Science and Enlightenment

March 13, 2010

Wright of Derby, "Experiment with an air pump"

The Enlightenment, which transformed Europe and its colonies during the eighteenth century, can be described as a long meditation on the success of science.

From this effort two disparate lessons were drawn.  The Enlightenment of system and rationalism sought to discover the formula behind scientific progress, and apply it to social and political life.  The Enlightenment of experience and freedom sought to disseminate “useful knowledge” and increase the choices of an educated population.

The two programs shared many assumptions but were at bottom incompatible.  However, the fault lines lay concealed until the French Revolution, and both versions of Enlightenment were subsumed in the motto Immanuel Kant produced for the age:  “Dare to know.”

If only the human race shed its fantasies and superstitions, Kant maintained, material and moral progress was inevitable.

In an earlier post on this subject, I touched on the postmodernist rejection of Kant and the Enlightenment.  Science, these critics maintain, rests on unproven assumptions.  Claims to universal knowledge are, therefore, mistaken.  Such arguments have some validity when aimed at the cult of system and reason.

A handful of facts, in any case, define the relation between science and Enlightenment.

The most obvious is that the Kantian program succeeded beyond its wildest hopes.  The world was indeed demystified, and the advance of all the sciences from Kant’s day to our own has been nothing short of miraculous.  One can justly criticize the philosophical foundations of modern science, but not its practical success in every field.  If cellular biology or particle physics depend on mere assumptions, these are fruitful enough to sustain the increase of knowledge.

The consequences are well known, and need not be dwelled on.  Just as Kant surmised,  the human condition has undergone revolutionary change.

A second significant fact is that the Enlightenment produced relatively few scientific discoveries.  In the perspective of history, the eighteenth century appears as a fallow period between the age of Newton and that of Darwin and Pasteur.

Ideologically, it was the age of the triumph of science.  Philosophers like Voltaire felt called upon to try scientific experiments, and fashionable aristocrats felt obliged to pay attention.  The Enlightenment invented the character of the modern scientist:  disinterested, nobly modest, authoritative.  Yet less was achieved than before or after.

The driving obsession of the Enlightenment mind, in the end, wasn’t pure research but the reformation of politics and morals.  Science was exalted as a means to this end.  Advocates of system in particular promoted any number of formulas for improving society.  These men were implacably optimistic, and inflamed by a faith in the new “social sciences” which would bring perfect order to society as  Newton had done to the cosmos.

It would be wrong to say this approach was sterile – unfortunately.  Through Jeremy Bentham, it begat J.S. Mill, utilitarianism, and the “rational actor” economics much in vogue today.  The ideology of climate change, with its strange mix of science and messianic politics, is a present-day example of the Enlightenment’s love of system seeking to improve us by the application of power.

The rationalists and the system-makers are still very much with us.  They confuse – have always confused – science with political authority, data with morality, freedom with error.  The results have been catastrophic.

One strand of the social sciences engendered, by way of Robespierre and revolution, the scientific socialism of Marx – justification for the slaughter of millions in Europe and Asia.  Another strand gave rise to the biological hallucinations of Nazi Germany, with a once-great scientific establishment providing moral cover for the anihilation of “defectives” like Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and homosexuals.

The rationalist was Caesar of an armed empire of truth.  He brooked no criticism, no negotiation, but cared only about the imposition of his formula – the construction of his system – at any cost.  This was not an attitude conducive to scientific advancement.

The last fact I wish to note pertains to the other Enlightenment program, which favored experience over system and individual choice over pure logic.  Its practical aim was the dissemination of useful knowledge; its faith was that knowledge would then multiply.

What success science enjoyed in the eighteenth century was brought about by men, like Franklin and Lavoisier, who embodied this approach.

Far more significant, however, was the fixation of the Enlightenment of experience with what promised to be useful and productive.  It led to a brilliant analysis of the operation of markets by Adam Smith and David Hume, who were, along with Kant, the greatest intellects of the age.

The reformation of society, according to this program, wasn’t about spinning vast intellectual systems, but a matter of using science to increase the wealth of ordinary people.  Rationalist planning was vanity.  Better, the advocates of experience and freedom argued, to place scientific knowledge at the disposal of productive forces, and let individuals decide how best to employ it.

The industrial revolution which began in Britain in the eighteenth century was a child of Enlightenment.  Social clubs, first the Royal Society but soon after regional and local organizations, brought together men of science with manufacturers, artisans, and craftmen – “leather apron” types.

The consequences are ongoing and beyond measuring:  even modern science pales in comparison.  Nothing so transformative has occurred to our species since the rise of cities 5,000 years ago.

This is a large subject, which deserves its own discussion.  Suffice it to say here that the apparent dearth of scientific discovery in the age of Enlightenment was due in part to a re-channeling of inventive energy.  Enlightened genius converted scientific techniques into industrial technology, and the world hasn’t been the same since.