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On the New Enlightenment: How to live "scientifically"

Many respect science and are ready to use it for practical needs - but do not adopt the scientific approach as a guiding principle for life and thought. Philosopher Yosef Agassi explains what this scientific approach is, how it developed and what its implications are for politics and faith

Prof. Yosef Agassi. From Wikipedia
Prof. Yosef Agassi. From Wikipedia

Yosef Agassi, "Galileo"

Today, science in Israel enjoys great prestige, but not the scientific culture: many here recognize the practical value of science, but they have no interest in the scientific worldview, the lifestyle accepted by scientists, the opinions and ideas published in the science-friendly press, and the like.

All this folds in the scientific worldview. The difference between someone who advocates the scientific worldview and someone who respects science but has no interest in science is very clear: imagine a person who respects science and advocates Zionism, for example, or socialism, or the idea of ​​equal rights and duties between women and men, or some other idea, which he does not think of To ask, what does science say about Zionism, or socialism, or equality between women and men.

This person does not advocate the idea of ​​enlightenment. This description corresponds to a person who is often called a "typical Israeli" since it applies to most of the citizens of Israel (and also to most of the people of the Western world). It is a state of ideological indifference towards science alongside practical support for it.

It must be admitted that this is the traditional Jewish attitude, attitude, position towards science, and it is expressed in the prohibition of reading external books (meaning secular books, books that are not holy books) except for the purpose of earning a living. It is known that not all Jewish leaders espoused this opinion, especially neither Rambam nor Rashi. Therefore, it should be noted that everything that is said here about Judaism does not apply to the entire Jewish tradition without exception.

Today, when science enjoys great prestige, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which hostility towards it is widespread, even though this hostility is the normal situation in backward societies under the Dakhani regime, such as in the Persian population today: the fighters in the Iranian regime advocate modernity and see it as a positive attitude towards science. They are in the minority. Indeed, their situation is difficult, because their positive attitude may lead those who advocate it to ask, isn't science hostile to the religion of Islam? Indeed, this question should be asked by every Muslim; But apparently the Iranian regime today views this question with hostility.

Rethinking: The Roots of the Enlightenment Movement
Respect for science characterizes the new time. The normal situation even in the most advanced societies during the Renaissance, at the dawn of the scientific revolution, was a situation of hostility to science or at least suspicion towards it: even before science began to flourish, hostility towards it developed. And the pioneers of science at that time were not only scientists but also thinkers, philosophers, who saw science as natural, as a cure for all human diseases, as a position that promotes thought and knowledge without any limitation and without hesitation.

The innovators favored science, and their intention was scientific education for the general public. It is no coincidence that the mathematician Galileo wrote his masterpieces in praise of the Copernican Torah in Italian and in as simple and understandable a language as possible. He and his successors saw themselves as followers of the Enlightenment - from the language of light ("a lamp for your words, and light for my path", Psalms, Kit: Ka), and their opponents as dark people who prefer darkness to light, as obscurantists.

Light and light have always been used as a metaphor for intellect and understanding, in the East and in the West, in a much broader sense than in the scientific context. In the Christian Europe of the Middle Ages, it was Jews, and especially Jewish doctors, who carried the banner of the Enlightenment. During the scientific revolution, in the 17th century, the idea spread that science would bring redemption to the world and thus the Enlightenment appeared as a social movement advocating science. The transition from the Middle Ages (and the early Renaissance) to the modern age (and the late Renaissance) was the transition from astrology, alchemy and medicine (the learned courtier was an expert in these three subjects which were one part) to astronomy, chemistry and biology (medicine lagged badly behind the other sciences).

The spread of the ideas of the Enlightenment movement was a process of transition from mystical ideas to a scientific worldview and scientific pretension. Copernicus and Kepler still followed mysticism (Christian Kabbalah) and Galileo demanded liberation from this thought, even though he still called himself a Pythagorean (i.e. accepted), and he distinguished not between opinions, since these are subject to rational discussion, but in their transparency, since vague opinions are not open to fruitful discussion.

The accepted opinion of the scientists about religion was that it is the main elements of faith and worship - theology and the work of God. Natural religion appeals to reason only. Natural theology and natural worship are philosophy and scientific research. Boyle presented particular religion as secondary to natural religion: it is an expression of God's grace that gives those who do not use their intellect another chance. Under Boyle's influence, scientists completely ignored supernatural discussion: the scientific press did not publish articles that seemed hostile to religion.

In this way, organized science (that is, the scientific societies whose members were amateur scientists) saw itself in a kind of truce with organized religion (that is, the various churches), a truce that was typical of the old Enlightenment movement. Accordingly, Darwin rejected the publication of his theory of evolution, and when he published it in his main book (1859) he did not refer to the origin of man. About a dozen years later he did so (1872), but still claimed that this did not constitute heresy, at least not necessarily. But Darwin's disciples declared war on religion as obscurantism. Still, the demand that science should be superior to religion was not popular until Wittgenstein and his students came along and said that they had proof of this demand. And thus they returned to the excessive pretentiousness of the old Enlightenment movement.

