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Enlightenment needs criticism

The scientific revolution was part of a wider intellectual revolution, the Enlightenment, which also brought progress in other fields, especially moral and political philosophy, and in the institutions of society. Unfortunately, the term ‘the Enlightenment’ is used by historians and philosophers to denote a variety of different trends, some of them violently opposed to each other. What I mean by it will emerge here as we go along. It is one of several aspects of ‘the beginning of infinity’, and is a theme of this book. But one thing that all conceptions of the Enlightenment agree on is that it was a rebellion, and specifically a rebellion against authority in regard to knowledge.

Rejecting authority in regard to knowledge was not just a matter of abstract analysis. It was a necessary condition for progress, because, before the Enlightenment, it was generally believed that everything important that was knowable had already been discovered, and was enshrined in authoritative sources such as ancient writings and traditional assumptions. Some of those sources did contain some genuine knowledge, but it was entrenched in the form of dogmas along with many falsehoods. So the situation was that all the sources from which it was generally believed knowledge came actually knew very little, and were mistaken about most of the things that they claimed to know. And therefore progress depended on learning how to reject their authority. This is why the Royal Society (one of the earliest scientific academies, founded in London in 1660) took as its motto ‘Nullius in verba’, which means something like ‘Take no one’s word for it.’

However, rebellion against authority cannot by itself be what made the difference. Authorities have been rejected many times in history, and only rarely has any lasting good come of it. The usual sequel has merely been that new authorities replaced the old. What was needed for the sustained, rapid growth of knowledge was a tradition of criticism. Before the Enlightenment, that was a very rare sort of tradition: usually the whole point of a tradition was to keep things the same.

Thus the Enlightenment was a revolution in how people sought knowledge: by trying not to rely on authority. That is the context in which empiricism – purporting to rely solely on the senses for knowledge – played such a salutary historical role, despite being fundamentally false and even authoritative in its of conception of how science works.

One consequence of this tradition of criticism was the emergence of a methodological rule that a scientific theory must be testable (though this was not made explicit at first). That is to say, the theory must make predictions which, if the theory were false, could be contradicted by the outcome of some possible observation. Thus, although scientific theo­ries are not derived from expericence, they can be tested by experience – by observation or experiment. [12-13]

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