How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Week 3 Summary for students       

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Week 3: Science (philosophy of science).




1. The Enlightenment and new ways of thinking: #new ways of thinking – a summary.

1.1 Rejection of Bible, tradition, and ‘the ancients’ as sources of knowledge

1.2 Experimental observation, universal reason, logic

1.3 Philosophy & science (metaphysics, epistemology – see below).

1.4 The ‘old world’ of beliefs:

1.4.1 #alchemy, magic

1.4.2 #witchcraft (see also #Easlea)


2. Precursors: #precursors

2.1 three philosophical precursors:

- Bacon: faith separate from reason; empiricism & the scientific method (induction) – the weakness of relying on induction only

- Descartes: the cogito and rationalism, deduction – weaknesses

- Hobbes: deduction + materialism.

2.2 others: #Hooke and Harvey #Kepler                                                                   


3. Enlightenment epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge):

3.1 Locke (also an empiricist) and the mind as tabula rasa: all ideas come from experience #John Locke

3.2 Hume and scepticism #David Hume

3.3 Kant #Immanuel Kant and Leibniz #Leibniz


4. Science (‘natural philosophy’) – its method and development and achievements during the Enlightenment: Sir Isaac Newton

4.1 ‘natural philosophy’ #natural philosophy

4.2 Newton #Sir Isaac Newton

4.3  Newton’s method #method

4.4 the spread of science & some scientific achievements

(Royal Society 1660, (cf France 1666, Berlin 1700, Philadelphia 1768 – Benjamin Franklin) #discoveries

4.5 Science and the French Revolution #revolution


5. A contemporary critique of scientific method/philosophy of science in the 18th c. #critique

- William Blake #Blake


6. Further Reading. #other recent writers on science (more critiques)


6.1 Brian Easlea: nature as female, science as male in 18th century thought (especially Newton) #Brian Easlea

Links to further notes on Brian Easlea: Obituary and Article by Brian Easlea on his love of birds

- the need for a wholistic approach #wholism

- others:

#Brian Appleyard – against reductionism (our minds are not computers)

#Julian Baggini – materialism, truth, scepticism – debate with Lawrence Krauss

#Joanna Bourke – what it means to be human

#Emanuel Derman – scientific ‘laws’ and the paradox that we are free to look for them

#Marcus Gabriel - science is not ultimate knowledge

#Sam Harris - science leads to truth and morality, religion/belief can lead to relativism

#Prof. R.O. Kapp – ‘science versus materialism’

#Jaron Lanier – impact of technology on our lives (Who Owns the Future? Etc)

#Primo Levi – science and the humanities are part of one outlook

#Nicholas Maxwell – knowledge and wisdom – science pursues valuable truth i.e. there is a human dimension

#Carlo Rovelli – Seven Brief Lessons on Physics; also a link to a piece on the usefulness of philosophy (against science) and in the context of Brexit...

#Rupert Sheldrake – consciousness is distinct from matter – challenging conventional science

#Raymond Tallis – opposing ‘currently fashionable atheists’ – we do not have direct knowledge of reality, only of ‘abstractions’.


7. #References 




1. The Enlightenment and new ways of thinking: new sources of authority & a new philosophy: (Source: O’Hara, 2010, ch 1)


A reminder of the key point about Enlightenment: it was an age that developed new beliefs and new reasons/justification for holding them (new philosophical arguments and grounds…).


1.1 Crucially, authority was no longer sought in the Bible, in tradition or other (e.g. classical Greek) authorities, but the individual was free to seek out the truth for him/herself. (See last week: 2.1 humanism).  For example:

- ‘divine right’ was replaced by the social contract (to be dealt with in weeks 8 & 9);

- religious intolerance and civil wars were replaced by toleration (week 5);

- and science was developed as a new kind of authority, replacing tradition and past experts.


Kant puts the case for the rejection of tradition:

(O’Hara p 4): ‘An age cannot bind itself and ordain to put the succeeding one into such a condition that it cannot extend its (at best very occasional) knowledge, purify itself of errors, and progress its general enlightenment’ – i.e. the past cannot bind the future.


1.2 In the Enlightenment, then, the new way of thinking meant that experimental observation, universal reason (i.e. available to all) and logic were more important than past ideas.


1.3 There were also new philosophical ideas about metaphysics (see later – week 5 religion), and about how we know things (philosophy of knowledge, epistemology), but it is important to note that many of these ideas were developments of new ways of thinking that originated in the 16th and 17th centuries (during the Renaissance and the Reformation):


1.4.1 Alchemy and magic declined, according to O’Hara (see Keith Thomas, in Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1983, who wrote of ‘the disenchantment of the world’). Though we do know that Newton and others secretly studied alchemy (see Brian Easlea’s work referred to below #Easlea).


1.4.2 The law against witchcraft was repealed in the 18th century. Note then, that witchcraft had been believed in – practised -  for hundreds of years...


