Can Truth Be Known
Doubt is the Beginning of All Knowledge
It has been said that doubt is the beginning of all knowledge. So if you are having doubts, do not be dismayed. You are at the beginning of a learning adventure. You are about to be enlightened.
Typically, there are three traditional divisions of Western history. They are called Antiquity, the Middle Ages or Medieval period and the Modern period. The Middle Ages, running from about the 5th to the 15th century, began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and merged into the Renaissance, the beginning of the modern era.
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned the period roughly from the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the later Middle Ages and then spreading into the rest of Europe. In politics, the Renaissance contributed the development of the conventions of diplomacy, and in science, an increased reliance on observation. This period saw great advances in both art and philosophy. As a movement, the Renaissance promoted a resurgence of learning among the populous. This was enhanced by the translation of the classics in to vernacular languages, which were then made more readily available to the masses through Gutenberg’s press. The Renaissance evolved into the Enlightenment.
There have been several periods of history that have been called periods of enlightenment, but the primary one we associate with the term “Age of Enlightenment” or simply “Enlightenment” or the “Age of Reason” was a cultural movement of intellectuals living generally in Europe in the latter half of the 17th and 18th century. This period emphasized reason and individualism over tradition. It is characterized by dramatic progress in science, philosophy, society and politics. This progress revolutionized and swept away the medieval world-view and ushered in our modern western world.
Perhaps the most significant change during this period was to be seen in the way people organized thoughts and drew conclusions. The new method was that rational thought begins with clearly stated principles, uses correct logic to arrive at conclusions, tests the conclusions against evidence, and then revises the principles in the light of the evidence. This period is not a singular revolution, new thought or acceptance of one single philosophy. The main tendencies of thought in the Enlightenment can be categorized in the following three main areas: (1) discovering “The True”: applied primarily to the Sciences, (2) describing The Beautiful: addressing the arts; and (3) defining “The Good”: which encompassed Political and Ethical Theory, Philosophy and Religion. Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and the celebration of reason, the power by which man understands the universe and improves his own condition. The goals of rational man were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness.
The Enlightenment really begins with the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The process was likely initiated by the methods and accomplishments of Sir Isaac Newton. In just a few, relatively simple, universally applicable, mathematical laws, Newton was able to describe and render comprehensible the laws of motion. Through his work people of the Enlightenment came to see the universe as an orderly domain governed by strict laws and to believe in their own capacity to know those laws and master the universe. Newton’s successes in the realm of natural science soon inspired great minds in other disciplines to employ the same methods.
As this new way of thinking developed, its purpose was to reform society using reason, to challenge ideas grounded solely in tradition and faith, and to advance knowledge through the scientific method. It promoted not only scientific thought, but also skepticism, and intellectual interchange. It set out to challenge traditional authority of all sorts through the tools and resources of a scientific worldview. To understand the natural world and humankind's place in it solely on the basis of reason and without turning to religious belief was the goal of this wide-ranging intellectual movement.
Enlightenment thought culminates historically in the political upheaval of the French Revolution, in which the traditional hierarchical political and social orders (the French monarchy, the privileges of the French nobility, the political power and authority of the Catholic Church) were unraveled and replaced by a political and social order informed by the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality for all, founded, supposedly, upon principles of human reason. It was a characteristic expectation of the age that the use of reason alone would dramatically improve human life.
The Enlightenment produced the first modern secularized theories of psychology and ethics. John Locke conceived of the human mind as being at birth a blank slate on which experience wrote freely and boldly, creating the individual character according to the individual experience of the world. Supposed innate qualities, such as goodness or original sin, had no basis in reality for him. Thomas Hobbes portrayed man as moved solely by considerations of his own pleasure and pain. The notion of man as neither good nor bad but interested principally in survival and the maximization of his own pleasure led to radical new political theories. Where the state had once been viewed as an earthly approximation of an eternal order, with the City of Man modeled on the City of God, now it came to be seen as a mutually beneficial arrangement among men aimed at protecting the natural rights and self-interest of each.
