Intellectual Problems in the Age of Enlightenment and Arising of the Great Awakening

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Enlightenment, in Europe and in America, made a lot of questions. But at the end of the day, its fundamental question was about epistemology, about how we know things. For instance, when we have an idea in our minds, what causes it? If we have an idea of a chair, what is the relationship between the idea of the chair that we have and the chair itself? Does the chair cause the idea to be formed in our minds? If we press that question, it strongly implies that our minds are passive, simply waiting for things like chairs to cause them. If so, is the physical process which communicates information about the chair (our five senses) reliable? When we have an idea, is that idea presented to a mind, which is to say, a spiritual non-material consciousness that can deliberate and exercise free will about how to respond to the idea; or simply is received by a brain, which is to say an electrically charged assembly of gray matter that responds to certain kinds of simulations. In the later case free will is an illusion, and the notion that we have a conscious soul is just another religious deception.

The Enlightenment invented three basic responses to the question of how we know things. The first of which was simply materialism, in other words, human beings are composed entirely of material substance. In fact, the universe itself is composed only of material substance. And those substances obey the same scientific laws that all other substances obey. Minds, therefore, are only brains. Ideas, only responses to stimulus. Likewise, freedom of will, a charming illusion. Religion, little more than a human device for coping with fear and curiosity.

Materialism and Immaterialism

This position first was stated out in the English-speaking world by Thomas Hobbes, the skeptical and atheistic political philosopher; but its most successful popularization came in John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690. Like Hobbes, Locke located the source of human ideas in physical sensation, and although his analysis of the mind’s operation was a lot more sophisticated than Hobbes’, the basic result was the same: human thought was a process explainable as the result of physical sensation. According to Locke, ideas were not spiritual entities or beings prepackaged in our minds at birth or communicated by God through divine illumination. Ideas are nothing more than the object of the mind’s attention at any given moment. Locke was careful to deny that this made him an atheist like Hobbes, but he was repeatedly accused of being Hobbes’ Trojan horse.

This materialism, however, provoked an equal but opposite reaction. That reaction was contained in the immaterialism of Bishop George Berkeley. Berkeley attacked Locke’s analysis of ideas by pointing out that Locke had unwillingly painted himself into a corner on this one critical point: how did the mind actually know that the information that it was receiving from the senses was reliable. Locke had to admit that our ideas can only represent objects, the objects themselves only make impressions on the senses, and the senses convey impulses to the mind, where an idea of the object is assembled. But the mind never comes into direct contact with the objects themselves, our sensations are all that our minds ever have direct contact with. Knowledge is really only accumulated from the representations made by the senses.

So, Locke was a realist, in other words, knowledge is based on our sensations of real objects, which have real existence outside our thoughts. Locke was a representational realist, because the mind never gets into actual contact with those objects, only with their representations in the form of ideas. But Bishop Berkeley observed on that basis that we have no guarantee whatsoever that our ideas represent anything, or that they arise from sensation of objects outside our consciousness. If we have no knowledge except about our ideas, then we have no way to get around those ideas and start talking about a world that exists beyond our ideas. That, in turn, raised the question of where our ideas actually come from. Ideas do not possess wills of their own with which to cause their own existence. They are not like pop-ups in a computer screen. Berkeley’s answer was the other end antithesis of Hobbes’ and Locke’: God causes all our ideas.

Everything which we know is in fact a creation of God directly on our minds. The real source of our ideas is not in objects, but in the perception of objects. And the only perception of objects are ideas formed in our minds by God.

All this may be philosophically fun, but the fact was that Berkeley’s immaterialism was almost as unacceptable to the majority of European thinkers as an explanation of how we know things as Hobbes’ atheism. Immaterialism never amounted to more than a minority report in the Enlightenment. The majority report was, as usual, left to a compromise position. This is why the Cartesian method won so many converts. Descartes could doubt the existence of everything, except the operations of his own mind. But since the mind was capable of discovering and proving its own existence, that showed that the mind had an existence independent of matter. So, spiritual substances (minds), and material substances (bodies and objects), could coexist in the universe.

The best illustration of this coexistence was Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. Gravity was nothing if not the ideal way of showing how spirit, in this case God, could operate upon matter without needing to directly move or alter it beyond the laws of physics. Just as planets move effortlessly through empty space in their own unsupported orbits, so the entire universe could function just as effortlessly. Both Descartes and Newton opened up a way to have the new philosophy and still have God. But it was clear that the God who emerged from their debates was no longer the God of the Bible or the God of the Reformation, but a God defined by what the natural order would allow them to say about spiritual substance. This may have satisfied Descartes and Newton, but not the broad spectrum of European opinion in the Enlightenment, which is why in the midst of this Enlightenment there occurs a remarkably and utterly impressive reawakening of the most intense and “aggressive” forms of Evangelical Christianity.

The Great Awakening

In protestant Germany it appeared in the form of what became known as Pietism. In England it appeared in the Methodist revival of John Wesley. But in all of them, the most intense and passionate Christian piety was reawakened across Europe, in great number and force, which made the Enlightenment look shallow and inconsequential. Even though nothing could be more certain than the spiritual and intellectual gulf which separates these awakenings from the spirit of the Enlightenment, it is important to see that the Enlightenment and the Awakenings shared some important common ground.

There was, as it turned out, more than one way to have a revolution against Aristotle. In general, the awakenings shared with the Enlightenment the skepticism about the usefulness and virtue of the established churches in Europe, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike. They also shared the impulse to find a more authentic and natural kind of experience. The Enlightenment wanted to abandon Christianity almost entirely and uncover a more basic and authentic religion of nature. The Awakeners did not want to abandon Christianity, but they sought to recover a more basic and authentic religion as well. Not the religion of nature, but the religion of the heart. The true piety of primitive basic Christianity.

These Awakeners would read the new science, but use it to prove the impotence and limitations of the human reason before a universal system so vast and incomprehensible. It is at this point in the history of the American mind that the name of Jonathan Edwards springs almost automatically to the lips.