Monday, 24 December 2007

BB2:Does the Enlightenment need an upgrade? Darrin McMahon

12 comments
[This is talk 1, session 1 of 2, first day of The Science Network's Beyond Belief Enlightenment 2.0 conference. An introduction and list of all reviews can be found at BB2: Enlightenment 2.0 Introduction]

Darrin McMahon, Ben Weider Professor of History at Florida State University, is the first of two historians to open the Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0 conference. He was asked to open with a "bomb" and, as the author of "Enemies of the Enlightenment", one could presume that he is well able to do this. The topic he chose for his talk was "Does the Enlightenment need an upgrade?". This is a clear response to the whole idea of the conference of Enlightenment 2.0, maybe Enlightenment 1.0 is still working fine...



The first question is "What is the Enlightenment?" and his initial answer is it is the art of posing questions rather than providing hard and fast answers," a discursive, disputatious theorizing way of life" - some might say the Enlightenment relished throwing bombs. To follow on with this enigmatic point, he then focuses on the French Enlightenment of the 18th century culminating in the French Revolution of 1798 and examines Catholic critics of this "modern philosophy" as it was known then. Indeed their apocalyptic vision, rhetoric and paranoid ranting against, what would later be called, the Enlightenment, was surprisingly prescient: some of their fears were "everywhere philosophy lights discord in the course of war...orders murder, massacre and carnage.. it directs lances and swords at the heads of sovereigns... overturning of alters... " and so on. (Of course amongst their fears that were the result of the French Revolution were some such as "Jews, Protestants and atheists were allowed to vote"). How credible were these claims given how France and the rest of Europe became steeped in revolution, dictatorship and war - is the Enlightenment a "bomb" that its critics claim?

He explores this theme beyond the views of apocalyptic Catholic critics through more sympathetic writers, such as Isiah Berlin, who could still apply similar causes and argument to the rising and evils of the Soviet Union. He ends this survey with left wing writers, Marxists through to the Post Modernists , all criticizing the Enlightenment and claiming that it is totalitarian and responsible for not only the French Revolution, the Terrors, the Bolshevik Revolution and the Gulag (excluding the Marxists here of course) but also the Nazis and the Shoah, that is the Enlightenment is responsible for the greatest ills of modernity - tyranny, racism and imperialism. In spite of these "silly causal claims" he accepts the Enlightenment was disruptive, challenging and revolutionary and that we do need to take these claims seriously.

By contrast, modern and sympathetic views on the Enlightenment emphasize it's moderate character and focuses on the guiding dispositions such as 2to live without fear, to chart our own course..., to subject our most cherished assumptions to criticism, to take nothing on faith". He lists many outcomes of these dispositions such as "reason as the criterion of truth, the reject of supernaturalism and revelation, freedom of expression, secular ethics, democratic republicanism [and sexual freedom]" and so on. These are still radical values to keepers of tradition and can still can be disruptive to such societies, especially those the lack the maturity to take control of their own lives. He concludes by answering that the Enlightenment is still in progress and does not need to be revised, just completed, so the Enlightenment does not need an upgrade.

Unfortunately the way he has presented his case his conclusion is not so much the result of an argument but an unsubstantiated assertion. He does not answer those critics, indeed it is quite unclear whether he thinks that the French Revolution or rather the following the Terrors; the Russian Revolution and the Gulag; the Nazis and the Shoah and so on, are either the outcome of the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment gone wrong, better than what would have occurred without the Enlightenment or another alternative. Now the modern and moderate formulation of the Enlightenment that he makes would reject any of these as part of the Enlightenment and maybe this is the point he implicitly thinks he is making. On the other hand he does take seriously it's disruptive and possibly revolutionary nature, with the implication that there can be some (considerable) cost in such processes.

It is not sufficient just to assert or imply that these events are not part of the Enlightenment. There are at least two problems with this, the first is a version of the No True Scotsman fallacy - as much used by Marxists to avoid the many empirical failures of communism from condemning their theories - they claim it has never actually been tried. The other is hindsight bias and ad hoc reasoning - does the Enlightenment have to learn by its errors in such a horrendous way and has it dealt with all these issues so it really will not happen again? Given this, it seems very difficult to conclude that the Enlightenment is not broken and lets keep it as it is, allowing for some more upheavals but we should carry on anyway.

