A Whole New World


Image from Alex Garland's Ex Machina, 2014

During the Modern Period of philosophy (17th through 20th centuries), there was an emphasis on the study of the world through science. Inquisitive minds wanted to know how things worked and, therefore, began to question traditional ways of reasoning which no longer sufficed to explain the world around them. In the seventeenth century, philosophers such as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke, et al, were interested in human knowledge and how it could contribute to the understanding and improvement of the human experience.

Bacon, for example, proposed the reconstruction of human knowledge by guiding it “at every step”, meaning that he would take it upon himself to demolish and then rebuild knowledge brick by brick, leaving no room for the entry of unnecessary error. His thinking is very much in line with the emergence of science as a means to truth. We can see these two principle themes: one, regarding the need to do away with error through tearing down and reconstructing human knowledge, therefore using science to come to the true understanding of how humans think and obtain understanding; and second, by looking at the human experience and nature as a whole, as a type of machine composed of intricate pieces which can be manipulated. Based on this proposal, human knowledge should mirror or be an extension of this machine; knowledge should be precise and utile.

In the Meditations, René Descartes uses skepticism in order to try and figure out what is real and what isn’t and how it is that humans can come to know anything. He challenges the validity of the senses, concluding that we should be cautious when relying on what the senses tell us about the world. Descartes then tries to find out if even those ideas which he thinks to be true really are so, or if he could possibly be deceived by someone that makes him think they are true. He eventually comes to the conclusion that, regardless of the validity of his ideas one thing is certain – the fact that he is even thinking about all of these things must mean that he exists. He has the capacity to think and therefore he must exist. Hence, Descartes claims: “I think, therefore I am”. Descartes, then, placed the human mind at the center of the human existence making human reason the method for the knowledge of the world and of the human itself. Man is a rational creature above everything else; He is a thinking thing.

From the philosopher Blaise Pascal’s perspective or rather from the perspective of the universe, the human being was less significant. Whereas for Descartes the human mind is at the center of his intellectual universe, for Pascal man is “lost in this remote corner of nature” and in the “little cell in which he finds himself lodged”. In contrast with the universe, man is “the most feeble thing in nature.” Pascal places the human person on a completely different plane than Descartes. This doesn’t mean that man is less important to him – for Pascal man can depend on his senses and imagination. It is through love that man can feel God; it is one thing for man to know God, but a whole different thing to love Him. Pascal disagreed strongly with Descartes because to Pascal, man is not just a thinking thing, but a feeling thing also.

During the Renaissance, the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proved that the sun is at the center of the solar system, at a time when people believed that the Earth was at the center of the universe. The philosopher Immanuel Kant, likewise, sought to prove that scientific knowledge cannot know the world in itself, but only as it appears to the human mind. In other words, he wanted to prove how our mind constructs knowledge of the world in itself through sensibility (space and time) and understanding (categories). Before Kant, science and philosophy had placed its attention on how an object could be known and understood; Kant shifted the focus away from the object and onto the mind itself and how it comes to know objects. There was a shift from the outside world (objects in the world) into the inner one (epistemology of the human mind). In this sense, the human intellect was placed at the center of the universe.

The philosophers of the Modern Period didn’t just propose new ideas to the world of knowledge, but aimed to commence afresh, as Bacon would propose; that is, do away with all understanding that had led human beings “into error”. They revolutionized the way man thought about and related to the world around him, and how man could or could not come to understand himself and God.

By Edgar Avendano @latinofilmmaker