Philosophy and General Reading

The Enlightenment, Science and Core Humanistic Values in a Post-Factual World

R.C. Smith

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve been re-reading a lot of books on the enlightenment (mostly in my spare time), including many notable texts by such prominent enlightenment thinkers as Kant, Hume, Descartes and so on. My interest in the philosophes dates back to when I was a teenager, where some of my very first books of interest was Descartes’ Discourse on Method and the Meditations in addition to David Hume’s Enquiry. This sparked an analytical interest, connected, it would seem, with my love for science and passion for mathematics. And so from there, as I moved into my twenties, it was between the philosophes and humanism, including existentialism, mixed in with a broad-stroke of Anglo-American philosophy, which defined and continues to define my general interest in and engagement with the world of philosophical thought.

From there I eventually discovered interdisciplinary philosophy, or what might also be cited as social philosophy, and finally also limited strands of the tradition known as a critical theory. But after many years and many books, I find myself returning to the enlightenment and its core humanistic tradition. In so many ways the enlightenment seems to represent the roots of the advance modern thought, which itself takes a place in a much wider history in the evolution of philosophical ideas. Though focused particularly on the history of moral philosophy and its development, Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass is one of the best book’s that I have read in recent time. With a background in the natural sciences, there is a structure to Malik’s thought which seems absent in so much of the human or social sciences. This book sits as part of a long tradition, and what is fascinating is its exploration of moral thought across time and throughout cultures.

But some of my favourite of Malik’s writings have to do more focusedly on the enlightenment. His book The Meaning of Race (1996) offers a very important and substantive rebuttal against those who link enlightenment thinking – even science and reason – with racism. Moreover, in examining the ideas of the historical development, and philosophical and political roots, of the idea of race, Malik does a very nice job at showing that racial difference is actually in opposition to the universalist ideas of the enlightenment project. Likewise, his book Strange Fruit (2008) and his many articles on the enlightenment are certainly worthy of broader consideration, as they offer important contributions to contemporary debates. Additionally, Malik’s book Man, Beast and Zombie (2001), is thought provoking. My recent essay reflecting on and around Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy, addresses similar issues as Man, Beast and Zombie; but perhaps a separate essay on this book is something worth pursuing in the future.

The enlightenment ultimately brought the value of reason and of the modern scientific endeavour to the fore, serving also as an important catalyst for the development of important core humanistic values. Instead of being premised on the authority of the church, these values were to be grounded in the human world. To state today, especially in the context of our increasingly troubled social world, that the enlightenment project and its legacy is even more fundamentally culturally important is by no means excessive. The impact that the Enlightenment had on western society – and, indeed, throughout the world – underlines a significant part of the modern value of progress. The enlightenment philosophes are not without their issues, which is to say that today we can continue to advance and progress key arguments, given new data and insight over centuries. One obviously place for such progressive advancement, I think, is in the field of epistemology, which, on the side of my own scientific studies and pursuits, is one of my favourite areas of philosophical consideration.

Whether explicitly realized or not, it seems fairly clear from my current vantage point that the basic values often shared by progressives today are tied to the enlightenment and its social, political and philosophical legacy. Equality, cosmopolitanism, and modern conceptions of democracy are a few examples. Conversely, modern emphasis on individual liberty and religious tolerance, along with notions of constitutional government, normative critique of the abuses church and state, and popular scepticism of traditional authority can all be traced to the enlightenment (The scholarship offered by Stephen E. Bronner among many others is very informative here).