A long and thorough piece by Blake Morrison, Guardian 21.07.12 includes figures for hangings of witches: most trials were in the 17th century – ‘many more witches were put to death before the law against witchcraft in England was finally repealed in 1736’. Addison confessed ‘I believe, in general, that there is such a thing as witchcraft, but can give no credit to any particular instance of it.’ See:  and below: #references Madeline Miller describes the many ‘types’ of witch, and argues that witches transgress norms of female power – and the persecution of witches was ‘entrenched social misogyny, the goal of which was to repress the intellect of women.’ Above all, there were ‘good witches’ who used their knowledge of herbs, healing and midwifery to serve their communities.’ She refers to Matilda Joslyn Gage who wrote ‘Woman, Church and State’ where the good witch was ‘the profoundest thinker, the most advanced scientist of her age.’

In the last decade (despite progress being made by women in the #metoo movement etc) the UN has reported a rise in the killing of ‘witches’ across the world – in India, Saudi Arabia, Ghana – and in the US 21% of people believe in witches...



2. Precursors:


2.1 Three philosophical precursors: (controversies that preceded and pre-occupied the Enlightenment):


Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) had distinguished between faith and reason – faith means trusting the source of a belief, reason means working it out for oneself. Some things (Bacon argued) we cannot work out for ourselves and so need faith e.g. existence of God.

Bacon laid down a set of procedures for what we now call scientific method. He was an empiricist: observation and experiment are used to identify basic facts, from which scientific laws can be deduced.


Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) distinguished between knowledge gained from reason and that gained from the senses. This is connected with his best-known idea: that there is only one thing I can be completely certain of (our senses can deceive us, the real world may be an illusion, other people may not exist…) and that is my thinking self. Hence: cogito ergo sum.


As a result of this way of understanding the world, Descartes and his followers were more interested in reason than in experiment (they were rationalists rather than empiricists – cf. also Hobbes below). Moreover, certainty can only be had by working something out oneself – not with others. His cogito also separated mind from matter, which posed the problem: how do the two interact to get knowledge? Descartes believed in some innate ideas e.g. God, maths, logic and some metaphysical concepts such as identity or substance. (O’Hara p 56)


Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) He said that to build up a theory of politics we must first identify – largely by introspection – a number of basic propositions. From these we then build up more complex statements.

The method, he argued, is much the same as that used in geometry: another instance of how thinkers as we approach the Enlightenment are influenced by maths and science rather than by traditional authorities. Hobbes was a “rationalist”, not an empiricist (cf Bacon above).


Hobbes went so far as to argue that all our feelings and thoughts can be accounted for in terms of movement of some body/bodies (physical entities - an early form of “materialism”).


He used this view of human beings as the basis of his political theory: every individual is driven by the desire to have what they want; this leads to competition between individuals; this competition needs to be regulated by a powerful monarch or small group of rulers.


2.2 Others who contributed to the growth of science:


Robert Hooke: Philip Ball, in: Curiosity: How science became interested in everything – Bodley Head – shows there wasn’t one kind of science in the 17th century, Newton’s maths was good for planetary motion but was no good for chemistry biology or geology. It was also inadequate in study of the very small. Royal Society believed science = measurement, but Robert Hooke thought some things too fuzzy to be precisely measured. The book also shows how much opposition science had to endure – and how all knowledge up til then had been arrived at by practical, skilled craftsmen and the like. Some resisted examining things that were difficult to see/study because God must have meant us not to study them! (Peter Forbes review Guardian 09.06.12).


William Harvey: Thomas Wright, in: Circulation: William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea, Chatto. 1628: De Motu Cordis. Saw the heart as a powerful and robust pump, and this influenced Descartes and the neoteric or mechanistic philosophers – though Harvey rejected their world-view (“did call the Neoterics shitt-breeches”!). Note that the discoveries were mainly made by dissecting live animals without anaesthetic...


Johannes Kepler: 1609 A New Astronomy stated two laws: all planets move in ellipses with the sun as a focus; a planet moves along its orbit in such a manner that it sweeps out equal areas in equal times. 1619: The Harmony of the World: planets emit musical sounds... also third law: the squares of the time taken for planets to orbit are proportional to the cubes of their distances from the sun. This led to Newton – Mathematical Principles of natural Philosophy 1687 – Newton linked the three laws into one law of gravity: two bodies attract each other with a force that is proportional to their mass and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.


3. Enlightenment epistemology:


3.1 Locke.

Both Bacon and Descartes paved the way for another philosopher, who is an important precursor to the Enlightenment: John Locke (1632 – 1704).

For Locke reason enables us to distinguish true from false, and to remove ignorance – he was (in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding 1687) opposed to the existence of innate ideas, and saw the mind as a blank sheet - tabula rasa - on which experience imprints knowledge. He tried to overcome the problem of Cartesian dualism by arguing that all ideas come from experience. Locke’s approach is empiricism (knowledge comes from experience and observation). This, says O’Hara (p 58), is not a flawless philosophy, but it ‘proved fruitful’.


But, as noted above, there is still a problem: if all we have are sensations, in our minds, how do we know about their connection with the outside world? Couldn’t they all be illusions?


However, Locke’s lack of concern for metaphysical issues, and his view that there are limits to what we can be certain about (*), together with the implied separation of experience from reality, did all lead towards (a healthy!) scepticism and tolerance (Three Letters on Toleration 1689).


(*) maths is certain, some aspects of morality may be certain also, but scientific propositions were not certain but very probable, while ideas about space, time, and the real nature of objects are not certain at all.


