The Enlightenment Project

     Copyright © 2006 Bruce W. Hauptli

1. Introduction:

Edward O. Wilson skips from something he calls the "Ionian Enchantment" to "The Enlightenment" in the first 50 pages of his Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.1 What are these "chapters" about; what, in the history of Western thought, came in-between them; and why does Wilson ignore that period?  

the Ancient Greek Period (600 B.C.E.-200 B.C.E.),
the Roman Period (200 B.C.E.-400 C.E.),
the Medieval (400 C.E.-1400 C.E.),
the "Modern" Period [including "The Renaissance" and "The Enlightenment"] (1400-1800 C.E.).

While the "history" is important, we will "begin" with Galileo [1564-1642], who personifies the "Modern" orientation which Wilson is recommending to us.

     When I was a freshman, I read Bertolt Brecht's The Life of Galileo, and last year many of you read it also.  Why was Galileo "locked up" by the inquisition in 1633?  Why is it that it is not until 1992 that Pope John Paul II apologized for the Catholic Church's condemnation of Galileo (note that it takes far less time for the Church to "accept" Darwin—in 1996 [only 142 years after Darwin wrote], the same Pope endorsed evolution as a part of the deity's master plan)?

     Which "side" is Brecht on?  In his "Author's Notes on `The Life of Galileo'," he says:  

the infernal effect of the Great Bomb placed the conflict between Galileo and the authorities of his day in a new, sharper light.2

The present writer heard bus-conductors and sales-girls in the fruit markets express nothing but horror.  This was victory, but there was a bitter savour of defeat about it.  Then came the secretiveness of the politicians and the military about the gigantic source of energy—secrecy which infuriated the intellectuals.  The freedom of research, the exchange of information about discoveries, the international fellowship of scientists were clamped down on by officials who were deeply mistrusted.  Great physicists fled precipitately from the service of their militaristic government....It became a disgrace to discover anything.3

Galileo's crime can be regarded as the `original sin' of modern natural sciences.4

Clearly Brecht is no proponent of the sort of "Project" which E.O. Wilson is commending to your attention!  But I have come not to bury Galileo and the Enlightenment Project, but to explain them!

     The "new" orientation marked by the example of Galileo is illustrated in his "Letters on Sunspots."  In one of his letters on this topic to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615) Galileo says:  

...I think that in discussion of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages, but from sense-experiences and necessary demonstrations; for the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word, the former as the dictate of the Holy Ghost and the latter as the observant executrix of God's commands.  It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned.  But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men.5

Whereas the professors (especially those in theology) at the University of Padua refused to look through Galileo's telescope at the satellites of Jupiter because they knew it could not have any (that would conflict with theological and Aristotelian premises defended by "the Church"), Galileo looked.  The difference here is the presence or absence of an empirical spirit!6 In this contrast we can clearly see the fundamental difference between "Medieval" thinkers and "Modern" thinkers.

     Wilson clearly sides with Galileo's empirical and “modern” spirit.  As we shall see he also adopts Galileo's methodological approach.  Upon reflection, you will recognize that much of our culture, most of our creature comforts, and almost all of our economic prosperity hinge upon this spirit and approach.  In short, contemporary culture and society has a rich vein of the Ionian and Enlightenment enchantments.  To help you understand this, I hope to introduce you to the core characteristics of the Enlightenment project.

2. Core Characteristics of the Enlightenment Project:

As illustrated in the above citation from Galileo, "modern" thinkers held that human beings, unaided by divine revelation or signs could, through the application of their rational abilities, come to understand the basic structure of the world.  This view holds both that the world has a fundamentally rational structure to it, and that we have sufficient rational ability to uncover this structure.  Behind this view is a belief in the fundamental unity of knowledge, which is so important to Wilson that he subtitles his book thus.