Even the contemporary value of “critical thought” is indebted, it would seem, to the basic enlightenment value of reason, understood as the basis for authority and legitimacy in thought and action, which, as a means itself, sought to inspire normative critical reflection on human social reality. Also tied to this, of course, are such values as empiricism, scientific rigor and evidence-based thinking. Social-historical and cultural progress was, too, seen critically as open-ended and unfolding. Unbound to prejudiced or ideological ends, the value of progress seemed explicitly intended to have been positioned in such a way that, based on rational enquiry, it would be safeguarded from the irrational and ultimately totalitarian utopian urge that makes claim to the end of history. One of the philosophical lessons would seem that: “Critical thinking” and unbiased enquiry as synonymous with reason, in that rationality owes no allegiance to any party or movement – social-political, theoretical, or otherwise – serves non-partisan thinking in the same way that facts, or reality, is non-partisan. As Lawrence M. Krauss recently put it, “Reality exists independent of the desires or claims of those in power”. Likewise, reality exists independent of the bias and prejudices of the individual and social collective. Perhaps, many years ago, when I wrote my first book of philosophy and introduced the notion of conscious evasion, this is what I was ultimately aiming to describe – what we might call today, thanks to the advances in cognitive science, the problem of “confirmation bias”.

In sum: if the enlightenment was meant to blow open history in the sense of challenging and breaking free from traditional doctrines and dogmas as well oppressive regimes of thought and social organization (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), this is because the very idea of the Enlightenment as a project and as a set of ideals was meant to become the “source of everything that is progressive about the modern world”, standing “for freedom of thought, rational inquiry, critical thinking, religious tolerance, political liberty, scientific achievement, the pursuit of happiness, and hope for the future” (Thomas, 2014). Perhaps more emphatically, the Enlightenment was meant to liberate human beings once and for all (Bronner, 2004). This project of emancipation was not only social and political; it represented the possibility of a certain existential liberation as well (Israel, 2002), especially when it comes to the advent of reason and science as common values which support humanity’s overcoming Myth more generally and certainly also the oppressive grip of the Church in particular (Pagden, 2013).

One can cite numerous texts by key Enlightenment thinkers which support the above view.

Marquis de Condorcet (1794/2012), in his famous work titled Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, writes for example on the interrelation between the progress of the sciences and enlightened social behaviour (Gregory, 2010; Leiss, 2011; Pagden, 2013).William Leiss summarizes this nicely while quoting Condorcet: “He [Condorcet] remarks that ‘all errors in politics and morals are based on philosophical errors and these in turn are connected with scientific errors’. He is saying that there is a connection between our conceptions of natural processes, on the one hand, and our understanding of society and individual behaviour, on the other” (Leiss, 2011, p. 29).Moreover, “Condorcet envisioned a future in which ‘the dissemination of enlightenment’ would ‘include in its scope the whole of the human race’” (Leiss, 2011, p. 29). He maintains the position that the enlightenment provides a new way of thinking, a new view of the world, and that this view, based on a transformative ethos (Bronner, 2004, pp. 4-5), not only connects science and reason with morality and ethics, but is principled, as Bronner (2004) writes, on a series of core human values.

Condorcet’s reflections in Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind share a common vision with many other Enlightenment thinkers (Bronner, 2004). Indeed, “the Enlightenment” as a whole “crystallized around the principles connected with fostering the accountability of institutions, reciprocity under the law, and a commitment to experiment with social reform” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). It sought not “imperialism, or racism, or the manipulation of liberty”, but instead the ideals of liberty, individual rights and dignity (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013) and what we might describe today as social conditions which foster the “free flourishing subject”. These ideals formed the basis of Enlightenment universalism (Israel, 2001; Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), which sought to protect rather than threaten the exercise of subjectivity (Bronner, 2004, p. 9).


So what does all of this philosophical reflection and discourse mean today, particularly for the modern scientific endeavour and for the outward values of science? It would seem that there is a debate about the role science plays in terms of social, historical and cultural enlightenment and about how science engages with the human social world and its search for core progressive values.

Although I don’t entirely agree with his stance about the 2017 March for Science, because I think the campaign is ultimately a positive thing, there is a deeper truth to Jerry Coyne’s article: namely, that the increasing politicization of science is a cause for concern. Additionally, while at various protests the political left seem inclined to make claim to science – that facts tend to have a liberal bias – there are many studies that show both sides can be diluted, driven by confirmation bias instead of an open investigation of reality.

