How does Montaigne feel about scientific progress?

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Michel de Montaigne was incredibly dubious about human learning and intellectual progress as a whole. One of his most prominent quotes was “What do I know?” This is symbolic of his general distrust of the capabilities of human intelligence, which is ironic because, as a philosopher, he relied on his...

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Michel de Montaigne was incredibly dubious about human learning and intellectual progress as a whole. One of his most prominent quotes was “What do I know?” This is symbolic of his general distrust of the capabilities of human intelligence, which is ironic because, as a philosopher, he relied on his own intelligence to discern and discover logical truths and ideas.

Overall, he didn’t think much of the idea of scientific progress. However, living in an earlier age, he was unable to witness the many developments that came afterwards. He believed that science would hit a breaking point and there would be little, if any, scientific advancement and achievement. Similar to the patent attorney who famously said prior to 1900 that he believed every patent had basically been made already, he was soon proven very wrong in his beliefs.

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In keeping with his general philosophical stance, Montaigne was appropriately skeptical of scientific progress. Indeed, he was deeply skeptical of the very idea of progress in human knowledge as a whole. Montaigne's radical skepticism was so strong that he doubted we could know anything for certain. In the case of scientific knowledge, this was especially problematic. Scientific knowledge, of its very nature, changes and develops over time. What was once the general consensus on any particular scientific matter is replaced over time by another one. Montaigne argues eventually that scientific paradigm will itself change in the light of new evidence, and so on. At no point can we have absolutely certain knowledge of ourselves or the world around us, as both we and the world in which we live are in a constant state of change.

Montaigne's skepticism can be criticized on the basis that he sets too high a standard for human knowledge to reach. Just because we can't know something with absolute certainty doesn't mean that we can't know anything. Nonetheless, Montaigne is an interesting figure in the history of philosophy in that he used skepticism differently to how it had previously been used by other philosophers.

In the past, philosophers and other thinkers had used skepticism as a means of challenging the truth claims of religion. Montaigne, however, turns the tables on the anti-religious skeptics and uses skepticism as a way of undermining what he sees as the (false) claims of science to certain knowledge. In doing so, he is defending religious faith, specifically Catholicism. If we cannot attain absolute knowledge of ourselves and of the world around us, then the only true certainty that remains is faith.

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