The Human Condition:

The Enlightenment and Easy Answers – July 14, 2013

The Tree of Knowledge

Right now, western civilization is dealing—not entirely successfully—with a rise of Islamic politicization based on religious fundamentalism. We are concurrently dealing with a continuing streak of fundamentalism among some Christians—and this in the religion that has otherwise done much to shape our modern western views. The ensuing conflicts, both on a global and social scale, represent a problem that cannot be directly addressed by argument or appeals to reason. That means we in the West are headed for a frustrating couple of years—if not decades or even centuries.

First, let’s define the term “fundamentalism.” I take it to encompass those people who have gone back to their source materials—the Quran or the Bible—as the sole basis of their beliefs. They accept their respective religious texts as representing absolute truth, the word of God made visible. Religion necessarily plays a big part in their lives, and they believe that by adhering to its established, published view of the world they have arrived at an intellectual safety zone. To borrow a phrase, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Not much to argue with there.

Why are these people so different from the rest of us western thinkers? I believe it’s because western civilization has passed through the period of intellectual turmoil in the 17th and 18th centuries called “the Enlightenment.” We came out the other side of this period with a new understanding. Fundamentalists either balk at the process or reject it outright.

To fundamentalists of any denomination, post-Enlightenment thinkers are “secularists,” “humanists,” or simply “unbelievers.” To them, we in the West put the interests of men before the commandments of God. We have become neglectful of our religion and decadent in our ways. We are lost in the darkness. The best they can say of us is that we are skeptics, doubters, blind fools who will not accept the truth that shines so obviously before our eyes.

But the driver of the Enlightenment is not skepticism or doubt for its own sake, which is general and undirected. Instead, the post-Enlightenment mind rejects easy answers and divine rationalizations in favor of the tested products of observation, logic, and quantification.

In the view of pre-Enlightenment clericalism, the world, the universe, and everything in it,1 are the work of a creator God who has set out a plan for its development through the end of time. Humans are created beings operating within that plan, and they differ from the beasts only in having rational minds and the ability to make choices and perform actions that are not in conformance with the plan. That is, they can act sinfully—in fact, the first sin, the original sin, was to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil that stood God’s perfect garden. By gaining knowledge, humankind infringed on God’s prerogative. The beasts and the rest of nature, on the other hand, have no such knowledge and so they innocently live according to the plan. The wise course, then, is for humans to remain obedient to the plan. Or, in the Islamic version, submit to the will of God.

In this view, much of the universe and the way it works is simply God’s business, meant to be mysterious, forever off limits to human understanding. We must accept the evidence of our eyes that the realm above the atmosphere, God’s realm, is perfect, filled with perfect, unchanging spheres following perfectly circular, unchanging orbits, with the stars affixed at some distance, and music filling all the space in between. Affairs down here on the planet are chaotic only because humans are disobedient, sinful, and blundering.

The Enlightenment marked a turning point in humankind’s intellectual development. Those two centuries saw a sudden flowering of human thought in mathematics, astronomy, physics, and chemistry.2 We began looking out, to that perfect world above the atmosphere, and inward, to the previously invisible world in drops of water and bits of everyday matter.3 We began a civilizational enterprise of attaining knowledge, not from the conjectures of priests and shamans, but from direct observation and the application of rational thought to what we saw.

Out of this collective effort came the greatest prize of the period, the Scientific Method. As an approach to knowledge, to bootstrapping our ideas and understanding, starting in a dark room full of ignorance, it cannot be surpassed. 1. Observe what’s actually going on around you, not what you think you should see or what you’ve been told to look for. 2. Question the what, why, and how of the everything you see, both in their static nature (what they are) and their current activities (how and why they operate). 3. Form a hypothesis—or an informed guess—as to what may be happening. 4. Think of an experiment, limited both in scope and scale, which will test that hypothesis by trying to prove it wrong. 5. Predict the outcome of that experiment if the hypothesis happens to be correct. 6. Perform the experiment and report your results accurately so that others may try it for themselves. 7. Modify your hypothesis and repeat Steps 3 through 6 as necessary.

