The Enlightenment, Taking Stock

Will more stuff really make us happy? i i

Will more stuff really make us happy? Oli Scarff/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Will more stuff really make us happy?

Will more stuff really make us happy?

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

One senses a quiet malaise, drifting almost unspoken in the United States and more broadly. "Decline" of some sort is whispered by many thoughtful people. If so, what is going on?

We have lived the Enlightenment dream of the Age of Reason and know its fruits, positive and negative. My guess is that the "negatives", unspoken, underlie the "decline" we seem to sense. We may be at a hinge of history, seeking, unknowing, a civilizational transformation we cannot yet describe. Of this we need to speak.

In our Abrahamic tradition, God created heaven and earth and set Man in dominion over all of creation. Nature was for our use. We were not merely of nature, but created in God's image, over nature.

And thereby, we were enchanted.

This enchantment of the Western mind persisted into to black magi of the 16th century, when esoteric, occult knowledge could stand Nature on her head to do the bidding of those with the esoteric knowledge. We were still enchanted.

Then comes Newton and the clockwork celestial mechanics he invented, along with the entire foundations of Western science and a Deistic God. Max Weber, early sociologist, noted that with Newton we lost our enchantment and entered "Modernity".

The Enlightenment is a child of the Newtonian conceptual revolution. The 14 philosophes knew what they wanted: Down with the robed clerics and their medieval revelations and power. Up with science and rationality, to the ever greater mastery over nature by knowledge to the ever betterment and progress of humanity.

In this Age of Reason, the disenchantment of the Western mind was central, for the world is to be known by science, scientia, and we are to use reason to extract from nature our due, by our own efforts. No longer is there a theistic God in an uncaring mechanical Newtonian universe where Laplace could say: Given knowledge of the positions and momenta of all the particles in the universe, using Newton's laws, the entire future and past of the universe can be deduced and hence known. The age of reason indeed.

The dream lives on in the search for a Theory of Everything, which, as Marcelo Gleiser has written, has replaced a single Creator Agent God with a single master "Law" that entails everything. From it, we will see the metaphorical "Mind of God," and achieve ultimate mastery over nature. We will, at last, be truly able to "put nature on the rack", and wrest our due. It is God's promise to Abraham come to fruition.

But we remain disenchanted. And therein, I think, lies our malaise.

We have lived out the dream of the Enlightenment, good and ill. Good? Vastly increased living standards in the first world. Enormous increase in the spanning knowledge of science in our technological age. Constitutional democracy. The realization that one can be a moral human being without the moral authority of a Creator Agent God.

The bad? We live on a finite planet and seek ever increasing economic growth as we lay waste to our planet from hacked rain forests, to loss of habitat for the creatures wrought into existence by 3.7 billion years of the stunning natural creativity of the evolving biosphere. We face depletion of water resources, the high probability of peak oil now or relatively soon.

Will we unleash wars as these resources dwindle on a per capita basis?

But the malaise, I think, runs deeper.

No less a figure that Gordon Brown, while Prime Minister of the U.K., said, "We are reduced to price tags".

That phrase summarizes, in my view, the source of our malaise. Our first-world civilization serves us largely as cogs in a global economy that produces homes for those who can afford them, but also produces "purple plastic penguins for the poolside," which we make, sell and buy. But we know in our guts that we do not really need many of the diverse kinds of "purple plastic penguins" we rush to create in the name of unending GDP growth on a finite planet.

And, of course, billions in poverty need a great deal of what the first world has created.

Then why the malaise?

I think it is twofold. First, we remain disenchanted, here let loose in Modernity, feeling somehow feckless.

Second, if we ask ourselves, "Does our secular, non-spiritual, First-World civilization serve our deepest humanity?" I think we know that the answer is "No." We remain disenchanted, dimly aware, as a French satire on the modern world shows it, that an iPhone equipped with windshield wipers is both wonderfully funny, and points to a silliness in our drive for forever growth made increasingly meaningless to those of us lucky enough to "Have Enough."

But we do not have the concept of "Enough" in our God-given dominion over nature, ever more on the rack, on a finite planet.

The 14 philosophes who unleashed the Enlightenment knew clearly what they wanted.

We do not yet know what we would want of a co-evolving set of our 30 civilizations as they co-mingle, that would maximize our deep humanity. In part this is because we do not examine what our deep humanity is.

More, science will not "know." "Scientia" will not know the detailed becoming of the biosphere, econosphere, culture into their unprestatable fruitful Adjacent Possibles, where we literally create the very possibilities we will become. Each new species or good creates ever new empty niches for yet new species, new economic goods, livelihoods, and cultural forms that enhance the diversity of our ways to be human in the world.

We live in face of Mystery, unable to know, live beyond reason, into a fruitful Adjacent Possible that we ourselves create.

Living in face of Mystery, in a creative becoming we cannot prestate but live into, "forward", enhancing our creativity by the possibilities we create, is to move toward our own Re-Enchantment.

Of this we sing.

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