Science and Disenchantment
by Mark English
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. 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.)
We also, of course, have a tendency to impute knowledge and agency to non-existent beings which we might imagine, for various reasons, to exist: spirits, gods, goblins, ghosts and so on. Pascal Boyer has mapped out a plausible theory of how our brains go about this process.
Tribal religions were arguably the direct result of these (and other) natural human tendencies. And the major world religions could be seen to have resulted from the development and intellectualization of tribal religions. Some world religions, of course, retain tribal elements and this intellectualization (and purging of elements of superstition) is an ongoing process – albeit one to which not all contemporary religious communities are committed.
One thing virtually all the various forms of religion seem to have in common, however, is that they see the wider world as having some intrinsic meaning which answers in some way to our own goals, needs and deepest desires. At some level, the cosmos is, if not enchanted exactly, then at least attuned to our presence.
Unfortunately this is not the world which science reveals to us, and the bleak and soulless world which science does reveal creates problems not only for individuals but also for societies. There is no evidence of a God, and the wider cosmos is not animate in any meaningful, human sense and so remains necessarily indifferent to our individual or collective fates. In other words, entzaubert. No comfort or reassurance here.
Not surprisingly, as the old certainties on which customs, beliefs and social structures were based have fallen away, the structures themselves have been called into question and are, in many instances, failing. Weber himself was ambivalent about Entzauberung, and Durkheim talked about anomie.
There is no question that Entzauberung is a phenomenon which has some negative consequences, but that is not to say that it is something that a person subscribing to a modern scientifically-based view of the world may simply opt to take or leave, to embrace or not embrace. There is a sense, I am saying, in which a disenchanted world is part of the cost of modernity.
Sure, you can reject the package, but this entails rejecting the centrality of modern science for our understanding of the natural world of which we are a part.
I am not a scientist, but I am going with science here. I trust my feelings and intuitions in some respects and contexts (social and moral contexts, for example) but not in others. Specifically, intuitions and feelings are insufficient in themselves to satisfy good old-fashioned intellectual curiosity.
Not everyone suffers from this particular affliction, I know, but many of us (to varying degrees) do. We are simply curious about how things (really) work; about all those aspects of the world that lie beyond the scope of intuition and direct perception; about things which we don’t naturally see aright and so which (but for science) remain distorted, obscured or hidden from view.
Furthermore, in accordance with my preference for restrained ontologies, I see the physical and natural sciences as underlying all that we are and do. Obviously, the social sciences can’t be reduced to biology, say, nor (probably) biology to physics. For one thing, we need to be able to talk about things at different levels of description. But physics is not irrelevant to biology, nor biology to the social sciences – not by any means.
Practical or ‘how to’ knowledge is something else and, while much of it is dependent on scientific knowledge, much of it (like our practical knowledge of how to negotiate the social world) isn’t.
Such a view – even with the above qualification about practical social knowledge and my nod towards the arts – will be seen by many as scientistic. I don’t mind the label, actually, but I don’t think this particular understanding of scientism has much semantic content.
There is another more nuanced view of scientism, however, whereby it entails not just a particular attitude to science but also the application of scientific methods or practices to areas or fields in which they are inappropriate.
For example, much contemporary analytic philosophy with its research-based aspirations, structures and institutions looks to me to be attempting to imitate aspects of science. There are many sides to this, but one important one is the tendency to hypostasize concepts and maintain (or try to maintain) sharp conceptual distinctions in areas of discourse (ethics, for example) where the concepts are necessarily vague or fuzzy. Paul Horwich has talked about this sort of thing at length, and I won’t go into it here.
There is also, of course, the misapplication of mathematics. It’s fairly well attested that statistical and other formal methods are often used in very doubtful ways in psychology and the social sciences.
Scientism in these latter senses is a necessarily negative appellation, as it signifies the inappropriate application of scientific methods. So where does my approach leave non-scientific, non-mathematical and non-historical studies?
I don’t want to generalize or pontificate here: I’m just tentatively presenting an idea or point of view rather than exploring its implications. But I do question the application of any meaningful notion of research to areas upon which neither empirical evidence nor formal methods can be brought to bear in a rigorous way.
Let me emphasize that I am in no way disparaging all forms or modes of non-scientific, non-formal or non-historical discourse. Many such forms are associated with the arts and critiques of the arts; other valuable forms of criticism or critique or polemic bypass the arts and are focused directly on political, social or moral subjects. It’s just that I don’t think it makes sense to define these activities primarily in terms of research or to see them as being necessarily tied to (or dependent on) research-based institutions like universities.
1.See the latter half of this comment thread: https://theelectricagora.com/2016/02/28/excessive-rationalism/#comments
2.See his Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (Basic Books, 2001).
3.The arts and literature reveal not what is hidden from view in this sense, but rather what is staring us in the face which we nonetheless fail to see. Much art, and especially from the beginnings of the Romantic movement on, could be seen to be an attempt to recapture or recreate that feeling of the significance and wonder of ordinary things. The best literary writing is neither didactic nor speculative: it doesn’t attempt – as religions and philosophies typically do – to moralize or intellectualize. And some philosophical writing (much of Nietzsche’s work, for example, or Heidegger’s later work) actually occupies a space somewhere between philosophy and literature.
4.For a little more on this see: https://theelectricagora.com/2016/02/17/on-what-there-is-or-isnt/
5.Here is my summary of his views with an embedded video debate between Horwich and Timothy Williamson. (Horwich starts outlining his views around the 40-minute mark.) http://languagelifeandlogic.blogspot.com/2015/09/anti-naturalism-in-philosophy-ii.html?m=1