For or against Modernity?

Thanks to any reader able to help me translate into English my previous post “Pour ou contre la Modernité”. I have used an automatic translator site to begin the translation and I find it rather good. Let’s have now some  critics !

The idea for this text came to me as I wondered why modernity seems to have deserted the minds of many people. While our modern age is one in which the values of progress, communication and reason triumph, we are witnessing the resurgence of fundamentalisms aimed at making religion the keystone of our social organizations. The demands to place religious fact and scientific truth on an equal footing are multiplying: scientific truth would be a belief like any other… Not to mention the 9% of French who, as I write this text, believe « that the Earth may be flat and not round as we have been told since school »! It seems that scientific culture is being increasingly mistreated. Are we not witnessing a weakening of modern thought?
Apart from the simple ignorance which is the first of all evils, it seemed to me that one of the factors of this rejection could be quite simply Cultural. Thus, it cannot be said that the simple principle of Secularism, on the grounds that it is constitutional, is enough to smooth out with a snap of the fingers deep cultural differences and determinisms rooted in centuries. With on the one hand centuries of intellectual fights, self-criticism and science, not always triumphant but liberating, and on the other hand centuries of conjugation of a single word that totally obliterates all forms of contradiction… How then can we make the critical diversity that our Western philosophical, literary and scientific culture has enabled us to admit and think as universal? This culture that taught us to accept complex and contradictory thinking. This culture that has brought us through successive extraordinary confrontations, freedom of speech and expression and ultimately produced the Democracy that flows directly from it. It is probably not so easy in some countries, I think in particular of some Muslim countries, where today the only thought which predominates, suffocates all the others, and where a return towards a nostalgic Arabism of a religious fundamentalism mythified, but retrograde, does not facilitate the expression of its youth. This is a pity because since ancient times, when you were a scholar, you had to know how to speak 3 languages: Greek, Latin and… Arabic.
the Arab left us many concepts, including zero and many words and poems. As early as the 8th century there existed a school of Muslim theology, mutazilism, which rejected all religious dogmatism. Based on logic and rationalism, inspired by Greek philosophy and reason (logos), scientific research and philosophy had a predominant place. Indeed, it was Arab-Muslim scientists, the « modern » scientists of this ancient era, who helped to structure mathematics in the arithmetic of algebra geometry. The other disciplines they have contributed strongly to develop are medicine, botany, zoology, agriculture, physics, chemistry, optics, geography and astronomy, ahead of several centuries several discoveries made by European scientists. This approach clearly regressed from the 13th century onwards the Muslim tendencies of the time, considering that divine revelation did not have to be subjected to human criticism, prohibiting religious doubt in Islam. Strongly criticized by the Salafist and Wahhabi currents, mutazilism is today poorly represented in the Muslim community, although it was once a majority current.  Do Muslim philosophers and scientists still exist in their countries of origin today? Are there still « modern » ones? Where are they? Where are they hiding? What are they inventing? I believe that the brain drain is the only way out… Because, in my opinion, and although federating, the religious tendency that has taken over in these countries, has in its most fundamentalist form, erased Muslim philosophy in favour of mysticism and killed in the bud a modernity that only asked to express itself. I will fight to prevent this from happening to us, because this movement is developing like a cancer. That is why I wish Salafism to be considered as a sectarian aberration to be fought  in my Country. (And elsewhere…)

So, this « Modernity » to which I flatter myself to belong, why is it of universal interest? I will try, by placing the scientific approach at the heart, to dissect what I think best characterizes it…
First of all, if I don’t feel proud (there is no merit in being born somewhere) I must say that I feel somewhat lucky to have been born in the West, for the simple reason that the advent of science is an event that has taken place in the West in just a few centuries and has never happened anywhere else at such a level. Indeed, discoveries from other civilizations have never constituted a structured body of knowledge, based on the implementation of a single experimental method, expressed in the form of a formal system of mathematically stated laws.  But, let us specify the terms of our subject : The term « science » is borrowed from the Latin verb « scire » (« knowledge ») which gave scientia, meaning « knowledge », in the broad sense, especially « scientific knowledge », taking the meaning from the Greek épistemè, « theoretical knowledge ». Science refers first to a skill provided by knowledge combined with skill, and will later denote knowledge acquired on a more delineated object of study. Science will increasingly designate a perfect, precise, rigorous knowledge, increasingly concerned with formalism. The modern scientific mentality has gradually been forged, increasingly reinforced in the sense of its universality by the succession of theoretical and practical successes that it continues to record. As a European, as a Westerner I confess that I feel strong from all these successes and all his knowledge that have made our societies modern societies!

