September 18, 2019
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well when we start talking about the European enlightenment a general question about these ways in which we categorize historical periods and over the last 30 years or so historians have started to ask questions about categories like the Middle Ages the Renaissance of Reformation Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment and the tendencies being to see these as the construction or invention of historians and then the question becomes how useful of these ways of categorizing periods of history and do they help us understand what's going on and I think the reviews of these categories have been mixed so the middle ages we start to ask whether this really makes sense as a period between classical antiquity and the modern period for example we ask was there really a revolution in science and if there was a revolution was a scientific one were there multiple Reformation and when we get to the question of enlightenment I think what historians have tended to say is that there was a view about the Enlightenment say let's call it the 60s of you that saw the Enlightenment is essentially a reaction of reason against authority tradition and religion a view that saw the Enlightenment is essentially a French movement primarily and the key movement that led to the modern world as we know it now since that time I think historians have wanted to some muddy the waters a little bit and to say well actually it's not really that simple that they were in fact multiple Enlightenment's and that there was a French enlightenment and an English in life but it was Scottish enlightened and the German enlightenment and these Enlightenment Tsar characterized in quite different sorts of ways so for example it might be true that in the French enlightenment there was a strong anti religious component and and the the promotion of Reason as the instrument through which we would escape the the powers of religion as it were but if we look across the continent in England we see a rather different story we see an Enlightenment that to some extent was informed by religious concerns and shaped by them and that those concerns in a sense remain part of of the movement so that just gives you an example of how historians have wanted to talk about this how historians wanted to talk generally about historical period ization and what they've had to say about the Enlightenment in particular so if we think about what the key characteristics of the Enlightenment were we think about perhaps some key characteristics that we might see across the board and I think one of them is traditionally it's been conceived to be the the elevation of reason I think we need to add to that experience and and these are actually two quite different things that that the idea that we see in England for example is that reason actually needs to be held in check by our experiences and so for example we have a distinction set up between an experimental experience based approach and a speculative rational approach so English scientists for example were critical of French scientists surveys always over rationalizing and and the problem with the the rationalistic approach to things was that it was insufficiently disciplined by experimentation and experience so if we talk about a key characteristic of the Enlightenment as being reason we need to be very careful and I think we need to qualify that and say well actually it's reason and experience of Reason experiment so I think that's one one key element of it the question then is is reason an experiment of reason experience necessarily opposed for example to religion and I think the answer is no not necessarily in indeed arguably the emphasis on experiment and experience was itself grounded in religious thinkers arguing for the primacy of religious experience and interesting interestingly in 17th century England they talked about experimental religion by which they mean a religion that is based and grounded in experience and this too sometimes sometimes that this this experience based religion is opposed to speculative religion or religion based on Authority but the general point I want to make here is that to elevate experience and experiment is not necessarily to promote a view that's anti religious indeed I think in the specific case of England it's promoted by what is initially at least an approach to religion now other other elements of what we might call the Enlightenment so reason and experience as opposed to Authority a belief in progress I think is a key part of enlightenment across the board and this is a belief that we can actually do better than the ancients so I think up until the 17th century there was a strong belief in the superiority of the ancients in all of the disciplines across the board so the literary disciplines the philosophical disciplines the scientific disciplines and in the 17th century people first start to think hey maybe we can actually do better and move beyond what it was that the ancients had come up with and so I think progress would be another characteristic of Enlightenment's right across the board and then I think the third thing we can say is that there's a tendency to to move religion into the sphere into the private sphere to some extent but also a tendency to emphasize the role of Reason in establishing and warranting religious beliefs so a move to a rational religion is it's a very conspicuous feature of the English enlightenment I think but if we ask what is the what happens in the Enlightenment to religion I think a couple of things and one is an attempt to show the rational foundations of religion becomes very important but also an increasing tendency to move religion