How the Enlightenment Has, So Far, Let Us Down

As a child, learning of the Enlightenment, I came to think of it as a revolution. To me, I saw it as a point where our species finally developed a critical tool kit, leading us to empirical evidence and thus a solid basis for understanding. I saw it as a turning point from ancient unfounded thinking to the modern era, leading to the industrial revolution and ultimately all that surrounds us today. I felt pride for our achievements and lucky to have been born in such an enlightened age.

I suspect most people see the Enlightenment in much the same way. However this is entirely wrong.

Yes, a small group of our species turned from philosophical reasoning to the more concrete tools that would develop into scientific methodology which in turn created the technological wonders of recent centuries, but this wasn’t universal.

Even today, in affluent countries where individuals are exposed to greater education than ever before, opinion and reason are simply not given their due weighting. Look for instance at media where the hard won lessons of research compete on even grounds with the cleverly designed opinion of a few and the reader is more often unaware of the absurdity.

How often have I heard, “because I believe in [a favoured holy scripture], I think…” as an opening of an answer to a question about the natural universe as though it were virtuous and sensible.

When one chooses to tackle any alternative to scientific reasoning, from the various alternative medicine ideologies (eg, natural therapy, anti-fluoride, anti-vaccination etc), religion to the popular climate change “scepticism”, one finds the same fundamental problem; faith in an idea that holds little to no empirical grounding. Such belief ultimately rejects reality as it is understood in favour of the unsubstantiated idea.

What’s more, the larger community tends to give them the respect of airing; everyone has an opinion and each opinion deserves a voice.

We don’t honestly believe this as there are many ideas that are abhorrent. For instance, racial discrimination is nowadays increasingly left to pockets of disliked groups to complain about within their sub-communities (I suspect gender preference discrimination will follow the same fate over the coming decades).

Yet where the idea holds no emotional response or social rejection, we fail almost entirely to demand solid evidence for the supposed factual claim as part of its right to airing. The Enlightenment may have provided the conception of modern scientific methodology, but it has not improved the awareness of critical reasoning for the vast majority of our species. We are by and large as drawn to myth and misconception as anyone else beyond the scope of the Enlightenment.

For all the talk, debate and correction one finds within various media in response to a certain falsehood, we achieve meagre returns outside of where doubt already exists within the faithful. The devout remain devout if not even further solidified to their delusions for all the effort undertaken to correct the misinformation.

The emphasis must therefore be on education. Religion has applied this for millennia; knowing all too well faith is more likely ensured if the mind is hijacked at a young age. We must shore up the minds of our youth with dedicated teaching in critical thinking prior to insult of erroneous memes and outright assault from faith. In essence, ensuring our children are not credulous through the provision of a personal critical tool kit – by educating them from a young age how to test an idea (that is, how to think, not what to think) – we are effectively vaccinating them against invasive detrimental memes.

A few generations hence with such dedicated effort and maybe we might be able to come close to the common perception of the Enlightenment.

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