For a long time, science was purely and simply assimilated to philosophy, insofar as the latter, through the logical clarification of thought and the systematic search for truth, implied a process of rupture with opinion (doxa), i.e. the set of « préjugés » that we usually take the place of thought. So much so that among Greek philosophers like Plato or Aristotle philosophy is science, true and authentic knowledge , because it set itself the project of reaching the world of eternal, immutable Ideas, in order to escape the deceitful and corruptible world of appearances, illusion and error. This idea has been integrated into our educational corpus. With this sentence: « abducere mentem a sensibus » (çd in good English « to detach one’s mind from the senses ») as early as the 17th century (i.e. 8 centuries after the Mutazilist Arab scholars), Descartes laid the foundations of a method making it possible to account for nature in mathematical language and to free oneself from the temptations stemming from our bodily nature, our inclinations, our received ideas. Nietzche’s beautiful phrase also reminds us: « Probity as a philosophical virtue is the ability to look at reality coldly, without projecting one’s desires and dissatisfactions into it. « Finally, generations of Western students have come to admit that no reliable, that is, undoubted, knowledge can come only from our senses and beliefs. We need objectivity and that is where the interest of Science lies, which, rooted in philosophy, is thus at odds with all the préjugés and opinions received since our early childhood. Scientific statements describe reality; other statements, whether metaphysical, theological or poetic, only express emotions. Thus, by entering the modern era, the sciences have become autonomous disciplines that do without theology. They have profoundly changed our consciousness of ourselves and our place in the universe. Because the objectivity of scientific knowledge wants to replace the subjectivity of opinion, indemonstrable and indemonstrated, arbitrary and gratuitous. Because science wants to seek causes and first principles, and it is in this capacity that it can legitimately claim the mission of unifying the totality of knowledge, well founded by a precise formalism expressed by mathematical laws. Thus, a theory is scientific only if its statements are likely to be subjected to experimental protocols capable of showing its truth or falsity, based on demonstrations, and by the widespread use of the mathematical tool.
Science is open to criticism and scientific knowledge and methods are always open to revision, which by definition is non-dogmatic.  That is why the knowledge of science is universal, as is the criterion for distinguishing science from any other discourse. Scientific culture is therefore not a cultural sector like any other. This culture and its knowledge cannot be dependent on the interpretation of this or that community. Consequently, science is logically opposed to religion (which refers to a « revealed truth », that is, to a « dogma »), and to any other « knowledge » incapable of being founded on reason.
Also, the rational that I wish to be most often, follows the motto proclaimed by Descartes, according to which modern man should want to make himself, by the indefinite development of science, « as master and possessor of nature ». And yes, definitely! Let’s have no limits! I don’t fear God and his different avatars! As for eternal silence, from infinite space, it does not frighten me, it questions me! For no statement can be made as the last, as the ultimate conclusion, to the point of being exonerated from having to justify itself. Through our questions we are becoming more and more capable, to submit to analysis the economic, social and strategic conjunctures, to foresee their consequences, to discover the conditions necessary to control our future, transforming the real and the World… I have moreover fully adopted these sentences of Jean Jaurès:
« … What must be safeguarded above all, what is the priceless good conquered by man through all prejudices, all sufferings and all struggles, is this idea that there is no sacred truth, that is to say forbidden to the full investigation of man..; it is this idea that the greatest thing in the world is the sovereign freedom of the spirit; it is this idea that no power, internal or external, no power and no dogma should limit the perpetual effort and the perpetual search for human reason ; This idea that humanity in the universe is a great commission of inquiry whose no governmental intervention, no celestial or terrestrial plot must ever restrict or distort operations; this idea that any truth that does not come from us is a lie..; that even in the adhesions that we give, our critical sense must always remain alert and that a secret revolt must mix with all our affirmations and all our thoughts; that if the very idea of God were to take a palpable form, if God himself were to rise up, visible, on the multitudes, man’s first duty would be to refuse obedience and to treat him as the equal with whom one discusses, but not as the master one undergoes. »

For me, it is above all to be modern: the struggle against the arbitrariness of authority, against prejudices and against the contingencies of tradition with the help of reason… That is why I will never thank the Republican school enough for having taught me Mathematics, Physics, rigour, the logic of reasoning. This rationalism gave me great strength to decipher reality and did not obliterate my imagination, quite the contrary. It galvanizes me and I try to understand what surrounds me. And thanks to the help of a whole arsenal of thinkers who before me have been confronted with the great questions, my reasoning is implacable, systemic and liberating.  For example, I know that the Earth is round not because I believed those who say it, but because I learned and understood the real causes that shaped the planet and those around it. To take two other examples, if the atom and quantum physics were only simple beliefs, it would also be necessary to explain by which succession of « miracles » it was possible to conceive lasers. If lasers exist and work, isn’t this an indication that there is a little « truth » in the physical theories from which they were conceived? Isn’t this retrospective evidence that Planck, Einstein and others did understand the interactions between light and matter? It would be difficult to explain why physical theories, such as quantum physics or relativity theory, « work » so well if they say absolutely nothing true. This does not make me a fundamentalist of Science because Science is not a belief, nor do I consider it the secular religion of progress. Thinking and believing are irreducibly different in nature.