The Scientific Method rejects any calls to orthodoxy—except in terms of its own strict requirements. It recognizes no authority or consensus or appeals to “common knowledge,” folklore, ethnic or societal imperatives, or deeply held beliefs. It supposes—perhaps as part of its own deeply held belief system—that everything has a cause, rather than a purpose in some pre-established plan; that observation and logic can find and prove the answers to any set of questions; and that nothing in the universe—and now perhaps even outside of it—lies beyond the human mind’s ability to ultimately know and understand.

The Scientific Method ignited a voyage of discovery that continues to this day and will probably last until our civilization falls into apathy or chaos. It has opened realms of knowledge and technology that either never existed before, or existed only in the imagination: powerful engines and energy sources, new materials like aluminum alloys and plastics, transmission of information through the air, moving people and cargo by flying them far above ground level, traveling easily across oceans and under water, curing age-old diseases, analyzing and describing the molecular nature of life itself … the list goes on and on, indicating how different the life of the 21st century is from that of the 15th. And discoveries and changes in the future will only be more incredible.

Western thinkers who are still believers in a God and His plan for us, yet who accept the premise of the Scientific Method and the discoveries emanating from the Enlightenment, must modify their beliefs. As science has opened a wider sky and an older creation, full of billions of galaxies each filled with billions of stars, each with the potential for churning out a different kind of life, believers must adopt a longer viewpoint and a less personal approach to God as He is found in the Bible or Quran. For example, they must reinterpret the Bible’s creation story, encompassing a mere six days, as representing the limited understanding of its human authors rather than an accurate depiction divine achievement. They must seek the essence of the religion and let go of the exact details as described in scripture.

More than that, the post-Enlightenment mind is forced to accept partial and provisional answers. The modern view is that, while all questions may ultimately be answered, some exist for which the answers are still waiting to be found, either because we are starting in the wrong place, or because the answers lie at a deeper level of complexity than we have yet penetrated. Some mysteries are only partially unraveled. And sometimes each discovery only shows that the complexity of life and the universe goes much deeper than we first thought.

Even when we suspect that some scientists might be barking up the wrong tree,4 we accept that barking is a valid exercise and that the right tree is out there waiting to be found.

Accepting the Enlightenment means being able to tolerate messy solutions and conclusions, a scenario that’s still developing, and uncertainty about the final outcome. Not everything has to be perfect and harmonious. We in the western tradition now prefer a riddle and a solidly proven, if inexact and incomplete, finding (e.g., the irresolvable number pi, the fractal nature of the universe) over a neat and perfect answer that requires an invisible and unprovable divine author (e.g., perfect circles and finite numbers). We know that perfection is a product of the human mind and imagination, not what is happening in the real world.

Accepting the Enlightenment is a kind of faith: in the enterprise of science to uncover the ultimate mysteries and the capability of the human mind to finally understand them and use them wisely. In this view, humans are not sinful, fallen beings, but seeking and ascending intelligences.

The Scientific Method is the projection of a system of thought forward into chaos. It represents a preference for some measure of barely understood chaos over a neat and comforting priestly story that we know or suspect may not be so.

1. And it’s a small place, with the Earth at the center, the Moon, the Sun, and the planets circling around it affixed to nested celestial spheres, and the thousands of stars hanging like candles in wall sconces on the furthermost sphere. It was created in its current form a long time ago—it’s almost 6,000 years old!—and has not changed much since.

2. And some, like Sir Isaac Newton, made discoveries in all three branches of knowledge. It was a time of geniuses and polymaths.

3. Interestingly, good optics in the form of ground and polished glass lenses set in the newly invented telescopes and microscopes formed the basis of our observational peerings in both directions.

4. See The Unriddling of Quantum Bayesianism from June 9, 2013, as well as my previous blogs that challenge some aspects of science and mathematics. I have never denied the validity of the scientific enterprise itself, merely questioned some of its outlying positions which court rational absurdities.