into the private sphere because religion in the wake of the Wars of Religion that ravaged Europe is perceived to be potentially potentially dangerous for social stability and peace if it's not adequately controlled well if we think about another historical period ization scheme the Scientific Revolution is a key one and the Scientific Revolution is typically thought to have started around say Copernicus and finishing up with Newton and we see an enormous change in what people think about the physical universe at this period and arguably at this time we see the foundations of modern science being laid and some of the key figures in this movement probably not Copernicus himself but Galileo who establishes the the Copernican theory that the the earth moves around the Sun and not vice versa Descartes the French philosopher scientist is a key figure a 17th century figure Isaac Newton of course who comes up with the the universal law of gravitation and a Robert Boyle another Englishman who's and he's a key figure in establishing the new matter theory and the new experimental approach to knowledge and I can put in perhaps one final name there Francis Bacon who was very important not as a practicing scientist so much but as someone who establishes the methods on which science should operate now if we take someone like Descartes for example and Descartes makes a number of key contributions we tend to think of Descartes often as a philosopher who came up with the famous cogito and and who sits out philosophical arguments for you know why I exist in why God exists and so on but actually Descartes was really more like a practicing scientist whose philosophy comes later to justify his scientific activities Descartes I think is a key figure in us in establishing first of all an atomic matter theory that matter is made up of particles a mechanical view of the universe the universe is like a vast machine and Descartes also comes up with it a crucial idea for modern science that we should be looking for laws of nature and Descartes says that explicitly says that laws of nature are not so much inherent in in the cosmos itself but that laws of nature are actually divine commands that God has commanded nature actually to run in particular rational mathematical patterns and this was a very new view compared to the Aristotelian system which it replaced so before the the 16th and 17th centuries the view of Aristotle that had had persisted in the medieval universities was that the order of the universe was an inherent order and that natural things had inbuilt tendencies to move in particular ways towards certain ends or goals and one of the characteristics of the new science championed by Descartes is to say actually know things do not have inherent tendencies there are no goals there is no teleology to give it the label there are no final causes now if that's the case what makes things run what makes things operate well what makes them run is essentially matter and motion but not just random matter and motion but matter and motion according to particular laws and for Descartes there are universal and immutable laws of nature and as he says quite explicitly they derive the immutability and and their universality from God who is there the infinite and and universally powerful author so you have there a strong theological premise for one of the key ideas of the Scientific Revolution that that what we're now looking for are not inherent causes but we're looking for mathematical laws and of course it's it's a Newton who really then represents the fulfillment of this idea of laws of nature coming up with his classic three laws that unify motion in the heavens and and terrestrial motions and give them mathematical expressions and again Newton of course deeply imbued with theology and in fact if we count the words that Newton wrote he wrote many more words on theological topics than he did on scientific topics and famously said that that one of the the central not one of the central features but one of the important elements of a scientific approach is that it points to the first cause who is God so if we think about the Scientific Revolution one of the standard ways I think of thinking about the philosophical thought of the 17th and 18th centuries when all of the scientific change is going on is to draw a distinction between rationalism and empiricism and here the idea is that some people focus on reason and Descartes is typically taken as exemplifying this view Descartes a Spinoza and Leibniz on the continent and the empirical or experience based approach is seen to be typically British and here the the trilogy is Locke Berkeley and and Hume now this is partly true but like all of these schema ties ations it's an oversimplification but I think what's interesting are the different theological assumptions that inform this distinction and for a thinker like Descartes he had faith in what he called the light of nature which was his word for reason and this was a god-given light that he said we can trust our reason because it's a god-given property but over the over the channel in the continent there's suspicion about reason and this again is grounded in a particular theological view the view that human beings have fallen away from their original perfection and as a consequence of this so the argument went we can't trust either our rational faculties or our sensory abilities both of these are imperfect and they give us distorted views of the universe so the argument went there that we're asked to think alike Aristotle who had known nothing about this Christian doctrine of the fall he had a very common-sense approach to the natural world and thought that basically our rational intuitions and our our