Reading for the Fifth Meeting — THE ENLIGHTENMENT

What do you see when you think of the Enlightenment?

For me, the word — capitalized so grandly — brings to mind a pleasing scene of a group of philosophes sitting outside a Parisian café in the sun.

Their wigs, of various hues, shine in the bright light.

They gesticulate wildly, laugh, slap one another on the backs, raise glasses of wine high, all the while dreaming up a new world.

I can see just see them, can’t you? Slender Voltaire with his wry smile…


Open-faced, balding Diderot, who tapped the intellects of his age to produce his great Encyclopédie


I see the incomparable Montesquieu writing The Spirit of the Laws, and so founding the science of anthropology. I see La Mettrie, penning Man a Machine, and so founding the science of neurobiology.

Then my mind leaps to England and Scotland, and I think of John Locke with his clear prose and unforgettable nose…


I think of the “Scottish Enlightenment” — which has been the most long-lasting — and, at the center of it, the great, fat genius of empiricism (and the philosopher who had the most profound impact on me when I read him at Oxford), David Hume. With his admirer and fellow empiricist Adam Smith not far off, tossing a silver coin in the air.

In literature I think of Swift, Pope, Laurence Stern.

And as an American I can’t leave out Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, the Federalist papers. For the Constitution was truly a product of the Enlightenment. It’s not only a work of brilliant political philosophy (influenced heavily by Locke and Montesquieu), but it’s a hands-on blueprint for the longest lasting experiment in representative government the world has ever known.

What images come to mind for you?


Rising above individuals now… to a higher level of abstraction… I see the light of Reason penetrating everything.

The world, opening up to human beings in a new way.

Now it can be examined naturalistically, through science and rationality.

Universal values emerge. Human rights. The abolition of slavery. Women’s rights. The shackles of religion, racism, dogmas of all kinds… finally thrown off!

Free now, to stand on our own feet, to use our own perception, our own minds.


Benjamin Franklin, braving a lightening storm to bring us light.

That all sounds good, no?


But there is another side to the Enlightnment, of course. (Some of you might have gotten there already as I was busy singing its praises?)


Elevating “reason” at the expense of emotion.



Giving birth to false utopias.

Advancing a cult of “objectivity.”

A dangerous ideology to support the Powers that Be.

Sweet-talking its way to Colonial rule over “primitive” peoples.

Destructive of the old, the intuitive, the unique, the weird, the wonderful, the intuitive, the paradoxical, the inexplicable.

Oh, and despite its claims of turning to nature… quite severed from the natural world.

In short, a dream turned nightmare.


I propose that we tackle this question head-on, don’t you?

Where do you stand? Where do you come out? What is the right use of reason? What threat do you think it poses?

Here are this month’s readings, for your consideration:

I thought we should start with two luminaries of the Enlightenment, as they explore the interaction of European values with other cultures, other lands. In this light (so to speak), I encourage you to read:

1. Denis Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s ‘Voyage’ (click the title for the pdf), and

2. Voltaire’s Candide (you can find a copy, right?)

Both of these works can easily be found online in their French originals.

After that, we are going to turn our attention to the other side of the equation — that is, to critiques of the Enlightenment.

3. Isaiah Berlin, “The Counter-Enlightenment” from Against the Current.

4. Isaiah Berlin again, this time an excerpt from “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West” from The Crooked Timber of Humanity.

5. Excerpts from The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse by Steven D. Smith.

Again, you can click directly on the titles of all except Candide to get the pdfs.

Let me know if you have any trouble.


Remember, make it personal as you read.

And as always, please feel free to write in with other suggestions or questions or comments.

Happy reading and reflecting. See you on the 5th!


On “Building Better Secularists”

In an opinion piece in the New York Times a couple of days ago, the conservative commentator David Brooks wrote of the various challenges arrayed against those of us who choose to live our lives outside of organized religion.

We have a huge mountain to climb, in Mr. Brooks’ estimation.


First, we must construct a personal moral philosophy, all of our own.

Second, we must build communities to support us — and build them from scratch!

Third, we must set aside — and even more difficult, we must keep — a regular time for reflection (in his words, a “Sabbath”).

Finally, we have to find the “moral motivation” to care.

Consistent with the familiar, benevolent, “Who me?” pose of David Brooks, his piece makes every effort to sound fair (“The point is not that secular people should become religious,” etc.). But the impression is leaves is unmistakable…

Why would you do this to yourselves?

Just go with a ready-made religion already!

Choose one, any one, doesn’t matter.

In today’s paper, there were some useful responses from non-believers, questioning some of the premises of his argument.

I have just one response to Mr. Brooks myself. I would suggest that he has left out our biggest advantage over the religious…

The truth.

That’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it?

That’s our base camp.

Let’s keep climbing.

Perspectives on Changing Minds on Science and Religion in the U.S.

by Luis

In our meeting last week, Yann described the paradox observed in the US wherein many political conservatives combine good knowledge of science with completely non-scientific opinions on certain ‘sensitive’ topics. I wanted to know more so via Google I found this sociological study, published precisely on the day of our meeting, on the “perspectives on science and religion in the U.S.”

This article seems to have drawn quite a lot of attention from the media (example here), mainly because of the identification of that paradoxical group, which the authors call “post-secularists”.

I read the article in full and realized that its results are actually quite richer, and can provide insights about how to promote a more scientific mindset in the U.S. I am sending you my observations with you in case you want to share them in your blog.