3.2 Hume.

Scepticism was, however, pushed to its limits by David Hume (1711 – 1776), who argued that our perceptions can never tell us about any laws regulating reality – for example, we cannot prove causality just because event b always follows event a.


Another philosopher whose ideas were influential, especially on Kant, and who could be seen as marking the start of the Enlightenment, (or ‘straddling the beginning of the Enlightenment and the end of the 17th century, as O’Hara puts it) was Gottfried Leibniz (1646 – 1716). His most lasting contributions have been in mathematics, but his metaphysics (we live in the best of possible worlds, since God would not have created an imperfect world) suggested an over-optimistic view of the world, which was ridiculed by Voltaire. (See week 5). He tried to overcome the dualistic logic of Descartes and others with an elaborate theory of ‘monads’, and by arguing that the world exists in the mind of God.   


3.3 Kant (and Leibniz).

It took Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) - who is seen as central to the Enlightenment - to come up with a solution to the problems posed by dualism. However, Kant’s philosophy is ‘fiendishly difficult’ (says O’Hara)!


O’Hara (p 54) summarises Kant’s solution: ‘the world supplies the sensations with which we gain knowledge, but the mind orders them into significant concepts and relations. Causation (for instance) could not be observed; it was imposed on sensation by our mind’s sense-making capabilities.’ We also impose things like space and time on what we perceive – space and time are subjective, they are part of our apparatus of perception (Russell). There are real objects in the world – things ‘in themselves’ – but these are unknowable. They are not in space and time, they are not substances (for Kant). This philosophical position is ‘idealism’ (in opposition to ‘realism’) – but since Kant did not want to deny the existence of real objects entirely, and his formulation is designed to show how we know about reality, it is called ‘transcendental idealism’.


Our minds classify the world, but the knowledge we then have is true ‘a priori’. Apart from space and time, the (12) a priori concepts we have about the world Kant calls ‘categories.’ He divided the ‘categories’ into four groups, i.e.: quantity (unity, plurality, totality), quality (reality, negation, limitation), relation (substance-and-accident, cause-and-effect, reciprocity), modality (possibility, existence, necessity).


‘… our mental constitution is such that they [the categories] are applicable to whatever we experience’ – except things in-themselves (Russell, 1946, p 681). When we try to apply these ‘categories’ to things which are not experienced (such as things in themselves) we find we have ‘antimonies’ or contradictory statements, where both the statement and its opposite are true. For example: the world has a beginning in time – the world has no beginning in time… (more examples at loc cit).


To arrive at the conclusion summarised above, Kant argued that Leibniz had confused different kinds of proposition:


(i) the distinction between ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’ propositions: as Russell puts it (1946, p 679 ff): “an analytic proposition is one in which the predicate is part of the subject, e.g. ‘a tall man is a man’; a synthetic proposition is one that is not analytic. All the propositions that we know only through experience are synthetic”. (But not all synthetic propositions can only be known through experience, which was Leibniz’s view – see below).


While we know the truth or falsity of an analytic proposition through analysing the concepts in it: ‘a tall man is a woman…’  We cannot test a synthetic statement (like ‘Tuesday was a wet day’) simply through analysing the concepts in it.


However, for Kant, Leibniz made a mistake when he argued that all synthetic propositions are known only through experience – in other words there can be statements that are synthetic (not analytic) and a priori…


(ii) Leibniz and others were also confusing the distinction between ‘empirical’ and ‘a priori’ propositions:  “an empirical proposition is one which we cannot know except by the help of sense-perception” - an a priori proposition is one “which, though it may be elicited by experience, is seen, when known, to have a basis other than experience.”  The facts of history and geography (says Russell) and the laws of science are empirical; the propositions of pure maths are a priori. Putting two pebbles together with two more helps [by repeated experience] to understand the general proposition ‘2 + 2 = 4’ - but the process of putting pebbles together cannot lead to a general law: we know the general law a priori…


Whereas Hume argued that causality cannot be known a priori, Kant said that although it is synthetic, it could be known a priori.  Such a statement/concept, along with the propositions of geometry and mathematics are, for Kant, both synthetic [related to experience] and a priori [true by definition of the terms used].


Kant’s formulation seemed to overcome the Cartesian dualism of mind and body, and Leibniz’s idealism, and to allay the scepticism of Hume. However, we will return to Kant to deal with his (to my mind) more important contribution to ethics (week 6).


Leibniz’s contribution to the understanding of time is held (by e.g. Lee Smolin, author of Time Reborn) to be in advance of his time (oops!), and to be preparing for Einstein: Leibniz understood that time is not simply linear, but relational and dynamic – an aspect of change, where change means an alteration in a dynamic network of relationships that define the world. Space also arises from a dynamic of relationships. For Newton, it was as if there was a clock outside the universe that everything is measured by and that would tick whether anything were happening or not...


Leibniz developed binary numbers (that underlie modern computers), and he invented calculus independently of Newton. He was involved in practical aspects of the world as a diplomat, political advisor and librarian. (Saturday Guardian 11.05.13, p. 5). includes Lee Smolin on time...


4. Natural philosophy and its achievements:


4.1 Natural philosophy:

What we now call ‘science’ in the Enlightenment was known as ‘natural philosophy’ – and note how ‘nature/natural’ are key words in the Enlightenment. Natural philosophy involved the investigation of nature by reason.


