Are We Really So Modern?

For all our technological breakthroughs, we’re still wrestling with the same basic questions as the Enlightenment philosophers.

Modernity cannot be identified with any particular technological or social breakthrough. Rather, it is a subjective condition, a feeling or an intuition that we are in some profound sense different from the people who lived before us.

Modern life, which we tend to think of as an accelerating series of gains in knowledge, wealth, and power over nature, is predicated on a loss: the loss of contact with the past. Depending on your point of view, this can be seen as either a disinheritance or an emancipation; much of modern politics is determined by which side you take on this question.

.. If we are looking for the real origins of the modern world, then, we have to look for the moment when that world was literally disoriented—stripped of its sense of direction. Heliocentrism, the doctrine that the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa, was announced by Copernicus in 1543 and championed by Galileo in the early sixteen-hundreds.

.. Nietzsche is usually classified as a philosopher, Donne as a poet, and Galileo as a scientist. But one of the premises of Anthony Gottlieb’s new book, “The Dream of Enlightenment” (Liveright)—the second installment of his lucid, accessible history of Western philosophy—is that thought cannot be divided according to disciplines in this way.

.. “the history of philosophy is more the history of a sharply inquisitive cast of mind than the history of a sharply defined discipline.

.. in treating the philosophy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it is conventional to cast it as a struggle between “rationalists” and “empiricists.” In this account, everyone from Descartes to Hume is engaged in one long battle over whether truth is to be found “in here,” through strictly logical reasoning on the model of mathematics, or “out there,” through observation of the world.

.. Immanuel Kant, in the late eighteenth century, when he figured out a way to show that both sides were correct, since all perception is necessarily filtered through the categories imposed by our minds.

.. it was because these times were so tumultuous that they were able to think in such a radical way.

Eras in which everything is up for grabs are very rare, and they seem to be highly productive for philosophy. As Gottlieb points out, much of the Western philosophy that still matters to us is the product of just two such eras: Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. and Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries A.D.

.. The discovery of America destroyed established geography, the Reformation destroyed the established Church, and astronomy destroyed the established cosmos. Everything that educated people believed about reality turned out to be an error or, worse, a lie.

.. Perhaps if it were somehow confirmed that, as some thinkers speculate, our universe is actually a simulation run on a computer by an unfathomably advanced intelligent civilization, we would feel an analogous sense of confusion and possibility.

.. the comic playwright Aristophanes, in his play “The Clouds,” portrayed Socrates as discussing questions such as whether a gnat buzzes through its nose or its anus.

.. the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were one of those rare periods when a lot of people cared, because their sense of the world was decomposing so dramatically. Literate people—and, thanks to the printing press, there were more of these than ever before—were eager to hear from philosophers who could give new answers to the ancient questions.

.. To Plato, this could be explained by the fact that the soul had a life before birth in which it learned mathematical truths, so that learning is really a form of remembering.

.. Begin, Descartes wrote, by doubting absolutely everything you know, think, and perceive; assume that it is all delusive, as in a dream. Does anything remain absolutely certain, even after this purge? One thing does, he argued: the fact of my consciousness. If I did not exist as a mind, there would be no “I” to be deceived by appearances. If I think, I must exist—Cogito ergo sum.

.. Descartes would have been disappointed to know that he gave rise to a whole new era of philosophy. He thought that there would not have to be any philosophy after him, since he had solved all the problems; only experimental research would remain.

.. Even today, cognitive scientists struggle to understand how consciousness arises from matter, though few doubt that it does.

.. There could not be two substances in the universe, Spinoza argued, one physical and the other divine, since this involved a logical contradiction. If God and Nature were distinct, then it must be the case that Nature had some qualities that God lacked, and the idea of a supreme being lacking anything was incoherent. It follows that God and Nature are just two names for the same thing, the Being that comprises everything that ever existed or ever will exist.

This radical idea, known as pantheism, has strange and paradoxical results.

.. it says that we ourselves are part of God. On the other hand, an immanent God is not the kind of God who watches over the world, hears prayers, and punishes sinners.

.. He was also much bolder than other philosophers in stating what many of them surely believed, that the Bible was a human document that contained no privileged information about historical events or the nature of divinity. It should therefore be read and studied like any other book, with due attention to the motives of its authors and the errors that had crept in throughout years of transmission. This secular, rational approach to Scripture made Spinoza arguably the father of Biblical criticism.

.. A more unexpected corollary of Spinoza’s pantheism is that it eliminates the possibility of free will, or of contingency of any kind. After all, if everything is God, and God is absolute, then there is no way that anything could happen differently from the way it does.

.. Spinoza’s definition of “blessedness” was “the intellectual love of God,” in which the mind sees the necessity of everything in the world as simply and indubitably as Plato’s slave perceived the necessity of the Pythagorean theorem.

.. Democracy, he argued, was “of all forms of government the most natural, and the most consonant with individual liberty.” He insisted on libertas philosophandi, freedom of thought, and, while he granted that the state had the power to establish the outward forms of religious worship, he adamantly opposed any coercion of conscience. Each person had the right to decide what God was and how best to serve him. Taken together, these beliefs give Spinoza a claim to be considered the first great philosopher of liberal democracy.

.. a Warsaw intellectual who spends his life trying to achieve that superhuman serenity, only to fall humiliatingly in love with his nurse.

.. Where Descartes and Spinoza tried to come to grips with reality through purely deductive logic

.. Locke and Hume valued the evidence of the senses. Their empiricism is often taken to be a peculiarly British kind of virtue

.. We can, of course, trust that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, just as it did yesterday and every day before that. But we can’t prove that it will rise in the same way we can prove that two plus two is four.

.. In Hume’s view, Descartes’s program of demolishing the world through doubt and then rebuilding it through logic is bound to fail. Instead, we have to accept that our knowledge of the world is not absolute, as much as we might like it to be.

.. But we are still living with the problems that these thinkers formulated and tried to solve. We are never quite as modern as we think.