     In addition, and as important I think, this "modern" view holds that we will lead better lives if we exercise our rational abilities in uncovering this rational structure.  From Galileo to Wilson, most "modern" thinkers have held to a fundamental belief that as our knowledge becomes both broader and more unified, we will experience continued progress (and they have in mind not only technological progress, but also social, political, and moral progress).  Here we might well appeal to Wilson's discussion of the Marquis de Condorcet [1743-1794] (he calls him "the prophet of progress" on p. 15).  Condorcet's Sketch for A Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind was a marvelous expression of the optimism which characterized the Enlightenment):  

the whole foundation for belief in the natural sciences is this idea, that the general laws directing the phenomena of the universe, known or unknown, are necessary and constant.  Why should this principle be any less true for the development of the intellectual and moral faculties of man than for the other operations of nature?7

The time will therefore come when the sun will shine only on free men who know no other master but their reason; when tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical instruments will exist only in works of history and on the stage; and when we shall think of them learn how to recognize and so to destroy, by force of reason, the first seeds of tyranny and superstition, should they ever dare to reappear amongst us.8

Condorcet while himself a strong supporter of the French Revolution (he was a prominent member of the Assembly), was ultimately forced into hiding by the new authorities.  He wrote his Sketch while in hiding, and when he emerged from hiding, he was arrested and he died in jail before finishing it.

     In addition to a belief in the unity of knowledge and in progress, the Enlightenment Project can be aptly characterized by its methodological orientation.  Galileo and the other "modern" thinkers of his time adhered to a methodology which Wilson will characterize as one of analysis and synthesis:9  

this methodology carefully examines material or natural phenomena trying to break them down into (that is, to reduce them to) their simplest or most basic parts or units, and then it studies how these units combine together to produce more complex phenomena (that is, it tries to synthesize the units.  While Wilson allows that more complex levels may not be wholly reducible to "more fundamental" ones, he states that:
[p. 60] behind the mere smashing of aggregates into smaller pieces lies a deeper agenda that also takes the name of reductionism: to fold the laws and principles of each level of organization into those at more general, hence more fundamental levels.  Its strong form is total consilience, which holds that nature is organized by simple universal laws of physics to which all other laws and principles can eventually be reduced.  This transcendental world view is the light and way for many scientific materialists (I admit to being among them)....10

It is helpful to elaborate on the Enlightenment Project by noting that its methodology adheres to three central tenets: mechanism (or materialism), empiricism, and reductionism.  To understand these three concepts, we might well pay attention to a pair of contrastive terms in each case:

Mechanism vs. Teleology:  
-mechanism is the view that all phenomena may be explained mechanically [by reference to material processes]—present and future events are to be explained in terms of past mechanical events and their [mechanical] consequences.

-teleology, on the other hand, holds that past and present events are to be explained in terms of future events (it is a "goal-oriented" sort of explanation).11  

--A mechanistic explanation my plans for the up-coming labor day will explain then in terms of my past and present characteristics, while a teleological explanation will lay emphasis upon future goals (either my own, or those of other persons or beings)—where these goals are not to be themselves explained in terms of the past and present.

Mechanism vs. Transcendentalism:  

-against mechanism's exclusive emphasis upon the mechanical (or material) world, transcendentalism holds that part of reality is "beyond" the mechanical or material world—that this "transcendent reality" is inherently inexplicable by mechanical explanations and processes.  Note Wilson's (intentional, and ironic) nod in this direction in the above citation!
-The issue here is not a simple one however.  Some contend that there is a basic incompatibility between the Enlightenment Project and religion (though the Enlightenment thinkers themselves, it should be noted, were deeply religious).  Others contend that there is no incompatibility whatsoever between them (that then neither support nor contradict one another).  Finally, some contend that recent developments in science (the “big bang” theory), provide empirical support (or scientific evidence) for a “first cause.”  
--E.O. Wilson, I suppose, is an example of the “incompatibilist” here (those who hold that science and religion ultimately can not both be true)—he would reduce the transcendent to the mundane without remainder (though one could maintain that both were “real” though incompatible with one another).  On his view there is nothing left to be “transcendent.”  Of course there are “incompatibilists” of the other sort—contending that only the transcendent is “real!”

