How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?


Billericay 2018, Week 3: Science – Summary.


                                                                                    Link: Notes for week 3


1. The Enlightenment and new sources of authority – a new philosophy

- rejection of Bible, tradition, and ‘the ancients’ as sources of knowledge, experimental observation, universal reason and logic.

Kant – the present state of knowledge must not prevent future ages from extending their (‘at best very occasional’) knowledge.


2. Three philosophical precursors to the scientific method of the Enlightenment:

- Bacon: faith and reason, empiricism – the scientific method; induction (from facts to laws). Deduction: use of logic alone.

- Descartes: the cogito and rationalism (reasoning rather than experimenting/empiricism)

- Hobbes: materialist explanation of our thoughts, but political theory is deduced (as in geometry).


3. Epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge):

- Locke (also an empiricist); the mind as tabula rasa, mechanistic model of society, limits to our knowledge (scientific knowledge is only ‘probable’) à tolerance.

- Hume and scepticism: cannot prove causality.

- Kant’s transcendental idealism: the mind puts order on our sensations à concepts and relations. ‘A priori’ knowledge. However, real objects (‘in themselves’) are unknowable.


4. ‘Natural philosophy’ (what we now call science…) Sir Isaac Newton (17th Century):

- natural philosophy

- a ‘realist’: things do exist in a way which we can know (contrast Kant)

- helio-centric (sun-centred) model of the universe, gravity, calculus, laws of motion

- reasoning/deduction combined with induction (from observation, experiment).


5. ‘Natural philosophy’ - its achievements, method, and spread:

- NB: Royal Society 1660, salons, clubs and private societies, journals. Urbanisation.


- light, electricity, chemistry, age of the earth, biology and medicine - including inoculation [Jenner 1749 – 1823]; à the possibility of surgery, post mortems etc

- calculus (Leibniz), probability theory etc.


- crop rotation, coke, steam power, cotton industry…


6. Critiques

- reason and the imagination (a word on William Blake)

- science and patriarchy

- the need for a wholistic approach

- science and power...


7. Recent thoughts on science:

Bryan Appleyard: The Brain is Wider than the Sky: on reductionism, and why simple solutions don’t work in a complex world.


Julian Baggini: concedes that there is only matter in the universe, but argues that our brains are so complex that it is unlikely that science will ever fully understand them, also that while empirical facts can help to inform moral decisions, ultimately we sort out many of these without recourse simply to facts or logic.


Emanuel Derman: Models. Behaving. Badly - we look for laws of nature, but we are also aware that we are free to look for them. ‘To discover [nature’s mechanistic laws] we have to assume that scientists have autonomy, they can tell right from wrong, they are not mechanical beings. In short, to find the laws of nature, we must assume we are not subject to them.’


Nicholas Maxwell: (emeritus reader in philosophy of science at University College) From Knowledge to Wisdom. Scientists need to explain that the aim of science is not simply to ‘acquire knowledge.’ For scientists to claim that science is simply the pursuit of truth is to ‘seriously misrepresent its real, problematic aims.’


For example, physicists will not accept theories that are not unified – that is, ‘that attribute the same laws to all the phenomena to which the theory in question applies’.  This is to assume that there is some kind of underlying unity in nature…


They also need to be more clear about values: the truth that is sought needs to be important or of value – there are values implicit in the aims of science, which need to be acknowledged so they can be tested, criticised, improved (since values are ‘problematic’).


Finally, this ‘knowledge of valuable truth is sought so that it may be used by people, ideally to enhance the quality of human life’ – i.e. there is a humanitarian or political dimension.


Sheldrake, Rupert: The Science Delusion: freeing the spirit of enquiry. We cannot use the old (17th century) notion of matter as inert, dead stuff, when trying to understand such mind-body topics as consciousness, the origins of life etc. When Sheldrake challenged scientists to deal with his examples of people knowing they are being stared at from behind, and dogs knowing their owners are on their way home, Wolpert and Dawkins both refused to look at the evidence. This, says Mary Midgley is a good example of the science delusion.


Talliss, Raymond: Aping Mankind - aims to ‘rescue atheism from the currently fashionable atheists’ such as John Gray, Dawkins and Dennett... – they ‘mis-state, elide or conceal the absolute strangeness of being human’. Broadly, these authors say we are no more than computers.