Renaissance and Enlightenment: Canvas for AI Era

Published on 21 August 2023
Updated on 19 March 2024

The Renaissance and Enlightenment set the canvas for the AI era, with humanity and rationality as the primary colours. Between the 14th and 19th centuries, discoveries, the arts, and science took off across Europe. Italian Renaissance cities nurtured arts and science from Da Vinci to Petrarka. Columbo, Magellan, and other explorers sailed from the Iberian Peninsula for faraway lands and continents. European thinkers put humanity and rationality in the centre of philosophical and academic studies. 

While rationality and humanity have been progressing, their limits have surfaced, as outlined by critics of modernity such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Strauss.

This text explores the relevance of the Renaissance and Enlightenment legacy for the AI era. 

Renaissance: Renewal of classical arts and science

From the 14th to the 17th centuries, The Renaissance revived arts and sciences inspired by Greek and Roman classics. In many cases, the reception of ancient classics came through thinkers of the Arab Golden Age. Key figures like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Galileo introduced new ideas and approaches that challenged the status quo of the medieval era. The Renaissance triggered academic education and research with a sharp increase in the number of universities, as illustrated below.

Map of universities in the rennaisance era.

Enlightenment: The age of reason and progress

In the 18th century, the Enlightenment furthered the Renaissance ethos. Famous thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau introduced a more organized framework of thought based on reason.

They paved the way for the scientific method—where hypotheses were to be tested experimentally. This empirical approach remains central in research, including AI, where data-driven algorithms learn, adapt, and grow rather than relying solely on preprogrammed knowledge. 

They also questioned established norms by promoting individual rights and liberty. Enlightenment humanism created ‘software’ for Europe’s fast economic and technological growth for centuries, as illustrated below.

A long-term timeline of technology

Source: Max Roser

Interplay between rationality and humanity

Rationality and humanity evolved as fundamental pillars of modernity. 

Rationality, the ability to reason and think logically, has been a key human faculty separating us from other animals. Rationality has nurtured the fascinating growth of science and technology. Consequently, human life became longer, less dangerous, and more enjoyable. Rationality is the critical driver of modernity, focusing on optimisation and functionality. 

Humanity, the other leg of enlightenment, places humans at the centre of society. The key tenants are respect for human life and dignity, realising human potential, and the right for individuals to make personal, economic, and political choices. While laid back in the Enlightenment, humanity’s values were reflected in the Universal Declaration, the UN Charter, and other core UN documents set after the Second World War.

In the last few centuries, rationality and humanity have reinforced each other. Advancements in science and technology helped the emancipation of millions worldwide. More and more free and educated people brought creativity and ingenuity to science and the economy. The Enlightenment formula seemed to work. Will it continue in the AI era?

Rationality and humanity in the AI era

More than 100 years ago, the tension between rationality and humanity started shaking society. The Enlightenment’s promise of scientific progress creating prosperous humanity was increasingly replaced by conflict and wars that dominated the long 20th century.

Ten years ago, fast digitalisation triggered a new look at the interplay between rationality and humanity. Google became the main gateway to knowledge and information. Social media has started shaping human interaction and choices.

Today and even more in the future, AI technology, as the ultimate expression of rationality, will question human freedom to make personal, political, and economic choices. 

Illustration of choice between human and machine choices
Source: Jovan Kurbalija, DiploFoundation

For time immemorial, humans have been making decisions and choices by using logos (brain), ethos (heart), and pathos (guts). Our choices may have been better or worse, but they were ‘ours’. With AI, machines can make more optimal and informed choices than we can, given that the algorithms behind them often ‘know’ us better than our closest people. Our digital profiles are created based on the data tech platforms gather on us (what we click on, our likes, interests, and data generated from our devices). 

If machines can suggest optimal choices for us, it will be difficult to resist their advice. Gradually, machines can replace our human agency to choose from personal partners to goods and services and political parties. While it may be tempting to have AI choose for us, it can have far-reaching consequences for our society, economy, and politics. 

By trying to resolve this issue of human agency and choice, we will revisit the interplay between rationality and humanity, two core pillars of enlightenment. Will modernity, driven by science and technology, encapsulate humanity, or will they continue reinforcing each other? 

In the coming years, we have to – at least – avoid ‘autoimmune diseases of Enlightenment’ in which AI-codified rationality endangers our core humanity, and – at best – find new ways in which modernity (science and technology) and humanity will continue reinforcing each other. 

Relevance of criticism of Modernity in AI era

The search for the right interplay between rationality and humanity in the AI era could be informed by thinkers from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, who started questioning the promise of enlightenment through the continuous and mutually reinforcing development of rationality and humanity.

While modernity brought remarkable developments in science, technology, and society, enlightenment thinking has not answered questions about human conditions and predicaments. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Strauss started with the centrality of rationality and its great promise for societal growth. For example, they were supportive or, at least, neutral about the importance of science and technology for human society.

