Return to TauZero.comReturn to Rob TowNeo-enlightenment rant

This short essay - or "rant" - is the center piece of the lost Millenial Whole Earth Review pages.

Reconstructing the Enlightenment

There are four basic ideas in the intellectual history of the period we now call the Enlightenment that distinguish it from what came before, and which are worthy of reconstructing in today's climate: that Humanity is perfectible (or at least improvable); that we may know more than the ancients; that the right way to do that is a dialogue with Nature; and that once gained, knowledge should be communicated to the masses.

These ideas have fallen into disfavor, in these latter days of Postmodernism and Deconstructionism - it is asserted by many that all points of view are equally valid and that science constructs reality rather than discovers it. I believe that we embrace total relativism at our peril; it is in fact not merely wrong, but unethical. It is timely to once more assert the possibility of Truth and Beauty, in ways that are freshly informed by what Postmodernism and Deconstructionism have taught of the limits of discourse, as well as by what has been discovered by Natural Science since the 17th century.

Today we have different ideas of the relationship of Humanity & Nature; of method and causality; we know, for example, that the planets and moons are not quite the neatly deterministic systems that Laplace dreamed of - the Voyager II probe showed that the rotation of Saturn's satellite Hyperion is chaotic, and unpredictable beyond each near encounter with its sibling moon Titan: it is fully determined, and yet unknowable except by observing the real physics of moving bodies, embedded in real time.

Truth in discourse and in life is composed by instruments of knowing, which are always situated. Newtonian physics, arrived at by a great dialogue with Nature, failed to account for the exact details of the perihelion of the planet Mercury, and was supplanted by General Relativity - Newtonian physics is "false", and yet it was used, without corrections, to send humans to the moon. Likewise, the cosmology embedded in the rituals of the Anasazi, used to order the planting of corn, was "false" - yet the corn grew, and in that situated and operational sense the planting ritual demonstrated it was Truth.

Using a metaphor drawn from chaotic dynamics, such systems of knowledge may be viewed as being adaptations that orbit about local peaks in a vast fitness landscape. Seen this way, they all are "true", as the Postmoderns would have it; yet we may see that certain orbits cover more of the landscape, and are better able to migrate from peak to peak - and this broad scale and adaptive power may be spoken of as constituting a more "privileged" discourse. Consider that there are no more Anasazi - when the fitness landscape changed, when their local peak disappeared with the change in climate, they and their truth disappeared - except for the fragments that adaptively mutated into the Hopi and Zuni, orbiting different yet nearby peaks in the fitness landscape.

There are two things to remember: that the landscape in which we live, to which we are adapted, will also change; and that any one adaptation leaves the truths of the others outside its domain including the one named Scientific Rationalism.

-Rob Tow-