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The Purpose of

Enlightenment Defended:

To Promote Autonomy, Liberty and Progress

“Have the courage to use your own understanding!”

—Immanuel Kant

“I may be wrong and you may be right, and with some effort, we may get nearer to the truth.”

—Karl Raimund Popper

Moral Terrorism versus Infinite Progress.

Humanity faces a choice between at least three possible paths into the future. We can imagine humanity remains indefinitely in a stationary state, at our current level of achievement, progress indefinitely, or continually deteriorate in moral and economic character. (Obviously, each of these evolutions could have its ups and downs and intermittent reversals.) Immanuel Kant aptly called the latter, degrading path, moral terrorism.

Economic and moral progress are linked because, as people become better off in more “basic” satisfactions —food, shelter, transport —they devote increasing amounts of their attention to cultural, ethical and environmental concerns.

Although often assumed to be possible, I suspect that a stationary state is infeasible because the continued economic existence of a sophisticated industrial system requires continual invention and improvisation. But invention has its own inherent, accelerating, momentum (observe Moore’s “Law” and other tendencies) and each invention tends to become more useful in conjunction with others —think of how much more useful the transistor, capacitor or the wheel is today than when they were invented.

To those who attribute an almost god-like ability to states to manage economies, it might seem apparent that a state could make sure that only status-quo-friendly inventions occurred. But epistemologically, it’s not possible to discriminate with certainty between those inventions that would maintain the status quo and those that would have a more dramatic spur to the global rate of invention. Inventions such as the printing press and computers, which profoundly impacted growth, can only be identified with hindsight. What if we reduced the population by half and only extracted resources at a rate to maintain that population? Typically, a resource becomes more difficult to extract at the same rate with the same technology, so even in such a society, new extractive inventions would be required to maintain stasis in our living standards. But then how can you make sure the new inventions don’t inadvertently introduce much higher levels of productivity? Such society-wide precise state-imposed frugality would necessitate society-wide surveillance and control and thus encourage totalitarian tendencies. Even from these brief comments, I think it’s clear that the stationary state is a mere fantasy beyond a subsistence economy.

Even more daunting, how do you prepare for unpredictable steep slumps in resource availability and existential threats? Coping with threats depends on our ability to mobilise energy, so the lower our capacity for power, the more vulnerable we are. Better to aim for the highest levels of productivity for flourishing and safety.

We are left, therefore, with a real choice between continued growth and deterioration. I favour unlimited growth. We may never embrace infinite growth under that grand label, but if whenever we decide on a further step in growth over deterioration, we always choose growth, we will be walking up the path of infinite growth. (For those who enjoy mathematics, it’s like mathematical induction.)

The Enemies of Continued Progress.

Authoritarian green ideology and “climate change” doom-mongers are obvious threats to continued progress. Unlike self-critical exponents of concern for the environment, they have been for decades. But recently, their onslaught has intensified from universities that have become home to attitudes that suppress open conversation about difficult, emotionally challenging ideas—the exact opposite of their raison d’être.

With the rise of the regressive ideologies of Neo-Marxism, PC-speak, Identity Politics, Post-Truthism, Black Lives Matter, and Cancel Culture, a meaningful life, autonomy, the flourishing of the individual, liberty, and humanity’s progress itself are in peril. This peril comes in many forms of attack.

One sort of insidious attack on our prospects is the debasement of language. Normally, language’s fundamental use in factual description and logical argument is respected. Language also has its performative functions, which are defined in terms of what the sentence does or achieves. For example, the sentence “I hereby name this ship ‘Intrepid’,” the sentence performs the ceremonial act of designating the ship. Usually, performative uses — commanding, condemning, praising, thanking, insinuation etc. —are understood to depend on a background of shared descriptive facts. This is the conventional way people communicate. However, these regressive ideologies flout this shared convention and have reduced language from its noble roles of argumentation to a mere philistine tool of virtue signalling, condemnation and political manipulation independent of background facts. As I argue in my book The Myth of the Closed Mind it’s a strategy that may break down in the long run. But it is surprisingly effective in the short run because it exploits people’s tendency to interpret others charitably. We expect people to respect the conventions of language use — we expect them to be trying to make sense, to be consistent and appropriate to the context. Without those expectations, language itself would break down.