The Enlightenment view of ‘natural philosophy’ was ‘kick-started’ by Descartes (says O’Hara); Descartes ‘changed the epicentre of philosophical thought away from metaphysics – the study of the nature of reality – to epistemology – the study of how we know things’ (O’hara p 42); and others in the 17th century contributed to our modern understanding of the ‘natural’ world, e.g. Kepler, Galileo, Hooke, Boyle, Harvey. For O’Hara, science in the 17th century was ‘chaotic’…  The 18th century marked a consolidation of science, and in the 19th century science really took off and was widely accepted…


4.2 Sir Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727) was the most influential figure in the scientific Enlightenment. The French were slow to discard Descartes (1596 – 1650) – because their outlook was more ‘rationalist’ than ‘empiricist’. Newton was, philosophically, a ‘realist’ (things do exist in a way which we can know) – in contrast to Kant (above).


Science developed a physical theory, which ‘expunged almost all traces of animism from European thought’ (Porter ? See Flesh in the Age of Reason, 2002). There were clear achievements using this approach, but it also had its critics (see section 5 below).


Astronomy had been dominated by Ptolemaic system, which was supported by the church (and which agreed with Aristotle): this put the earth at the centre of the universe (the geo-centric model).


Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo all either showed this was wrong (and put the sun at the centre – the helio-centric model) or produced alternatives. Galileo was sentenced to house arrest, having been forced to recant (he died in 1642 – about the time that Newton was born). Newton supplied the mathematical calculations that backed up the helio-centric model.


One consequence of the sun-centred theory was to make humans less important in the universe (than if we were at the centre), at the same time implying that we were ‘less interesting’ to God (hence the opposition of the church). On the other hand, if we are not ‘created in the image of God’, then this can be taken as implying that God has less day-to-day control over us. This then freed humans to achieve things for themselves…


Descartes had developed a theory of ‘vortices’ to explain the motions of the planets etc, and his reasoning and calculations actually supported Copernicus’s helio-centric view, but (says O’Hara) there were details that needed to be worked out. Descartes explained the attraction and repulsion of bodies by centrifugal and centripetal forces (a theory that was replaced by Newton’s theory of gravity).


Many astronomers had identified the mathematics of the relationship between the distance between the sun and the planets, and the attraction of the sun, i.e. the inverse square law, but to compute this accurately was too difficult until the calculus was invented by Newton and Leibniz.


Newton’s central contribution was a: theory of motion (all motion), set out in his: Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687). He identified three laws of motion, which have remained as basic to physics ever since – until Einstein. (i) an object continues to move unless a force is applied to it, (ii) the rate of change of momentum is proportional to the force applied, (F = ma: force = mass times acceleration), (iii) every force has an equal and opposite force.

Newton believed that God not only ‘kick-started’ the universe, but would need to intervene too correct imbalances and to supply energy (Outram p 119). Some of his more ‘deist’ followers took his theory as meaning that once the laws of motion were in operation there was no more role for God. Other philosophers felt that this was going too far! (See next week, on religion).  


4.3 Newton’s method:


While Descartes had used metaphysical principles and a priori ideas, Newton combined analysis and synthesis – induction and deduction (as advocated by Bacon) – induced laws, then deduced consequences. He formulated three stages for enquiry:


(i) to create, by reasoning, a system of mathematically-specified definitions, axioms and theorems; ( = deduction, these formulations will be self-evident)


(ii) to interpret this in terms of observable aspects of the real world ( = induction);


(iii) using this interpretation, to compare the deductive consequences of the system to experimental evidence.


Newton’s laws of motion supported Kepler’s ellipses, and then Halley predicted the return of a comet using Newton’s theory and calculations.


Newton didn’t ‘go into detail about what gravity was’ (a rather English refusal to speculate, says O’Hara, which contributed to his ideas not being taken on in France – where metaphysics was more important).


The lack of explanation of the nature of gravity led to criticisms of Newton (e.g. by Huygens) for mysticism – the ‘mechanical philosophy’ had no place for occult forces. Newton himself expressed the view that the idea that gravity was a force ‘innate, inherent and essential to matter’ was ‘an absurdity’ (Easlea, 1980 p 57).


4.4 The spread of scientific knowledge, brief notes on some scientific breakthroughs (from O’Hara ch 7):


In Britain the Royal Society was founded 1660; the equivalent in France in 1666, Berlin in 1700; and in 1768 an American society was formed from the merger of two already existing groups, and the first president of the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge was Benjamin Franklin 1706 – 1790. It was (says O’Hara) a ‘sociable age’, and urbanisation led to people meeting together and discussing the latest discoveries etc. Along with the institutions described, there were private societies, journals, salons etc.


Newton on light.


Electricity: Gray, Dufay, the Leiden jar, Franklin and lightning, Priestley, Cavendish, and Coulomb analysed the characteristics of electricity.

Luigi Galvani and the twitching frog’s leg… Volta: electric current, and the voltaic pile à battery.


Chemistry: Galileo, Hooke, Boyle – phlogiston (Georg Stahl) theory helped study of combustion and related topics, until proved false (replaced by the understanding of oxygen) – Black, Cavendish on the components of air (include ‘combustible gas’) – Priestley and ‘dephlogisticated air’ (oxygen in fact) – Lavoisier, identified oxygen, also found that it was a component of all acids (*) see Postscript on Lavoisier and politics.


