The 18th-century Enlightenment was a time of dramatic progress in both politics and technology.
As well as seeing in American Independence and the French Revolution, the century planted the roots of modern industrial civilisation with the practical application of James Watt's steam engines in Matthew Boulton's factories.
The fundamental principles of the Enlightenment were the overthrow of traditional authorities, both political and religious, by enlightened human reason, and the growing acceptance of the scientific method and of economic growth.
But this process remains incomplete. The rational, liberal-democratic and growth-oriented society which it created is coming under increasing challenges from traditional religion, apocalyptical environmentalism and intellectual pessimism. Fear of the future -- of nuclear weapons, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, environmental disaster, the growth of illiberal ideologies based on tribalism or religionism, global disease epidemics -- looms larger in public debate than any optimistic appreciation of what we can achieve.
The way to restore confidence in human progress is to complete the Enlightenment, by making accessible to the popular mind our true human situation in astronomical space and evolutionary time, revealed by science.
As in the 18th century, the 21st-century Enlightenment will combine technological progress with political progress. The most significant and high-profile area of technological progress at present is spaceflight, and the globalisation of our political institutions and mass media is its social aspect.
This new understanding of the meaning of life and society -- this astronaut's eye view of our planet -- demonstrates that our current problems are due to a single cause:
The predicament of humanity at the present epoch is that we are partway along a series of evolutionary steps from a low-tech level of organisation to a high-tech one.
Summary of Enlightenment themes.
Last revised 22 August 2006 / 37th Apollo Anniversary Year