This presumption opened the door to the development of scientific thought in the social field, and as a condition for this development, the elimination of all prejudices is required. This ensured that social science would be utopian. For example, the great economist Adam Smith (Smith) did not bother to speak against slavery because, he said in the introduction to his great book (1776), bonds are not an incentive to efficient work. The political scientist Rousseau asked (1762) what right does the governor have to impose his laws on his subjects?

This question brought about the American Revolutionary War and the French Revolution. The latter caused a reaction that showed hostility to the Enlightenment movement. The reaction did not belittle the technological achievements of science, but presented it as lacking Gothic importance and demanded to limit its influence (and even the influence of scientific technology). This philosophy still dominates a large and popular school.

From scientific proof to a critical approach
The central characteristic of the Enlightenment movement is, in its view, the requirement to avoid error as a prerequisite for the possibility of contributing to science. If so, it is understood that the center of her case was the proof. For proof is the only insurance against error. Therefore, it is better not to say anything than to express a hypothesis, since the hypothesis may be wrong. If so, what is proof? No one knew the answer to this question.

In the theory of logic, the discussion of proofs did not begin before the crisis in science around 1900. Because before that it was known to everyone that Newton's theory was proven and therefore it is clear that a scientific proof is possible. It was clear to everyone that Newton's theory (1688) is perfect and that it does not need any correction, therefore it is impossible that a scientific theory superior to it will ever be presented for any reason. However, as we know, Einstein presented a theory that was superior to Newton's theory (1917).

Some time before World War II, Einstein visited Britain. In raising a toast at a party in his honor, the great playwright Bernard Shaw said a few words in his praise. Ptolemy's theory survived two thousand years, Shaw said, and Newton's theory survived two centuries. I will not guess how many years Einstein's theory will survive. The audience cheered because they saw it as a joke. Not Einstein: he saw his theory of gravity as only an intermediate station and tried for the rest of his life to develop an alternative theory to it that would overcome the flaws he saw in it.

This is the new enlightenment. One of its leaders, Bertrand Russell, claimed that of course no person can be free of prejudice. Einstein, followed by Russell, denied that there was any scientific proof. Einstein stated that scientific truth is not the absolute truth but the best hypothesis we have, and that as a result of successful research a scientific theory may be disproven but not proven. It is impossible to wish for a better future for scientific Torah, he said, than for it to be a part and approximation of a more successful Torah.
negative energies

Karl Popper: in his opinion, the possibility of hypothesizing an experiment that would disprove a theory is a necessary condition for it to be scientific, since learning from experience is the refutation of our best opinions. This is an echo of Rambam's idea about negative theology: we cannot know the attributes of God, said Rambam, but we must examine attributions of attributes to Him and try to refute them. It seems to me that combining this opinion with Spinoza's opinion of God as identical with nature leads Rambam's opinion from the field of theological discussion to the field of natural science discussion.

The New Enlightenment movement, whose leaders are Einstein, Russell, Shaw, and Popper, presents more modest goals than the classical Enlightenment movement. Instead of proof as a standard for rationality, the willingness to put our opinions to the test of reality appears as this standard. Instead of pretending that science is perfect and that in principle we will know the right answers to all questions, it is better to see the progress of science step by step as satisfaction.

The transition from the ideas of the old Enlightenment to those of the new must make things easier for the researcher. Popper was appreciated by various researchers because he encouraged them to publicly express opinions that may be wrong in order to present them to a fruitful discussion. In this, of course, Popper continued the practice of Einstein, who in the same year (1905) published an article in which he presented light as a wave phenomenon and another article in which he presented light as a particle phenomenon (knowing without a doubt that at least one of these ideas is not true).

The respectable release of the requirement to produce perfect science is most evident in the social sciences. This is the release from the requirement to adhere to the theory of Karl Marx because it is scientific, or alternatively to cancel it because it did not stand up to the test of reality. A little sense of proportion will present her in an interesting light as important and mistaken. The idea of ​​a perfect social science has a great risk to freedom, as Jacob Talmon argued in his book "The Beginning of Totalitarian Democracy" (Dvir 1955): only the possessor of perfect knowledge may impose his opinion on others, Bertrand Russell already said (1928, Skeptical Essays).

The idea of ​​the old Enlightenment was based on the intellectual independence of the individual, so it seems that the basis on which it rests is purely moral and not political. But this is a mistake. At the root of the scientific revolution was the idea that science is open to all and that the descriptions of scientific experiments must be detailed to the point that any person with an average education can repeat them.

And that's why science has always been a public matter, and that's why it needed democratic regimes that allow freedom of opinion. This requirement does not apply to scientific technology, and indeed a significant part of it is confidential as commercial or military secrets. It is also possible for a scientific idea to be a military secret. When Abram Wald developed his theory of decisions, he served in the United States Army and was forbidden to publish it. Therefore it did not have a scientific status until after the war.

