Science and Disenchantment


Mark English in The Electric Agora:

At the age of seven, I went with my mother, brother and baby sister on a long plane journey. We flew for many hours, landing once for refueling (late at night). It was a rough journey, and I recall a certain amount of nausea and vomiting, but the positives certainly outweighed the negatives as far as I was concerned. As was then the custom with young boys on long flights, I was invited into the cockpit to talk to the pilots: a significant experience for someone who had previously never traveled on anything more impressive than a trolleybus.

The highlight, however, was finally reaching our destination, a metropolis more than five times the size of my home city. The sun had set an hour or two before, and the runway and tarmac were wet after summer rain. I remember the wetness, and lights reflected in puddles, so many lights, as the plane taxied to the terminal. There was a sense of promise, magic in the air.

Of course, the magic didn’t last very long (it never does) and the promise was not quite fulfilled (it never is). But for many, myself included, it’s the prospect or at least the possibility of this kind of magic or something like it that makes life more than just tolerable.

So I’m certainly not blind to this dimension of life; but I don’t think we should extrapolate on or intellectualize these feelings in the way religions and religious philosophies (like Platonism or pantheism) tend to do. They take the feeling and tell a story about it (Plato’s anamnesis, for instance). I say all we’ve got is the feeling. And that’s enough. It’s got to be enough.

The old, Weberian concept of disenchantment – or Entzauberung – has recently come up on this forum, and it was suggested that those who wholeheartedly welcome a demystified world and are driven to promote the idea have a distorted or impoverished view of things.[1] I would certainly agree that any view is deficient which fails to appreciate the importance of the sorts of feelings I have been talking about. But I think it’s a mistake to extrapolate from how we feel to how things are, objectively speaking, or to take some of our natural ways of thinking at face value.

Arguably most of us crave a natural world which is at least to some extent responsive to human goals and purposes. In fact, we are wired to see the world in animistic terms, as the universal tendency to impute agency to inanimate objects and human-like agency to animals attests. (The latter is particularly evident amongst hunter-gatherers but is evident also in the way people relate to their pets.)

More here.