The Enlightenment is most identified with its political accomplishments. The era is ultimately marked by three political revolutions, which together lay the basis for modern, republican, constitutional democracies: The English Revolution (1688), the American Revolution (1775–83), and the French Revolution (1789–99). The Enlightenment’s success at explaining and understanding the natural world encouraged the project of re-making the social/political world, in accord with the true models we allegedly find in our reason. Enlightenment philosophers found that the existing social and political orders did not withstand critical scrutiny; they found that existing political and social authority was shrouded in religious myth and mystery and founded on obscure traditions.
The negative work of criticizing existing institutions must necessarily be followed by the positive work of constructing, at least in theory, the model of institutions, as they ought to be. We owe to the Enlightenment the basic model of government we have today, founded upon the consent of the governed; the articulation of the political ideals of freedom and equality and the theory of their institutional realization; the articulation of a list of basic individual human rights to be respected and realized by any legitimate political system; the articulation and promotion of toleration of religious diversity as a virtue to be respected in a well ordered society; the conception of the basic political powers as organized in a system of checks and balances; and other now-familiar features of western democracies.
The Enlightenment has often been described as “the age of criticism.” Criticism was after all a central part of the intellectual interchange, the promotion of skepticism and the Enlightenment’s challenge of authority and ideas of the previous age. Beyond the world of politics, this criticism often took aim at art and literature.
“Aesthetics” is derived from the Greek word for “senses”. The Enlightenment in general re-discovers the value of the senses, not only in cognition, but also in human lives in general, and so, given the intimate connection between beauty and human sensibility, the Enlightenment is naturally particularly interested in aesthetics. Also, the Enlightenment includes a general recovery and affirmation of the value of pleasure in human lives, in contrast to the past of Christian asceticism. This would be in keeping with Thomas Hobbes portrayal of man as moved solely by considerations of his own pleasure and pain. The flourishing of the arts, of the criticism of the arts and of the philosophical theorizing about beauty, both promotes and is promoted by this recovery and affirmation.
Inevitably, the method of reason was applied to religion itself. The product of a search for a natural, rational religion was Deism, which, although never an organized cult or movement, conflicted with Christianity for two centuries, especially in England and France. Deism refers to what can be called natural religion, the acceptance of a certain body of religious knowledge that is inborn in every person or that can be acquired by the use of reason and the rejection of religious knowledge when it is acquired through either revelation or the teaching of any church. For the Deist a very few religious truths sufficed. These were truths they felt to be manifest to all rational beings: the existence of one God, the existence of a system of rewards and punishments administered by that God, and the obligation of men to virtue and piety. Beyond the natural religion of the Deists lay the more radical products of the application of reason to religion: skepticism, atheism, and materialism.
The field of philosophy also embraced the methods of this Age of Reason. It was central to the agenda of Enlightenment philosophy to find in human affairs natural laws similar to those that science had discovered in the physical universe. Individual philosophers through their own powers of reasoning developed a variety of theories that often conflicted with and contradicted each other.
Only late in the development of the German Enlightenment, when the Enlightenment period as a whole was near its end, did the movement become self-reflective. In his famous definition of “enlightenment” in his essay “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” Immanuel Kant defines “enlightenment” as humankind's release from its self-incurred immaturity. He said, “Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another.” He argued that people or society at large was not able to think rationally or independently. The reason for this incapability as cited by Kant was fear, lack of right education and to some extent the element of unwillingness, and was not due to the lack of intellect.
Kant also argued that human concepts and categories structure our view of the world and its laws, and that reason is the source of morality. He declared that “necessary features” of our minds structure our experiences. That is, the mind shapes and structures experience so that, on an abstract level, all human experience shares certain essential structural features. Among other things, Kant believed that the concepts of space and time are integral to all human experience, as are our concepts of cause and effect. He contended that we never have direct experience of things, the noumenal world, and what we do experience is the phenomenal world as conveyed by our senses. Kant argued that experience is purely subjective without first being processed by pure reason. He also said that using reason without applying it to experience only leads to theoretical illusions. So, Kant also applied the Enlightenment’s theme of the free and proper exercise of reason by the individual to the various problems of philosophy. His thought continues to hold a major influence in contemporary thought.
