Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now

Lumpy Talbot

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'Events', dear boy, 'events', said the Prime Minister-in-waiting when asked to comment on the unforeseeable. Not all that long before he was evented out of the office he'd coveted for many years.
 


TheCroppyBoy

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It is a good point about the Romantic roots of environmentalism, and has a great deal of truth. Theodore Roosevelt (and others), who preserved so much of the USA in National Parks, were also nationalists and often racists (in our terms).

However, the scientific study of nature comes from a different ancestry. Josiah Wedgewood, pioneer of the Industrial Revolution, had a friend in the Lunar Society called Erasmus Darwin, himself an amateur biologist and doctor. Both men were grandfathers of Charles Darwin, and the Wedgewoods had as much influence on him as the Darwins. He was anti-slavery, like the Wedgewoods, for the whole of his life.

Pretty much modern environmentalism (a love of the natural world + bio-ecological sciences) is indebted to both.

I think it is fair to label the intellectual spirit of the 18th century as "the Enlightenment", and of the 19th century as "the Romantic Era", despite both names containing value judgements. But that does not mean one had a monopoly on the good ideas. The Enlightenment saw the start of scientific racism, while the Romantic Era saw the rise of modern anti-semitism. Both together led to the Holocaust.

Adam Smith may have "invented " capitalism, but it is argued (and I think it is true) that the brand of capitalism we see today is not the same as Adam Smith's. OTOH, Fascism is often typified as Hegel + Le Maistre, and Communism as Hegel + Marx. Hegel being considered a "Romantic", or Idealist philosopher,

If Pinker is saying that the Enlightenment had all the good ideas, and the Romantic Era was full of misguided reactions to them, then he is completely wrong. The history of ideas is much more nuanced than that.

PS I disagree about Science and the Enlightenment, but maybe that is for another day.
There's not much there I don't agree with.

As for bit in bold - yes, that is what he is saying. He is taking the modern world, dividing it into good and bad, and saying that the good comes from the Enlightenment whereas the bad comes from the counter-enlightenment. Romanticism is the earliest manifestation of the latter.
 

Lumpy Talbot

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Just remembered this absolute horror-show of an attempt by two bloody little chancers to redraw history at some corporate function or day-out or day-away or however those warcrimes are referred to these days.

They were getting paid a fee to turn up at such things with a powerpoint presentation they had hoiked together using google. Their revelation was that Important Events in Human History Occur at Evenly Spaced Intervals.

This mini-shower of ludicrous studentry had quite obviously picked say a seven year span going back to the fall of the Berlin Wall (which they neglected to say was foretold in the foretelling). They had then looked up the top news story in every seventh year and triumphantly presented an image of said top news story and the year next to it as if to prove their theory was correct.

Peer-reviewed science it would never be. It wasn't history. It wasn't politics. It wasn't credible. Even the office morons were giving each other sideways looks. I saw them all.

This was anti-history, using evenly spaced dates. Must have gone into some speechless shock because I honestly don't recall clambering to my feet and lunging at the pair of them.
 

owedtojoy

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Excellent post, most newly promoted Sublime One. Serious point though is that the best historians I can think of will note times and dates of course but I'm not sure they would put such things as the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution or indeed the Romantic period in cultural terms in neat boxes labelled by year, decade or century.

The best thing about the study of history from all my wild reading has been that realisation beyond the schoolboy rote learning of dates when this happened or your man won a battle or whatever, but the ebb and flow of dynamics which erupt into events in the human consciousness.

My definition of art as distinct from production would be; 'That activity which seeks to convey, question or comment on the human condition'. Haven't found a work of art yet that falls outside that description, nor have I ever found a template production in manufacturing which fits easily into it.

So adapting that I'm going to say that proper studies in history are 'political dynamics over time where the human collective is conscious of those dynamics'.
I agree - the history of ideas is at least as important as the history of political or military events.
 

Lumpy Talbot

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Yes, the history of ideas is weird because there are things out of time. Exquisite engineering such as the Antikythera machine, the fantastic hydraulic systems of Phoenicia.

The island of Santorini where there are mosaics and wallpaintings which have a three dimensional aspect to the way they are completed which is probably 1500-1700 years or more ahead of the western European switch from one dimensional renderings of people and animals to three dimensional representation. Not sure if I'm explaining that well enough but the history of ideas is sort of jumbled in an interesting way.
 

McTell

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owedtojoy

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Yes, the history of ideas is weird because there are things out of time. Exquisite engineering such as the Antikythera machine, the fantastic hydraulic systems of Phoenicia.

