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The Enlightenment Vision: Science, Reason, and the Promise of a Better Future

The Enlightenment Vision: Science, Reason, and the Promise of a Better Future

by Stuart Jordan

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This thought-provoking analysis evaluates the progress that global society has made since the Enlightenment. The author begins by pointing out features of present-day society that are the direct descendants of the Enlightenment's discoveries and advances: our technology, modern medicine, science-based worldview, democratic political institutions, and concepts


This thought-provoking analysis evaluates the progress that global society has made since the Enlightenment. The author begins by pointing out features of present-day society that are the direct descendants of the Enlightenment's discoveries and advances: our technology, modern medicine, science-based worldview, democratic political institutions, and concepts of human rights are all an outgrowth of the pioneering efforts of Enlightenment reformers.

But along with these benefits, the author notes that we are also the inheritors of some significant problems produced in the wake of these advances; overpopulation, nuclear proliferation, and global climate change are just some of the recent developments that seem to threaten the whole Enlightenment project. Other great concerns include the continuing economic disparity between prosperous and impoverished nations, the persistence of widespread ignorance, and destructive reactionary forces bent on provoking new conflicts.

Despite these and other daunting challenges of the twenty-first century, the author concludes on a cautiously optimistic note, predicting that the Enlightenment vision of prosperity, security, justice, and good health for all will eventually be achieved.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Jordan, a former NASA physicist and current president of the pioneering Institute for Science and Human Values, makes a scattered collection of arguments on the goals of the Enlightenment and contemporary culture’s inability to live up to them in this thinly researched treatise. Positing that current political and societal ills stem from anti-Enlightenment forces like faith-based, superstitious, nationalistic, or tribal forms of “widespread ignorance,” the author makes a full-throated appeal for secular, science-based inquiry as a central and infallible mode of reasoning and progress. Unfortunately, Jordan’s book, though well-intentioned and passionately argued, is insubstantial; the author makes grand claims on topics as diverse as evolutionary psychology, educational achievement, and the history of the Enlightenment, but fails to supplement these assertions with sufficient citations. Readers interested in an assessment of the Enlightenment, reason, and current affairs would do better to consult books like Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason or those noted in Jordan’s bibliography (including works by de Tocqueville, Diamond, Freud, and Kant). (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"From Enlightenment lessons to the prospects for planetary humanism, Stuart Jordan casts an epochal eye on humankind's progress and asks, if the primary goal of the Enlightenment was a higher state of civilization for all, are we any closer to achieving it today? Forget about what you believe - if you think the human species can ultimately survive, read this book and find out why."
- Jennifer Bardi, editor, The Humanist

"This is the author's personal grand tour of the age of reason, from its pioneers to modern practitioners and beyond: a critique of their methods, successes, and failures; and an examination of the underlying human strengths, weaknesses, and failures that affect the pace and prospects for realizing the Enlightenment vision. He advocates truth, transparency, and the teaching of critical analysis as antidotes to disinformation and propaganda. His optimism is tempered by realism about how long this may take, and by genuine concern whether humankind may have sufficient time to act before the environmental stresses it places on the planet overwhelm its ability to withstand them."
- Goetz K. Oertel, PhD, physicist, astronomer, techno-manager, and president emeritus, Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy

Product Details

Prometheus Books
Publication date:
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6.38(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.88(d)

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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2012 Stuart Jordan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-640-5

Chapter One



The historical eighteenth-century Western Enlightenment was one of the most dramatic epochs in history. Coinciding with a rapid increase in the development of modern science and the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, the democratic ideas of this period were also critical for stimulating the American Revolution. The leading thinkers of the Enlightenment went beyond the arguably more profound theoretical thinkers of the seventeenth century to render ideas that had been developing for the three previous centuries more practicable.

The driving goal of the Enlightenment was based on humanist ethics. All the major thinkers associated with this movement aspired to improve the secular lot of humankind everywhere. Most of them were more interested in action than in abstract philosophy. In order to improve society, they wanted to change it. Some were academic philosophers as well, but their writings bearing directly on the Enlightenment were of a more practical kind, even when rooted in a strong academic tradition. A good example of such a thinker is John Locke in Concerning Civil Government, Second Essay. Voltaire was definitely not an academic philosopher. The first sentence in his farce Zadig reveals his disdain for metaphysics. Both authors had a powerful impact on progressive actions inspired by their writings.

