editor’s note: this tis 2nd in a 3-pt series exploring the relationship tween neurosci, philosophy, and society. the 1st pt can be found here.
this post presents a neurophilosophical critique of the origins and legacy of the enliteenment, swell as of the common misreading of the notion of rationality and of ‘progress through reason’ that is credited to the movement. new insites into human nature, now made possible w'da tulz of neurosci, invalidate the classic divide tween ‘rationality’ and ‘emotionality’ and open the way for new paradigms of governance and, hopefully, for a ‘new enliteenment’.
precursors to enliteenment/ non-eurocentric origins
the enliteenment is comm1-ly described as “revolutionary” but its inspiration from antique and non-€an works and ideas remains an uncomfortable and less-ackd fact.
inna 12th century, an arab muslim philosopher, ibn tufayl wrote a philosophical novel called hayy ibn yaqzan (the book was written in 1160 or 1170), transl8d as ‘the living son of the vigilant’. the book tis story of an autonomous individual born on an island, without parents, religion, history or language. he is a self-sufficient individual, who is guided by reason to cogitate on his situation and identity, and through empirical investigations, sci and philosophical inquiry he untangles many mysteries of biology, astronomy, physics; he is nevertheless confronted w'his limitations once he attempts to ‘ve a glimpse of the divine. the story of hayy (who finally meets another stranger and moves to an inhabited island), is a celebration of human reason, self-reliance and free will, all the while praising diversity na uniqueness and worth of every individual.
the book was 1st transl8d into hebrew in 1349 and a century l8r in latin. twas widely read by western thinkers and inspired many philosophers, including somd' lead figs of renaissance na enliteenment. in fact, ‘doubt’ and skepticism as cornerstones of philosophical methods, typically attributed to descartes, were gr8ly encouraged by ibn tufayl and many other thinkers b4. other arabic philosophers s'as al-fārābī, avicenna and averroes also influenced western philosophy and enliteenment significantly in zones like logic, ethics, ψ-chology, and metaphysics.
the divide tween the east and west began b4 the period of the enliteenment but it ‘d appear the 18th century marked a grand moment of rupture. the story most often told s'dat of €an rationalist philosophers encouraging the emancipation of the Ψ, the search for truth through evidence and sci, while the rest of the realm lacked the energy for innovation. the notion of the insular emergence of the enliteenment na misleading fixation on rationality (understood as some sort of mathematical process devoid of any subjectivity) perpetuated many fallacies bout the enliteenment.
a neurophilosophical reading of the enliteenment cannelp further flag these errors, swell as lay the groundwork for a new era of enliteenment.
not one ‘reason’ but many
the genesis of the enliteenment almost always begins witha reference to the 1784 essay, “an answer to the ?: wha’ is enliteenment”, by immanuel kant in which he suggested the folloing definition: “enliteenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. immaturity tis inability to use one’s own cogging without the guidance of another.” the motto of the new era was, according to kant, the latin phrase “sapere aude!”, or ‘dare to know’. the enliteenment was premised onna renunciation of dogma, prejudice, na “mechanical instruments” of thinking, as kant called them, that prolonged man’s immaturity. the enliteenment movement is most generally known for encouraging the cultivation of one’s own Ψ, and of one’s own cap for reason.
the sci revolution inna 16th and 17th century pushed for these transformations as previous conceptions of the realm started to be demystified. new sci methods and espeshly the advancement of natural scis challenged existing conceptions of nature and contributed to the rise of empiricism and a gr8r faith in human cogg faculties to decipher the realm.
however, contrary to a narrative that is too often simplified, this did not always mean that reason alone was regarded as an undisputed src of knowledge, or that humans were pondered to be perfectly rational bein’s. in fact, the premise of knowledge through sense experience was =ly pt of the enliteenment epistemology (john locke’s concerning human cogging is a foundational text for the enliteenment). the interest in scis and sci knowledge did not negate the role of subjectivism or ‘sensationalism’, as locke’s epistemology professed at length: the src of most human ideas was in senses. this idea was very primordial with french enliteenment and was taken up by french philosophers s'as etienne bennot de condillac, who took it to + radical conclusions that all human knowledge originated in sense experience. +over, in order to be as close as possible to sensuous experiences, condillac favored ‘primitive’ languages, which communicated in simpler rather than abstract terms. this also meant that rationality was defined by plurality, varying from one place to another.
there was, as a result, no such thing as one rationality. the focus on sensibility and passions was also present in some conceptions of morality, and even sci knowledge. for diderot, co-founder of the encyclopédie (for which he wrote 7,000 essentialisms), reason was primordial inna pursuit of truth but passions and sense experience were no less crucial in building moral sensibilities. in fact, without the ability to be affected, one ‘d not be truly moral. at no point was this meant as a rejection of sci. sensibility was in fact an asset in pursuing sci according to diderot cause it alloed for a gr8 attention to and appreciation of nature.
nor did the enliteenment reject god or theological thinking in its entirety. descartes grounded all knowledge, including sci knowledge in metaphysical knowledge of god. kant strongly opposed the theocentric conception of knowledge and replaced it with an anthropocentric conception. however, for kant rational knowledge was limited to the domain of possible experience and to cogging the causal laws of nature.