The age of the earth – fossils – challenge to James Ussher’s 1650 calculation of 4004 years! E.g. Halley from salt in the sea, Buffon from evolution of species, Lehmann from rock stratification. Abraham Werner suggested the earth was more than a million years old. The Lisbon earthquake was studied as a natural phenomenon.


Biology and medicine:

Linnaeus and classification of living things, Buffon… Hales: how water passed through plants, role of light etc: a mechanical explanation. Descartes had already suggested that animals were machines (humans alone have capacity for thought). De la Mettrie: Man a machine 1747 – goodness = pleasure of the senses, virtue = self-love (‘pursued his version of virtues so far that he died’ !!?? O’Hara p. 126).


The advantage of the new Cartesian approach over the old ‘humours’ theory, (and ‘draining’ to alter the balance of the humours), was that it led to an interest in physical structures, post mortems and dissection – e.g. John Hunter (1728 – 1793) à surgery.


Inoculation (brought from Turkey…) – but not thoroughly understood until later - Jenner (1749 – 1823).


Maths and logic:

Note that Newton had already made enormous strides in mathematics: especially calculus (the mathematics of change – differentiation and integration p 130)…. During the Enlightenment Berkeley actually attacked Newton’s calculus.


Leibniz published the calculus first, and invented much new notation which helped maths to advance (in Britain the followers of Newton were held back by the lack of this new notation).


Thomas Bayes contributed to probability theory, and Leonhard Euler (‘the greatest mathematician of the Enlightenment) created many theorems etc. together with more new notation (p 133).


Euler worked with D’Alembert on the Encyclopedia – note the Enlightenment aim of socially useful knowledge.


French figures include Condorcet and Lazare Carnot – both of whom suffered at the hands of the revolutionary extremists (Condorcet died before being executed, Carnot was deported). (*) See Postscript on Condorcet and politics.


4.5 Science and the French Revolution:


An excellent book, ‘No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine’ by Steve Jones (Little, Brown 2016) shows that scientists such as Lavoisier and Condorcet not only had a broad knowledge of different fields, but were also deeply involved in politics:

-          Lavoisier divided his time each day between science and public affairs. Published his Traite elementaire de chimie in 1789. A wealthy nobleman, friend of Benjamin Franklin, joint discoverer of oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen. His work on refining saltpetre into gunpowder led to a church becoming a refinery for up to 100 tons of saltpetre a day. An armaments festival in 1792 celebrated his centrifuge. But two years later he was accused of selling adulterated tobacco and of profiting from collecting taxes under the old regime – he was then guillotined.

-          - the Marquis de Condorcet a mathematician, permanent secretary of the Academie des Sciences, called for a republic after 1789. A feminist, argued for the extension of the rights of man to women. Was imprisoned during the Terror and found dead – poisoned either by himself or his guards. Didn’t finish a Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind... There is a tomb to him in the Pantheon, but his bones are not there.

-          Marat was also a scientist, researching into electricity, light and heat – and sexually transmitted diseases (!). Translated Newton’s Optics into French, but was not admitted to the Academie under the ancien regime. He became a revolutionary martyr, but after the Terror, which he had done so much to encourage and promote’ his coffin was taken from the Pantheon.

-          Antoine Parmentier introduced the potato...

From a book review by Ruth Scurr, New Statesman 8-14 April 2016.


5. Critiques of scientific method and the philosophy of science:


Blake, reason and the imagination:


A contemporary critic of ‘Newtonian mechanics’ was William Blake (1757 – 1827). Blake saw reason and imagination as two opposed faculties, and imagination is liberating (he also equates the imagination to Jesus), whilst reason imprisons us (reason and law he equated with Satan).


For Blake, Newton omitted God, as well as all those significant emotional and spiritual elements, which cannot be quantified, from his theories. Blake boasted that he had ‘fourfold vision’ while Newton with his ‘single vision’ was as good as asleep. To Blake, Newton, Bacon and Locke with their emphasis on reason were nothing more than ‘the three great teachers of atheism or Satan’s doctrine.’


Note that in Blake’s print Newton is a prisoner of reason, and the light and colour on the left is displaced by darkness on the right…


See also: 'Imagining Other': William Blake.


6. Other recent writers on the nature of science and scientific thinking:


6.1 Nature as ‘female’ and science as ‘male’ – patriarchy and science:


A writer who questions how ‘reason’ has been (mis-)used in science, (and in economics and politics), is Brian Easlea… He argues in Science and Sexual Oppression (1981) that the practice of science (‘natural philosophy’ especially ‘mechanical philosophy’) has been seen as a way for men to control nature – and that nature being seen as female indicates that the new science and patriarchy went hand in hand:


- Newton describes how his pursuit of science is a deliberate attempt to ‘avert’ his thoughts from sex (1981, p 77)


- Locke, Halley, Hooke and others (later Hume) use sexist language concerning nature and science: Isaac Barrow, Newton’s teacher: the aim of natural philosophy is to ‘search Nature out of her concealments, and unfold her dark mysteries’…


- some of this originates in Bacon, (p 84): the ‘experimental philosophy’ would inaugurate the ‘masculine birth of time’ – man could ‘bind her [nature] to your service and make her your slave’ ‘conquer her and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations’ – men should turn their ‘united forces against the Nature of Things, to storm and occupy her castles and strongholds’…


Men seem to have been sexually insecure during this time, Easlea argues, and this is reflected in the way they thought about science.