The Enlightenment was the culmination of ideas that developed first in Italian city-states and eventually became widespread among educated Western Europeans during the Renaissance. Renaissance thinkers used extant classical Greek and Roman texts to emulate and eventually to modify classical ideas. In doing so, they rediscovered that secular life "in this world" could be quite attractive. This contrasted to a pessimistic view common during the Middle Ages, when many people believed that humanity had degenerated since the classical era. Widespread acceptance of this dark view made it easy for these same people to believe their only hope lay in personal salvation though the Catholic Church. While historians have noted that this notion of an abrupt transition from "the Dark Ages" to a more optimistic and secular Renaissance is often exaggerated, they also have agreed that there were noticeable differences in how many people, especially the educated, felt about secular life in the later period than they had in the earlier one. The transition from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment was not a smooth one. The Italian city-states that started the Renaissance gradually succumbed to their more powerful neighbors to the north, in spite of Machiavelli's somewhat misunderstood but ruthless recipe for uniting his native country. This failure plus the trial of Galileo eventually reduced the influence of the land that started the Renaissance, while others like the Spanish Netherlands carried on the tradition as the Dutch freed themselves from Spanish domination. The Protestant Reformation ensured that the sixteenth century would be a time of bitter religious strife that was highly destructive for much of Western Europe and disastrous for what would become Germany. These religious wars forced the Catholic Church that was becoming more liberal during the Renaissance (as long as its ecclesiastical authority was not openly challenged) to revert to discouraging all dissent while also implementing needed reforms. The progressive trend that led to the Enlightenment was delayed for more than a century.

Not surprisingly, a major feature of the Enlightenment was its optimism. Not only were the goals revolutionary; many of their proponents believed they were achievable in a not-too-distant future. Nicolas de Condorcet, sometimes called the noble philosopher, is famous for predicting such progress under trying personal circumstances. Not every major Enlightenment figure, including Voltaire, was quite that optimistic, but the general mood of many eighteenth-century thinkers was more optimistic than that of several well-known scholars today, a subject that is discussed in detail in several following chapters. The perfectibility of man is a phrase often associated with the Enlightenment of this formative period. After a long period of worldly pessimism following the classical age in the West, typical Enlightenment thinkers were convinced they saw a bright light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

Another feature of the historical Western Enlightenment was the emphasis Enlightenment thinkers placed on the use of science and reason as the best way to achieve the humanistic goal of a better world for people everywhere. While this goal was based on humanist ethics, science and reason were advocated as the means for realizing the objectives. The Age of Reason is the term frequently used to describe this historical period; and the scientific approach required that empirical evidence, not faith, must be combined with reason to better understand the secular world. The artist Francisco Goya, who was strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, reflected this view in one of the most famous sketches in his Los Caprichos. Loosely translated into English, the long title reads "The sleep of reason produces terrible monsters. But imagination, combined with reason, is the mother of the arts and the source of everything wonderful." Goya was acknowledging what every artist and also what every scientist knows: that imagination is the start of the creative process. He also understood from a passionate and complex personal life that only when imagination is combined with reason, and in science relies exclusively on reliable empirical evidence, can the horrors of uncontrolled irrationality be avoided. Anyone familiar with Goya's famous Black Paintings sees this immediately. The Enlightenment did not disregard the passionate and romantic sides of human life but insisted on understanding and controlling them in a rational manner.

A notable feature of the historical Enlightenment was its anticlericalism. Most Enlightenment thinkers were strongly opposed to ecclesiastical control of government and education. This is sometimes misunderstood today as opposition to all religion. While there were Enlightenment figures who were opposed to all religion—as there are thinkers today—it is wrong to say that this was true of all or probably even the majority. Deism, while denying an active role for a deity in worldly events, was not atheism and was a popular religion among many Enlightenment thinkers, including Voltaire, as well as many of the authors of the Constitution of the United States. While atheism was proclaimed during the most radical phase of the French Revolution, it was not universally popular among the educated even there. Historian J. B. Bury in The Idea of Progress points out that among the supporters of most Enlightenment goals were some clergy, not excluding Catholic clergy whose church lost influence during what was accomplished during this historical period. It would probably be more accurate to say that what most Enlightenment thinkers agreed on was institutional separation of church and state, freedom of conscience, and liberating education from a dogmatic clergy.