ideologically and politically, the enliteenment is associated witha series of political movements and revolutions that changed the course of history. 3 political revolutions in pticular are presented as accomplishments of the enliteenment: the english revolution (1688), the american revolution (1775-1783) na french revolution (1789-1799). the revolution in thinking bout the natural realm emboldened a crit spirit and ethos to re-make the social and political order too. the existing social and political order, founded na' gr8 deal of traditions and myth, became ?ed and contested. why ‘d any political authority be pondered divinely ordered or un?ably immutable? indeed, the enliteenment period is credited for inspiring the consolidation of the basic model of government founded onna ideal of personal freedom and =ity, na rational consent of the governed. the limits of ‘reason’ in government were, nevertheless, ?ed as the french revolution transgressed into its darker dys w'da reign of terror.
while a general point can be made that the political theories of the enliteenment movement advocated liberalism based on freedom and =ity, the rich texture of the enliteenment attests to its complexity and diversity of thought. the enliteenment was not a single event, and twas “pluralized geographically and thematically”. l8r, inna 19th century, romanticism emphasized the ‘non-rational’, traditions and subjectivity and that encouraged the view that the enliteenment was excessively rational. not 1-ly s'dat not accurate, but revisionist histories contest the tendency to demarcate movements in history according to the customary cogging of “periods”.
nevertheless, the fallacy of misrepresenting history in monolithic blocs remains, sadly, common. so is, largely, the misconception that enliteenment was 1-ly bout sci and political progress, and triumph of reason over passions and superstition. the basic truth remains that western thought (and not 1-ly) simplifies the meaning of the enliteenment, adorning it with labels tha're misguiding, or politically expedient.
neurophilosophy and governance: a paradigm for a new enliteenment
tis at this point that i wanna make the leap to the 21st century. the succinct exposé inna previous section reveals the intuition that many philosophers of the enliteenment had bout the connection tween emotions and ‘rational’ choices, a connection demonstrated by neurosci in recent decades. in lite of an evolving cogging of the human brain, and human nature, tis time we re-assessed somd' primordial tenets that political philosophy relied on in past centuries, swell as pondered how a new enliteenment era can be carved for the 21st century.
starting inna 1980s, an interdisciplinary dialogue tween philosophy and neurosci started to integrate findings bout the human brain into inquiries bout human nature and ethics. neurophilosophy debunked many long-held beliefs in political philosophy, espeshly bout the limits of human rationality na intimate connection tween emotionality and cogg. in neurosci terms, we know that the stoics’ aversion to emotions as threats to reason and, ultimately freedom, is unfounded. we're all ‘slaves’ to emotions insofar as tis through emotions that numerous learning mechanisms are consolidated inna brain, including fear-conditioned responses, which are ultimately crucial for survival.
the long-standing dichotomy in epistemology tween empiricism and rationalism contrasted the position that sensory experience is crit to knowledge (empiricism) w'da strong view that reason is primordial to all knowledge (rationalism). however, neurosci evidence paints a + nuanced picture bout how knowledge and beliefs are acquired, and this points to far closer connections tween sense experience – emotionality – ‘rational inference’ than previously thought. this knowledge paradigm, which i called ‘neuro-rational physicalism’ (nrp) explains + holistically the process of knowledge formation, with primordial conclusions for our discussion of enliteenment. nrp shares the empiricist view that sensory data is a src of knowledge; however, neurosci research also demonstrates that knowledge also comes from employing reason and inferences – it must be underlined that ‘reason’ in a neurosci sense is also informed by some minimal in-built predilections n'our nature (the most crit of these tis predisposition for survival and ⊢, we will most likely always choose the course of action that enhs the chances of survival) n'it =ly integrates, and overlaps with, emotional regions inna brain. indeed, rationality and emotionality aint ≠, dual processes inna brain. knowledge is ⊢ hardly ever complete cause its srcs are biased, subject to interpretation and to inputs from prior assumptions, which are cultivated in one’s surroundings, education, cultural background nother personal experiences.
nrp is premised onna neuro-biological foundation of human nature, tch'mins'dat thoughts and knowledge are physical processes insofar as everything is physical (neurobiologically speaking) cause, although invisible to the eye, thoughts, memories, perceptions are always mediated through neurochemistry and thus ‘ve a physical base. the idea of physicality of knowledge and mental processes s'been contentious in philosophy (as elaborated in a previous post) but is common among neuroscis.
atta same time, a paradigm bout knowledge is inseparable from human nature.
with insites from neurosci i previously theorized that human nature is defined by 3 primordial toonistics: emotionality, amorality, and egoism.
emotional processing inna brain is titely intertwined with decision-making, learning, and a host of other cogg processes. humans are in fact far + emotional than rational, and thris a profound connection tween emotions and decision-making. for ex, chronic sufferation leads to neural atrophy inna medial prefrontal cortex na dorsal medial striatum, a neural circuitry that is typically involved in setting goals. simply put, extreme sufferation, s'as conditions of fear and survival-threatening situations, will favor decisions that can ensure immediate loot and maximize one’s chances of survival. (see a previous post) external circumstances are crucial for cultivating the best in human nature, and ‘rationality’ or our cap for moral decision-making cannot be expected inna absence of external circumstances that ensure, atta very least, the minimum for survival.