In their hands, language is no longer used to carefully describe or infer according to standards of truth and logic, but is a slave to performative success — have we prevented someone from speaking, have we prompted the sacking of someone who tweeted something deplorable? In this strategy of the social persecution of ideological heretics, words such as “racist” can mean virtually anything that will get the job done — the suppression and punishment of opposition. This is why, for example, no one can tell in advance which expressions (or non-expressions) are acceptable and which are “racist” or “homophobic” or “transphobic”, "misogynistic, etc. We are confronted by deliberate and blatant moral terrorism in more senses than even Kant may have imagined. However, despite these and other sorts of attacks, enlightenment values of meaning and autonomy can be defended by sound philosophical argument, enhanced by art and poetry.

A meaningful life is one in accord with noble purposes and creative action along many paths in its pursuit. An autonomous life is one in which we can make a difference according to our own conjectures, aims and plans. It is one in which we also can pursue excellence, the continuing quest to refine, elaborate and exercise our abilities. Aristotle highlighted this distinctive feature of human beings:

“Life is an activity, and each man actively exercises his favourite faculties upon the objects he loves most.”

—Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics.

This sort of life is worth defending. Both a feeling of autonomy and purpose seem to be necessary features of societies that generate continual improvement. The enlightenment and the intricately linked industrial revolution occurred in western Europe, in a civilisation that encouraged autonomy, individualism and the striving for excellence for its own sake (say in chess mastery) and also in the pursuit of worthy projects and goals outside the often stultifying boundaries of religious and family duty.

Enlightenment Defended will repel the dark nihilism of “Post-Truth”, Woke Culture, Identity Politics, and PC-Speak, which fuel this repressive and regressive collusion of the state and some large corporations, and instead catalyse the bright flame of the enlightenment —liberty, reason and progress.

Enlightenment Defended will frame some of our deepest thoughts about life through debate, animation, articles, documentaries, poetry, humour, music and myth. People are multi-faceted in both apprehension and enjoyment.

Some Historical Background to Enlightenment.

Enlightenment is daring to think for oneself without the blinkers, guides, nudges and supervision provided by another, an organisation or the state. Through conjecture and refutation, it is the courage to stand back from the crowd and appraise the challenges and opportunities of life by one’s own powers of reason. This is the core of the enlightenment, a personal commitment to unfettered reason. Without that courage, there is no autonomy, liberty or progress.

Immanuel Kant summed up this strident and liberating commitment:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding!

—Immanuel Kant. An Answer to the Question: “What is Enlightenment?” 

If we are to follow Kant and use our own understanding, what role is there for experts? Today we are constantly urged to “Follow the science!”, “Follow the experts!” However, such exhortations are specious and, if rigorously observed, lead to absurdities.

Enlightenment in my sense isn’t a recommendation to ignore specialists or experts or other “authorities”. Consulting experts is a useful division of labour. However, it’s an illusion that following experts saves you from having to make any risky and important choices because it’s you who have outsourced your judgement to another. Unless you were coerced, you made that judgement. And if you fail to claim at least that judgement —either through slothful negligence or confusion— you will be as an infant, vulnerable to another’s will. The state will be tempted to claim you as its child. At the end of the day, if experts disagree, it then becomes clear that the decision always lies with you.

The obsessive clamour for expertise is vulnerable to circular argument or infinite regress, for how are you to decide which expert to trust? If you can only trust experts, the question naturally arises are you an expert? Can you trust yourself? Or are you supposed to select an expert to choose experts for you? But then, are you an expert on experts on experts? Again, to avoid either circularity or infinite regress, at some point, you have to stop and make a risky choice. I’m sorry to break it to you, but life is not safe. My suggestion is that providing you remain alert to error and keep your conjectures about the best sources of information open to criticism and revision, you’ve done all you can to act in the light of the truth. But it is a politically correct culture, in the form of Facebook, Twitter and Google in league with the state, that is curtailing your ability to remain open to the critical ethos of open conversation, the main source of self-correction.

The enlightenment for historians is that broad period around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when an intellectual movement committed to science and opposed to superstition was inspired by many of the greatest minds of Europe and America: Adam Smith, David Hume, Erasmus Darwin, Descartes, Kant, Leibniz, Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin. Being a rather mixed group, it’s no surprise that their views often contradict. But with the advantage of hindsight and of the fact that they did a colossal amount of the abstract work, we are in a wonderful position to pick and choose which features we would like to construct our own worldview. I’m doing that for myself —well, I’m thinking for myself, am I not? 