Understandably, religious institutions were not always pleased with a reduced role in government, and this was not restricted to the Catholic Church—a situation that persists today and is discussed in greater detail in chapters 7 and 8. Religion has assumed the role of moral provider and arbiter for "the people" through much of history, even while many philosophers were adopting a more secular view of the origin of ethical behavior, a position that is supported today by numerous studies in anthropology. The notion that the gods are believed by the general populace to exist, are useful to the politicians, but are not to be taken literally by the wise goes back further than Seneca. Democrates was arguably a skeptic, and Lucretius certainly was one. It is not unreasonable to assume that every historical society had thinkers who were skeptical of the more dogmatic priestly pronouncements. Yet these skeptics were always vulnerable to religious zealots. Edward Gibbon famously argues in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that civic virtue suffered at the hands of the rising Christianity, some of whose adherents he claimed were often crazy, believed the world would end soon, and even set fire to buildings in Rome to accelerate the process. Nevertheless, the secular spirit continued to develop in the West, in spite of long historical intervals dominated by otherworldly concerns or religious wars.

* * *

Before devoting the rest of this book to an assessment of the Western Enlightenment, a brief digression may be needed to avoid confusion with another usage of the term enlightenment, which has an entirely different historical meaning in the countries of East and South Asia. Although European proponents of the Enlightenment intended their usage of the term to have universal applicability, other thinkers from Asia had developed their own concept of enlightenment that long predated the Western one. Since many contemporary Western students have become familiar with the Eastern usage, and many Eastern students of science in particular have adopted many features of the Western one, it is useful to note the differences.

The more recent Western Enlightenment has from the start been primarily concerned with the welfare of society through improving the lot of individuals. The Eastern usage has been more concerned with the spiritual development of individuals, though the consequences for society are not ignored, especially in the Hindu caste system and the Hinayana Buddhist tradition. Another major difference is the attitude toward secular progress. While not necessarily a religion in the Western sense of the supernatural, these Eastern religious philosophies reveal a generally deeper resignation to fate. Though they may have never become serious competitors in the West to Western religious and philosophical ideas, some German philosophers in the nineteenth century found these Eastern ideas compelling. Pragmatic action-oriented Western thinkers dominated during the Enlightenment and have not been generally receptive to these Eastern ideas since, with notable exceptions. They thought human secular progress was possible, and they were and remain today determined to achieve it.

This does not mean there is no interest in traditional East and South Asian ideas in Western thought. Nor is the reverse true. Just as the West is discovering the cultural depths of these once-misunderstood civilizations, East and South Asia are rushing to embrace science. This is encouraging, since the Western Enlightenment goals were broadly humanistic in principle and global in their intended reach. The synthesis of the best in East and West is something many scholars today think is a good thing, and is a major step toward a more civilized world. Perhaps Rudyard Kipling was wrong to say the twain shall never meet. However, with this brief digression, this book will now concern itself entirely with the Western sense of the Enlightenment.

A more detailed treatment of these non-European philosophies and how they relate to the (Western) Enlightenment is given by humanist author Bill Cooke in A Wealth of Insights: Humanist Thought since the Enlightenment.


Many Western European nations produced thinkers who contributed to the Enlightenment, but most prominent for the ideas that became widespread in the eighteenth century were France and Great Britain. Scotland as well as England contributed, with Scotland enjoying a Scottish Enlightenment associated with David Hume, Adam Smith, and a few enlightened clergy. Nevertheless, France is usually the first country that comes to mind when the Enlightenment is mentioned, and eighteenth-century Paris attracted more thinkers associated with it than any other city in Europe. This is in part thanks to Voltaire, who spent several years in England, came to know many distinguished scholars there, and returned to France greatly impressed with the empirical tradition in English thought, contrasting it to the more theoretical tradition he found in France. Philosophers and several monarchs in other European nations also contributed to or attempted to implement provisions of the Enlightenment. All educated Europeans became enthralled with or threatened by the Enlightenment during the eighteenth century, depending on whether they were progressives or traditionalists.

