If Enlightenment theory and the worldly outlook that ensued from Europe’s “Enlightenment” period were to have a motto, it would be sapere aude, an expression that has been borrowed from Immanuel Kant and in Latin stands for “dare to know.” As a result, the philosophy of science that has emerged in the Western world has been heavily impacted by a revolution of thought that began soon after Europe’s medieval period which was largely the result of a referendum against governing and religious authorities who were a hindrance to the freedom of thought. Enlightenment theory widely assumes that empirical inquiry, experimentation, observation, reason, and quantification will uncover the secrets of nature rather than organized religion and doctrines of theology.
Thus, enlightenment thinking has pitted intellectualism and science against religion and superstition. Science itself presumably has its roots in Ancient Greece, and it blossomed under the succession of Islamic empires before finally reaching its limits in Western Europe and the United States. Enlightenment thinking assumes that reason and science resulting from empirical inquiry, not faith and religion, would aid in building better lives and societies. Another assumption of enlightenment thinking is that free inquiry will ultimately lead to the diminution of religious beliefs. This did not mean enlightenment philosophers denied the existence of God. Many enlightenment thinkers, including the Founding Fathers of the United States, were deists in the sense that they believed God set the universe in motion but has allowed natural laws to govern the universe rather than his governing through direct intervention into worldly affairs.
The ultimate goal of enlightenment thinking is “autonomy” of the individual as opposed to heteronomy in the sense that reason and science would free the individual from the bondage of absolute monarchs and religious authorities. Education would serve as the means by which an individual would foster the good life. The primary mechanism of the educative process involved in enlightenment thinking is free inquiry, which is the result of the disavowal of traditional beliefs that are no longer functional in an evolutionary social context. Thus, the philosophy of science in the Western world has a democratizing and secularizing impulse.
As a result of enlightenment thinking, there is scientific and modern thought on one hand, and religious and “primitive” thought on the other hand. Yet, as Emile Durkheim wrote, one cannot preclude the possibility that the former has emerged out of the latter. Foucault equated modernity to an ontological state and “attitude” that insinuated “adulthood” and “maturity” which stood in stark contrast to the “immaturity” of medieval and religious discourse. Cultivating the “attitude” of modernity is viewed as being necessary by modern society for it would “free” the individual from a religious and theocentric discourse and as a result the individual would attain true “autonomy.” Nevertheless, one can argue that this ontological state or attitude has had disastrous and profound effects on economics, politics, and sociology on a global scale, despite the good intentions behind the spreading of this discourse. As the saying goes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
On the other hand, one cannot deny the scientific breakthroughs that have been prompted by the enlightenment outlook. New ideas such as heliocentrism fostered by Galileo were able to replace entrenched ideas, despite the pushback from corrupt establishment figures. One can argue that ideas are more important than facts because the former generates the latter. However, the school of thought that has dominated enlightenment discourse has been “empiricism,” which strongly emphasizes “facts.” This school of thought purports that facts are independent of ideas and that facts should be gathered independent of philosophical or ideational dispositions. Facts are viewed as pieces of knowledge that corroborate our broader understanding of “reality.” But what is knowledge? That has been the question posed by epistemology, in addition to the question of what constitutes the totality of knowledge. In addressing these questions, the late David Bohm has suggested that knowledge is an entity or process that is beyond the bounds of human control. Bohm wrote that:
“[Knowledge] is a whole process that is autonomous and moves on its own. We don’t choose to apply it; it applies us. The knowledge of who we are, what we are, and what we’ve got to do determines this whole future, and we’re going to be driven by it to prepare for nuclear war or whatever. Perhaps not – perhaps we’ll do something else according to further knowledge. But it’s entirely out of our hands. We have no control over this knowledge; it controls us.”
Bohm added that: “The more rational you are, the more dangerous it gets.” Rationality is contrary to Bohm’s notion that “knowledge is moving autonomously – it passes from one person to another.” Given that the notion of human control over knowledge is an illusion, it follows that “theoretical anarchy” would be preferable to “theoretical rigidity” and the principle of “anything goes” would perhaps better facilitate our educative process towards the attainment of truth. Methods require us to adhere to certain facts and philosophical underpinnings. But methods do not necessarily lead to conclusions. Sociology is an area of study that has numerous methods, but no solid conclusions about anything.
In most cases, a “paradigm shift” in the way an individual or society thinks occurs in a time of crisis, according to Thomas Kuhn. Revolutions in scientific thinking occur when the old way of doing things leads to institutional and societal malfunction. Polarization occurs when there is an irreconcilable divide between those who are stuck in their ways on one hand and those who seek to evolve based on new ideas and information on the other hand. Thus, “progress” hinges on our ability to adapt to evolving circumstances by obtaining and processing information about our immediate and non-immediate environment in order to live and survive better. The scientific focus of antiquity had been directed towards air, earth, fire, and water. Today’s scientific focus is on “consciousness,” “data,” and “information.” The core mission of science in the Western world, however, has been to better understand nature and reality in order to subjugate nature and reality for the betterment of humankind. Despite the audacious effort and the significant scientific breakthroughs that have emerged out of this effort, instances such as the coronavirus outbreak and natural disasters have thwarted the enterprise on numerous occasions. Nevertheless, humans have been resilient in the face of these natural disasters and through science humans have found ways to overcome the wrenches thrown at them by nature.
