A Brief History of Western Philosophy: The Awakening of Modern Consciousness


“The Dialogue between Copernicus and God”, 1873, painted by Polish painter Jan Matejko

The so-called advanced and modern means sweeping away the backwardness and ignorance. The whole people will only use rationality and science as the criteria and work together to build a prosperous and orderly society? And such a society is naturally not the most developed America, and it is hard to imagine that the superstition that has long been cast aside by most Chinese can have a place in that society.

In fact, America is far from the modern society imagined. Mormons do not drink coffee or tea. The Amish and Mennonites rejected all modern technology, electricity and engines, and naturally did not use modern equipment such as televisions and telephones, and even refused to use buttons. With these two sects alone, there are hundreds of thousands of believers in the United States. Although most of them live in clusters, there are also a small number of them living together in the general American society, but they still insist on resisting modern civilization and surrounding societies. They only speak local dialects that originated in Europe two hundred years ago. They do not pay taxes to the U.S. government and refuse the services of the U.S. government.

The full suspicion of human cognition is the most revolutionary insight of the Enlightenment.

However, similar so-called ignorant groups are by no means just drifting away from the margins of American society. The international superstar Tom Cruise belongs to a sect called the Christian Science Society. The sect rejects all medical methods and believes that only prayer is the only way to cure illness. The Christian Science Monitor published by this sect is one of the most famous publications in the world. Mormon believer Mitt Romney was re-elected as the governor of Massachusetts, where there are many top universities in the world, and he was also the Republican nominee to fight with the incumbent President Obama. Huntsman Hunter, another Mormon, also served as governor of Utah, traveled to Singapore, Russia, and China, and participated in the presidential primaries. After her husband was assassinated, former first lady Nancy Reagan turned to astrologers for many years to arrange the president’s activities and schedule.

Could it be that we have always firmly believed that some deep-rooted understandings about what is modern and advanced, what is ignorance, backwardness, etc., are all wrong? After all, what is advanced modern consciousness? What is ignorance and backwardness?

Heliocentric theory triggered a cognitive revolution
After the decline of the Roman Empire, Europe fell into chaos. Catholicism, which claims to be the incarnation of absolute truth, has become the only worldview that dominates the world in Europe. This situation lasted for more than 1,000 years, and the age that was shackled by it was called the Middle Ages and the Dark Age in history.

Hume can be said to be the philosopher who has the greatest influence on later thinkers.

The light of the Renaissance shining through the dark canopy made people gradually doubt the truth of Catholicism. In 1517, Martin Luther mailed his “Nine-Five Theses” to the local archbishop. Discuss the errors, abuses and contradictions of the Catholic Church and directly question the authority of the Catholic Church, especially the Pope. The resulting religious reform caused a series of Protestant denominations (collectively called Christianity) to flourish like bamboo shoots after a rain, thus breaking the dominance of Catholicism.

In 1543, Copernicus waited on the eve of his death before publishing the “On the Movement of the Celestial Body”, which he devoted his life to printing. Based on the data and mathematical deductions obtained from Copernicus’s own perennial observations, “The Theory of Celestial Movements” concluded that heliocentric theory not only overthrew the Catholic doctrine of God’s creation of the earth’s inner world, but also demonstrated modern scientific research methods based on observations. Thus triggered a scientific revolution.

The heliocentric theory has completely subverted the consistent cognition of human beings about themselves and their position in the universe, which has laid the scientific foundation for human beings to start to doubt their own cognitive ability.

Descartes’ suspicion of “I am”
Bacon insisted on relying on observations, experiments and “exclusion of inductive reasoning” to engage in scientific research throughout his life, so he injected uncertain factors into all scientific conclusions: the conclusions of inductive reasoning are specific and limited; new observations and new experiments will bring New conclusion. The deductive reasoning that has been dominant since Aristotle is too absolute, and it is easy to fall into the shackles of absolute truth. No wonder Bacon is hailed as the father of empiricism and pioneered modern scientific research methods.

If Bacon’s suspicions were only concealed in the process of careful observation and serious experimentation, then Descartes could hardly conceal the edge of suspicion from the beginning.

Young people selling “Christian Science Monitor” on the street

When he was young, he began to doubt all the knowledge recorded in books and others, and then fully doubted all the information obtained from the senses. He pointed out that sensory information is very unreliable through the wax debates in “The Meditations on the First Philosophy”. Solid wax and liquid wax are almost irrelevant in sensory information such as state, color, smell, sound, temperature, and touch, and should be judged as foreign objects. However, human knowledge still judges both as wax. This is a judgment made by rational analysis without the interference of sensory information.

In this case, it cannot be ruled out that the vast world and even one’s own body, which are understood through the senses, are actually illusions created by a certain demon to deceive humans. Descartes doubted everything, but ultimately could not doubt the fact that he was doubting (thinking).