The distinguishing feature of the Enlightenment in England and Scotland was its practical approach to problems of society, government, and science, often referred to as empiricism, a term used in both formal philosophy and in a less precise manner to denote an experimental approach to problem solving to see what works. The pre-Enlightenment works of Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes were antecedents, but both were revolutionary for their time. Bacon argued the empirical case for science at a time when "natural theology" often still claimed precedence in establishing the laws of nature, while Hobbes offered arguments defending a government sufficiently strong to protect the rights of all from the predations of all, though his view of the government he favored was autocratic by later democratic standards.

British Enlightenment thought came into its own with John Locke's Concerning Civil Government, Second Essay. Locke argued for a democratic system and was one of the first prominent thinkers to make a strong case for a peoples' right to alter their government by any means necessary should it prove repressive of their basic rights to "life, liberty, and property." His work was popular with liberal political leaders in England, but it also had great influence on many leaders of the American Revolution, most notably Thomas Jefferson.

The contributions of Scottish friends David Hume and Adam Smith were equally influential, in philosophy and economics, respectively. Hume reminded scientists, whom he greatly admired, that there was no "metaphysical glue" connecting cause and effect, but that our theories represented only rational conclusions from many observations and experiments. He remained skeptical of causality and induction, while noting that they seemed to work in practice. This position struck a balance that combined a surgical metaphysical skepticism with practical empiricism, but it was nonetheless proscience. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations offered a critique of earlier mercantilism, which overregulated markets, and advocated its replacement with free-market capitalism. This libertarian view has since been challenged by many progressive thinkers today, as the world has become more complex and most products that modern people use are not produced locally. The resulting progressive critique of free-market capitalism is discussed in several of the following chapters. However, few will dispute that Smith's ideas were radical for his time and led to many improvements in economic production. Liberal Scottish Presbyterian clergy also contributed to the Enlightenment. James Madison studied in their tradition in what today is Princeton University and applied some of their democratic ideas into crafting the American Bill of Rights. The Enlightenment in France can be viewed as a discovery of the possibilities for progress offered by science and technology, as well as a reaction to the religious wars of the sixteenth century and the dogmatic hostility between Catholics and Protestants that impelled them. Though writing prior to the Enlightenment, the tolerant views of Michel de Montaigne, who lived during these wars, conveyed a spirit of toleration and reason that underlay the democratic ideals of most prominent Enlightenment thinkers. They also strongly influenced Jefferson and Madison in their determination to achieve a maximum separation of potentially warring religions through an institutional separation of church and state. Writing later during the eighteenth century, Montesquieu explored the proper character of a society's laws, noting the critical role of a country's geography in determining how it could best develop—a view that bears a contemporary resonance with Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel but that still fell short of geographical determinism. Montesquieu was not the most influential of the philosophers in France during the historical Enlightenment, perhaps due to opposition from Voltaire, but his Spirit of the Laws was popular in England and had great influence on the writers of the American Constitution, as noted in the following section of this chapter. The two French thinkers probably most often associated with the historical Enlightenment were Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was the maverick, if judged by the criteria of the Age of Reason, which advocated science and reason as the means of achieving the goal of a better world for people everywhere, a position that the rationalist Voltaire fully supported. Rousseau remained religious, adopted a more passionate stance toward human betterment, and wrote brilliant essays that can be, and have been, interpreted differently by different political movements due to their ambiguity. However, in at least one area Rousseau has had a lasting influence. In Émile, his essay on the education of children, he criticized the traditional education of his day as largely irrelevant to the real interests and proper development of normal children, who need physical as well as mental challenge, are bored with constant memorization, and resent excessive discipline. Because he wrote during the eighteenth century and was influential then as well as later, Rousseau is often considered an Enlightenment thinker, but hardly a typical one.


Excerpted from the ENLIGHTENMENT VISION by STUART JORDAN Copyright © 2012 by Stuart Jordan. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Stuart Jordan (Greenbelt, MD) is a retired senior staff scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and is currently president and board member of the Institute for Science and Human Values. He holds a doctorate in physics and astrophysics and is a Rhodes scholar.

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