one that submits to both science and to God. I understand that Sam Harris would see this as a necessary contradiction. He would argue that we must embrace one or the other. I just wonder if you should think more fairly and critically about it than he does.

    The physical universe shows us just as many evidences for design as it does for chance. How does science trump a belief in design? For example, just because we don’t know why a human embryo develops in ways that confuses modern science, it is still a marvel nonetheless. It makes us ask questions, but not necessarily reject the notion of intelligent design altogether. It seems a bit brash. (rationally speaking, it’s an irrational conclusion)

    Have you got any reason to want to deny that God exists? or just the desire to reject the package of the Catholic church or any organized religion? Neither of us are quite keen on what man has made of the “church”, but we both are, in fact, more than dust. Are we not?

    FSR REPLY: I generally try to avoid bashing (as opposed to answering) other people’s beliefs, and to treat them respectfully. But having been asked direct questions, I will answer them directly:
    “Why is it one or the other (Enlightenment vs. Christianity)?” The Enlightenment seeks truth as opposed to superstition. See next Q&A.
    “Is a Christian’s faith a superstition?” Yes.
    “What’s the trouble with a faith that’s not polarized against science, but one that submits to both science and God?” Submitting to science, fine; submitting to a nonexistent deity, count me out; if you think you can reconcile them, fine for you. However, anyone who denies evolution by natural selection is not submitting to science, but refusing to do so.
    “How does science trump a belief in design?” A million ways, for anyone who objectively examines the evidence. As a Bush-appointed Federal Judge determined in Kitzmiller v. Dover, finding that the case for “intelligent design,” as expounded by its own leading lights, is intellectually dishonest crap.
    “Have I got any reason to want to deny that God exists?” No, it’s not a question of wanting to. It’s a matter of what’s real and what’s not. The reality of the world is 100% consistent with a no-God hypothesis. But no believer will be persuaded by anything anyone can say, so I won’t go further.
    “We both are, in fact, more than dust. Are we not?” I am made up of a zillion chemical substances. Explaining human consciousness is an extremely difficult scientific and philosophical problem. But it does unquestionably expire with death. I don’t like that answer any more than the next guy, but I want to live the life I actually have, and not some untrue fantasy.

  2. Ariel Bravy Says:

    What is “The Enlightenment” and “Enlightenment thinking”?

    Are these related to enlightenment as taught by Buddhism?

  3. bouncybounce Says:

    Did the intellectual thinkers that lived during the Enlightenment, have a pros and cons list?

  4. Damian Says:

    The enlightenment is criticized not because of its results but because its fundamental premises were found to be false. Tenets such as man is a rational animal were shown to simply make no sense in the light of an inability to show what exactly makes a man rational. Also the inability to define what exactly this thing called truth was and how it interacted with the world was seriously criticized by thinkers such as Rorty. The final straw for the enlightenment though was the fact that the epistemic goal of the enlightenment was shown to lead to skepticism through the work of Hume. Searching for clear and distinct ideas in the world were shown to be impossible based on the linguistic and social nature of humanity. The individualism of the enlightenment was supported by philosophers such as Descartes and Locke. These philosophers had a naive sense of the ego as being self-sufficient but under the criticism of Hume first and later philosophers like Hegel it was shown that humanity requires society. Later through Wittgenstein; language is shown to be a requirement for individuation. All of this contrary to the Enlightenment dictum that man comes into the world fully formed and able to think without society.
    Stephen Jay Gould’s commentary on the non-overlapping magisteria is problematic as it relies on a defining science and religion. Neither of which has successfully been done. Furthermore no one would say that science and religion do not overlap in terms of the affect one has on the other. Implicit in your argument is the idea of a fact value distinction which also has been shown to be untenable as well as a kind of foundationalist epistemology. Foundationalism is not dead but one wonders what exactly your foundations are and what the nature of them are given the demise of classical foundationalism at the hands of numerous philosophers.

  5. Nicholas Maxwell Says:

    The problem with what we have inherited from the Enlightenment is its damaging irrationality. What we need is a more rigorous kind of academic inquiry, devoted to seeking and promoting wisdom.

    Have a look at N. Maxwell, From Knowledge to Wisdom: A Revolution for Science and the Humanities (Blackwell, 1984, Petire Press, 2007) for the exposition of a view which synthesizes and improves on both The Enlightenment and Romanticism.

    [FSR comment: And here I thought the conflict was between Enlightenment rationality and superstitious irrationality. OK, maybe the Enlightenment is not rational enough. But let’s win the one war before starting on the next!]