So can we do better than this? I think we can. If we revisit his moderate modern version with his set of dispositions what they all have together is a worldview. Indeed I would argue, and I think he would agree, that this worldview is very similar to the original Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century. My emphasis is different though. The key elements of this worldview are questioning the world rather than asserting the way it is, questioning the means of questioning the world, and imposing less restraints to give everyone more freedom to explore and express themselves, that is assuming less rather than more. Now deriving the worldviews instantiated in the Bolshevik revolution and the Nazis rise to power and the resultant Gulag and Shoah (and the Terrors in the aftermath of the French Revolution), these three Enlightenment features are all rejected - so none of these are part of an Enlightenment worldview. Instead the wordlview derived from events states such dispositions as do not question the world but accept the way it claimed to be by the new leaders, do not question the leaders, and in order to mold this new world many constraints, at the cost of freedom and lives, needed to be applied. That is, whether they claim it themselves or it is just their critics that call them part of the Enlightenment, they are, in fact, Pseudo-Enlightenment movements.

Now the historical challenge is to see how such Pseudo-Enlightenment movements came about, especially what were the antecedents and how does this relate to Enlightenment principles. To the degree that it is responsible, not in the use of its lingo and ideas, but, in reality, what can we learn to prevent these movements rising again. Indeed, I would argue it is very much by identifying the confusion between the espousal or borrowing of Enlightenment ideas as rhetoric to engage the target group as revolutionaries or equivalent, but specifically without the actual instantiation of these ideas in the relevant institutions and organizations, that one can detect, in advance, dangerous movements, to help nip them in the bud before they wreak havoc on the world. Such an analysis is a suitable task for a historian interested in the Enlightenment...

This analysis leads to the opposite conclusion to McMahon's, that if this is the best attempt at understanding these Pseudo-Enlightenment movements, as I call them, then Enlightenment is in need of revision and, I have hopefully illustrated, we do have the tools and means to successfully upgrade it.

12 comments:

Arcanum said...

Thanks for this series.

I'm not an historian, so forgive what may be naivete in this question: In terms of enlightenment-revolution correlations, would McMahon not have been better advised to look at the reasons that Enlightenment thinking erupted when it did? I should have thought that prevailing (and complex) pressures lead both to philosophe reevaluations and, ultimately, to the spate of revolutions.

I have an unrelated question -- do you have to do anything special to ensure that embedded videos from Google video run? I have had no trouble with YouTube, but google came up with a black screen and I desisted.

martino said...

Hi arcanum

I agree with you and that was more covered in Margaret's following talk. I, too, am no historian and part of the purpose of doing this series is for my own education.

I want to see how far I can get with me view on Enlightenment 2.0 and to revise it in the light of these reviews. So far no-one sees to picking up on my theme, maybe I am mistaken to have it. But then that is my theme! I think Enlightenment 2.0 (should) focus on mistakes and how to avoid them, and classical worldviews focuses on truth and how not to challenge it! Everyone so far seems to be focused on counter-acting religious morality...

On you other question, running this through flock/firefox everything works. Have you look at google video directly? Does it work on your browser - you can find these via the TSN website linked in my introduction post.

Arcanum said...

I have just listened to Margaret's talk again. Since she focussed on actual phenomena and events rather than merely quoting sholarly opinons about the Enlightenment, I wish that she'd had much longer to expand the themes.

I think that BB is a great topic for discussion, though people may not have picked up on it because things are too hectic over Christmas (even for atheists!). The sheer length of the BB2 talks may also have proved daunting for people.

Perhaps you'd get more response by posting a formal invitation for readers to join discussion on the topic. People may have assumed that you were merely posting personal exposition of the theme.

I use Explorer not Firefox as my browser. Google video runs in my browser, but not on my blogger website. I couldn't find any helpful information on Google video, but maybe I need to download Flash.

martino said...

Hi Arcanum.

Thanks for this. I am not quite sure what you mean by a formal invitation do you mean
a) A blog post to make this clear
b) Posting to forms and other blogs, inviting reader to join?

Either way, getting up some steam of the holiday period enables me to both produce some content and to revise and make consistent my style for the rest of the series. For example I have been through two introduction posts, and revised the second and current one today to make some of this clearer. Another example is I am also updating Margaret's review as I did not provide enough critical analysis.

I will make an attempt to publicize this after the NY probably with both (a) and (b) and by that time should have covered most, if not all of session 1 day 1, which will give visitors plenty to explore.

Arcanum said...

I am not quite sure what you mean by a formal invitation do you mean
a) A blog post to make this clear
b) Posting to forms and other blogs, inviting reader to join?

I was thinking the first -- it will show up on planetatheism (which is how I found your post), but b) definitely sounds good too.

One of the bloggers advertizes an "open thread" on his posts.