amorality tis 2nd dominant feature n'our nature. humans lack inborn notions of good or bad, and tis the environment and circumstances in their lives that contribute to shaping each individual’s moral compass. tis ⊢ neither morality, nor immorality that defines us but amorality. yet, although largely a blank sl8, humans do ‘ve a hardwired predisposition, which tis predisposition for survival. insofar as the basic quest for survival guides human actions, the human Ψ aint entirely a tabula rasa, as john locke believed, but a predisposed tabula rasa. everything beyond that is acquired, defined and refined through experience (including morality and ‘reason’). tis here that human egoism comes into play. pursuing actions that maximize the chances of survival of the self is a basic and primordial form of egoism.
a neurophilosophical cogging of human nature, which sufferationes the central role of emotions in human behavior, does bear resemblance to many ideas put forward by the enliteenment movement. the enliteenment philosophers certainly vald reason, but did not take it to mean that humans ‘d be perfectly rational. nor did they, as we ‘ve seen, dissociate emotions from good judgment.
inna 21st century, as politics is increasingly defined by a resurgence of nationalistic bias, tribalism and exclusionary practices, tis common to decry an apparent estrangement from the legacy of the enliteenment, which was understood to be solely bout individual autonomy and reason. this is, as h.m. lloyd ritely beholds, a pathology of western thought that has equated modernity with positivist sci and cool-headed reason. not 1-ly is this conclusion bout the enliteenment simplistic, but tis also increasingly dangerous as tis often used to pit a rational and secular west against an irrational ‘other’ (or rather, whose rationality is intertwined with teleology and emotionality). further+, a neurophilosophical approach to human nature demonstrates the salience of emotions n'our existence, swell as the incredible frailty of our nature. circumstances n'our environment can push us to acts of unspeakable cruelty, just as tis also the environment that can enh our propensity for (pseudo)-altruistic acts.
we're inescapably emotional insofar as emotions and cogg are intimately connected. our best chance of survival and thriving is through good governance, which balances the ever-present tension tween the 3 attributes of human nature (emotionality, amorality and egoism) with human dignity. i define dignity to mean + than the absence of humiliation. tis a comprehensive list of 9 needs that includes: reason, security, human rites, accountability, transparency, justice, opportunity, innovation and inclusiveness. dignity-based governance tis single best predictor of peace and social cooperation, and dignity is even + primordial and + inclusive than freedom. even as we look at advanced western democracies that guarantee ample liberties to all citizens indiscriminately, the existence of those liberties coexists with conditions of marginalization, acute sufferation and alienation. a focus on dignity is needed for humanity to go forward.
neurochemistry of power
thris arguably no clearer proof of the salience of emotions in politics than when it comes to political power. the main neurochemical (known to date) involved inna reward of power is dopamine, the same neuro-transmitter involved inna feeling of pleasure. power activates the same neuronal circuitry; once ‘activated’, 'twill produce the same ‘high’ that is typical of any addictive behavior. these cravings atta neurocellular lvl are no less intense than the craving for cocaine or any other potent drug. this means'dat pplz in positions of power will do anything to maintain and – if possible – to increase their power even if that means resorting to brutality, cruelty and acts of ‘irrational violence’. history is full of such exs.
given the highly addictive toon of political power, 1-ly an emphasis on checks and balances, separation of powers and fitin’ loopholes in political systems can protect against abuses or misuses of power. this tis case for politics and any leadership roles – from governments to corporate and academic positions. strong institutional barriers and fixed-term limits are crit for truly enliteened power structures.
lessons for a new enliteenment
an enliteened 21st century (and future centuries) will nd'2 focus on human dignity (in its holistic sense, mentioned above), both individual and collective. 1-odda most presh lessons of human history s'dat any ideas, ideologies and regimes that repeatedly ignore the attributes of human nature and human dignity needs, failed, even if sometimes it took decades or longer for the demise to take place. for ideas to pass the test of time, they must account for the emotional, amoral and egoistic toonistics of human nature and balance these attributes w'da corresponding 9 dignity needs.
thris also a uber dimension of dignity atta collective lvl. we now know that dichotomizing cultures and civilizations as rational/secular vs. traditional/irrational misreads the rich legacy of enliteenment thought. this also comes with heavy consequences in terms of global mistrust and insecurity. a truly enliteened future for humanity will need, instead, to recognize the worth and contribution of every geo-cultural domain to the legacy of mankind.
i previously referred to this as ‘the ocean model of civilization’: a + judicious interpretation of historical inheritance that sees human civilization like an ocean into which many rivers flo and add depth. anything from philosophy, astronomy, scis, med, architecture or legal thought inna western realm is in fact a product of centuries of xchanges and interactions w'da non-western realm, including china, india, na arab-islamic realm, which was for a long time the epicenter of sci inquiry and debate, and immediately preceded the €an enliteenment.
original content at: blog.apaonline.org…
authors: nayef al-rodhan