The enlightenment thinkers produced a cornucopia of transformative ideas. Some are gems, but others are seriously flawed. One defective strand of this movement is the idea that society is best planned as a whole, from a unitary point of view and aim. The idea is that society can be erased and rebuilt from scratch. This strand gave us the disasters of the society-wide “rational” planning of the French Revolution and the unintended horrors of Karl Marx’s collective economic planning. Another strand, championed by the Scottish school of Adam Fergusson, Adam Smith and David Hume etc., emphasised the ubiquity and benefits of the spontaneous orders formed by the interaction of the autonomous plans of many people —language, morals, customs, common law, markets, etc. This led to the more benign elaborations of enlightenment thought in the non-utopian “piecemeal social engineering” of Karl Popper and the ideas of free markets and evolved customs and laws of Friedrich von Hayek.

The Principles of Enlightenment Defended: A Brief Statement.

The Enlightenment intellectuals were animated by many causes, and the principles I adduce here highlight and are shaped by some of their noble goals: 

1. The betterment of mankind, in both economic, moral and aesthetic aspects, into the distant, even indefinite, future.

When the question of progress is brought up, some might think the concern is only with material economic growth. But the enlightenment is concerned with a much broader and deeper sense of progress. Although known chiefly for his founding of economic science, as the author of The Wealth of Nations (1776) Adam Smith was a moral philosopher and wrote the book Theory of the Moral Sentiments (1759).

In any case, with modern economics, there is no simple-minded confinement of theory to physical wealth. The idea that economics is just about the price of material things such as land and bails of cotton is defunct and supremely narrow-minded. Contemporary economics is about a highly abstract conception of action under conditions of competing alternative uses of scarce resources in which each person attempts to substitute one state of affairs for a more satisfactory one as judged by that individual. For example, if time is a scarce resource, listening to an opera by Berlioz instead of spending that time at the swimming pool, taking a bite from an apple instead of an orange, and writing an essay on the folly of neo-marxism on a Sunday afternoon rather than visiting the relatives are all economic phenomena. (See Israel Kirzner and Gordon Tullock.)

2.The promotion of reason in general, with science framed as its most sophisticated empirical method.

Before the enlightenment, comets and earthquakes were regarded as bad omens or a sign of God’s displeasure at humans. In 1683, in the wake of a comet of 1682, Pierre Bayle, the French philosopher, wrote a famous essay Various Thoughts on the Occasion of a Comet. This dispelled fears and panic about the supernatural origin of the celestial object we now know as Halley’s Comet. As for earthquakes, they remained unexplained for some time, but were so interesting to pioneers of science, they could not regret them. Science had emboldened humanity to engage in a sort of proxy intellectual subjugation of the fearful forces of nature.

The boldest development of this intellectual courage is in the work of Karl Popper, William Warren Bartley and David Miller. Karl Popper’s insights into the method of science as a process of conjecture and refutation were extended in different ways into what is known as comprehensive critical rationalism, in which all positions (theories, proposals, world-views, etc) are held open as potential targets of criticism, and even this form of rationalism itself is held open to critical scrutiny. (This is a live issue and a source of intriguing thought —see Joseph Agassi’s work.)

Inspired also by Popper, we also have the exciting optimistic theory developed by David Deutsch in his The Fabric of Reality (1996) and The Beginning of Infinity (2011). One of Deutsch’s central ideas is that progress depends on the growth of knowledge in solving problems. Deutsch goes on to argue that in principle all problems whose solution is not forbidden by the laws of nature are solvable given enough knowledge about how to transform any given configurations of matter and energy into other configurations. Using explanatory knowledge, people are universal constructors —they can make anything out of anything with the right knowledge. This is the most empowering optimistic principle of progress to emerge in the last 30 years. I developed a philosophical conception of infinite growth in my The Metaphysics of Scarcity: Karl Popper’s World 3 and the Theory of Finite Resources (1996), a piece inspired by conversations with Julian Simon and his more empirical work in The Ultimate Resource.

3. The promotion of creativity and beauty in the arts and technical and economic efficiency in technology.

Enlightenment thinkers frequently supported the flourishing of artists, artisans and engineers, no less than scientists and philosophers. Often these pioneers were members of the same clubs and associations and were alive to the mutual benefits of conversation connecting people of what we would now regard as very different specialisms. These innovators would have nothing but scorn for the established departmental division of the arts and sciences, something that owes more to the ease of university administration than any metaphysical disconnect between the two. As you would expect, there are differences between a work of art and a law of nature, but there are unforeseeable reciprocal fertilisations between the two domains. It’s the fruitful open and intimate conversations I’m pointing to here.

