So I was hearing a podcast where Vervaeke says:

Steven (Pinker) has some good things to say and he's a good cognitive scientist, but the enlightenment is not sort of, religious neutral. The enlightenment makes autonomy - it's sacred thing, and it tries to see autonomy wherever it looks and it, and autonomy. Autonomy! Autonomy!

He goes on further:

And not because it wants good reasons for that, but the problem with pursuing autonomous autonomy religiously as it was being done in the enlightenment right, is it undermines the sense of connectedness you need when you are facing a fragmentation of the world view. So one thing you try to do when things are, is like you, you try to become a fully self-defining thing and people still try this strategy today. What do I have faith in? I have faith in myself. And people go, oh, yes. And they clap. And it's like, that's a disastrous place to be. You don't want to be there, right? Because your capacities for self-deception and self-destruction are significant and profound and pervasive.

How does one make the claim the enlightenment's central value was autonomy? And is Vervaeke's/ Pinker's (this particular) opinion of the enlightenment mainstream? Feel free to include references.

  • "the problem with pursuing autonomous autonomy religiously as it was being done in the enlightenment right, is it undermines the sense of connectedness you need." What does it mean? Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 9:12
  • Enlightenment is about the "power" of rationality, the belief in human capability to understanding "autonomously" from religious constraints and authorities in general (this does not imply necessarily atheism or refusal of religious belief). If Vervake (whoever he is) thinks that independence from religion can harm... this is a legitimate point of view. Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 9:15
  • As per some review the issue is that rationality and modern science have not prevented the "horror of the past 200 years" (as well as current ones). Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 9:19
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA I've edited/expanded it so the question is more complete Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 9:33
  • Thanks for the details... It seems clear that Vervake is not speaking about this Enlightenment. Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 10:24

2 Answers 2


How does one make the claim the enlightenment's central value was autonomy?

Think about The Enlightenment in terms of the emergence of the individual as the fulcrum of moral consciousness. Previously, the individual was defined in collective terms - in terms of their social role, religious affiliation, family and guild membership and so on, all aspects of the 'great chain of being'. The Enlightenment sees the emergence of the educated individual, in possession of the relevant facts, determining its own beliefs and actions (see for example Kant's seminal essay What is Enlightenment?)This is the basis for the liberal individualism which is the defining philosophy of modern secular culture. Pinker is one of the current vocal advocates of the enlightenment, as his book Enlightenment Now testifies.

My (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) motto for this attitude is 'nihil ultra ego' - "nothing beyond the self" - that being one of the defining traits of modern individualism.

The cost of this emphasis on individual autonomy is, as Vervaeke says, the loss of the sense of relatedness to the Cosmos (bearing in mind Cosmos means 'an ordered whole'). This relationship was previously mediated through mythology and religious symbolism which of course the Enlightenment tends to deprecate as being pre- or non-scientific, giving rise to the sense of the individual as the product of an essentially mindless, non-directed process. Whereas the pre-moderns had an essentially personalistic relationship with the world experienced as the expression of a divine intelligence to which you were related through Christ, and not simply flung into as the outcome of 'the accidental collocation of atoms'(per Betrand Russell, Free Man's Worship, another fundamental Enlightenment text).

For some commentary on this, see a NY Times commentary on philosopher Jurgen Habermas' 1980's dialogues with Catholicism in [Does Reason Know What It is Missing?]. 2 Also a rather difficult and lengthy essay by Buddhist scholar and teacher, David Loy, which was published as a commentary on 9/11 but which also offers some deep insights into the 'plight of modernity', Terror in the God-Shaped Hole.


Individual access to understand the Cosmos, and any intentions of a deity, through reason, is the defining creed of the Enlightenment. That is, not from a council of church scholars, or an infallible pope.

"If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties." -Francis Bacon

If you look at foundational sociologist Durkheim on religion, he identifies it's binding power as from enactment of shared attitudes to sacred values. That is rites, and festivals, not just catechisms. Public, shared confirmations, of what we believe. In shifting to understanding the world as only about private exercise of reason, we have lost the psycho-technologies for sharing our sense of meaning and locating self and community in a cosmic schema.

So, yes I'd say Vervaeke makes pretty mainstream points. But, I'd say he is missing that a big part of the opportunity for ideological dissent/innovation came from religious fragmentation, especially the rise of Protestantism, and the biggest part of the push towards secular science and politics was from endless printing-press fueled religious wars over petty differences eg whether transubstantiation was literally true.

Durkheim's way of looking at religion allows us to understand habeus corpus, and free speech, can be literally sacred values, that bind into community those that commit to not just asserting but enacting their being sacred. So we can imagine a direction towards consciously recovering shared social meaning and cohesion, in the future.

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