observations about nature they're basically on track but if you buy into the idea that there's an imperfection in reason and there's an imperfection to the senses then you need to interrogate much more closely both what our reason tells us and what our senses tell us and in essence the experimental approach to the natural world which says we need to interrogate nature under very specific conditions we need to do it repeatedly we need to have large bodies of individuals involved all of this is really based on a theologically motivated skepticism and so if we think back to our theme about the environment as in a sense the triumph of Reason actually what we see in England is a deep skepticism about what reason can tell us and that the Scientific Revolution insofar as it's based on an experimental approach to nature is actually deeply skeptical about what it is that reason can deliver so if we say a little bit more about in life religion as I said there is a tendency to rationalize religion and to provide rational support for religion I think this happens you know in a couple of ways there's a distinction made between internal and external evidences and the internal evidence that essentially what we know is the arguments for the existence of God now these had been around for a long time and famously aquinas as Fiveways but if we think about the role they play in aquinas as thought actually it's very minimal and in a vast work like the Summa theologia the five ways take up a couple of pages but these arguments become very important in the 17th century because they seem to establish the rational grounds of religion and part of what's important in the movement here is that science itself as its developing steps into the role of helping provide arguments for the existence of God because what scientists or natural philosophers as they call themselves then what they argue that they're on about is establishing the rationality the rational order that's present in the universe and for many of them not all of them but for many of them this points to the divine origins of the universe and so becomes an argument for the existence of God so the design argument does become an important part of enlightenment religion so that that makes up the internal evidences now the external evidences for religion are to do with the specific truths of the Christian faith that go beyond simply belief in God and life after death and immortality so specific Christian doctrines like Trinity and incarnation which don't seem to be easily established by the general arguments for the existence of God and the argument for these goes something like this that the tradition that we hear about that testifies to the the Trinity in the nation is attested to by miracles so that Jesus performs miracles these serve as signs or evidences for his divine mission and therefore we can be assured that the the tradition of which he is a part is true and the the other aspect of external evidences was fulfilled prophecies so so the fact that prophecies are made within this revealed tradition and are fulfilled serves as a warrant for believing that that particular tradition is true so so the rationality of religion becomes a key feature of enlightened religion and in a way that wasn't true I think to the same extent for for medieval faith now of course what also happens at the same time if we think about developments in the 18th century confirming Newton's law that for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction there are reactions against the over rationalization of religion so I think German Pietism would be an example John Wesley's emphasis on on and on a felt religion and this gets us back to the theme of experience religion as also being a key and that again the necessity of keeping reason and experience in balance in a sense of represented in these two features of enlightened religion first of all the emphasis on the rational religion I mean what we see historically a reaction against this to some degree to emphasize the importance of an inner you know heartfelt religion if you like so the people who involved in the rationalization of religion I think very often they are associated with the new science and and what we see happening I think is a very strong partnership between a new developing science and people interested in promoting rational arguments for the existence of God now sometimes it's thought that this is the use of science for religious apologetics as it were that science is being appropriated to make a rational case for Christianity and that's partly true but we also need to recall that science itself at this time is in need of social legitimation and so that thus the science of the 17th century is not the science of the 20th century or the 21st century I should say where it's an established fact of life and we know its authority in we we concede its authority readily so the question for the status of science in the 17th century is how do we establish it social legitimacy so the pattern in England in particular is that science establishes its social legitimacy by proving its religious usefulness that is to say that it plays a key role in establishing the existence of God by showing that the world runs on rational laws and those evidence of design in the world and there's evidence of a first cause in the world and that the new science has established this you

Jean Kelley



  1. Emily Morales Posted on June 13, 2019 at 9:38 am

    I so appreciate his scholarship. Just picked up a second book of his, “The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science,” wow, what a well-researched and technical read!

  2. Laymen Apologetics and Theology Institute Posted on June 13, 2019 at 9:38 am