But what do we make of his distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal worlds and our experience of them? “Phenomenon “ is defined as any fact, circumstance or experience that is apparent to the senses and that can be scientifically described or appraised. “Noumenon” in Kantian philosophy, is an object reached by intellectual intuition, without the aid of the senses. Intuition is the direct knowing or learning of something without the conscious use of reason. In other words, noumena is the thing as it is or true reality and phenomena is our experience or perception of that thing filtered through our senses and reasoning.
As described by Kant, a thing as it is or the reality of a thing cannot be accessed by the senses or reason. However, the senses and reason are essential to the scientific method. Science is defined as a systemized knowledge derived from observation, study and experimentation carried on in order to determine the nature or principles of what is being studied. If we know that observation reveals merely phenomenal and not noumenal realities, then science has built in limitations. If science is based on systematic observation, then one must come to the conclusion that jumps out at us, that science is just another obstacle to the truth of things.
The Enlightenment has been defined in many different ways, but every definition stresses reason, logic, criticism and freedom of thought over dogma, tradition, blind faith and superstition. Logic wasn’t a new invention, having been used by the ancient Greeks, but it was now included in a worldview which argued that empirical observation and the examination of human life could reveal the truth behind human society and self, as well as the universe. Kant shows that is not true in all fields of study. Science can only be applied to things that can be observed and studied, so the entire world of noumena is beyond the scope and reach of science.
Enlightenment is the process of undertaking to think for one’s self, to employ and rely on one's own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act. Enlightenment philosophers from across the geographical and temporal spectrum tend to have a great deal of confidence in humanity's intellectual powers, both to achieve systematic knowledge of nature and to serve as an authoritative guide in practical life. This confidence is generally paired with suspicion or hostility toward other forms or carriers of authority, insofar as these are seen to compete with the authority of reason. Again, however, the noumenal world is reached only by intellectual intuition without the aid of reason. The noumenal world is beyond the scope and reach of reason.
Enlightenment philosophy tends to stand in tension with established religion, insofar as the release from self-incurred immaturity in this age, daring to think for oneself, awakening one's intellectual powers, generally requires opposing the role of established religion in directing thought and action. The faith of the Enlightenment – if one may call it that – is that the process of enlightenment, of becoming progressively self-directed in thought and action through the awakening of one's intellectual powers, leads ultimately to a better, more fulfilled human existence. In many areas of life, this has been shown to be true, but clearly, it has its limitations.
The successful application of reason to any question depends on its correct application, that is, on the development of a methodology of reasoning that would serve as its own guarantee of validity. Such a methodology was most spectacularly achieved in the natural sciences and mathematics, where the logics of induction and deduction made possible dramatic break throughs in our understanding of the natural world. The success of Isaac Newton, in particular, in capturing in a few mathematical equations the laws that govern the motions of the planets gave great impetus to a growing confidence in man’s capacity to attain knowledge. At the same time, the idea of the universe as a machine or mechanism governed by a few simple (and discoverable) laws had a subversive effect on the concepts of a personal God and individual salvation that were central to Christianity.
Here too the question of the limits of reason is one of the main philosophical legacies of the period. These limits are arguably vividly illustrated by the course of the French Revolution. The explicit ideals of the French Revolution are the Enlightenment ideals of individual freedom and equality; but, as the revolutionaries attempt to devise rational, secular institutions to put in place of those they have violently overthrown, eventually they have recourse to violence and terror in order to control and govern the people. The devolution of the French Revolution into the Reign of Terror is perceived by many as proving the emptiness and hypocrisy of Enlightenment reason, and is one of the main factors that account for the end of the Enlightenment as an historical period.