The Modern Worldview

What is true? It is perhaps the most important question, because what we believe to be true shapes how we live, our culture, our views on religion and spirituality, our politics, and the structure of our society. Everything is downstream from truth. The Enlightenment reshaped the way society viewed truth in the Western world by shifting the means of determining what is true to science and reason away from tradition and religion. In particular, observations by the senses, that is, what can be seen, heard, touched, or measured is regarded as the starting point for learning what is true. The hope is that careful and systematic study by observation and experimentation, that is, science, humanity can understand the laws that govern anything whether it be the physics of the universe, the nature of the human mind, or society. The modern worldview is based on this premise: that truth is discovered and best understood by science and reason. However despite its achievements, there are some significant limitations both science and reason which in-turn significantly undermines the modern worldview. The limitations and other negative consequences will be explored in other essays, but first the modern worldview needs to be outlined, defined, and given credit where it is due.

When it comes to the question of how do we know what is true, the modern worldview has two halves: reason and empiricism. Reason refers to rigorous human thought, that is, logic and mathematics. Being a product of the mind, reason does not necessarily have to reflect what people observe in the outside world. Empiricism, usually referred to as science, is concerned with the careful and systematic study of the observable universe.

The two halves of the modern worldview have two different functions. Reason, meaning logic and mathematics, is used to model some part of reality. The relationship between the model and reality can be understood by the metaphor of a map and terrain. A map is used to find a way from one place to another and that path, though planned abstractly on the map, corresponds to a real-world path. The map works because it is a representation of the relevant parts of the terrain and can be used to predict where a set of directions will lead. The map is of course not the terrain, it is an abstraction and a useful guide if it reflects reality

Logic and mathematics are used to create complex models of phenomena or even of the entire universe. Pythagoras, who lived in the 6th century BC, was perhaps the first to conceive of representing the world with mathematics. His pioneering study of geometry revealed a hidden connection between numbers and some parts of reality. This led Pythagoras to state that “All things are numbers.” The abstract concepts of triangles, circles, and other geometric figures could now be used to understand the world and had practical application in building and architecture. Galileo reiterated this idea two thousand years later when he said, “Philosophy is written in this grand book — I mean the Universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.”

The goal of most academic and scientific fields is to better understand and represent parts of reality with mathematical models. For example, physicists build models of the mechanics of the universe and sociologists build models of human society. Both would to the extent possible use mathematics and logic to construct their models. Their goal is to build an abstraction that is precise, has predictive qualities, and corresponds to reality.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the distinction between math and logic was largely erased. David Hilbert and others systematized mathematics into a logical framework based on a few initial assumptions. These assumptions are called axioms and serve as the bedrock from which logical reasoning can proceed. The hope was that if the correct axioms were chosen, everything mathematical, logical, and scientific could be expressed exactly, logically, and precisely within this framework. Hilbert bold proclaimed that “We must know. We will know.” The vision behind his effort formed the hope of the modern worldview, that this body of knowledge expressed in his logical framework would grow until every truth is discovered.

However, picking the correct axioms is not easily done as different assumptions will lead to different conclusions. To verify the assumptions and fill in gaps that might be difficult to discover through reason, scientific empiricism is needed. Science, which uses observation and experimentation to determine what is true, is used to verify or add to a model of reality. In the analogy of the map, some of the map might be incomplete and those gaps can be filled in with what is observed of the terrain. Likewise gaps and omissions in a model can be filled by scientific experimentation and observation of reality. Further, it is not necessarily clear which map is correct before looking at the terrain. If different people have different maps, the terrain can be used to help determine which map is accurate. Hence the assumptions of different models can be tested empirically to determine which is correct.

The history of empiricism originates with Aristotle, who believed that knowledge is fundamentally derived from the senses. His philosophy of using observations of the natural world to determine what is and is not true, centuries later inspired Sir Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilei. Bacon, who is credited with creating the scientific method, believed that all knowledge ultimately comes from inductive reasoning i.e. observation and empirical data. Galileo, who is often credited as the "father of science," was perhaps the first to take a modern view: theoretical mathematical systems are hypothesized then tested with experimentation. The controversy he is famous for is often framed as a conflict between science and religion, though this is not accurate. The conflict was between competing models of the solar system. Galileo advanced the heliocentric model while another successful scientist and mathematician named Tycho Brahe supported a geocentric model. The geocentric model originated with Aristotle was elaborated upon by Ptolemy, a famous astronomer in the second century AD. 

 At the time, both mathematicians' models matched the observation of the solar system and conclusive evidence for either model could not be feasibility gathered. The difference was that Galileo’s system was simpler than the older system supported by Brahe. At the time, the simplicity of Galileo’s system was not seen as enough of a justification to throw out the legacy of Aristotle. Of course, Galileo was later justified, but this debate marks the beginning of the Enlightenment era and the ascendency of the modern worldview. In this worldview there is a balance between math and science. A mathematical model needs to be verified that it matches reality through observation, but without a mathematical model there is no way to systematically make sense of all the data, filter out erroneous information, or make accurate predictions about what may happen in the future.