4. The promotion of Liberty. The ideal is a world without states, as monopolies of coercion over given geographical regions.

The sense of liberty here is the new theory of liberty elaborated by J. C. Lester in his Escape From Leviathan (2012). Lester argues that liberty means the absence of pro-actively imposed costs. Specifically, liberty does not conflict with welfare or economic rationality.

Lester’s theory enjoys a marked advantage over one prevailing libertarian theory of liberty: the non-aggression principle. This principle states liberty is violated if and only if someone has initiated aggression toward someone else. This principle of liberty overlooks the fact that many violations of liberty (for example fraud or ransomware) do not involve coercion —the initiation or threat of aggression or violence to a person or property, but rather an unjust but peaceful ruse to deprive someone of their property. (The effectiveness of fraud depends on it being inconspicuous and is peaceful by its stealth. The swoop of a skilful pickpocket is swift, tranquil and free from disturbance.) The exclusive focus on coercion is also blind to the morally acceptable use of force, as in professional boxing, in which both parties have agreed in advance to allow either to initiate the first blow. If you’ve seen a boxing match, you’ll know that, apart from following the rules of boxing, they aren’t holding back from hurting or causing damage to their opponent. We would hardly say Tyson violated the liberty of those he knocked out.

The state is the foremost violator of human liberty in this sense and any curtailment of its reach is desirable. Of course, some states are better, or less bad than others and there has been a long term decrease in the violence of states. In many ways, the United States of America is the best experiment in history in government, designed by enlightened thinkers who were well-aware of the corruptibility of government. That’s why the founding fathers of the US constitution and government built in so many checks and balances. As Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

But if viable alternatives are available, they ought to be discussed. In the light of alternatives, our perception may change and see the state as unethical and unjust and uneconomic and ugly. But fundamental follies take time to correct, and we wouldn’t wish to repeat the foolishness by employing the state’s typical methods of influence. The method must be peaceful, liberty-respecting argument.

Since, as correctly argued by David Hume, all government is based upon opinion, any moves in the direction of a world without states must be by peaceful argument, together with secession at the individual and group level and the building of prototypes of libertarian communities. Violent protests are both destructive of liberty and unproductive in the long run. The right to peaceful protest is important, but even peaceful protests are of limited value as dramatic windows of communication.

It follows that the attainment of a free world is fundamentally a task of very long-term propaganda fuelled by arguments, both abstract economic, aesthetic, moral debate plus practical proposals for prototypes and working alternatives to state structures. Here one would mention seasteading and Balaji Srinivasan’s networked collectives.

How to Promote the Enlightenment: An Alliance of Logic, Rhetoric and Poetry.

The poet’s rational skill is the memorable conjugation of erroneous conjecture in the brightest sunlight with its devastating refutation.

To promote the enlightenment it is essential to acknowledge the sheer power of rational argument which, like a prize boxer, who, though lacking invincibility, has yet a propensity to win. Even a slight edge in favour of the truth in the battle of ideas can mean so much in the long run, in keeping the wolves of nihilism at bay.

Upholding the propensity theory of rational persuasion is not the counsel of naivety. Being fallible creatures, the truth will never reign supreme among humankind without possible contention. We must grant this. (The idea that there is a perfect, complete and definitive end of human progress in the search for truth was a fatal error of some, mostly continental, enlightenment thinkers.) There will always be countervailing movements of opinion working against enlightenment values. The point is to keep the contention alive; the battle of truth is the battle of forever.

It is sometimes argued that rhetoric, poetry and logic are at odds when it comes to persuasion. For example, it is contended that grand persuaders can avoid logic and should instead use emotion and bias to achieve their results. However, the betrayal of logic and truth may play into the nihilism of woke culture. I’m rehabilitating the Aristotelian idea that logic and poetry are brothers in rhetoric and the pursuit of goodness, truth, beauty and justice.

I have published a major book The Myth of the Closed Mind and articles in Nature, New Scientist and National Review, The Times Higher Education Supplement, and other journals. Recently, I’ve contributed to the online journals Quillette and Conjecture Magazine on fake news and the enlightenment. This literary and logical approach is central to my engagement with philosophical conundrums and my promotion of the enlightenment.

However, people have many other modes of expression and argumentation about what matters to them about the world and their journey through it. In ancient times prose was not distinguished from poetry, and Homer and even the pre-Socratic philosophers such as Parmenides and Xenophanes gave us some of their most important insights through poetry.