Their criticism of enlightenment could be counter-intuitive, as anyone rational cannot be against rationality and science. Overall, human lives are longer, better, and easier. And ‘rationality’ is our default reaction when we face a problem. It is much more difficult to question ‘rationality dogma’ than previous religious ones, which were dismissed on the level of logical discourse. 

The common thread in criticism of enlightenment reality is that in fighting one dogma – theological views of the medieval period – the Enlightenment thinkers moved to the other extreme of creating a dogma of rationality.

For many thinkers who questioned the power of rationality, the main target was Kant, who opted for reason against faith in a rather binary framing. 

Nietzsche, one of the first critics of the Enlightenment and Kant, argued that the Enlightenment thinkers wasted a unique chance to dismiss the overall idea of ‘certainty’, which has existed mainly in religious form. Instead of challenging the idea of ‘certainty’, the Enlightenment replaced ‘religious certainty’ with ‘rationalist certainty’. 

In his criticism of ‘rational dogma’, Kierkegaard was very critical of the idea that the entire human existence could be captured in a neat and logical system. He argued that we need to embrace ‘irrationality’, as well, in order to fully understand human conditions and predicaments. He calls for human authenticity, which may oppose full rationality. As AI codifies social norms and ‘optimises expectations’, it will generate its predetermined choices with very little space for authentic free choices based on free will.

Leo Strauss criticised the Enlightenment rationality claim for value neutrality and objectivity. He contrasted modernity with ancient rationality. The Socratic dialectic questioning method aimed to uncover the truth by challenging presumptions and interrogating beliefs, particularly inspired Strauss. Although the Socratic method spans all his opuses, the most relevant is his book ‘The City and Man’ where he discusses Plato’s dialogues and the nature of Socratic questioning. 

Other lessons from Renaissance and Enlightenment for the AI era

Interdisciplinary approach 

As the Renaissance featured an amalgamation of art and science – figures like Leonardo da Vinci exemplified this blend, where a painter’s palette coexisted with scientific sketches – AI also thrives at the intersection of multiple disciplines, from neuroscience to computer engineering.

AI neutrality and biases 

AI cannot be ‘scientifically neutral’. There will always be underlying values, drives, and perspectives among AI developers and those whose data is used. Nietzsche warned about presenting human rationality and science as neutral and objective. Kierkegaard’s assertion that “truth is subjectivity” echoes the same point of view. For him, personal experiences, faith, and emotions are central to human existence. Thus, he would be critical of AI’s claims to truly understand or replicate the subjective experiences and depths of human emotion and existential angst.

Average approximation

Nietzsche’s critiques of conformity around his concept of the ‘Last Man’, would be very critical of AI’s tendency towards ‘optimisation’, which can often create average outcomes. In this way, AI can tranquilise humans from their drive to individual excellence, as Nietzsche called it in his concept of the “overman” or “Übermensch.”

Purpose and nihilism

If AI replaces humans in many fields, there is a risk of increasing nihilism. If Nietzsche were alive today, he would warn about this risk as he did in the 19th century when he was observing the rise of nihilism with the decline of religious beliefs, which he described in the controversial notion of ‘The End of God’. 

Art and spirituality

As our competition with machines accelerates, humans must find niches for their excellence and uniqueness. Nietzsche considered art one of those human ‘refuges’ and an essential life-affirming force. 

AI between data, knowledge, and wisdom

Leo Strauss added yet another correction to the Enlightenment’s modern rationality. He made a distinction between knowledge and wisdom. AI would be about knowledge, while wisdom would remain a human domain related to judgment, ethical considerations, and a deeper understanding of human conditions. 

Parting Thoughts

We are at the precipice of a revolution, where AI, a culmination of our rational capabilities, holds the potential to reshape society, just as the revolutionary thinkers and artists of the Renaissance and Enlightenment once did. 

However, as we look to this horizon, it is crucial to remember the lessons of the past. The fusion of art and science highlights the value of a multidisciplinary approach, as Renaissance figures demonstrated. While championing rationality, our Enlightenment predecessors were not without their critics, who wisely warned of over-reliance on reason alone.

As machines begin to outpace us in various domains, we must grapple with profound questions about agency, individuality, purpose, and the essence of humanity itself. 

Our ‘right to be imperfect’ should be protected from radical AI optimisation, realisation of the power of human rationality. AI optimisation of all spheres of life may also kill diversity, which often emerges from our imperfections.

The quest for balance between rationality and humanity will be our defining challenge. In our pursuit of technological excellence, we must ensure that we preserve the sanctity of the human essence that defines who we are. For, as the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras teach us, our strength lies not just in our reason but in our humanity. 

As we navigate these uncharted terrains, may we uphold the legacy of the Renaissance and Enlightenment:

  • The courage to question.
  • The zeal to innovate.
  • The unwavering commitment to safeguarding the essence of our humanity.

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