The dynamic power of the interaction between science and reason has produced some incredible achievements. These achievements are often taken for granted today but our lives would not be the same without them. In the field of agriculture, Fritz Haber created the Haber-Bosch process which extracts nitrogen from the air to produce fertilizer. The process is responsible for 50% of the nitrogen found in the human body which likely means most people are alive today because of this process. It is the primary means of creating fertilizer and without it potentially billions of people would die.

Growing food is only part of the problem of feeding people, another significant issue is preventing spoilage. Nicolas Appart and Louis Pasteur developed methods of killing the mirco-organisms that cause spoilage by simply heating and then storing food in sanitized containers. Not only did this save lives by making food more consistently available, but this also led to the development of germ theory. Modern medicine simply would not be possible without an understanding of the mechanism of disease transmission.

Breakthroughs in the field of thermodynamics led to the creation of the first practical internal combustion engines and automobiles by Samuel Brown and Karl Benz respectively. Later, the Wright brothers applied the same technology to create the airplane. Early advances in thermodynamics were all empirical driven by experimentation. After some success, a precise and mathematical theory of thermodynamics was developed and was used to further refine the achievements in automobiles and aviation. As a result, the world for the first time was fully connected, enabling individuals to travel with ease.

Further, advances in the application of physics, specifically electro-magnetism as well as new abstract fields of math pioneered by individuals such as Alan Turing, created the computer and the field of computer science. Today, world-wide, near instantaneous communication is made possible by the Internet.

All of these achievements were made possible by a modern understanding of reality. In which systematic observations lead to the development of  an exact mathematical theory which are then confirmed with further experimentation and observation. The theoretic, mathematical models allow for discovery and application that was not possible or realistically accessible through direct observation. However without observation and experimentation, models with unrealistic assumptions could not be discredited or corrected. This dynamic tension between empiricism and reason has driven human discovery and achievement to new levels.

Beyond science and technology, the ascendency of the modern worldview has broadly impacted Western culture. Before the Enlightenment, people viewed the world as full of mystery, chaos, and the supernatural. Though the world was also seen as ordered by God or gods, the order was not always comprehensible to people. By explaining reality in terms of math, the modern worldview promotes or even implies a mechanical view of reality. The universe is now seen as a machine which led people like Thomas Jefferson it was “wound up” by God but left to run by itself. According to this view, for everything that happens, there exists a rational, logical explanation. Humanity understands part of this comic machine and since it is like a machine, understanding is reduced to a logical, rigorous mathematical description. For the parts not understood, it is only a matter of running the right experiments and recording enough oberstations to discover and ultimately explain the hidden machinery.

The Enlightenment produced the modern way of structuring human society: liberalism. Liberalism meant the freedom of individuals to live by their own conscience, to discover for themselves what is right and wrong and how to live as a consequence. The reason Jefferson, Madison, and other founding fathers of the United States kept the constitution so short is because they believed that the proper structure for governance should be discovered. By the iterative process creating, trying, and reforming the law, the best form of governance for human flourishing would be discovered. Their statements such as “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal...” are essentially axioms of their model of human society. Voting would serve as a form of empiricism and the law would be the equivalent of a mathematical model. Over time, the model for human society would be expanded, improved, and refined based on the collective experiences of the populace through their votes and representatives. This form of governance was meant to mirror the scientific process that created so many breakthroughs in the natural sciences. This is in stark contrast to the monarchies and magisterium of the church in the old World, which derived their laws and authority from ancient traditions and sacred Scripture. 

The modern worldview with its democratic and scientific processes gives a vision of human progress. Especially the scientific achievements of the modern era give a concrete marker of advancement and continuous improvement. This progress appears to be both substantial and in the eyes of some, inevitable. But  where does this leave the values, traditions, and religions of the past? With an ever expanding understanding of a mechanical universe, there is apparently an ever shrinking place for God or other supernatural forces to act. Philosophers and theologians call this the “God of Gaps.” As for the other traditions and values, they cannot always be simply reduced to a few principles or axioms. Without a logical basis, they appear to be arbitrary or irrational. It is no wonder that as the modern worldview has ascended, religious belief and trust in the values of the tradition has declined.

Further, since modernity ultimately uses empiricism or voting to determine what is true and what is right, right and wrong are reduced to consensus or convention. At best, human values whether they be personal, religious, or traditional, need to be expressed in universal objective terms. All values, if they are good, must fit into a single universal framework or be rejected, or at least relegated to only personal preference.

Modernity has elevated science and reason to the ultimate means of determining truth, displaced religion and the traditions of the past. It has also produced some remarkable achievements that have in many ways benefited humanity. However, the modern worldview with its balance of reason and empirical science, is deeply and fundamentally flawed. Since everything is downstream of the truth, modernity’s flaws produce a distorted view of reality and human experience that is beginning to manifest itself as a troubled and crumbling society. In the subsequent essays, the limitation of both reason and empiricism, will be explored, detailed, and remedied.