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February 12, 2005

End of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was a grand party of rationalism, lasting a brief, yet highly productive 300 years. A mere blip in the multi-millennial history of humans. Alas, the wine was good and the fireworks spectacular. Now, the candle is going out, and we are returning to the comfort of darkness, where life isn't so complicated and the unknown more understandable.

"I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us-then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls." -- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark

Primary among the tenants of the Enlightenment was the belief that the world is fundamentally rational, a belief that stood in stark contrast to the dogma of the necessity of divinity for action and of the existence of the supernatural. With rationality, however, God was no long needed to guide an apple from the tree to the ground. With rationality, something odd happened: science became predictive, whereas before it had only been descriptive. Religion (in its many forms) remains the latter.

"I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true." -- Carl Sagan

Before the Enlightenment, people turned to those who had the ear of God for information about the future. But with the emergence of rational thought and its heir scientific inquiry, prediction became the providence of Man. Although George W Bush may claim that it is freedom, I claim that it is instead science that is the most fundamental democratizing force in the world. Science, not freedom, gives both the aristocrat and peasant access to Truth.

"Many statements about God are confidently made by theologians on grounds that today at least sound specious. Thomas Aquinas claimed to prove that God cannot make another God, or commit suicide, or make a man without a soul, or even make a triangle whose interior angles do not equal 180 degrees. But Bolyai and Lobachevsky were able to accomplish this last feat (on a curved surface) in the nineteenth century, and they were not even approximately gods." -- Carl Sagan, Broca's Brain

However sensationalist it may be to claim that the we are in the twilight of the Enlightenment, especially considering the wonders of modern science, there is disturbing evidence that a cultural backlash against rationality is happening. Consider the Bush administration's abuse of science for political ends, including recent revelation that at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's scientists have been instructed to alter their scientific findings for political and pro-business reasons. Scientists apparently self-censor themselves for fear of political repercussions. And with the faux debate over intelligent design (simply the new version of creationism, although equally inane) apparently persuading many teachers to avoid teaching evolution at all, it seems clear that something significant is happening. (For many excellent critiques of intelligent design, and a fantastic discussion of how evolution is supported by a burgeoning amount of evidence, see Carl Zimmer's imminently readable blog.)

"For most of human history we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Who are we? What are we? We find that we inhabit an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions, and by the depth of our answers." -- Carl Sagan

During the 300 years of Enlightenment, science has steadily pushed back the darkness and revealed that the extent of the material world which we know is completely mechanistic. Although the details may seem arcane or magical to most, the power of this world-view is affirmed by the general public's acceptance of fruits of science, i.e., technology, as basic, even essential, components of their life.

"If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate... Try science." -- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

Why then, is there such a violent reaction among so many about topics like evolution or the possibility of life beyond Earth? If rational thought has been so much more successful than any of the alternatives, why then, do people persist in believing in psychic powers and the idea that the Earth was created in 168 hours? Why will people accept that electrons follow the laws of physics in flowing through the transistors which are critical to displaying this text, yet people will not accept the mountain of evidence supporting evolution?

"If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?... For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." -- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

It seems reasonable to me that the answer to these questions is that human beings are fundamentally irrational beings and that rational thought is not a natural mode of thought for us. Science is has never been popular because its study is frustrating, slow and confusing. It often involves math or memorization, and it always involves discipline and persistence. These things do not come easily to most people. It is easier to be utilitarian and dogmatic, than it is to be skeptical and careful. Combined with godly powers of rationalization (a topic about which I will blog soon) and a fundamental laziness of mind (which can only be circumvented by careful training and perpetual vigilance), it seems somewhat surprising that the Enlightenment ever happened in the first place.

"Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science?" -- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

But since it did happen, the least we can do is enjoy the candle that burns so brightly now, even as the darkness advances menacingly. We can only hope (an irrational and truly human feeling) that the Enlightenment is more resilient than the darkness is persistent.

"Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works." -- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

Update: The Global Consciousness Project is a prime example of supposedly rational people being very irrational. In it, normally respectable scientists monitor the fluctuations of random number generators in an effort to measure global psychic events. This recent story about it sounds persuasive, but the scientists involved are making a fundamental mistake of agency. Sure, there are some unexplained correlations between the random number generators, but there are also significant correlations between the first letter of your name and your life span. The true question is whether or not there is a causative relationship between the first letter and your life span. Similarly, these scientists' notion of the causative mechanism between the fluctuations in the random number generators and apparent "global" events is simply a self-fulfilling hypothesis - you can also explain away the failures and highlight the successes. It's called the investigator's bias, and it's a well documented state of irrationality that seems quite rational to the beholder.

p.s. Thank you to my friend Leigh Fanning for provoking the thoughts that led to this entry over dinner last night at Vivace's.

posted February 12, 2005 05:51 AM in Thinking Aloud | permalink