There are presupposed ideas that enter into a scientific enterprise, such as the idea that reality is socially constructed and is created by none other than man himself. Nevertheless, experimentation and the testing of hypotheses are the only means by which we can find certainty in our ideas. Quite often, experimentation and observation can change our ideas. Science is then a means of distinguishing between “sense” and “nonsense” through a scientific method. Also, the scientific method is driven by two different schools of thought. For one, there is “empiricism,” which suggests that nothing that is beyond the observation of the five senses can be considered certain and true. Also, there is the school of thought known as “rationalism,” which suggests that a priori concepts and ideas lead us to what is certain and true. Immanuel Kant became the foremost thinker of Europe’s Enlightenment period by finding middle ground between these two schools of thought through suggesting that reality is a combination of the activities of the mind and the world outside of the individual. “Freedom” is also a very Kantian notion because Kant argued that freedom from governing and religious authorities is a necessary condition for an individual to grasp reality and truth.
The champion of rationalism, however, was Descartes. His main contribution to science was his “Method of Doubt,” which suggests that whatever is left after you doubt and question everything should be absolutely certain. For Descartes, the “Method of Doubt” ensures that reason guides one’s inquiry rather than sensations. Nevertheless, scientific inquiry undergoes three distinct stages. First, the scientist is confounded by “sensations” in the initial stage of scientific inquiry. Second, the scientist employs “reason” after overcoming the sensations. Finally, the scientist develops his or her “intuition” after the employment of reason. In the end, however, the scientist has to fulfill an important task, which is to organize a particular discipline of science upon as limited of a number of concepts, primitives, and axioms as possible. Until now, the only disciplines to have achieved this task have been arithmetic and geometry. The organization of a scientific discipline upon as few a number of concepts, primitives, and axioms as possible is known as “formalization.” To base an entire scientific discipline on a simple and singular concept is an endeavor that is both attractive and challenging for scientists.
Because science strives to find the simplest explanation for everything amidst swaths of data, it follows that choosing God as the simplest explanation for everything is totally within the bounds of reason and science. By choosing the simplest explanation or hypothesis, one is essentially choosing the explanation for which there is no other explanation. One can perhaps explain how God exists in a formalistic manner through reason and logic as was done by Al-Ghazali and Leibniz, but there is no explanation for “why” God exists, nor is there really a scientific explanation for why anything exists. Kant argued that concepts such as God, free will, and the soul go beyond the boundaries of what is observable in the natural world. But the belief in these concepts are important in the development of a moral will that prompts adherence to objective laws of nature voluntarily, according to Kant.
There is also the issue of infinity and the challenge of reconciling the very scientific notion of infinity with a finite world. The infinite is something that is perceivable by the soul, but in a distorted way, given that the individual cannot encompass the totality of knowledge. As beings confined to a material and physical world, it would be impossible to know everything that reality has to offer. But as sentient and thinking creatures, humans can ask the most elementary scientific question which also happens to be the deepest question of philosophy, namely, the question of why there is something rather than nothing. By asking this question, we are on the brink of receiving certain truths. Moreover, the ability to pose this question and reflect on it, one can argue, distinguishes human beings from other objects found within nature and the universe.
The only mystery of nature and reality is none other than man himself, and as a result man cannot be viewed as a typical object amongst other objects in the natural world. To treat man as a typical natural object amongst other objects in nature which can be observed and quantified through a scientific method would be a denial of psychology and sociology as legitimate scientific fields. Descartes, who was very much a product of the “Enlightenment” age, distinguished man from other objects in nature by his ability to think, thus the expression “cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am.)
Because of the ever-moving boundaries of science, novel scientific concepts that are outside of mainstream scientific thought such as the “collective consciousness” and the “quantum feedback loop” are gaining traction in certain scientific circles. Despite the pervasiveness of relativistic thinking, morality and ethics have always existed and are indubitably bound to something extra-scientific and extraordinary. What is astonishing and perhaps counterintuitive for some individuals, is that the advancement of science leads to what appears to be a diminution of objectivism. As Bertrand Russell said:
“It has begun to seem that matter, like the Cheshire Cat, is becoming gradually diaphanous until nothing of it is left but the grin, caused, presumably, by amusement at those who still think it is there.”
When free inquiry reaches its conclusion, all that is left is merely the question of “consciousness,” the basis of which is either the intellect or the soul. Given that some of the Ancient Greeks thought that the intellect is embedded in the soul, what is left is the question of the soul, the makeup of which can only be speculated upon.
Science began as an enterprise aimed at grasping nature and reality, but instead has transformed into a tricky game of speculation. Because we know nothing about “consciousness” and the soul, in effect we know nothing. Ironically, the jargon of a modern discourse can ultimately be used to undermine the discourse. As Foucault wrote: “Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it.” Thus, as Socrates said: “All I know, is that I know nothing.” Science sought to supersede philosophy and religion in explaining nature and reality, but has apparently fallen short of its goal. In our postmodern age, there is now a choice presented to us between a modern attitude and ontological state on one hand, and a religious and romantic attitude and ontological state on the other hand. Not surprisingly, the trend-lines on a global scale appear to favor the latter, which in turn suggests that many people are losing faith in the basic credo of what amounts to an “enlightenment” project that began at the close of Europe’s medieval age, which will have profound implications for every aspect of human life.