Roy Porter (reviewing Brian Easlea 1982) says that Easlea is in the tradition of the Romantics, William Blake, Lewis Mumford, Arthur Koestler, Herbert Marcuse, Theodore Roszak. Easlea contextualises the mechanical philosophy, alongside the history of witches, in Witch- hunting, Magic and the New Philosophy, 1980.


On magic: The Book of Magic: from Antiquity to the Enlightenment, by Brian Copenhaver. Book review, by Rowan Williams, New Statesman 18 Dec – 7 Jan 2016: Williams makes some very good points about the links between magic and science, and attempts to distinguish the (my words) fields of knowledge of religion and science. Not sure how successful this is?


6.2 the need for wholism:


I would add that some ecologists also look for a more ‘wholistic’ or organic way of understanding nature, and our place in it.


The problem is, says Porter, that during the Enlightenment ‘the living and spiritual Ptolomaic-Aristotelian cosmology was replaced by the mechanical philosophy, which saw the natural world as essentially inert, dead… governed by regular laws (which were ultimately divinely created).’


One approach to this issue is adopted by those who oppose the ‘mechanistic use of reason’ associated with the particular view of scientific method adopted by e.g. Malthus, Bacon, Newton, Descartes. Instead it is argued that we must adopt a more ‘wholistic’ or ‘organic’ approach. Others, e.g. Fritjof Capra believe there are links to be made with quantum physics to find a better understanding of science (Bookchin, M in Dobson, 1995, p 40).  See: sm8environmental.htm#philosophy and, especially: Notes on green politics


6.3 others (in alphabetical order):


Appleyard, Bryan: The Brain is Wider than the Sky: on reductionism, and why simple solutions don’t work in a complex world.


Reviewed Observer 20.11.11 by Simon Ings: Ings puts Appleyard’s argument that we are influenced by developments in IT to think of ourselves and our brains as similar to computers – and in so doing, we are over-simplifying ourselves, ‘hammering ourselves into reductive boxes. It is wrong to think of the brain as analogous to a computer/complex system: if mere computational power were all that the brain consisted of, then computers would have consciousness and think, and so would the weather!!! The book is very clear at explaining reductionism (alongside describing what an fMRI scan does – i.e. it maps the brain as it functions, but analysis into small elements does not explain how it all works!).


Appleyard’s review of ‘The Kingdom of Speech’ by Tom Wolfe (Cape, 2016, in Sunday Times ‘Culture’ Aug 2016): uses the term ‘cosmogony’ the belief in a universal theory. He notes that the ‘theory of everything’ in physics was promised since the 1980s and is not going to happen. Wolfe applies it to Darwinism, and uses Darwin’s failure to account for language as evidence that Darwinism cannot explain everything.


Julian Baggini, in debate with Lawrence Kraus on whether science can replace philosophy:

Baggini concedes that there is only matter in the universe, but argues that our brains are so complex that it is unlikely that science will ever fully understand them, also that while empirical facts can help to inform moral decisions, ultimately we sort out many of these without recourse simply to facts or logic. Krauss suggests that science has helped sort out e.g. whether homosexuality is right or wrong (it can be shown to be not harmful to evolution, and also prevalent among people etc). He also argues that all ‘why’ questions are really ‘how’ questions, and that we will never know if science can provide all the answers unless we keep trying.


Further references to Baggini: on ‘truth’ Imagining Other: new ways of seeing  and on cynicism: What is Imagining Other?


Bourke, Joanna: What it means to be human:


Derman, Emanuel: The limitations of science, and the paradox (from Schrodinger) of modern/contemporary science: Emanuel Derman, New Scientist 22 Oct 2011, author of Models. Behaving. Badly (Wiley/Freepress) and blogs at : we look for laws of nature – e.g. Newton ‘wrote a few compact principles and equations describing nature to an astonishing degree of accuracy. So... did Einstein, Schrodinger and Paul Dirac, whose famous equation describes the measured properties of electrons to an accuracy of 11 significant figures. (See also recent article on beauty of scientific formulae...) but we are also aware that we are free to look for them (Schrodinger: my body follows mechanical laws, but I know ‘by incontrovertible direct experience’ that I am directing its motions... so I am responsible for it) – ‘to discover [nature’s mechanistic laws] we have to assume that scientists have autonomy [my emphasis], they can tell right from wrong, they are not mechanical beings. In short, to find the laws, we must assume we are not subject to them.’


Gabriel, Marcus: see also, for criticism of view that science is ultimate knowledge: - Gabriel deals with epistemology, and ontology, drawing on post-Kantian ideas e.g. Heidegger, Wittgenstein. Interested in Scepticism. (


Harris, Sam: The Moral Landscape: How Science can Determine Moral Values, Sam Harris (Transworld) – review by Giles Fraser says: Harrris dealt with ‘those with too much faith’ in The End of Faith, now he has a go at those with too little, i.e. moral relativism. Wants to reject view that science does facts à truth, and religion does meaning and values (which must à relativistic respect) – but he ends up (says Fraser) with ‘reheated utilitarianism’ with wellbeing as the goal in place of pleasure. Doesn’t deal with weaknesses of utilitarianism, and seems to want ‘world to be captured by a single philosophy.’