--In his "How The Heavens Go,” Kenneth Woodward suggests, at one point, that religion may “do better” by not “hitching itself to science” (and many scientists would contend that this is definitely true the “other way around”).  As he puts it, “the intention of [the Bible] is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how the heavens go.” 12  Individuals who hold this would maintain that both science and religion might be true, but that they can not be tied together.  Just as the “truths of geology” and the “beauty of the Rocky Mountains” may both be true, but might not be able to be put together into a single overall compatible theory.

--Woodward suggests (along with Jim Holt, in hid “Big Bang Theology"), however, that it could be that the theories are not only compatible but that they support one-another.  Here, however, one must be very careful, and it is overly easy to jump to the wrong sort of conclusion.  Holt offers the following argument:

1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
2) The universe began to exist [there was a big bang].
3) Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence. 13

As Holt notes, however, it is not immediately evident that the conclusion implies that the cause is a deity as characterized by any of the religions. 14

-empiricism holds that our knowledge claims can only be justified by appeal to our perceptual experience of the world.  The natural sciences, of course, are the exemplars of empiricism.

-a priorism holds that our knowledge claims can be justified by reason alone without an appeal to our sensory experience.  Mathematics is the cultural exemplar for the a priorists.

Empiricism vs. Faith In An Authority:  

-many hold, as the example from Galileo above aptly illustrates, that our knowledge must ultimately be premised upon (or justified by appeal to) some "authority."  The development of the methodology which Wilson champions is a long battle wherein the "modern scientifically-oriented thinkers" endeavor to free themselves from the “twin evils” of a priorism and authority, and to hold to only those claims which can be justified by appeal to human sensory experience.

Reductionism vs. Holism:  

-holism is the view that complex systems can only be understood from a systemic perspective.  The effort to break them down into their components can never produce adequate explanations because the "behavior" of the complex system is "supervenient" over the components.  Standard examples which are meant to support such a view include the wetness of water, as well as "life" and "consciousness."

-It is important to note, by the way, that Wilson equates holism with his notion of synthesis, and he here, I believe, misappropriates the term.

Reductionism vs. Skepticism:  

-skeptics are pessimistic or disappointed practitioners of the Enlightenment Project.  They hold that our rational capacities are inadequate to the task of acquiring knowledge of the fundamental rational laws of reality.  Instead of advancing a positive view, they point out that every law, regularity, or rule we uncover is soon replaced by another, and that our claims to know what reality is like, fundamentally, are regularly rescinded as we say: "Well, we thought that...."

I should also point out two different types of reductionism:  

methodological reductionism: the view that one should employ the reductionistic methodology because it will, most likely, engender knowledge and progress.  That is, proponents of this view don't necessarily believe that reductionism will be successful in all areas, or that it is guaranteed to reveal the truth, but, they hold, it is the best available tool which we have for advancing human understanding, and achieving progress.

ontological reductionism: the view that reductionism will expose the truth about the world, that it is the methodology to employ because it will get at the truth.  That is, proponents of this view believe that the reductionist methodology will uncover the basic character of reality because that is how things really are.

     Now we should note that the Enlightenment project has been most successful in the physical sciences.  Indeed, picking up on the worry expressed by Brecht above, I would note that we have been most successfully in employing Wilson's "analytic and synthetic" methodology the further we get from what I will term humanistic concerns.  The worries expressed by Brecht were not unknown to Galileo's contemporaries however.  In his "An Anatomy of the World" (1611), John Donne (1572-1631) says:

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th'earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it….
Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he. 15

This, then, raises the question: are we children of the Enlightenment?  Clearly, the average citizen in the time of Galileo or Condorcet was not!  They wrote, in part, to try and change people's orientation, and Wilson is on the same “crusade” today!  To determine whether you wish to “take up arms” with Wilson, let us recognize some "problems" which confront the "Enlightenment Project."

