I have proposed the following ideas for a series of public lectures to Professor Nicholas Cronk and Dr Kate Tunstall, directors of the Voltaire Foundation and of the newly created Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment, both based in Oxford.
I gather that the prevailing view in academic circles is that “the Enlightenment” is a historical period quite some way in the past. But my own view is that we are still living in a critical phase of conflict between Enlightenment values and less progressive ones, and that the outcome of that conflict is not preordained.
I would therefore like to see more interest in extending the Enlightenment process into the future. This should of course be regarded as complementary to the academic study of its past.
People who are contemplating giving public lectures on developments and values associated with the Enlightenment and with its parallel processes – the Industrial Revolution and global and Solar System exploration – are very welcome to draw ideas from this list, free of charge. I would however appreciate an expenses-paid invitation to their lecture.
Lecture 1: “The dual modes of monotheistic religion, and the dual responses of Enlightenment thought”
We give a brief survey of the history of monotheism in its Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Zoroastrian, Sikh and other major branches. A few highlights of 17th-18th-century skepticism will include Descartes’ wobbly logic, Voltaire’s ambivalent deism and Baron d’Holbach’s outright atheism.
The balanced Enlightenment attitude to monotheism and other forms of dogmatic belief in things for which there is little or no evidence is clearly as follows: on the one hand, protect people’s right to freely and peaceably believe what they want to, and on the other, protect other people’s right to freely and peaceably criticise those beliefs.
The upshot: religion as a private or recreational practice, with the same cultural status as music, mountain-climbing, theatre and sport, is an acceptable, psychologically valuable and legitimate personal and social activity in an enlightened society. Religion as a political, legal or otherwise coercive force is unacceptable in addition to being economically detrimental, and cannot be part of an enlightened society.
Lecture 2: “The Enlightenment concept of progress in the wake of the turbulent 20th century”
We describe 18th-19th-century concepts of smooth, inevitable progress. The disasters of the 20th century – wars, genocides, famines, technological setbacks (the Titanic, the Hindenburg), the threat of nuclear armageddon, the fear of climate change – together lead to a loss of faith in progress.
But there is also a positive side to the 20th century: technological triumph (penicillin, the jet airliner, the Moon landings, the information revolution), massive growth in population and personal wealth, and Europe and its colonies now joined by Asian countries on the course of accelerating prosperity. The first space probes demonstrate human access to the limitless resources of space.
The upshot is a more realistic view of progress: bumpy rather than smooth, dependent upon skill and luck rather than being an inevitable right, but very real and very much to be striven for, since the alternative can only be regress back to medieval standards of living.
Lecture 3: “The meaning of the 21st-century Enlightenment”
The 18th-century Enlightenment introduced a concept of universal human nature in which all are entitled to reasonable respect and toleration. Over the succeeding 200 years this idea gradually permeated the whole of Western society, with highlights such as the abolition of the slave trade and then of slavery, the extension of the franchise to non-property-owners and to women, civil rights for racial minorities and homosexuals, and the enshrining of human rights in law (notably the US Declaration of Independence, the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union).
But there is a continuing backlash in the form of many assertions of a more local identity based on national or religious separatism. People often find it hard to conceive of their identity as a part of abstract global humanity, and as populations grow so the competition for land, natural resources and energy intensifies, encouraging conflict.
The opening of the space frontier promises the completion of the process of the global unification of humanity. The boundless energy and material resources available in space (particularly solar power) can reduce conflict on Earth by enabling growth beyond the material limitations of one planet. The rise of space tourism will create a growing class of people who have witnessed the sight of Earth as a single planet in its true cosmic context with their own eyes.
The most important Enlightenment project of the 21st century is therefore to ensure large-scale commercial access to space for tourism and energy.
Lecture 4: “Enlightenment and morality”
Some people have raised a major difficulty against accepting a view of life based on human reason, in that at first sight such a view appears to lack any basis for the moral principles on which a society’s laws must be founded. In their view, this is a fatal flaw in the Enlightenment project which can only be made good by religion – by which they mean a selection from one or another ancient works of literature containing a statement of some arbitrary rules of life suitable for governing a small-scale pre-industrial tribal society, and reinterpreted to suit modern conditions which would have been utterly alien to the author of those rules.
In this lecture we first de-mystify the concept of morality. It should not be thought of as a set of eternal moral truths which by definition can only be divinely revealed to humanity. Rather it is any of a number of possible sets of rules for organising a social system. Successful societies are ones which adopt more progressive rules of organisation, and those rules will change as the technological and economic capabilities of that society develop.
It is not necessary to find an absolute or mystical standard of what one “ought” to do – one merely needs to determine whether one wishes to belong to an evolutionarily successful or unsuccessful society, and to recognise that successful ones will over time displace the unsuccessful ones. We might say: this is a doctrine, not of “might equals right”, but of its exact opposite. We might also say that morality and ethics are a part of economics, and not the other way around – obviously, this view is extremely repugnant to anyone who wants to use politics and economics in the pursuit of arbitrary values of their own devising. But nature only recognises evolutionary success and failure.
With this perspective, we may now define a small number (I have identified four*) of general ethical principles from which specific rules for a specific society may be derived, assuming that the society as a whole wishes to be durable and prosperous.
The difficulty of predicting the effects of specific laws requires ethics and legislative committees to exercise both consideration for alternative viewpoints, and critical analysis in evaluating how far specific measures have achieved or failed to achieve social harmony and progress.
* Professors of ethics must excuse my ignorance of the basic laws of ethics. Not being well-read in the scholarly literature, I may have written them down in the wrong order or may have missed some subtle point. But clearly they must have been well discussed and established by now, and I make no claim to being the first to discover them. They must include:
This delicate balance between competition and suffering is obviously a social equivalent to the creative tension between chaotic disorder and inflexible rigidity in the systems which generate emergent complexity and which are studied by chaos theory.