The political expression of the old Enlightenment idea received its highest expression at the end of President Lincoln's impressive speech at the end of the American Civil War: Democracy is government of the people, for the people, in the hands of the people. No, Shaw said: the government is in the hands of the rulers and not in the hands of the people. As long as the people are allowed to protest effectively against the actions of the government, Russell and Popper added, they are not powerless in their war against the evil of the existing government and in their efforts to improve it.

In modern democracies, there are many moves, mainly among professional experts, to call for handing over the reins of government to experts. Of course, there is no reason to oppose this if the selection is democratic, that is, if there is democratic control over the experts and the possibility of firing them if they disagree. It is not important that the ruler be an expert, since the ruler who is not an expert can buy the services of the expert. But the expert, even the greatest, will not be able to do without criticism.

There is no guarantee that the review will not block, but the best guarantee for this is the democratic control. Therefore, one must be on guard and ensure again and again the freedom of expression, that is, the freedom of controversy and criticism. And this freedom is essential for both science and democracy. Therefore, it seems to me that the most important thing is to recognize the fact that there are rational disputes and there are non-rational disputes. That is, there are opinions that are not worthy of critical discussion - even if they have moves. There is a need for education that will allow citizens to know which opinions are out of the question since they are disproved in advance: the public debate must concentrate on the best various opinions and discuss them critically while searching for the truth.

* Philosopher Yosef Agassi, born in 1927, is a retired professor at Tel Aviv University and York University in Toronto; The full article was published in the December issue of "Galileo" magazine.

8 תגובות

  1. Agassi fills a bucket and kicks it at the end.
    "Therefore, one must be on guard and guarantee freedom of expression over and over again, that is, the freedom of controversy and criticism. And this freedom is essential for both science and democracy."

    And to his astonishment, the continuation is - "There are rational disputes and there are non-rational disputes. That is, there are opinions that are not worthy of critical discussion - even if they have moves."

  2. You did not understand the article in my opinion, science does examine the issue of Zionism and socialism and all of these for example:
    Philosophy is measured with scientific tools, human behavior is measured with scientific tools such as mathematics, for example statistics, all kinds of equations like that.
    Politics is measured by scientific tools such as the probability that A will move to party B and those that are based on mathematical-scientific tools
    The behavior of the birds can be measured on a probabilistic basis (when and where and how a type A bird flew for example) and then the results are "scientific".
    And what he explains about enlightenment is that enlightenment is the result of an "open mind" that "opens" more and more
    Instead of settling on one or two things, thought enables the creation of new thoughts that lead to the development of man as an individual and the development of the group in such a way that it contributes to "science" (which science is like philosophy and its development is made possible thanks to the "lessening of the mind").
    He tried to explain this with the phrase "scientific thought".

  3. The role of scientists is to investigate the truth. Don't get involved in politics. Even so, the experts are the ones who ultimately decide... it is clear that the minister for 'X' could not do anything without the experts... the minister there for matters of bureaucracy and charisma... so the semi-conclusion of this article is quite puzzling in my opinion

  4. One can begin the vigilance by pointing out the fact that corruption in the Bank of Israel is rampant, and the public has no control and no knowledge of what is happening there. What's more, in the end it's those at the Bank of Israel who determine the character of the country.

  5. In this context, a word or two could be added about the Illuminati,
    The "enlightened" sect that was organized as a counter to the rigid religious regime of the Middle Ages.

  6. In everything related to exact sciences, at least - science cannot and should not create values ​​- it should create a reliable data base and a correct understanding (that is - one whose predictions stand up to an experimental test) about physical reality.

    According to Agassi's definition, enlightenment can sometimes, and on a practical level only, dictate a behavior that happens to also be of value, but on a principled level it is fundamentally different from it. It can be assumed that even on a practical level it will rule out behavior bound by values ​​of various kinds - not infrequently, perhaps usually.

    Thus, according to Agassi, enlightenment is not equivalent to values, it is altogether scientific. Scientism is not Zionism, scientism is not Judaism, scientism is not morality.

    (None of this is to say that any value view is exempt from taking into account the scientific view when it comes to relevant judgments related to physical reality. It must do so).

    Thus, the preaching of the Enlightenment as equivalent to 'scientific' is valueless, and in fact irrational and unscientific;
    Like many others, who consider themselves to be enlightened - I prefer to consider myself a Jew and/or a Zionist and/or a moralist, and in general as a person who strives for a value outlook and a value life, and succeeds in this at one level or another - and yet as a person who considers scientism to be the standard for physical reality.
    Science is the yardstick for physical truth, but not the yardstick for value or even social truth - and in fact it is not the yardstick for mathematical truth either. This is because it does not exhaust all the levels of reality and planes of human existence as a physical and mental whole. Enlightenment cannot be summed up in pure science.

    In light of the above - I do not believe that there is even one person (if he is a 'person') in the world - not even Agassi himself - who meets the conditions of enlightenment according to Agassi's definition. This is unfounded enlightenment.
    Therefore, I do not see any fault or flaw in an approach like mine and the world's, and in fact I do see fault in Agassi's view.

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