3. Several Problems for the Project:

There are a number of phenomena which seem to resist reductionism, empiricism, and mechanism.  Among them are:  

Conscious experience and "the self."

Culture and social life.

Values—whether in politics, aesthetics, or morals.


The transcendent.

The meaning of life.

4. Three Citations from Wilson:

Let's think over the following passages in the book in light of this lecture:  

(a) p. 11: "given that human action comprises events of physical causation, why should the social sciences and humanities be impervious to consilience with the natural sciences?"

(b) p. 21: Following Condorcet, Wilson maintains that we are on a "predestined course to a more perfect social order ruled by science and secular philosophy."  If this is the case, then what explains Wilson's efforts to encourage the search for consilience—why even write the book (except for the fact that he has been caused to do so)?

(c) p. 47: Wilson contends that there has been "a zigzagging trajectory of progress.  And in the Darwinian contest of ideas, order always wins, because—simply—that is the way the real world is."  Hasn't he heard of entropy?  If his reductionism is to leave physics at the basis of it all, is Wilson's physics defective?


1 E.O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (N.Y.: Knopf, 1998).   Back

2 Bertolt Brecht, "Author's Notes on `The Life of Galileo'" [1943] in his The Life of Galileo, trans. Desmond Vesey (London: Methuen, 1960), pp. 5-15, p. 8.   Back

3 Ibid., p. 9.   Back

4 Ibid., p. 10.  Back

5 Galileo Galilei, "Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina" [1615], trans. Stillman Drake, in The Philosophy of the 16th and 17th Centuries, ed. Richard H. Popkin (New York: Free Press, 1966), p.62. Back

6 In many ways, Francis Bacon [1561-1626], the founding father of modern science in England at the time of Galileo, would be a better exemplar—Galileo was (along with many of the intellectuals of his era) more a deductivist than an inductivist.  It is standard to use Galileo as the example here, however, and a full discussion of the difference between the deductivists and inductivists takes us too far afield here.  As Wilson notes, Bacon saw science as a systematized study instead of a haphazard enterprise.  In his The Great Instauration [1620] he recommended amassing data, interpreting it judiciously, and conducting experiments.  According to Adolf Grunbaum, he advances an original theory of inductive inference which even John Stuart Mill (writing two hundred and seventy years later) can only add to (cf., Adolf Grunbaum's "Is Falsifiability the Touchstone of Scientific Rationality?  Karl Popper versus Inductivism" in Essays in Memory of Imre Lakatos, eds. R.S. Cohen et. al. [Dordrecht: D.Reidel, 1976], pp. 213-252).  Back

7 Marquis de Condorcet, Sketch for A Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind [post.], trans. J. Barraclough (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1955), pp. 173.  Back

8 Ibid., p. 199.  Back

9 Galileo called this method the “resulto-compositive” method.   Back

10 E.O. Wilson, Consilience, op. cit., p. 60.  Emphasis added to the passage.  Back

11 The contrast is well-stated by Wilber Long in his entry under teleology in Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Dagobert Runes (N.Y.: Philosophical Library, 1960), p. 315.   Back

12 Cf., Kenneth Woodward, “How The Heavens Go,” Newsweek. July 20, 1998.   Back

13 Cf., Jim Holt, “Big Bang Theology, Wilson Quarterly (Winter 1998), pp. 39-41.  Back

14 This is implied by his terse discussion on p. 40.   Back

15 John Donne, "An Anatomy of the World" (1611).  Original Text: John Donne, An anatomy of the world ([W. S.] for S. Macham, 1611).  Cambridge: Roxburghe Club, 1951. B-12 1544 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).  Representative Poetry On-line: Editor, I. Lancashire; Publisher, Web Development Group, Inf. Tech. Services, Univ. of Toronto Lib.  Edition: 3RP 1.183.  © N. J. Endicott and I. Lancashire, Dept. of English (Univ. of Toronto), and Univ. of Toronto Press 1997.  Accessed on-line on 09/03/2002 at  

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