Lecture 5: “Defending and extending Enlightenment values in the 21st century”
The project of replacing state coercion and blindly accepted superstition with tolerance, democracy, kindness, education and reason, begun in the 18th century, is not yet finished. In a number of areas it is still under attack.
The appropriate response to the modern human condition is one of immense optimism at the creative possibilities open to us, tempered with determination not to allow fear, superstition, ignorance or political despotism to put up a road-block in the way of progress, as they have so often in the past.
Lecture 6: “How the 18th-century Enlightenment, the 18th-century Industrial Revolution and the age of terrestrial exploration mutually enabled each other”
The 18th century inaugurated the beginning of modern history in two ways: by spreading enlightened ideas of human reason and reasonableness to one’s fellow humans, and by launching an age of accelerating technological and economic growth. At the same time, it was also a period of accelerating global expansion of European-based civilisation, notably in the voyages of Captain Cook between 1768 and 1779.
Many of the material innovations and geographical discoveries which were necessary for industrialisation and intercontinental travel had appeared earlier in China from the Sung to the Ming periods (roughly 960-1644 CE). Yet the Chinese failed to industrialise in that period because their predominant Confucian ideology was concerned with the suppression of change, which it viewed as disruptive, not progressive.
Similarly, the Christian idea that all men and women were equal before God did not lead to democracy, the abolition of slavery or the introduction of universal human rights in the Christian Roman Empire, because the low level of the economy could not afford these things.
In this lecture we demonstrate how the practical, rational, scientific, progressive and materialistic outlook of the Enlightenment was necessary to allow the Industrial Revolution to take off, and how the material prosperity which the Industrial Revolution created was necessary to allow Enlightenment aspirations for improving human rights and promoting social justice to become reality. We examine how physical expansion over the terrestrial globe paralleled the growth in intellectual confidence exemplified in the great French encyclopedia project, the Encyclopédie.
Lecture 7: “Enlightenment and industrialisation as a key stage in the evolution of intelligent life in the Galaxy”
Over the 3.5 billion years or so that life has existed on Earth, it has evolved many different forms that have colonised all possible ecological niches available on and near the surface. But almost all the natural resources of the astronomical universe, though broadly suitable for supporting life, remain untouched. This is because they are inaccessible from the currently existing biosphere, and also because they are locally present in the wrong proportions and at the wrong temperatures.
There thus exists a vast range of ecological niches which will remain uncolonised unless and until some planet-bound ecology evolves a technological species. For only technology can enable living creatures to access and make use of these abundant resources for their sustenance and growth.
Because all living organisms possess a fundamental propensity to reproduce, the appearance of a technological species capable of spaceflight and large-scale civil engineering in space must be regarded as a central prediction of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, in which Earth’s biosphere is considered as a single super-organism. Obviously, this super-organism can only reproduce once it has acquired interplanetary reach. (This point is due to Lovelock’s collaborator, Michael Allaby.)
The combined intellectual and material revolution which began in the 18th century (see lecture no. 6) has launched a period of human expansion which, provided it is not stopped by natural disaster, nuclear war or the triumph of an extremist and retrogressive political ideology, looks set to complete the transformation of humanity from its pre-industrial stage to a spacefaring one, in which the resources of the Solar System are industrialised, and a permanent and growing extraterrestrial human population takes root in space and on the Moon and Mars.
In the 18th century it was generally believed that the other planets were inhabited. It would be fitting if the result of the intellectual and material revolutions which began in that period was that the other worlds in our Solar System indeed became inhabited.
Lecture 8: “The origin of the human species: by Darwinian evolution or by intelligent design?”
There has recently been much controversy over the teaching of the intelligent design hypothesis as an alternative to conventional scientific neo-Darwinist evolution in the USA.
We first demonstrate that intelligent design is in fact a perfectly respectable scientific hypothesis, because it makes a prediction capable of being refuted by observation.
Intelligent design, by definition, requires a designer-being, and moreover one of extraterrestrial origin. This agent must therefore have a long-standing laboratory either on Earth, or in near-Earth space (including the Moon), and this laboratory must either still be occupied and operational, or have been so within the last quarter of a million years or so, during the time when our own species is thought to have appeared.
Given the number of species on Earth, and the amount of work involved in designing and implementing them, that laboratory will clearly be a substantial facility. Even if the designer (or more likely, designer species) brought its activities to a close and departed from Earth recently in biological time, evidence of this installation must still be traceable, and the same applies to the extensive equipment needed to maintain surveillance of Earth life. If none of this can be found after a reasonable search, then the hypothesis is clearly untenable.
The speculative identification of this designer-being with a character who appears in ancient Jewish writings may or may not help to pin down the discovery of alien artefacts on or in the vicinity of Earth. To date, it appears that this identification has failed to shed any further light on the intelligent design hypothesis, if we discount fanciful ideas of a being which can magically appear and disappear at will.
The teaching of intelligent design alongside Darwinian evolution should be encouraged. When this is done, it will immediately be seen that, whereas neo-Darwinist theory achieves its explanatory results using only clearly observable phenomena, albeit continued over very long periods of time, the intelligent design hypothesis has a number of unresolved problems. Among these are:
In this lecture we demonstrate that the intelligent teaching of intelligent design alongside neo-Darwinian evolution can provide a highly instructive lesson in why some scientific hypotheses are successful, while others are not.
By Stephen Ashworth (e-mail: stephen.ashworth--at--voltaire.ox.ac.uk)
Last revised 14 June 2008 / 39th Apollo Anniversary Year
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