However, the reputation of “I think, therefore I am” is very unfortunate, because Descartes’s truly revolutionary contribution to human thinking lies not in affirming “I think” but in doubting “I am.” It can be said that without Descartes’ comprehensive doubts about the external world and his own flesh, there would be no modern consciousness of mankind, and no modern society.

The two extremes of modern epistemology
Descartes doubted the information obtained through the senses, and even doubted the real existence of the senses themselves, but he did not doubt the senses’ ability to receive and process information, and the comprehensive doubts about the ability of human cognition was the most revolutionary insight of the Enlightenment .

Bacon and Descartes are at the two extremes of modern epistemology: empiricism and rationalism. Bacon firmly believes that only through careful observation and careful experimentation can new discoveries be made. Obviously, he relied on sensory information, while Descartes fully doubted sensory information and believed that humans’ knowledge of the world came from rational analysis.

Locke inherited the mantle of Bacon, convinced that any knowledge must withstand trial and error, and there is nothing in the world that does not need to be proved. In 1689, he published “A Theory of Human Understanding”, which completely refuted Descartes’ transcendental theory that knowledge comes from reason. “Without experience, where does the knowledge come from?” He believes that before experience, people’s knowledge can only be “a piece of whiteboard”.

Human understanding has deficiencies and limitations that cannot be alleviated. It is impossible to grasp the absolute truth.

Leibniz refuted Locke one by one, and ridiculed his empiricism: “Everything must pass through the senses before it can enter the brain, except for the brain.”

So far, the two major factions of empiricism and rationalism have completely refuted the other side’s view as the only source of human knowledge. It stands to reason that since experience is so unbearable and rationality is so unhelpful, the logical direction should be the suspicion of mankind’s own understanding. However, both parties attacked each other in order to protect their own sources of knowledge, so they could not go beyond the limitations of themselves and factions and draw a logical conclusion that would take the overall situation.

Can human beings infer causality?
It was Hume, who was only in his 20s, who made this logical leap.

In 1738, the 28-year-old Hume published “A Theory of Human Nature”, which he began to conceive when he was in college, and then devoted himself to writing for 4 years. “The Theory of Human Nature” pointed out: It is impossible for human reason to grasp the causal relationship. What people usually call causality is just a kind of thinking inertia formed by the brain repeatedly seeing one phenomenon occur after another. However, the constant occurrence of the past does not mean that the future will necessarily occur, because human reason cannot make such an inference at all: inferring causality from past experience, we must presuppose that the future will copy the past, and this presupposition itself, And it is impossible to find a foothold in the past experience, because such a past only exists in the future, and the future has not yet occurred. This is the famous Hume induction problem, which is a vicious circle of inference.

Scottish philosopher David Hume

“Theory of Human Nature” challenges people’s most intuitive, reliable and widely used method of grasping the world: causality is everywhere, and it has almost become a natural attribute of human thinking without thinking. The reason for using one marble to touch another marble will inevitably lead to the result of another marble moving, which is justified. The reason for the arrival of the morning will inevitably lead to the fruit of the sun rising from the east. However, Hume must stand up and say that human knowledge cannot draw such a causal conclusion. Hume vowed to say in The Theory of Human Nature that he has observed that the marble will move due to the collision of another marble many times, and human knowledge still cannot assert that the next time a marble collides, it will move.

Hume used philosophy in order to introduce Newton’s scientific method into philosophical research. However, the result of his research was to doubt the possibility of Newtonian science. The empiricist Hume certainly believes that all knowledge can only come from sensory knowledge, but sensory knowledge is mostly just a fading copy of sensory information, which is not necessarily reliable. The collision of marbles will inevitably lead to the movement of the marbles, and the cause and effect are obvious. However, Hume pointed out with impeccable logic that these are just two phenomena that occur one after another, and human intelligence cannot infer that they are mutually cause and effect related phenomena.

Let alone Hume’s contemporaries, even today, there are very few people who truly understand Hume. If there are more people who understand Hume, our world will listen more and less bossy, violence and war. However, Hume can be said to be the philosopher who has the greatest influence on later thinkers. After graduating from Einstein University, he organized a research group to study Hume.

The Amish and Mennonites rejected all modern technologies, electricity and engines, and they still use horse-drawn carriages for travel today

“The Theory of Human Nature” gave a fatal blow to the purely rational understanding of human beings. It was not really understood by another person until more than 30 years after its publication. Kant, who got its true meaning, admitted that he was “awakened from the dogmatic drowsiness”.

Kant knew that Hume’s logic could not be rebutted. However, without purely rational thinking, mathematics would be impossible. This is unacceptable to him. He decided to circumvent Hume, find another way, and put the pure rational knowledge behind. Therefore, he thanked the guests behind closed doors, thought hard for 10 years, and wrote “A Critique of Pure Reason.”