You said: "I think Enlightenment 2.0 (should) focus on mistakes and how to avoid them, and classical worldviews focuses on truth and how not to challenge it!"

I have not listened to BB1 yet, but Roger Bingham's introduction implies that they might tackle what interests you.

Your plan to post revisions is probably a great idea -- I think that the more posts the more chance of attracting attention and discussion.

If you have time (I'm not trying to be a task-master here!) it might be worthwhile to summarize the panel discussions. Those conversations were really interesting because they highlighted interactive concept analysis rather than merely presenting a fixed viewpoint.

I fixed the Google video problem, btw. I discovered that I have to publish while in 'html' mode - switching to 'compose' mode before publishing toggles the code, removing a vital element. Blog and learn!

martino said...

Hi Arcanum

@martino: "I think Enlightenment 2.0 (should) focus on mistakes and how to avoid them, and classical worldviews focuses on truth and how not to challenge it!"

@arcanum: I have not listened to BB1 yet, but Roger Bingham's introduction implies that they might tackle what interests you.

Of course, this applies to both conferences. I am interested in discovering that my emphasis is often quite different to the speakers, their difference so far being to the detriment of their argument, at least in my view. Both my reports and my critiques are open to criticism, that is what comments can be used for.

@arcanum: Your plan to post revisions is probably a great idea -- I think that the more posts the more chance of attracting attention and discussion.

I think there will be enough posts in volume just reporting on these talks! I have cleaned up typos and minor stylist phrasing to clarify what I have written in all 5 reviews to date but have not republished them.

@arcanum: If you have time (I'm not trying to be a task-master here!) it might be worthwhile to summarize the panel discussions. Those conversations were really interesting because they highlighted interactive concept analysis rather than merely presenting a fixed viewpoint.

I plan to cover these too and also include posts on the inter-talk questions that come up in the sessions themselves.

Congrats on sorting out your google video problem, I think I mis-understood your question but you have solved it anyway! :-)

Arcanum said...

"I am interested in discovering that my emphasis is often quite different to the speakers, their difference so far being to the detriment of their argument, at least in my view."

I take you to mean that the "argument" is for atheism, rationalism, secularism, and humanism.

I went back to the first conference, and have not quite finished listening to its entirety. The discussion after session 9 highlights your point, I think. In that block of speeches, atheists attacked Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett for making comments against religion.

I think that the speakers in both conferences were chosen precisely to evoke argument in the more vernacular sense of the word. I think that the decision was made that a group of 'yes-men' (and women) who are merely reiterating the same position can't be expected to stimulate debate and provoke thought about solutions.

In general, I think that the quality of the speakers was actually rather better at the first conference than the second. This makes me wonder how thin upon the ground truly good speakers might actually be.

The secret to posting google videos is clearly to insert them after first writing the bulk of the post and then publishing while still in html mode. Most people probably do this as a matter of habit, and have not discovered that toggling strips the video address.

martino said...

@arcanum:I take you to mean that the "argument" is for atheism, rationalism, secularism, and humanism.
Specifically not! Mine is an argument for an enlightened wordlview over a classical one, both philosophically in terms of error correction over error denial and empirically - a society organised on enlightenment principles will be measurably better than one organised on classical principles - at least this needs to be shown if not doen already...

The four isms you mention are most likely the preferred products of such a worldview, not the beginning or foundation of such a worldview.

@arcanum: I went back to the first conference, and have not quite finished listening to its entirety. The discussion after session 9 highlights your point, I think. In that block of speeches, atheists attacked Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett for making comments against religion
I wil pursue this conference after finishing this one. The Enlightenment was born partly as an anti-catholic populist movement. Elements of this still remain with anti-religious sentiment, as is obvious in the "New Atheists". My stance is different. See my "harmless versus harmful false beliefs" argument in one of my last reviews.

@arcanum:I think that the speakers in both conferences were chosen precisely to evoke argument in the more vernacular sense of the word. I think that the decision was made that a group of 'yes-men' (and women) who are merely reiterating the same position can't be expected to stimulate debate and provoke thought about solutions.
I agree with all of this and makes my review task more interesting.

@arcanum:In general, I think that the quality of the speakers was actually rather better at the first conference than the second. This makes me wonder how thin upon the ground truly good speakers might actually be.
This might be the case, will see when I review conference one. I quite like this review mode and might make this a new basis for my blog.

@arcanum:The secret to posting google videos is clearly to insert them after first writing the bulk of the post and then publishing while still in html mode. Most people probably do this as a matter of habit, and have not discovered that toggling strips the video address.
Well I am using blogger 2/firefox/flock. I have no difficulty cutting and pasting into compose or html mode and switching back and forth. When I do switch to compose mode it is not displayed but does appear when I go into preview. PS You are using the embed html via the email option from within google video?