The island of Santorini where there are mosaics and wallpaintings which have a three dimensional aspect to the way they are completed which is probably 1500-1700 years or more ahead of the western European switch from one dimensional renderings of people and animals to three dimensional representation. Not sure if I'm explaining that well enough but the history of ideas is sort of jumbled in an interesting way.
How far ancient science advanced is a fascinating question.
  • Aristotle was the most accomplished scientist of his day, and dissected animals to study their anatomy.
  • Archimedes was a brilliant physicist, comparable in his day to Newton or Einstein. It seems he had a basic understanding of Integral Calculus, using limits of infinite series to calculate areas and volumes.
  • Hero of Alexandria constructed a wind turbine, and a primitive steam engine.
  • Euclid's Geometry was the model for axiomatic systems down to the 19th century, besides having myriad practical applications up to the present.
  • Aristarchus of Samos advanced had a sun-centred model of the Solar System nearly 2,000 years before Copernicus or Galileo.
  • Eratosthenes of Cyrene made an accurate determination of the circumference of the Earth.
  • Epicurean philosophers had a completely materialist conception of the Universe, based on a qualitative concept of the atom, that was not to appear again until the 17th century.
  • Skeptical philosophers of the ancient world opposed dogma, and favoured free enquiry.
  • Roman engineering and military technology was (possibly) the most advanced in the world in its day. Its only rival was the Chinese Han Dynasty.
It is an interesting speculation as to why the Classical World never developed anything like modern science, as it is also true for the Chinese, or the Islamic Civilization that inherited the wisdom of the ancients.
  • One reason has to be slavery, , which made it too easy to fulfil demand for labour-saving and efficiency. The most "efficient" solutions to problems might be to just buy more slaves, not pay some Greek to invent a steam engine.
  • Another was the lack of a decent educational system that could produce an annual crop of eager research students.
  • Another was the haphazard way knowledge was organised, though Roman cities has public libraries, and the Library of Alexandria was famous as the Roman world's top research institute and classifier of knowledge.
  • There would have been an international network of thinkers and writers, but it was thin. Plato's Academy in Athens lasted until the 6th century as the world's leading University. Most of its students were rich aristocrats learning rhetoric.
More basic problems were lack of a proper number system - the concept of the zero came eventually from India, in the middle ages. No simple mathematical notation (no +, - , X or division for example).

And that is before you get to pandemics, barbarians, economic collapse and religious fanaticism. The Muslims may have done for the Library of Alexandria, but the Christians had already made a fair old job of destroying it. The death of Hypatia, a female and one of the last Alexandrine philosopher-scientists, makes gruesome reading.

 

TheCroppyBoy

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How far ancient science advanced is a fascinating question.
  • Aristotle was the most accomplished scientist of his day, and dissected animals to study their anatomy.
  • Archimedes was a brilliant physicist, comparable in his day to Newton or Einstein. It seems he had a basic understanding of Integral Calculus, using limits of infinite series to calculate areas and volumes.
  • Hero of Alexandria constructed a wind turbine, and a primitive steam engine.
  • Euclid's Geometry was the model for axiomatic systems down to the 19th century, besides having myriad practical applications up to the present.
  • Aristarchus of Samos advanced had a sun-centred model of the Solar System nearly 2,000 years before Copernicus or Galileo.
  • Eratosthenes of Cyrene made an accurate determination of the circumference of the Earth.
  • Epicurean philosophers had a completely materialist conception of the Universe, based on a qualitative concept of the atom, that was not to appear again until the 17th century.
  • Skeptical philosophers of the ancient world opposed dogma, and favoured free enquiry.
  • Roman engineering and military technology was (possibly) the most advanced in the world in its day. Its only rival was the Chinese Han Dynasty.
It is an interesting speculation as to why the Classical World never developed anything like modern science, as it is also true for the Chinese, or the Islamic Civilization that inherited the wisdom of the ancients.
  • One reason has to be slavery, , which made it too easy to fulfil demand for labour-saving and efficiency. The most "efficient" solutions to problems might be to just buy more slaves, not pay some Greek to invent a steam engine.
  • Another was the lack of a decent educational system that could produce an annual crop of eager research students.
  • Another was the haphazard way knowledge was organised, though Roman cities has public libraries, and the Library of Alexandria was famous as the Roman world's top research institute and classifier of knowledge.
  • There would have been an international network of thinkers and writers, but it was thin. Plato's Academy in Athens lasted until the 6th century as the world's leading University. Most of its students were rich aristocrats learning rhetoric.
More basic problems were lack of a proper number system - the concept of the zero came eventually from India, in the middle ages. No simple mathematical notation (no +, - , X or division for example).

And that is before you get to pandemics, barbarians, economic collapse and religious fanaticism. The Muslims may have done for the Library of Alexandria, but the Christians had already made a fair old job of destroying it. The death of Hypatia, a female and one of the last Alexandrine philosopher-scientists, makes gruesome reading.