At the same time, the notion of openess and unbiased investigation is much more significant than cognitive bias studies acknowledge. While research into cognitive bias offer tremendous insight when it comes to the problem of political ideologies and prejudices, among other things, it does little with regards to the age-old metaphysical and ethical problem concerning the nature of truth. Is any appeal to truth reduced to bias? Cognitive bias, in a sense, implies closedness. But where things seem to get tricky, at least from my observational point of view, is when this principle is applied within the social domain. For example, is it a product of cognitive bias that one might defend climate science in the face of so-called climate deniers? The obvious answer is that it is not, so long that one’s appeal is to evidence without dogma or prejudice. One can remain open to the opinions of a “climate denier” whilst also disproving their claims. But in today’s world, everything is either reduced to politics or opinion or both. And that seems to be a problem. The stage, as it were, is already set to frame the logic and structure of debate in the way of a purely subjective narrative. In other words, the very meaning and structure and purpose of rational debate and the appeal to objectivity, evidence and facts seems in decline. The mentality, the philosophical approach, is largely logically dubious and irrational.

It is important, in agreeing with Coyne, that the modern scientific endeavour, the very practice and values of science, remain non-partisan and therefore operative in the realm of what I would describe as the critical, objective and open to new data and to the unfolding investigation of reality. Reason, like scientific enquiry, should remain unbiased and untied to ideological or prejudiced ends. Others may describe it differently, but the main point, I think, is that the worst thing that can happen in this pathological era of so-called “post-factualism”, is that science becomes associated with political dogma and agenda.

At the same time, if science tends to foster a philosophy of openness, in today’s social world this would seem to have very real structural-political consequences. This philosophical value of openness also has a very particular epistemological appeal: namely, the openness to diversity, the unknown and to the moreness of phenomena. In the social world, these values seem to be given political appeal, with different sides making claim to the title of rightful defender. But they are nothing more than common universal values in a deeply existential and humanistic sense.

It currently seems to me that a more reconciled approach would be one that acknowledges neither left nor right bias; nor would it assume any one position. Truly open, critical, reflective and objective reason is inherently inclined to reject all such bias and prejudiced claims. Rather than approach the world by way of some worldview, an rational approach would be more fluid. In considering all the facts, we can posit our best and most well-laid out theories which help explain reality; but those systems of thought are not closed. The more we investigate, the more we deepen our theories and the more we deepen our understanding of the objective truth of a phenomenon or issue. It is a process of constant critical openness and learning and receptivity. In the natural sciences, when studying purely natural phenomena and objects in which no bias is inherent in those phenomena, this process becomes much easier when compared to the study of social justice issues. And for all the writing I’ve read on cognitive bias, this deeper point never seems to be considered.

Research would seem to indicate that reality is tough for both sides to swallow. And yet, in emphasizing the philosophical and ethical value of openness and intellectual diversity should not also be conflated with tolerance of oppressive, irrational or prejudiced views. When, in a recent New Scientist article, the issue of same sex marriage is raised in the same breathe that “”open-minded” liberals are just as plagued by confirmation bias as “closed-minded” conservatives, consideration of the problem of cognitive bias and the difference in the nature of its appeal on both sides is lacking. This raises an interesting question in the field of ethical philosophy. It would seem to me, from a purely structural perspective, that a lack of consideration of such a prejudiced and oppressive view as anti-equality perspectives is not the same in meaning as the hate-filled bigot.

In terms of the general political landscape, both sides are fallible. The entire political world, as far as I can tell, is steeped in bias. Both left and right can be anti-science and irrational; but the fundamental issue has much more to do with the pathology of society, in which people forget how to think properly, to approach the world rationally and sensibly. Irrationality accumlates, structurally it seems to propagate.