  6. Adam Says:

    You are totally arrogant in claiming that humanity is on the right path. In fact, you deserve the same criticism some people give Enlightenment thinkers for most likely assuming the same thing. Perhaps the Enlightenment was ideal for Western Civilization, but it is still entirely too soon to say whether most of it – or even any of it – is just what the rest of the world needs. Here is one legacy of the Enlightenment that we need to get under control, and there is no question about this – the belief that nature can and should be subjected to human control without any harmful consequences. Despite attempts to eradicate it, I believe this belief is still deeply ingrained in Western society today. Other human societies have and will continue to evolve ways of living that owe very little – if anything – to the Enlightenment. They will not, as you said, disappear over night – nor will they probably disappear in many centuries to come. The history and future of the world are entirely too complex to be expected to somehow accept this Western anomaly wholesale, or even at all, and certainly not over short periods of time. Let’s not forget the fact that the wars of the 20th century were fought over ideologies that all ultimately derived from the Enlightenment. Perhaps one of the greatest fallacies of the Enlightenment is that the world will be turned into some kind of Western utopia – the kind of utopia that most people reject today as entirely impossible, in part because they have subjected it to the same Enlightenment rationality which championed it in the first place. As I stated above, this and similar beliefs have become too deeply ingrained in our society for us to be rid of them overnight, and you clearly demonstrate some variant the one mentioned above here. I can’t speak for you, just as you can’t speak for me – neither of us should even dare to speak for the rest of the world. I’m simply laying out the facts, and they show that the world is most likely not headed into some sort of Western golden age – even if it is, it will almost certainly be a highly modified one. I don’t believe that the Enlightenment was not beneficial to our society – and I believe we owe much – if not most – of what we see as good in our society today to it. But that does not mean the same will be true in the rest of the world – it most likely will not.

    [FSR comment: It is “totally arrogant” to say that Enlightenment values “beneficial to our society” (“I believe we owe much”) — rationality, freedom, democracy, rule of law, equality before the law, etc — are somehow culturally alien and inappropriate for other societies. That is just what the oppressive ruling elites in those other societies want people to think. It’s nonsense; these are universal human values, and all of humanity will ultimately embrace them.]

  7. Adam Says:

    You continue to demonstrate exactly what I was arguing. Humanity may share some of these values in general, but they are implemented in the way each society sees fit. And just because we believe that the view of a culture’s elite is “wrong” or “cruel” doesn’t mean that the destruction of that elite – whether it is inevitable or not – will be through the total or even partial adoption of enlightenment values. We must remember that an elite must always have some supporters in the lower classes. Most of a society could agree with the views of a “cruel” elite. Western society needs to find a way to interact with the rest of a world that shares few if any of its values or ultimately fail.

  8. Adam Says:

    Finally, allow me to point out that bloodshed and torture didn’t end with the waning of religious influence – one needs only to look at the 50 million or so deaths brought on by WWII ( not to mention the rest of the 20th century, or today for that matter), a conflict which ultimately owed its origins to competing Enlightenment ideals, whether they be better or worse. Many of these ideals have followings today that blur the line between rationality and fanaticism – they can almost be considered “replacement religions.” Putting Enlightenment ideals at the pinnacle of human achievement privileges the West above all else. Suppose if the Chinese had taken the role of world superpower, or the Pre-Columbian Americans, or even – dare I say – the Soviet Union? If anything is laggard, it’s your views of the modern world.

    [FSR: But the Chinese, the Pre-Columbians, and the Soviets DIDN’T take over the world. There was a reason. As for the idea that violence is as bad as ever, you should read Pinker’s latest book which demolishes that idea. Click HERE for my review.
    PS — And see tomorrow’s post!]

  9. “Muslim Rage” and Enlightenment Values « The Rational Optimist Says:

    […] just commented on my 2008 post, The Enlightenment and its Critics, calling me arrogant for saying (“Western”) Enlightenment values are good for other, very […]

  10. Mr. Kurz Says:

    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    Send forth the best ye breed–
    Go bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives’ need;
    To wait in heavy harness,
    On fluttered folk and wild–
    Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
    Half-devil and half-child.

    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    In patience to abide,
    To veil the threat of terror
    And check the show of pride;
    By open speech and simple,
    An hundred times made plain
    To seek another’s profit,
    And work another’s gain.

    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    The savage wars of peace–
    Fill full the mouth of Famine
    And bid the sickness cease;
    And when your goal is nearest
    The end for others sought,
    Watch sloth and heathen Folly
    Bring all your hopes to nought.

    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    No tawdry rule of kings,
    But toil of serf and sweeper–
    The tale of common things.
    The ports ye shall not enter,
    The roads ye shall not tread,
    Go mark them with your living,
    And mark them with your dead.

    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    And reap his old reward:
    The blame of those ye better,
    The hate of those ye guard–
    The cry of hosts ye humour
    (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:–
    “Why brought he us from bondage,
    Our loved Egyptian night?”

    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    Ye dare not stoop to less–
    Nor call too loud on Freedom
    To cloke your weariness;
    By all ye cry or whisper,
    By all ye leave or do,
    The silent, sullen peoples
    Shall weigh your gods and you.

    Take up the White Man’s burden–
    Have done with childish days–
    The lightly proferred laurel,
    The easy, ungrudged praise.
    Comes now, to search your manhood
    Through all the thankless years
    Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
    The judgment of your peers!

    [FSR comment: Thanks for the Kipling. Very cute and clever. But see my recent post on “Muslim rage”]

  11. Anonymous Says:

    The writer of this article would have been very fond of Robespierre.

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