First of all, the authors identify three groups in the U.S. population based on their attitudes towards science and towards religion. They have called them “traditional”, “moderns” and “post-secularists”. “Post-secularists” are “religious and scientifically literate”. These guys score relatively well in non-controversial scientific questions (e.g. the temperature of the center of the Earth or how to design experiments) but overwhelmingly reject the notion of Big Bang (94% against) or human evolution (97% against). Half of them define themselves as “conservative Protestants” and 84% of them are “non-Latino whites”. They mostly oppose abortion and are slightly more numerous in the South. The study doesn’t say it but it’s not hard to guess what news channel they watch and what party they vote for. I suspect that any debate with such people regarding their ‘touchy’ topics is doomed to fail: they simply refuse to believe anything that contradicts their “superior source of truth”. If the Bible says the Earth is flat, then the Earth is flat and that’s it. Fortunately for us, “post-secularists” are a minority only represent 21% of the US population today.

The group of “traditionals” (i.e. religious and non-scientific) is double the size, at 43% of the population. These folks mostly deny Big Bang too (79%) but they also ignore the existence of natural radioactivity (53%) or that electrons are smaller than atoms (64%). Almost half of them (46%) actually think that the Sun turns around the Earth! They say they are quite religious but nowhere close to the fanaticism of the post-secularists. “Traditionals” are the most racially diverse group: only half of them are non-Latino whites. More than 70% of African-Americans and Latinos are classified here. “Traditionals” rank substantially lower in income and years of education than “moderns” or “post-secularists”, and 60% of them are women. All this actually gives me hope because I tend to think that, with better education and access to science, many “traditionals” could eventually become “moderns” (i.e. those who prefer science to religion as source of ‘truth’). They don’t refuse science because of religion, they just have no idea of what science is or says. Campaigners for science should therefore target minority girls and poor neighborhoods, and make sure that their message is available in Spanish.

Finally, the “moderns” are those who score well in all scientific questions even if they contradict conservative Christian beliefs. This group represents around 36% of the US population, is overwhelmingly White (88%), and slightly more liberal and more male (58%) than average. This is the only group that strongly supports the unconditional right to abortion. Interestingly, atheists/agnostics tend to be classified here but they remain a minority even within this group: only 36%, versus 19% in the overall population. That means that almost two thirds of the “moderns” seem to be able to reconcile their religious affiliation or spirituality with a scientific view of nature. This is another piece of good news for me (even if I am an atheist) because it means that supporters of science need not destroy religiosity in order to impose their views. I suspect that would be doomed to failure anyway, since spirituality is an innate human intuition and feeling. A balance can seemingly be found where scientific mindset and a certain level of spirituality can coexist.

Summing up, if I had to devise a strategy to give science a more prominent role in U.S. minds, I would do the following: 1) promote education and access to science among the poorer communities, especially African-American and Latino; 2) allow religions and spirituality to slowly move their focus to realms beyond the current borders of science, those areas where the scientific method has not yet made many inroads; 3) not waste time trying to persuade the educated religious fanatics, who actively refuse to even challenge their beliefs, but expose and counter their propaganda whenever necessary.

Link to download the original study:

Commentary in The Huffington Post:

More on Values and Science

For almost 300 years now, one of the most widely shared understandings in philosophy has been the distinction between facts and values.

That is, you can’t logically make the leap from a description of the world as it is…

Look, cows in a green field!

to a prescription for a certain relationship between us and that world…

Cows in a green field are good!


Citing David Hume, philosophers will often speak of the is-ought distinction (aka “Hume’s guillotine”).

But like most widely shared understandings of our species… this one is breaking down over time.

Aided by neuroscience and other advances, every day we are learning more about the brain and its relationship to our lived experience. And as we do, we can actually see that some courses of action, some facts in the world, lead to outcomes that most human beings would prefer (if given the choice). Whereas others lead to outcomes that most human beings would reject — for example, behavior which causes a surge in cortisol, which in turn leads to persistent feelings of anxiety and agitation.

In other words, at the level of biology we are finding descriptive statements blurring with prescriptive statements, and vice versa. For example:

 1. You talk to your child rather than spank him.

2 Your child’s limbic system handles conflict without triggering aggression.

3. A lack of unnecessary aggression makes your child (and you!) happier.

Where, in these three statements, did we move from mere facts to values? But we did, didn’t we?

An article I read recently discusses this question — in regards to spanking specifically. Check it out.

I may be wrong, but I have the impression that the author may not realize just how deeply subversive his piece is. For really, how far does it go? You can start with spanking, but you might end up with… what? …a Universal Bill of Rights for Children, saying that some cultures around the world have it right and others wrong? The science isn’t there yet — but in theory it could be, no?

Will science someday be able to tell us whether, in fact, cows in a green field are good? (After all, the question is, ultimately, “How do cows in a green field affect our brains, to our advantage or disadvantage?” And this is, in theory, measurable!)

Two books address this breakdown of Hume’s is-ought distinction more generally:

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, and

The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice and Freedom by Michael Shermer (very recently published — I haven’t read this one yet).

Next month, when we look at the Enlightenment and its dream of “progress,” we will explore some of the strongest critiques of this way of thinking. For of course there is a downside to seeing values as facts. In the last 100 years we learned that all too well from watching the overreach of fanatics like the Nazis and ISIS.

Is there a way around this danger? Are values that are confirmed as facts by science safer than other values? Or is it useful to keep the is-ought distinction, just to keep us doubting ourselves, even if the invention of the functional MRI has made it a relic?