Personally, I don’t align myself with any political party or movement or denomination because it all seems so senseless. The pursuit of truth and of understanding isn’t and shouldn’t be political. In appealing to the best of humanistic values, science and intellectualism should be for everyone. The best values we have are enlightenment values – they underline everything positive about the modern social world and of whatever progress that humanity has achieved. But these values also appeal to a philosophy that challenges the traditionalism, closed-mindedness generally associated with conservatism, as well as emphasizes a relentless critical openness that challenges whatever creeping closed-mindedness that may hamper liberals.

As Carl Sagan once put it:

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it’s like democracy. Science by itself cannot advocate courses of human action, but it can certainly illuminate the possible consequences of alternative courses of action.

The scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and disciplined. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which best fit the facts. It urges on us a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything — new ideas and established wisdom. This kind of thinking is also an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change.

No political side can make claim to being the true heirs and defenders of the enlightenment today, and that is what continues to give it meaning: core enlightenment and humanistic values would seem to transcend the rigidity of political worldviews. It would only seem that, more often than not, the defenders of core humanistic and enlightenment values are regularly found within the domain of liberals and progressives, in spite of the evidence that they also at times might turn away from such values and from the scientific mindset when it is most convenient to do so.


Science is not absolutely immune to the “sins” of irrational social forces, and the struggle that surrounds it is the struggle for a free and autonomous science. On the one hand, it is important to recognize the special epistemological space in which science is positioned. There is a certain autonomy to science in this regard, the existence of which seems all too often rejected in different strands of contemporary philosophical critique. But in understanding the special space of science and its special or unique epistemological place in society, it would seem naive – again, at least from my current vantage point – that science is somehow absolutely immune to irrational and less than progressive social forces. The problem may be better described in terms of the output of science and how this is socially realized, as opposed to the actual doing of science.

Science works, its history speaks for itself. But what of the output of scientific knowledge, the release of scientific achievement into and as it becomes mediated with the social world, its biases, constructs, and ideological systems? One example people often cite is military technology. Another is the commodification of medicine for the sole purpose of profit. The argument in this case considers how medical advancements have been significant in so many ways, but vital medicines are monetized and reduced to a system of economic profit principles, which are regular untied to core humanist sensbilities. One of the results, the arguments goes, is the manufacturing of the inequality of health and how entire groups of people do not have access to necessary treatments. On the level of moral philosophy, this is a problem. But it would also seem to be a problem for the modern scientific enterprise, if one believes that such an enterprise stands for and helps support everything progressive about a science-based and rational society.


And in this sense I think that while science must remain non-partisan, one might speculate that it is perhaps also a mistake to divorce the modern scientific endeavour from the basis of values that underline much of its historical social philosophical motivation. The modern scientific project has a very unique history, outside of the evolution of its methods and historical achievements, that is social philosophical in principle and humanistic in value. Maybe my readings are wrong, and my postulating here is inaccurate. But in my survey of the literature and scholarly record, this other history seems fairly clear and important.

Enlightenment universalism “presumes to render institutions accountable, a fundamental principle of democracy, and thereby create the preconditions for expanding individual freedom. Such a view would inform liberal movements concerned with civil liberties as well as socialist movements seeking to constrain the power of capital” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). In much the same way, Enlightenment universalism – or what we may also describe as the common values of the Enlightenment (Pagden, 2013; Israel, 2002) – moves against prejudice to include “the other”, underpinning the liberal notion of the citizen with its “inherently democratic imperative”, while also pushing back against capitalism’s drive to reduce people to the mere status of ‘economic objects’ and therefore, too, mere ‘costs of production’ (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). Therefore, there should be no surprise when Condorcet, for example, writes:

Thus an understanding of the natural rights of man, the belief that these rights are inalienable and [cannot be forfeited], a strongly expressed desire for liberty of thought and letters, of trade and industry, and for the alleviation of the people’s suffering, for the [elimination] of all penal laws against religious dissenters and the abolition of torture and barbarous punishments, the desire for a milder system of criminal legislation and jurisprudence which should give complete security to the innocent, and for a simpler civil code, more in conformance with reason and nature, indifference in all matters of religion which now were relegated to the status of superstitions and political [deception], a hatred of hypocrisy and fanaticism, a contempt for prejudice, zeal for the propagation of enlightenment, all these principles, gradually filtering down from philosophical works to every class of society whose education went beyond the catechism and the alphabet, became the common faith . . . [of enlightened people]. In some countries these principles formed a public opinion sufficiently widespread for even the mass of the people to show a willingness to be guided by and to obey it. (Condorcet, 1794/2012, p. 101)

From just a short and brief overview, it is clear how much the value of modern science is entangled with the enlightenment and its humanistic traditions. From the Scientific Revolution, dated roughly between the years of 1550 and 1700, the enlightenment can be traced back to the “renaissance humanists” in France and Italy in the 14th and 15th century (Trevor-Roper, 2010), and so too can some of the basic foundations of the modern value of science and the implications of what science means when extended into the realm or field of social philosophy (that is, too, comprising the fields of ethical and moral philosophy).

What I wonder is, as an individual with a long history of being critical of politics, left and right, does this embracing of enlightenment roots necessarily equate to politicization? In other words, I would like to ask: does the defense of progressive values, of the ought of ethical philosophy, presuppose the existence of confirmation bias? Or is it simply an appeal to what Steven Pinker once described as the better angels of our nature? If the modern scientific endeavour is completely divorced from the basis of its deeper social-philosophical and historical values, then does the ethical and moral value of science itself not dissipate? Is this dissipation not detrimental in terms of the social output of science?

As Steven Pinker writes: “The mindset of science, cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation.  It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality”. One of my favourite contemporary physicists, Brian Cox, has a wonderful way of describing, along what I would describe as fundamental social philosophical lines, how science inspires the foundation for the practice of a rational society. His book the Human Universe (2014) is a fantastically inspiring testament to such a hopeful possibility. Perhaps Cox is right when he comments: “the scientific way of thinking is the road to better politics.” One can think, moreover, of the endless inspiring passages of reflection offered to us by Carl Sagan, which very much captures the spirit of the idea of a science-based future rational and democratic society.

Quite simply, the value of science is much more than the practice of scientific research. The importance of science extends beyond the laboratory. As alluded above: Pinker describes it as a “mindset”, and he’s right. “Open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods” as well as the truths “of mathematics, the logic of scientific theories, and the values that guide” the scientific enterprise are just a few that Pinker cite. One could even expand on the point and describe it as a form of subjectivity in the sense of a critical, rational and open approach to how we relate with the phenomenal world, which seeks to transcend the ideological limitations of social irrationality as well as biased and prejudiced “worldviews”. But ultimately what is being indicated are the defining practices of science, the psychology and experiential sensibility that it fosters – to be open to the world, to new data, and to exploring the unknown.

Deepening the account, and perhaps also grounding it in my own way, the scientific “mindset” is akin to the open, mediating, critically inquisitive subject. Many people often think of or evoke the image of a young child openly exploring, enquiring, questioning, searching and orientating within the multifarious world of things. In a bigger sense there is no end per se, no ideological bias, just the open pursuit of knowledge in that reason is a means in itself. All the while, the pursuit of objective reality and truth deepens, our theories become more sharpened and honed. This is, to me, a beautiful account of what science inspires and fosters. Impliedly, and in relation to Pinker’s descriptions and my own in relation to philosophy of the subject, the value of science represents a certain epistemology, anthropology and cosmology (“cosmology” is used here in the sense of the human relation to the phenomenal world, whereas anthropology refers to how we relate with each other). More accurately, I currently think of it as implying the genesis or development of a certain epistemology – in other words, the value of science also refers to practice: how we think of the world, how we relate with the world, and also how we relate with each other and ourselves.

