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Suggestions for Amending
the Enlightenment

Western civilisation owes its distinctive character in modern times to its rationalism. But it has never been purely rationalist, and it is doubtful whether any civilisation ever can be. The chief function of rationalism is critical. It stands for the freedom to doubt and the enlightenment that comes through rational enquiry. But freedom and enlightenment are not absolutes. The absolute element in culture is always provided by some positive faith, whether that faith is religious in the full sense, or is intellectualist, or takes the form of a social idealism. If that positive faith disappears the vitality of a society disappears with it.

Christopher Dawson

Consider the following proposition:

The attempt to prove—the word ‘prove’ is being used in the ordinary wide sense in which it can embrace any and every variety of sufficient reason—to the satisfaction of every honest, intelligent, well-informed person the superiority of either the religious or the irreligious view of life is intellectually hopeless. Or, alternatively, it is not possible to establish by purely intellectual processes the greater plausibility, probability, rationality, reasonableness, etc. of either theism or metaphysical naturalism (aka materialism) to the satisfaction of every honest, intelligent, well informed person.

In light of the following implications and possible consequences, could a widespread acceptance of the above proposition advance the enlightenment?


1.  On the one hand, the metaphysical naturalist (or materialist) remains perfectly free and within his rights to believe that the case for naturalism is stronger than the case for supernaturalism (or theism). And the same goes for the supernaturalist. Intellectual and philosophical freedom requires it. Moreover, each may legitimately try to convince the other—sometimes with an energy and an intensity that may seem excessive—that their world view has better evidence and arguments to support it.

Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence.

G. K. Chesterton

2.  On the other hand, neither the naturalist nor the supernaturalist is justified in claiming that their world view is the world view of choice for rationally-minded people, and that every honest intelligent person ought to acknowledge that fact.

The first step on the road to being fair to those with a diametrically opposed world view is to concede that honest, intelligent, well informed people can be found in the opposing camp.


3.  The energy and passion that is expended by trying to demonstrate the superiority of one or other of these two basic world views could be turned to more constructive ends, such as striving to create a level playing field for these competing philosophies in the universities and in the wider intellectual culture.


4.  Both the naturalist and the supernaturalist can maintain their respective positions without losing intellectual respect for one another. Of course, that often happens between individuals for personal reasons, but now it can be upheld on intellectual grounds and not left to chance circumstances, such as instinctive sympathy or compatibility of intellectual styles.

Unlike logic, which is infallible, reason is not only fallible but error prone.


5.  A whole-hearted acceptance of the plausibility of an opposing world view—assuming that it’s not way out in left field—would make it far easier to arrive at a deeper understanding of that world view, and a more tolerant and sympathetic attitude towards those who hold it.

To understand everything makes one very tolerant.

Madame de Stael

6.  At any given moment tens of thousands of people are either passing from naturalism to supernaturalism, or vice versa. The above proposition asks us to recognize that freedom of movement between these two opposing world views is a normal and healthy feature of the human condition.

Even in my innermost thoughts, I am far from thinking that those who believe differently than I have poorer judgment or from forgetting in how fragile and contingent a manner a man’s opinions are formed.

Jean Rostand (naturalist)

7.  The effects of environment and education acting on temperament are often critical in determining whether an individual feels partial to naturalism or supernaturalism. And this partiality combines with the arguments and the evidence to produce philosophical conviction and commitment. It would appear, then, that a person can have many good and honest reasons for the world view they hold even though it may be false. But if arguments and evidence alone could determine metaphysical truth, then the inescapable result will either be several hundred million or so frustrated hardcore naturalists, or four to five billion frustrated theists and near-theists. To have to adopt a world view—when to reject it would leave us feeling like self-deluding fools—that doesn’t attract us, and for which we may even feel antipathy, would be a major cause of unhappiness and inner conflict. However, if the above proposition can be accepted, then we never need fear philosophical coercion.

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and naturally, hope that I’m right about my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

Thomas Nagel

What was the result of all their searching, thinking, efforts to understand? The failure of their studies in science to answer their questions as to the objectivity of knowledge, the low esteem in which their teachers held the mysteries of metaphysics and imposed on the intelligence the law of materialism burst upon them anew.

It was the age of Nietzsche, scepticism, and pessimism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe. One day, circa 1900, two serious young Parisians, Jacques Maritain, from a notable Republican family, and Raissa Oumansoff, an atheist-leaning Russian Jewish emigré, met in the Jardin des Plantes, that extensive park on the Left Bank of the Seine containing an extraordinary collection of rare trees and plants and different species of animal life. It was a favourite haunt of the engaged couple, but this day they were oblivious to natural wonders. Now at all costs they must find a solution to the problems that tormented them. After a long and painful discussion, they decided that they would put an end to their lives if within a year they could find no meaning for the word “truth,” and for the presence of so much evil and injustice in the world.

The couple found a temporary life line in the lectures of Henri Bergson. Through his influence they discovered Plotinus, mysticism, Plato, Pascal and some contemporary kindred spirits such as Charles Peguy. In 1906, after much questioning and inner struggle, they said goodbye to agnosticism and atheism forever, and under the influence of the French novelist Leon Bloy, the couple, along with Raissa’s sister Vera, entered the Catholic Church. The parents were not informed, and were appalled when they eventually learned of this step. But it was a step that led their offspring to a life of spiritual and intellectual fulfillment, as well as renown and influence for Jacques Maritain who went on to become one of the leading neo-Thomists of the twentieth century.

(from Our Friend, Jacques Maritain by Julie Kernan, edited)


8.  Certainty is a form of security, and because human beings crave security they think it would be desirable to be able to prove the truth (or at least the superiority) of their particular world view. But this is probably an illusion. For not only would the door be forever closed to a sensationally different way of thinking and behaving than our present one, but the healthy and creative tension between naturalism and supernaturalism would disappear from human life. Though it seems to escape the notice of most people, this tension or conflict makes life more exciting and adventurous than would be the case if we all had to live under the dominance of a single philosophy. The unattainability of metaphysical certainty also energizes culture because it calls forth commitment, something that the dutiful acceptance of a fact or a conclusion could never produce. As the English novelist Graham Greene once said, “When we are not sure, we are alive.”

There is a holy, mistaken zeal in [philosophy], as well as religion. By persuading others we convince ourselves.


A Meditation on Argument

Not all houses are equal. Some are palaces and some are hovels: some are elegant and some are charmless: some are well constructed and others are thrown together. But each one has its good and bad points. So also with arguments. Every argument, like every structure, has some good points, some usefulness. And being enlightened involves being open to every argument, however strongly we reject its conclusions. More particularly, it means going out of our way to discover its usefulness, never being dismissive, and often being indulgent.

On the other hand, we should never take any argument too seriously, irrespective of whether it supports our fondest beliefs or undermines them. After all, it’s only an argument; and even when it’s crammed full of logic and analysis, it can never escape the ambiguity of words, the vagueness of concepts, the uncertainty of premises and inferences. It’s quite true that argument, like language, is sometimes powerful and efficient. But at other times it can accomplish very little—also like language. To be intellectually and philosophically astute means being keenly aware of the limitations and weaknesses of argument.

Philosophical argument, strictly speaking, consists mainly of an endeavour to cause the hearer to perceive what has been perceived by the speaker. The argument, in short, is not of the nature of proof, but of exhortation: “Look, can’t you see what I see?”

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