Fact and Fiction

Thoughts about a funny old world, and what is real, and what is not. Comments are welcome, but please keep them on topic.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

End of the Enlightenment

New Scientist has a rather worrying article titled End of the Enlightenment, which has the tagline "Why is so much of the world bent on rejecting reason, tolerance and freedom of thought?". It discusses the relationship between religious fundamentalism and secularisation. Should we build our understanding of the world based on empirical evidence from experiments or should we base it on faith and the reading of scriptures? The worrying part about the article is that religious fundamentalism appears to be gaining in popularity, thus risking everything that has been gained during the age of Enlightenment.

These two approaches can be summarised as follows:

  1. The "Enlightenment" (or science) is an intellectual revolutiom that consists of asking questions about how the world works (i.e doing experiments), and based on that asking more questions, and so on. Gradually this accumulates to lead to a consistent understanding of the way the world works. This framework is open to revision in the light of new experimental observations.
  2. Religion offers a stable framework based on sources called "scriptures". The stability of religious fundamentalism creates a consistent framework within which people can live their lives in relation to the world. This framework is not open to revision, although in non-fundamentalist religions the scriptures are frequently reinterpreted in the light of unforseen circumstances.
A nasty problem arises when people try to apply the above two "principles" to the same area of life. This is a big mistake. "Religion" is a set of rules that can be used to help people to live in harmony, and "science" is a set of rules can be used to help people to understand how the world around them works. These two rule systems have completely different areas of application.

The words "science" and "religion" frequently manifest themselves informally as follows :

  1. Science commonly makes an appearance as "know-how", which is the general common sense that is used by intelligent people who have not been exposed to science. This does not involve the study of science as practiced by professional scientists.
  2. Religion commonly makes an appearance as a "moral code", which is the general common sense that is used by intelligent people who have not been exposed to religion. This does not involve any fundamentalist reading of scriptures.

The above informal type of practitioner of science and/or religion is usually a well-adjusted individual who is pleasant to know.

Why should some people feel threatened (as the New Scientist article observes) by secularisation? In essence, the aim of science is only to provide a concise framework for inter-relating the meter readings that you get in different experiments. Despite pronouncements by various "scientific" luminaries, science does not make specific assertions about the way the world actually works. The most it can say is that things seem to behave this or that way, because we can't find any counter-examples that show otherwise. This doesn't sound very threatening to me.

Now back to the tagline "Why is so much of the world bent on rejecting reason, tolerance and freedom of thought?". I presume that it is because some people prefer the security of a stable religious framework to the ever changing face of a self-questioning scientific framework, and they wrongly think that the two frameworks are competing for the same territory so they must be in conflict.


At 11 October 2005 at 01:38, Blogger Dennis Dale said...

Thanks for your thought provoking post. Reading your succinct juxtaposition of the religious and scientific spheres of influence one has to wonder why there would be any problem at all. That there is suggests that it isn't anything rational at work whatsoever. The resurgent religious literalism which is so alarmingly global is nothing less than a massive reaction. You point out that religion is a moral code for society. In that sense religion has served us well historically, but has to eventually give way to enlightenment. The real underpinnings of religion have always been the legends and myths which prompt moral, socially expedient behaviour. These don't survive scientific discovery. Technological innovation, such as birth control changing drastically the necessity for sexual chastity for instance, or food production rendering scarcity a thing of the past in most societies, changes the very necessity of the all encompassing jurisprudence of religious leadership. The organized religious world is in a panic. They are trying to re-assert their dominance wherever they can, such as in my country with the bullying of science teachers into accepting creationism as a scientific theory. Where it ends is anyone's guess. What alarms me is the realization that in much of the world there is no real tradition of enlightenment. As people from the third world migrate to the West and bring with them their own strict religious traditions will they find common cause with our own fundamentalists and wield considerable political power? Every secularist should raise his voice now.

At 11 October 2005 at 18:30, Blogger Steve said...

I was leaning over backwards to be even-handed in my posting. However, there is an asymmetry because one side is secure and stable, whereas the other is self-questioning and variable. I like to imagine that it is possible for each person to entertain thoughts at both of these extremes (i.e. both stable and variable), and also all possibilities on a sliding scale between these extremes. Wouldn't the (hypothetical) "mature" species be capable of doing this? I have always had a deep mistrust of being dogmatically told what to think by my teachers; this includes both religion and science. I think that to defuse the fundamentalist/secularist problem it is important for each side to try to understand where the other is "coming from".

It is ironic that many who are fundamentalist enjoy the apparently endless fruits of scientific discovery, which started only in the 17th century when scientific enquiry became systematic. A really good book for this is The Fellowship by John Gribbin.

At 11 October 2005 at 22:11, Blogger Dennis Dale said...

Well, there's the rub, as they say. If one side views itself as defending unassailable, divinely inspired truth asking them to be nice and play fair is like trying to converse with someone who not only doesn't speak your language, but refuses to acknowledge it exists. I wish I had your patience, but mine has run out long ago. You mention resisting dogma, even when it is employed in the service of science, but let's be honest: dogmatic science isn't science at all, the very phrase is an oxymnoron; religion free of dogma isn't really religion at all but is something else so sapped of its original meaning that it has to call itself "spirituality" or some similarly vague phrase.
Your last paragraph above is most appreciated (and I'll be sure to check out the Gribbin book), and this fact should bolster secularists everywhere. Fundamentalists, like their postmodern brethren on the left, strike me as people denouncing the very ground they stand on. I think the expression you Brits use is: that's just not cricket.

At 12 October 2005 at 22:44, Blogger Steve said...

I guess my patience has not run out yet because I have not been overexposed to religious dogma - at least, not in my adult life. People know that I like rational argument, so I presume the dogmatics stay away.


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