And this is in no way spontaneous philosophical invention. These ideas, these core concepts and concrete values are indebted to such popular and celebrated thinkers as Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, and Smith (and so on). Beyond the generally familiar, one of my personal favourites is the contributions by Nicolas de Condorcet. But the enlightenment philosophes also include valuable contributions from other perhaps less mainstream names as Marquis de Sade, Montesquieu, Diderot, Beaumarchais, D’Alembert, among others. Their contribution to the history of modern thought and the modern scientific enterprise cannot overstated. Let us also not forget the likes of Sir Isaac Newton, a personal idol, or further back to the infancy of ideas during the humanist renaissance through to important contributions by another personal idol in Galileo Galilei.

Throughout the whole history the modern scientific enterprise, the inspired vision of science can be seen to also inspire an alternative philosophy of life and society. From the tragic story of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, to the progressive struggle by the enlightenment philosophes, who denounced the oppression of the Church and began formulating a scientific and certainly also deeply humanistic vision – the lesson of history, for me, is that the value is as prefigurative as it is institutional. A defense of science against anti-science and post-factualism, as well as post-modern relativism, is more than a defence of our scientific institutions, of entities like NASA’s earth science programme. Science is also lived. And through living science, through the defense and daily practice of reason, one prefigures a better and more rational social world.

And so the deeper reflection is to not limit one’s defence of science to the simple act of protest. What science also fosters is a foundational alternative perspective, a richness and openness of critical and inquisitive experience that helps ensure the vital normativity of progressive horizons of institutional and social practice. In an irrational and pathological social world, the modern scientific pursuit and the wholeness of the value of scientific practice and knowledge evidences, in one way or another, the hopeful vision of a global future society.

Does such an account ultimately, in some way, project social and political values? At present, I’m not entirely sure how to answer this. What I do think is that one should not be afraid of the positive vision that science offers, and seek to repress it in fear of politicization. Carl Sagan, much like Neil Degrasse Tyson, can hardly be criticized for “politicizing science”. And yet, they also embrace the positive and transformative social philosophical appeal in which science and modern scientific endeavour lends itself.

To that, I would like to conclude this admittedly informal essay by considering arguably one of the most important driving forces behind both the enlightenment and science: namely, a critical conception of universalism. Perhaps here the greatest lesson is served to us by the history of physics: science is not a collection of absolute truths, as we always have something to learn. As Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw put it: Science is a discipline that celebrates uncertainty without ever abandoning the idea of truth and the understanding of objective reality. The key to the success of modern science is in its keeping open to new data, new discoveries and to further refined theories as phenomena reveal more of themselves over time.

From Newton to Einstein and beyond, this is an epistemological value to be cherished. It is also a value that very much is embodied in the enlightenment. In that the enlightenment sought to develop a social philosophy based on reason, science (and scientific knowledge); it also sought, as Stephen E. Bronner (2004) points out, to ground a critical conception of progress that owed nothing to dogma or political allegiance. Progress was seen as open, unfolding and almost constant – in a sense, it is an unfolding process, because, epistemologically speaking, the more we learn, the more we understand, the more we can also investigate and interpret our social systems and structures for the benefit of everyone. Thus, celebrated for the advent of modern notions of democracy, there is also something deeply egalitarian about the philosophes and the hopeful scientific vision that they sought to inspire. Empowering these values was the idea of universality and normativity, or, if you like, normative universalism.

To be clear, what I am describing here is a few of the most basic coordinates of a rich account of science in relation to the process of positive social development. And what such an approach does is that it allows us to appreciate the nuances of social development, and the parameters of a progressive philosophy of history, particularly insofar as the relation between social and modern scientific pursuit.

Perhaps what is called for in a post-factual world is, indeed, concern over politicization, while at the same time deep ethical and moral reflection on the social and humanistic values of the modern scientific endeavour? Perhaps, somewhere, a core sense of humanism has been lessened in the pursuit of profit and overproduction and a march for science is also a march for the values of the scientific enterprise? If nothing else, these seem to be important sites of reflection, especially as we face the need for an urgent defense of science in the midst of what seems to be an increasingly irrational social world.


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