On the other hand, I cultivate the Art of being right, I track down the defect of reasoning, I look for the « little beast »…  I am attentive to those who falsify reality with the help of wobbly and pseudo-scientific demonstrations. That is why I have always had difficulty understanding the speech of some priests. Not that I don’t respect their belief, after all. Not that I do not respect their belief, after all everyone thinks what he wants, but rather because their speeches most of the time seem to me incoherent and unfit for the good conduct of reason.  I had the example again recently at a Wedding to which I was kindly invited and where I had the opportunity to hear a deductive reasoning that seemed to me quite lax… The parish priest said « God is Love. We love each other. So God exists! » This is a typical example of an inverted reasoning where the Priest took effect for the cause by initially admitting what he then wanted to prove. But through repetition, words of call, inductive expressions, the rhythmization of his gestures, his message creeps into us as an absolute truth. This manipulation is classic but in the Church no one has thought to question the parish priest. I did not flinch either because, I agree completely, on the pretext of being rational one cannot be uncompromising all the time, especially when one is kindly invited! The World would be unbearable! As Voltaire said « Peace is sometimes better than the truth »… However, a man who knows that his species has not stopped evolving and that the universe is at least 13.7 billion years old does not think the same way as another who believes hard as iron that he was created as it was in six days in a universe that would only be six thousand years old….

Anyway, and despite all the knowledge acquired or because of it, despite all this modernism, I am more and more aware of the abyss of deep ignorance in which I find myself. It also seems to me that modernity has very dark aspects.   It comes to my mouth a taste of ashes and discouragement… For example I note with dismay that the rejection of science by some is not incompatible for them with a compulsive use of new technologies. In short, we can use science while considering that it has no value! This is crazy. We’re swimming in schizophrenia! Also, modernity is the root of the ecological crisis we are going through, it has pushed man to overexploit the natural resources of the planet. It is inseparable from an outrageous liberalism of product markets, inseparable from the accumulation of capital in an ultra-competitive labour context; it is inseparable from the control of information and social surveillance; it is inseparable from industrialization, in particular that of war. And yes! Unfortunately and tragically, modernity also lies in the exponential development of technology and the corresponding growth of the means of destruction.
Finally, there is the risk today that our civilization, left to its own movement, will move towards an ever greater mastery of technology for the sake of mastery, without telling us precisely which values should guide us in the use of this mastery. And besides, about values, about the meaning of life it seems that with all our modernism we are no more advanced than Socrates, Plato or Aristotle two thousand five hundred years ago. Indeed, « How, in spite of this accumulation of positive knowledge that our times prevails, man has never known who he was. Wouldn’t it then be appropriate, in the face of this growing void of abstraction, to return to other modes of knowledge? « This sentence gleaned from my readings creates a disturbance in my mind, I confess very willingly. I knew intuitively and could not admit it but as for the fundamental questions and the meaning of life (Who am I, where am I going, where am I running, in what state I am in…), science is silent, it has nothing to say to us, niente, nada, nails! The man who suffers from the fact that meaning has deserted his existence, who is exposed to the anguish born of an interrogation on the ultimate ends of his existence, can find a priori no help from this side… There I am less proud! How to reason in these cases? Even if knowledge brings lucidity and logic, science can teach us nothing about the meaning or nonsense of our life! Such is the tragedy of modernity: it seems that the ends are lacking. the universal that science brings to light is, by essence, incomplete. But let’s not give up, let’s remain deliberately optimistic! I want it as proof that when a scholar or at least a knowing person answers a question in the field of values, if he speaks as a simple citizen, or as a moral subject, or even as a believer, I believe that his training can – sometimes – help him to be more consistent and more clairvoyant than his neighbours…

In any case, even if there are many other ways of relating to the world and to others than the mathematical model, based on the absolute prevalence of measurable; (for is everything « measurable »?), scientific culture seems to me consubstantial to the secular spirit since its expression is by essence non-dogmatic. Moreover, because of its universalism and fragility, like Democracy, this precious good should be considered a matter of State. Beware therefore of children who have dropped out of school in sensitive neighbourhoods without any control on the part of the authorities because they are the seeds of terrible setbacks. Through faultless mediation, the scientific method and the associated intangible capital must absolutely and resolutely be made available in an appropriate manner to all sections of the population, in particular to young people. Children must be taught basic skills that will later enable them to think for themselves. Just as we have access to water and electricity. It is not, however, a question of transforming the proponents of Modernity and therefore of Science into Great Priests because the State does not have a magic behaviour that would enable us to ask it to foresee everything, to predict everything. We would fall back into our ancestral wanderings with great self-proclaimed « scientists » prophesying before the multitude who pray before pale screens while waiting for tomorrow’s singing…
That is why I believe rather in what André Malraux reminds us of this sentence: « Culture is not inherited, it is conquered (…) What must unite us is the object of this conquest ». Against obscurantism, against all obscurantism so that the principles of human emancipation are always better expressed.  Finally, I will quote the great Victor Hugo: « The only goal of Science is to be immensely joyful »…
To conclude, I believe that modernity proceeds from this emancipating line and from this Joy. If I had the chance to have this choice I know that it has its limits and that our quest for knowledge remains an unfinished project!  So let’s stay philosophers. And let us enjoy our conscience and our short life in complete freedom…

A propos jeangaillat

Marié, 2 enfants, Charlotte et Alexis
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