Kapp, Prof. R. O.: Science versus Materialism, – deals e.g. with the argument about angels (dancing on the point of a pin) – in the context of definition of matter as occupying space and being unable to exercise selection, guidance or control of activity (= “discrimination”). Kapp says ‘Anything which discriminates cannot have location.’ (Notes and Queries in Guardian 030512 (David Tompsett).


Lanier, Jaron, 2010: You Are Not a Gadget. Recommended by Ings in the review cited above as being more philosophically sophisticated than Appleyard...

Reviews of Who Owns the Future? By Jaron Lanier And Big Data by V. Mayer-Schonberger and K. Cukler, 03.03.13 The Observer:

Lanier raises important questions (though the style is difficult and it reads like a TED talk) e.g. each new technology produces the potential for manipulating the way we run our lives.


Levi, Primo: author of If This Is a Man (also published as Survival in Auschwitz), and The Periodic Table – he did not (says Siddharta Mukherjee, Saturday Guardian 03.12.11 – ‘My Hero’) separate the sciences from the humanities but combined them into something much bigger than each. Scientific investigation was for him only part of a larger investigation into nature, and, ultimately, human nature.  


Maxwell, Nicholas: (emeritus reader in philosophy of science at University College) From Knowledge to Wisdom…

Wikipedia entry seems useful:


(i) Maxwell wrote an article in the Guardian (in ‘Response’ to a piece by George Monbiot, regretting the gap between scientists and the public) 120310:


Scientists need to explain that the aim of science is not simply to ‘acquire knowledge of truth, [by assessing] claims to knowledge with respect to evidence’ – since physicists will not accept theories that are not unified – that is, ‘that attribute the same laws to all the phenomena to which the theory in question applies’.  This is to assume that there is some kind of underlying unity in nature…


They also need to be more clear about values: the truth that is sought needs to be important or of value – values implicit in the aims of science need to be acknowledged so they can be tested, criticised, improved (since they are ‘problematic’).


Finally, this ‘knowledge of valuable truth is sought so that it may be used by people, ideally to enhance the quality of human life’ – i.e. there is a humanitarian or political dimension.


For scientists to claim that science is simply the pursuit of truth is to ‘seriously misrepresent its real, problematic aims.’


(ii) My thoughts:


The article provoked for me several thoughts about the nature and purpose of science: is there an underlying unity in nature? (shades of Spinoza here… [yes, Wikipedia confirms this!]) Is the author saying that scientists do - or that they should? - produce work if/because it will be of value to human life-quality? Perhaps the problem is that, yes, scientists produce knowledge for human use but they themselves (a) often opt out of questioning the use to which it may be put, either by claiming they are pursuing ‘pure’ science, or by saying ‘it’s not our problem’ when it comes to the applications; (b) and of course when they do recognise the practical implications they – naturally – claim it will be of benefit (whereas the public needs to be able to question these claims).


(iii) A summary (source?) of: "From Knowledge to Wisdom":


Maxwell argues that there is an urgent need, for both intellectual and humanitarian reasons, to bring about a revolution in science and the humanities. The outcome would be a kind of academic inquiry rationally devoted to helping humanity learn how to create a better world. Instead of giving priority to solving problems of knowledge, as at present, academia would devote itself to helping us solve our immense, current global problems – climate change, war, poverty, population growth, pollution of sea, earth and air, destruction of natural habitats and rapid extinction of species, injustice, tyranny, proliferation of armaments, conventional, chemical, biological and nuclear, depletion of natural resources. The basic intellectual aim of inquiry would be to seek and promote wisdom – wisdom being the capacity to realize what is of value in life for oneself and others, thus including knowledge and technological know-how, but much else besides.


(iv) Reviews of the above article:


One very favourable review at:


Other favourable reviews:

- all of which make it clear he is arguing about what science ‘should’ do, against its ‘empiricist’ slant at present.


What Critics Said about the First Edition of "From Knowledge to Wisdom":


“Maxwell is advocating nothing less than a revolution (based on reason, not on religious or Marxist doctrine) in our intellectual goals and methods of inquiry ... There are altogether too many symptoms of malaise in our science-based society for Nicholas Maxwell's diagnosis to be ignored." Professor Christopher Longuet-Higgins, Nature.


“a strong effort is needed if one is to stand back and clearly state the objections to the whole enormous tangle of misconceptions which surround the notion of science to-day. Maxwell has made that effort in this powerful, profound and important book.” Dr. Mary Midgley, University Quarterly.


“The essential idea is really so simple, so transparently right ... It is a profound book, refreshingly unpretentious, and deserves to be read, refined and implemented.” Dr. Stewart Richards, Annals of Science.


“Maxwell's book is a major contribution to current work on the intellectual status and social functions of science ... [It] comes as an enormous breath of fresh air, for here is a philosopher of science with enough backbone to offer root and branch criticism of scientific practices and to call for their reform.” Dr. David Collingridge, Social Studies of Science.