One theory why the classical world didn't develop science fully is they didn't have Christian theology.

The reasoning is as follows; the Ancient Greeks for example saw the world as eternal. They therefore did not see it as being created. This meant that when they thought about the gods and religion, they didn't draw a link with the natural world and how it was created. The gods inhabited this world. This was obviously not the case for Christians, who saw the world and its natural laws as being created by God, who was separate to it. Therefore, science had a religious dimension. To understand the design was to understand the designer.
 

Lumpy Talbot

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Ha ha ha... that old bollocks about xtianity being the driver of western civilisation. Complete rubbish. When the book is written on the rotten, it will be concluded that the RC actively attempted to hinder anything it didn't like.

Which could be summarised as 'anything that didn't emanate from us'.

The ancient Greeks and the Romans long before xtianity had abstract philosophical discussions. They even had religious and secular atheists living alongside each other in far finer fashion than we've ever managed since the Enlightenment.
 

Lumpy Talbot

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Science has never, at any time, had a religious dimension. Religion is by definition aberrant when measured against any rudimentary principle of science.
 

TheCroppyBoy

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My point, to clarify, is that one theory (and it's not my own) as to why ancient science wasn't as successful as later science is that the Christian worldview created more favorable conceptual conditions for science to flourish; namely the idea that the world was designed by a creator and that to understand the design was to understand the creator. That made science more exciting and purposeful than it was for the ancients. It's not that you need that to have science, just that it creates more favourable conditions for it to flourish.
 

Lumpy Talbot

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It did its damnedest to burn those who practised science it didn't like. Which is easily most of it. If we'd never had any religion at all in Europe we'd still have had the same development. Except possibly much faster.

Republic, Democracy, Philosophy, Education. All of these things predate the western xtian church by a long way.
 

owedtojoy

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My point, to clarify, is that one theory (and it's not my own) as to why ancient science wasn't as successful as later science is that the Christian worldview created more favorable conceptual conditions for science to flourish; namely the idea that the world was designed by a creator and that to understand the design was to understand the creator. That made science more exciting and purposeful than it was for the ancients. It's not that you need that to have science, just that it creates more favourable conditions for it to flourish.
Christian theology did act as a sort of midwife for science, but perhaps unintentionally. Some of the best "science" of the Middle Ages went on in monasteries - which were often multi-disciplinary "institutes", acting as hospitals for the sick, refuges for the poor, highly productive farms and libraries. The 12th century saw some advances in medicine, farming technology ( a new plough) and horticulture that were possibly invented and spread by monasteries. The monasteries kept alive the study of Aristotle's work, and the development of logic, all of which were of use to the nascent experimental sciences.

But I am not sure if belief in a Christian God helped. the advance of science. Descartes, Newton and their contemporaries were all believers. Blaise Pascal, inventor of probability, was a Catholic theologian. But science demands naturalistic or materialist explanations, once it veers into an mystical explanations, it is lost.
 

owedtojoy

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My point, to clarify, is that one theory (and it's not my own) as to why ancient science wasn't as successful as later science is that the Christian worldview created more favorable conceptual conditions for science to flourish; namely the idea that the world was designed by a creator and that to understand the design was to understand the creator. That made science more exciting and purposeful than it was for the ancients. It's not that you need that to have science, just that it creates more favourable conditions for it to flourish.
Baruch Spinoza 's, a philosopher from the Netherlands, of Portuguese Jewish extraction, equated God and Nature .... he saw the Universe as a machine where the Laws of Nature were God's Laws and there was no personal intervention by a God. Two hundred years later, when Albert Einstein was asked if he believed in God, he replied "I believe in the God of Spinoza".

Many scientists adopted this pantheistic view.
 

Lumpy Talbot

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Einstein and others like him were always being put on trial by the anti-science religionists. He said a lot of things in response and they all add up to a certain amount of scepticism.
 

owedtojoy

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Einstein and others like him were always being put on trial by the anti-science religionists. He said a lot of things in response and they all add up to a certain amount of scepticism.
Einstein did invoke God many times ... he called him [or her?] "The Old One".

His dismissal of Quantum Mechanics and its probabilistic framework was "God does not play dice with the Universe" - which means that the Universe/ God of Spinoza did not allow stochastic outcomes. Einstein believed there were hidden variables we had not yet discovered. But by the axioms of QM, such hidden variables can be shown not to exist.

There is also Chaos Theory - there are some processes (like the weather, or the economy) that are so complex that even if in theory they are deterministic, the outcomes are so subject to small fluctuations changing the outcome, that they are stochastic for all intents and purposes.

So if there is a God of Spinoza (=Universe), it is something like a roulette wheel!
 


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