Arcanum said...

"Mine is an argument for an enlightened wordlview over a classical one"

Ah, I see what you were saying.

"a society organised on enlightenment principles will be measurably better than one organised on classical principles"

I agree. I did not see what you were saying partly because I think that an enlightened worldview is clearly preferable.

So, when you said, "Everyone so far seems to be focused on counter-acting religious morality..." I take you to mean that rather than focussing toward the enlightened direction, they are focussing against the classical direction.

My guess is that this is the result of the fact that enlightened concepts are scarcely new (even if patchily implemented) but that some religious proponents are actively arguing against enlightenment values. Analogously, if the enemy is attacking the town's fortification, the townspeople are unlikely to devote their energies to painting their houses.

However, since the conference was claiming to be about Enlightenment 2, then proceedings ought to focus on this aspect rather than on Anti-Religion 23.

"I quite like this review mode and might make this a new basis for my blog."

It's a lot of work, but it is certainly a great way to learn.

I left my blog in blogger 1 because I'd lose a lot of modifications by switching. Besides, I've only just become familiar with html coding and didn't want to spend time learning css!

I have been using the html code that the Google video site provides under the "Email - Embed HTML" button and the "Embed HTML" option.

I haven't tried to embed any of BB2because you had already posted the videos, and I linked back to your posts (thinking that it might send commenters your way).

martino said...

@arcanum However, since the conference was claiming to be about Enlightenment 2, then proceedings ought to focus on this aspect rather than on Anti-Religion 23.
Well it is what it is. I think the underlying issue is morality rather than religion although it is taking a while to get there. John Haight's talk is exactly on this and I will publish my review later today.

@arcanum: Analogously, if the enemy is attacking the town's fortification, the townspeople are unlikely to devote their energies to painting their houses.
This conference is about how to make better fortifications rather than paint houses enlightenment 2.0 is about redesigning the fortress :-). The issue has been to take these fortifications too lightly and we realize otherwise now e.g the old enlightenment idea that knowledge will set you free has not worked out as we would like, has it?

@martino: "I quite like this review mode and might make this a new basis for my blog."

@arcanum: It's a lot of work, but it is certainly a great way to learn.

Yes well there are too many blogs ranting about political issues. I know this would make this more popular but I want to try and contribute something original. Plus as I do this I am getting more efficient in my review process. One thing I have learnt is that it is better to have a critical foil rather than just take a skeptical position - at least to come up quickly with a critical response.

Not much to say about blogger 2 as I was never on blogger 1. It does have many nice drag and drop features to avoid html and templates to handle css coding. I have had to do two or three html mods to the template though. Not hard and there are plenty of specialist blogs to tell you exactly what to do.

@arcanum:haven't tried to embed any of BB2because you had already posted the videos, and I linked back to your posts (thinking that it might send commenters your way)
Thanks for this. BTW they switched off the embed html option for BB2 on google video so i have to hack html to put it on my blog.

Arcanum said...

"I think the underlying issue is morality rather than religion."

I suspect that the participants are hoping that generating some kind of scientific justification for enlightened morality will convince the populace that viable moral alternatives exists.

"the old enlightenment idea that knowledge will set you free has not worked out as we would like, has it?"

Sadly, no. I think that anti-intellectualism is worse in America than in Canada, England, or Australia. American conservatives have been taught to distrust expertize, so I think that this basic error in thinking should be the first target.

The rise of American fundamentalism suggests that many people want formulae and not rationality or scientific justifications. Haidt's research indicates that conservatives are highly susceptible to formulaic in-group propaganda.

"it is better to have a critical foil rather than just take a skeptical position"

Excellent point.

The talks are great starting points for research into the topics. Autodidact Heaven!

"they switched off the embed html option for BB2 on google video"

So I discovered later. I wonder why they did that when they have left?/made? BB1 available. Perhaps BB1 was unavailable until BB2 was posted. The Science Network may be wanting to direct traffic to their own website, particulary since they are seeking financial support for their project.

martino said...

@arcanum:So I discovered later. I wonder why they did that when they have left?/made? BB1 available. Perhaps BB1 was unavailable until BB2 was posted. The Science Network may be wanting to direct traffic to their own website, particularly since they are seeking financial support for their project.
There are two solutions:
1. Register your blog under "Share" then you can generate a blog entry from youtube
2. Find the embed html elsewhere - from one of my pages? - look for the embed tags - and then all you need to do is change the docid.