Disenchantment was the term Max Weber used to describe the impact of enlightenment thought on humanity. Humans moved from a world of deep spiritual significance to one that can be measured, analyzed and reduced to it constituent parts. Rather than experiencing reality as a deeply meaningful and even magical whole, it has become complex mechanistic set of causal mechanisms outside the self known as nature. Any meaning it has comes from the human mind.
Such a view of reality is both implausible and untenable. It is untenable because recent discoveries in modern physics, especially in the realm of quantum mechanics, defy a mechanized view of reality. We don’t know exactly what the nature of reality is, but it’s definitely not some kind of mechanistic set of material chain reactions! It’s implausible for the same reason we now see old geo-centric cosmological theory as misguided – it views human experience as the center of all reality.
Think of it – a whole cosmos and the vast multiverse, all a lifeless, soulless set of material interactions with no meaning or core value. All meaning, value and understanding in the universe takes place within the brains of carbon based life forms on one nondescript planet. Even if we allow that there may be life forms similar to us on other planets, the result is the same: a meaningless universe of causal mechanisms, forces and particles. Meaning only comes as minds behold, label, and try to understand it.
Oh what vain creatures we mortals are! We no longer believe our planet an unmoving center of the universe, but we think our minds are the essence of what gives reality meaning. Without our minds to behold the world there would be no meaning, no value, just inanimate forces and particles buzzing about. Looked at that way, the rationalist world view of enlightenment thought looks pretty absurd.
Still, the enlightenment was about liberation. The individual now came first. Rather than being products of a community, individuals were now seen as the creators of community. As such they had to use reason to determine how to structure it, became responsible for their own happiness and success, and learned to question or distrust the religions and traditions which had provided meaning and social cohesion.
The biggest drawback, noted by first real critic of the enlightenment, Jean Jacques Rousseau, is alienation. The individual used to be part of something greater than himself. An individual in so-called primitive times was one with nature, a part of an enchanted world where every event, action and experience had meaning connected to that person’s life. The boundary between the self and the wider world was imprecise. Even after Christian thought came to dominate the individual was part of a community, had value due to his or her role, and had a network of support in the clan, village or extended family. Religion provided certainty in life – as bad as things may be here, a paradise awaits!
Now we’re not so sure. Most religion myths are seen as implausible, and ever since Montesquieu it’s been clear that the idea that salvation could be an accident of birth – a baby lucky to born in Iowa is likely to be taught the “right” religion while one born in Cairo may be doomed to hell – doesn’t seem likely from a loving God. In fact the ability of one culture to think its religion the one true one is far fetched. When you look at the claims of individual religions, their stories break down.
Moreover, individual responsibility for happiness, value and meaning in life — what the enlightenment liberates us to pursue — is a daunting task. With advertisers insisting that you can’t have a happy life without the newest product, magazine covers defining beauty, and material wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, it’s easy to feel like one is failing. Even Mitt Romney, the GOP Presidential candidate, stated that prosperous countries have “better cultures” than those with less wealth (he used GDP per capita as the defining principle). Get that – a culture is judged to be superior ont the basis of its economic output!
Disenchanted humans, burdened with these tasks handle the challenge in various ways. Most will turn to existing religions, friends and family, their communities, and their own life experiences to find meaning. Often this yields an outcome good enough to make life bearable, and sometimes even pleasurable. Others lose themselves in a host of distractions – sports, gossip, politics, activism, life-dramas, entertainment, books, etc – and train themselves not to think about any deep meaning to life. That may be hectic, but it makes life like sleep walking.
Yet this disconnection with the world has yet another sinister side, the violence and destruction which has accompanied western thought. We have high GDPs, but we’ve had the most destructive wars and pioneered true weapons of mass destruction. We continue to devastate the environment and treat plants and animals as mere products. After all if only the human mind provides meaning, everything else is to be used. Their value is measured by the utility they provide for humans. Colonialism, war, and the destruction of cultures (which, of course, are inferior if they are economically lower — hence exploiting them is doing them a favor by extending western ideas to them) are all actions inherent in this disconnect between individuals and the rest of existence.
It’s time to recognize that enlightenment thought without a spiritual component is untenable. It’s time to assert that meaning cannot just exist in individual disconnected minds. It’s time to recognize that we are part of a larger reality where meaning permeates all of existence. We may not buy the symbols primitive peoples held – indeed, we need to build on rather than reject western thought. Religious fundamentalists fear modernism because of its disenchanting quality, we need to rediscover enchantment!
As a new information revolution expands our power to connect and communicate, as modern physics breaks down boundaries and shows how little we understand the true nature of reality, we humans have to discover the natural empathy within us. Enlightenment thought turns off the deep connections we have with the rest of reality, forcing us to experience life through a stark dichotomy of internal and external. Somehow we have to find a way to reach and feel beyond that. If we can we’ll have a revolution in thinking that can open doors, expand understanding, and overcome the dark side of enlightenment rationalism.
I don’t mean some kind of new age mysticism or magic crystals. I also don’t mean a complete rejection of western rationalism. We simply need a re-enchantment of human existence. I’m not sure how this will look, but the first step must be to think about the world differently. See it as magical, see ourselves as connected, to try to feel those connections and the lack of a true boundary between object and subject. Experience coincidence as synchronicity, see the internal reflected in the external and vice-versa. The world isn’t as meaningless, cold and separate as we’ve been taught to believe.