"Maxwell has, I believe, written a very important book which will resonate in the years to come. For those who are not inextricably and cynically locked into the power and career structure of academia with its government-industrial-military connections, this is a book to read, think about, and act on." Dr. Brian Easlea, Journal of Applied Philosophy.


“This book is a provocative and sustained argument for a 'revolution', a call for a 'sweeping, holistic change in the overall aims and methods of institutionalized inquiry and education, from knowledge to wisdom' ... Maxwell offers solid and convincing arguments for the exciting and important thesis that rational research and debate among professionals concerning values and their realization is both possible and ought to be undertaken.” Professor Jeff Foss, Canadian Philosophical Review.


“Wisdom, as Maxwell's own experience shows, has been outlawed from the western academic and intellectual system ... In such a climate, Maxwell's effort to get a hearing on behalf of wisdom is indeed praiseworthy.” Dr. Ziauddin Sardar, Inquiry.


(v) Extract from a letter from Maxwell (Guardian, date?) on the difficulty of reconciling clashing aims and values:


‘we need a new concept of rationality which recognises that when we have problematic or disputed aims, ideals, or values we need to represent them in the form of a hierarchy, so that they get less and less specific and substantial, and so less and less problematic and likely to be disputed, as we go up the hierarchy…


[problematic aims etc can be assessed, debated, and perhaps improved, in the light, in part, of experience, and within this framework of a rational hierarchy of aims etc]


Such a hierarchical concept of rationality, designed to help us improve problematic aims and values as we live, ought to be built into village, national and international politics, into industry, agriculture, finance, media, law, education and even science.’


Finally!!! On Maxwell: having visited a number of sites here’s a comprehensive review of how far we maybe have come in moving from knowledge to wisdom: - and towards the end of this is a section tying together the philosophies of yoga, Montessori, Quakers, Krishnamurti, Gandhi and Steiner!!!


Carlo Rovelli: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – seems to me to show that there are a number of rival theories which don’t fit together and perhaps never will.


A brilliant piece on the usefulness of philosophy today – especially in the light of the Brexit vote:


Sheldrake, Rupert: The Science Delusion: freeing the spirit of enquiry. Reviewed by Mary Midgley, Saturday Guardian 28.01.12:

We cannot use the old (17th century) notion of matter as inert, dead stuff, when trying to understand such mind-body topics as consciousness, the origins of life etc. Sheldrake has long argued for a new paradigm (noting the use of ‘angles’ such as comparing humans to the stars, to machines, and to computers...) and has an interesting idea when he suggests that instead of laws of behaviour we should talk of habits. Materialism has also turned into a kind of anti-Christian ideology, rather than reflecting the true nature of science. Modern physics is dynamic for a start... Intriguing that when Sheldrake challenged scientists to deal with his examples of people knowing they are being stared at from behind, and dogs knowing their owners are on their way home, Wolpert and Dawkins both refused to look at the evidence. This, says Mary Midgley is a good example of the science delusion.


Talliss, Raymond: Aping Mankind - aims to ‘rescue atheism from the currently fashionable atheists’ such as John Gray, Dawkins and Dennett... – they ‘mis-state, elide or conceal the absolute strangeness of being human’. Broadly, these authors say we are no more than computers. Tallis also rejects the religious view of what we are. He examines the two meanings of ‘information’ – one where it is involved with meaning, and the other (used to ‘explain’ ourselves – in my words) where it is digital bits etc. Another process of reduction!! Science cannot explain ‘personhood’.


I am reminded of the notion that ‘The map is not the territory’ taken from Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics: we are limited in what we know by the structure of our nervous system and by the structure of our languages. We do not have direct knowledge of reality but only of ‘abstractions’ – and our language etc (presumably including scientific accounts – especially when these involve metaphors such as ‘the brain is a computer’) may mislead us...


Another book by Tallis, ‘In Defence of Wonder’ is at:


A recent Guardian article by Tallis, with which I whole-heartedly agree: – but reading the comments leads me to wonder why discussion of the points Tallis makes cannot proceed without abuse... It does not claim that philosophy can answer every question or replace science, nor does it say that science is bunk. My interpretation of Tallis is that he believes we need a new paradigm, since science cannot explain certain fundamental features of our experience, and even some aspects of science seem to be inexplicable.


Book of essays: The Mystery of Being Human: God, Freedom and the NHS. Calls himself a secular humanist, and says that we cannot ignore religious feeling ‘Any attempt to do justice to our humanity must take into account religious beliefs: to dismiss something profound and constant in our humanity would be a strange attitude for a humanist.’ Includes an attack on politicians who want to privatise the NHS>


7. References (other than the recommended texts for the WEA course):


Copenhaver, Brian: The Book of Magic: from Antiquity to the Enlightenment.


Easlea, Brian:

            Science and Sexual Repression, Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1981.

            Liberation and the Aims of Science, Sussex University Press 1980 (first published 1973).

            Witch-hunting, Magic and the New Philosophy, Harvester Press 1980.


Obituary for Brian Easlea (1936 – Nov 2012) in the Guardian is at:  


Porter, Roy: Flesh in the Age of Reason, (how the Enlightenment transformed the way we see our bodies and souls) 2002 is reviewed at:


Russell, B. (1946): History of Western Philosophy, Unwin.


Thomas, Keith: Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1983 (Wollaston:  brief review of BBC2 programme on Newton [not Newtown!!])