In an earlier essay I described “true” or higher knowledge as that which comes with it wisdom and understanding of things – not just a recitation of facts. If this is true, then our modern technology has not helped to “enlighten” the world as much as we would like to think. I want to make it clear, I think technology can be and in some of its contemporary uses is a wonderful thing that has brought actual enlightenment and progress to the world; rather than the persistent façade of knowledge through the illusion of progress. The modern world in some ways is just as in the dark as during the Medieval Era – it is simply ignorance that shines more brightly. This is seen in the anti-intellectual strain in America, one that denies evolution, the utility of vaccination, climate change, and believes in the supposed literal historicity of the Bible. But is “science” the end-all-be-all answer to this ignorance and stupidity? Could it be that though these people were brought up in homes not respecting the studious and enlightening studies of the natural and humane sciences, that their main fault is not an appreciation of knowledge but an appreciation of that which gives us knowledge? Namely the critical faculty of the human mind.
Even the most progressive and “enlightened” of homes can and do live without this light of reflection. True it is better to be right by “coincidence” than wrong by “coincidence” but it is better still to be aiming for truth and miss than to be a dead-shot by coincidence. Those who by chance make their mark are unlikely to make the mark again. Those who practice and train hone their skills and capacities, making them more likely to succeed at the given skill set. This is one of the things that separates Man from animals. Man has the capacity of deliberation and thinking out his actions and beliefs – despite the fact that whether or not he does this or how he does this is ultimately not decided by him but by Causality.
We are coming to an age where there are two groups: One hating science and sticking to the dogmas of old (evangelical Christianity) and one referring to scientific laws as absolute truth without reference or reverence to the ethical and cognitive faculties that bring about the limited understanding of these laws we have (superficial scientism). Those who believe that science can provide supreme authority to all the questions in life clearly have not truly had the experience of asking questions seriously and diligently. Can science give us knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality? No. Can science give us values? No. Science is a tool that we use to confirm expectations, falsify theories and gain better control over our world. It cannot give us knowledge of the nature of “reality” because it cannot tell us with 100% certainty that the world we inhabit is reality. It cannot answer the claims of the Ancient Skeptics, who divided between Relative and Absolute knowledge – the latter being impossible. It cannot tell us what we should value because firstly this is not first-and-foremost a task of reasons but of the passions and moral sentiments. At-least for the “large” things. True science can tell us to value ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) but only once we value the properties Vitamin C has in relation to the human body; that is, we must first value health, and not being in pain, among other things in other potential examples to be given. Value theory is one that is based on empirical and rational studies separate from the sciences. In relation to human values, it is often best studied by examining the inner reflections and experiences of people, rather than the outer world of mechanisms moving which is the conventional task and realm of science. One does not come to be a Negative Utilitarian through scientific argument and study, but by examining one’s own experiences and making the assumption (with some evidence) that other beings feel pleasure and pain much like we do. Science can never tell us what to value (once again, in reference to the big picture, it can tell us what things in reality will give us the things we really value, such as health and happiness) only how to attain what we value. It is a tool that has through our obsession with our Egos and our selves become a religion of absolute authority and “truth” due-to our obsession with technology and progress which has brought in irreversible ways great change to the world – but not in every way great improvement.
The reflection, study and temperance of the Ancients is required for us to truly achieve enlightenment and live the best lives – for ourselves and to help attain it for those around us. We must not be so overwhelmed with hubris that we forget that all great men in the past once were claimed champions of “truth” and “virtue.” Though I think we can know with close to absolute certainty that pain is bad in itself and pleasure is good in itself, what constitutes the truth and a normative set of virtues will always be a work in progress for humanity – as it should be. For humans are at some of their most virtuous moments when they are aspiring honestly and diligently to find the truth of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics – not when they feel they have found it and are content to repeat themselves and bloviate for their career.