The method used by Kant is really staggering: let our knowledge adapt to the object a priori, isn’t it always nothing? So, why don’t we try to turn it upside down and let the object adapt to our understanding? In this way, it is possible to know the object a priori, because we have established something for it before the object appears. Kant also found evidence for this novel method: Copernicus first assumed that the celestial body revolved around him, but found it difficult to explain the operation of the celestial body. Later, he tried to reverse it and let himself revolve around the celestial body. A revolutionary discovery.

Kant also separated the noumenon of things from the phenomenon of things, and believed that human cognition is indeed powerless to the noumenon of things, but it can grasp the phenomenon. Kant believes that there are some innate cognitive frameworks in the human brain, such as basic concepts such as time and space. Since the object can be adapted to the recognition, the perceptual information can be packed into these frames and reshaped by these frames.

Obviously, the phenomenon that Kant separated from the ontology is actually the product of the interaction between things and transcendental knowledge. It is very subjective and is far from the objective world generally understood.

Modern society needs different opinions
Fortunately, when the foundation of modern society was laid, the Enlightenment’s analysis of human knowledge for nearly two hundred years has crystallized into the consensus of human beings-at least the human intellectual circles: human knowledge has flaws and limitations that cannot be alleviated, and it cannot grasp the absolute Truth, and this pessimistic reality of human understanding, is not diverted by the will of even no matter how smart or powerful an individual or group is. This is modern consciousness.

Precisely because of a deep understanding of the limitations and defects of human understanding, the drafters of the “U.S. Constitution” laid down two basic principles for the Constitution. On the one hand, a set of intricate checks and balances have been set up so that no one in power can make a final decision. This is the most fundamental consideration behind the establishment of modern systems such as the separation of church and state, the federal system, the electoral system, the recall system, the separation of powers, the two houses of Congress, and the freedom of the press.

On the other hand, since human knowledge cannot grasp the absolute truth, no individual or group, no matter how clever or no matter how powerful, can judge any other no matter how ignorant or no one is through the generally recognized procedures. Or the group’s perception is wrong. This is why in modern society, the formulation and enforcement of any law, the formulation and implementation of policies, the appointment and dismissal of officials, the planning, permitting and construction of public projects, etc., must be widely solicited from members of the society, and must go through The procedures of the society must be authorized by the society and subject to social supervision.

The limitation of cognition is mainly determined by the limitation of perspective. Then the only thing that can alleviate the limitations of understanding is from multiple perspectives, especially from opposite perspectives. This is why modern consciousness does not regard disagreement as a burden or even an enemy, but as a thirsty precious resource. Of course, such an arrangement must tolerate errors and backward understanding. This is why in American society today, there are still so many groups and individuals who insist on a very backward life and way of thinking.

In fact, if we truly understand the limitations and flaws of human understanding, we also know that we have no reason or ability to conclude that other people’s methods must be ignorant and backward. Moreover, insisting that the thinking of others is ignorant and backward, and even the way of thinking that must be forbidden, banned, and then quickly is the real ignorance and backwardness.

Many of us have never traced the formation of modern consciousness. By the time modernity is presented to us, it has been fully formed, manifested in the form of high-rise buildings, strong ships and guns, airplanes and trains, and high-tech. In the 19th century, there began to be social progress. Therefore, we regard those dazzling things as the result of social progress, as a sign of the uniformity of modern society, and as the modern crystallization of human wisdom. As everyone knows, these are just subsidiary products of modern consciousness, and the cornerstone of modern consciousness is precisely the limitations and defects of human consciousness. The actual appearance is diverse, even good and bad.

Facing the mirror, what we see is our own image, completely consistent with ourselves. However, when we pick up the scissors and try to trim the hair around the ears, we are very likely to cut the ears, and the more focused, the more dangerous. It turns out that the image in the mirror is the opposite. The appearance of modern society seems to be completely consistent with the modern society in our brains. However, if we do not understand what modern consciousness is and how it is formed, we may mistake the mirror for the truth and think that we are working towards modernity. In fact, it is going farther and farther. As a result, it is not just a problem of cutting the ears.

With mirror images, we may be able to dispel superstitions and dispel ignorance without fear for the sake of modernity. In fact, the real journey of human beings into modern society is only the process of human beings gradually understanding and accepting their own limitations and restraining impulses imposed on others.

From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, Western society has gone through hundreds of years of hard work in order to be liberated from the shackles of the absolute dominance of the Catholic Church. However, the liberated modern society did not ban Catholicism. The most fundamental reason is that modern consciousness deeply realizes that it has no ability to judge which things in the field of thought are right and which are wrong. The only thing modern society can do is not allow any individual or group to impose their consciousness on others.