Aug 252011

I want to be able to blog in future about “enlightenment”, so first I’ll define what I mean by it. I don’t use the word in a vague way. I refer to specific themes from the “Age of Enlightenment“. This post is an extract from a much more comprehensive page I started about 3 years ago (helped by discussion at


I am a scientifically-literate atheist. Guess who I would rather have as neighbours:

  • On one side: a scientifically-illiterate arts-teacher who believes in pluralism and human rights and representative government, or an authoritarian scientist who favours restricting people’s rights in order to censor objections to research.
  • On the other side: a privately-religious tolerant secularist, or an intolerant totalitarian dogmatic atheist.

Even scientifically-literate atheists need better measures for societies, organisations, and people than how scientific or atheist they are!

Think of those futile discussions about the good and harm of atheism versus religion:

“Look at the harm that religion has historically done, such as the Inquisition”.
“Look at all the deaths caused by atheists like Stalinism and Nazism”.
“Hitler was a Catholic, and Stalin replaced a theocracy”.
“But Stalin based his ideology on science”.
“But …”.


What had the Inquisition, Stalinism, and Nazism in common? They were extremely unenlightened!

Surely we can agree something like that? Now let’s see if we can be more precise. This post attempts to clarify what we (at least I) mean by “enlightened” and “unenlightened”, to a first approximation.


I am using this word because:

  • the “Age of Enlightenment” was an era marked by aspiration towards greater rights for common people, attempting to supplant the arbitrary authority of aristocracy and established churches, and questioning traditional institutions and customs;
  • at least in the form “enlightened” it has a fairly common meaning that approximates to the qualities I am talking about.

I build on these by identifying measures in a number of dimensions that relate to the above. I do not claim that exactly these measures would be identified by anyone else. At the moment, this is a personal project to clarify my own thinking. I may generalise this later.

So “enlightenment” is my own shorthand for what I describe here. (But if I said “Nelson Mandela is enlightened and Stalin was unenlightened”, I suspect that many people would nod agreement, and even have similar views).


I want a manageable number of independent measures, (Dimensions), each with a spectrum from “enlightened” to “unenlightened”, that can be used to analyse societies, organisations, and people. In practice, it is probably impossible to obtain true independence, and there are an unmanageable number of detailed measures that can be made.

But I only need simple results, so here is my current set. My 4 dimensions are: Cognition; Knowledge; Empathy; and Governance:


Summary: Styles of thinking and of making sense of the world. (Cognition)

Enlightened views: Freethought (and thinking for yourself). Evidence-based reasoning. Logic. Lateral thinking. Rationalism. Systematic thinking.

Unenlightened views: Dogmatic. Doctrinaire. Traditional. Fundamentalism. Emotional.


Summary: Sources of information and knowledge to be acted upon. (Knowledge, Epistemology, Science and other kinds of knowledge)

Enlightened views: Evidence. Observation. Education. History. Free speech. General availability. Openness. Literacy. Empiricism.

Unenlightened views: Revelation. Mysticism. Myth. Divination. Sacred texts. Superstition. Censorship. Dogma. Doctrine. Tradition. Pseudo-science. False certainty.


Summary: Attitudes and views towards other beings, human or otherwise. (Empathy)

Enlightened views: Peers. Equality. LGBT-acceptance. Pluralism. Meeting of minds. Sympathy. Compassion. Autonomy. Great apes.

Unenlightened views: In-group only. Belief in sub-humans. Patriarchy. Intolerance. Slavery. Property. Racism. LGBT-intolerance. Misogyny. Misandry.


Summary: Attitudes and preferences of governance at all levels. (Governance)

Enlightened views: Representative government for all. Democracy. Secularism. Freedom. Republics. Pilot schemes. Reward. Rights.

Unenlightened views: Authoritarian. Aristocratic. Theocratic. Totalitarianism. Punishment. Permissions.


Examples of processes include: Human Rights Reasoning; Religious Reasoning; Politics; Science; and Moral Reasoning.

Processes are analysed in terms of the Dimensions. I have omitted the original discussion for brevity.


Examples of topics include: Islam; Roman Catholic Church; Humanism; Stalinism; Nazism; Great Ape Project; Temple Grandin; and Operation Spanner.

Topics are analysed in terms of the Dimensions and Processes. I have omitted the original discussion for brevity.


Are my uses of words like “enlightened” biased?


To someone who believes that we should all be governed by sacred texts and revelation, my use of the loaded word “unenlightened” to summarise them may display clear and unacceptable bias. I can’t use logic to justify this, because we wouldn’t agree on the premises. I can’t prove that “Universal Human Rights” are superior to the incompatible “Human Rights in Islam“. (But note that some people consider “enlightened” to be a criticism or insult! Such people are likely to believe that “The Enlightenment” was a mistake, and pre-Enlightenment conditions were preferable).

But I am certainly allowed my opinion, and this is my web site, so I will not adopt a “cultural relativist” or “post-modernist” position here. I believe time, measured at least in decades, and perhaps in generations, is on my side.

  One Response to “Dimensions of enlightenment”

  1. Hi,

    I like the inclusion of empathy! I’m interested in the slow erosion of empathy from society, and its causes. I have met people who completely lack empathy, and it’s a puzzle – they don’t see the problem with using others like you might a hammer or screwdriver; others seem alert to every injustice and anxious to improve the lot of others.

    Anyway, best of luck with the enlightenment. As for neighbours, at the moment I would settle for anyone who doesn’t SLAMMMMMMMM the front door and doesn’t deliberately take up two parking bays!

    Kind regards

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