The artfully cast argument holds the day in terms of persuasive impact, not because we are exclusively mesmerised by the art, but because we enjoy our perspicacity tastefully clothed. There are better and worse ways of presenting a fillet steak. But we still wish to eat the steak.

Enlightenment Defended is a community in which those who admire Karl Popper’s critical rationalism and classical liberal/libertarian thought will feel very much at home.

A Little About Me

I’m navigating an ocean of enigmas and paradoxes of philosophy. I love both people and ideas, and there is no pleasure more sublime than discussing ideas with people driven by curiosity and wonder in the world.

I am an alumnus of The University of Warwick (MA) and The London School of Economics (PhD). I founded and edited (with Professor Barry McMullin, DCU) The Karl Popper Web (1995 - present) and was the organiser of the Annual Conference on the Philosophy of Sir Karl Popper between 1988 to 1998, both sponsored by The Open Society Institute and The London School of Economics.

Not being an organisation but an individual, the seed funding for the projects was made to “a uniquely gifted individual.” To further the discussion of Karl Popper’s work, in 1995 I founded a discussion forum, The Critical Cafe, and a peer-reviewed online journal, The Critical Rationalist.

I have had an interest in libertarianism since the early 1980s, being on the executive committee of the London-based Libertarian Alliance. In the mid-90s I set up an associated discussion group on the Claranet internet provider, The Libertarian Alliance Forum, which was transferred to Yahoo Groups in about 2001. In 2000 Barron’s Who’s Who listed me as one of five hundred “world leaders for the new century.” This is a perhaps over-generous compliment, but one that I’m busy doing my best to honour.

Combining my interests in both Popper’s critical rationalism and libertarianism, in 2018 I published on Amazon Prime Video the documentary “Liberty Loves Reason: Charles Darwin versus Political Correctness.” (Starring David Deutsch FRS and Professor Paul Levinson.)

I have a keen interest in science and technology, publishing many articles and reviews for Nature, The New Scientist, Science Spectrum and The Times Higher Educational Supplement. I have taught Philosophy at the University of Lancaster, UK and between 2004 and 2012 taught at the U.A.E. University. My specialities are the philosophy of science and the philosophy of mind.

My First Projects

  • My first projects will be a series of Stoic aphorisms recited by an animated character I created, Eddie Stoic, a talk I gave at Oxford University, The Logic of Persuasion, and the publication of my documentary, starring the physicist David Deutsch FRS and Professor Paul Levinson, Liberty Loves Reason.

My Personal Reason for a Locals Community

This year, my highly-rated documentary on Amazon Prime, Liberty Loves Reason(pub. 2018), was taken down from Amazon without prior notice or significant explanation. The full title of my documentary is Liberty Loves Reason: Charles Darwin versus Political Correctness.

This out-of-the-blue action by Amazon seemed to coincide with some odd “shadow” banning or down-rating on YouTube by Google, in which a very popular talk, The Logic of Persuasion, I gave at Oxford University was set at the same number of views for a year, even though the views elsewhere on social media continued to rise. Of course, this is a surmise. One can only conjecture what Google and other social media platforms are thinking, as they often do not provide explanations to people who may have been banned or “mildly repressed”. One needs a sense of humour.

Facebook recently reprimanded me for a post in which I took a video of myself cycling through the empty countryside savouring the springtime sun. In the same post, I also linked to an academic article on the destructive effect of ultraviolet light on the Covid-19 virus, published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases. (Published continuously since 1904, The Journal of Infectious Diseases (JID) is the premier global journal for original research on infectious diseases) Playfully, I drew attention to the analogy between the balancing act of simultaneously cycling and filming and the trade-offs and balancing of options involved in coping with Covid-19 or anything else in life and encouraged people to enjoy life in the sun before it was taken from them. Apparently, Facebook doesn’t like established journals, humour or analogy —or is it a subtle combination of the three that constitutes the “Witch’s Brew”? Only FB’s “fact-checker” is privy to this esoteric knowledge.

I feel that I cannot express myself within the philistine and suffocating walls of the main social media platforms. The tech giants are violating the principle of individual autonomy and flourishing. While respectful of all people in the traditional sense, polite and tactful, I can be edgy and provocative at times and I’m looking forward to having the space to do that and share and connect with others of similar ilk and motivation.

You’re welcome to support me in my projects, collaborate or just come along for the ride.

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