The modern world has crept up on us with the promise of great progress, but it has also exacted a fierce price. If moder­nity has deliv­ered a bounty of scien­tific insights, tech­no­log­ical advance­ment, a rational world­view and secu­lar­ized social struc­tures, it has done so at great cost by sacri­ficing tradi­tional values, reli­gious beliefs, tran­scen­dent perspec­tives and a rever­ence for the sublime.” That, in a nutshell, is the story of disen­chant­ment.

To my mind, this line of thought is neither truthful nor helpful. 

It has opened up the arena of construc­tive discourse to a wistful mode of thinking that is as well-inten­tioned as it is misguided. In essence, this is an intel­lec­tual sleight of hand that goes as follows. With one hand, you are encour­aged to embrace the nostalgia of loss, as tradi­tion is super­seded by inno­va­tion; mean­while, with the other hand, the asser­tion is made that the old and the new ways are simply alter­na­tive but equiv­a­lent view­points. 

And… hey presto! Before you know it, you believe that main­taining your alle­giance to outdated ideas is a perfectly accept­able option. Better yet, that alle­giance need not be justi­fied by those ideas’ inherent merit—your emotional attach­ment to them is reason enough. In other words, this disin­gen­uous little flourish of intel­lec­tual pres­tidig­i­ta­tion has put the enchant­ment back into disen­chant­ment.

If the facts don’t support the truth of your posi­tion, then let that posi­tion itself be the fact-free truth to rally around. This is how you keep obso­lete ideas on life support: turn them into a rear­guard just cause.

Rainbows in Kansas

Let’s have a look at one of the more innocuous victims of disen­chant­ment. Once science discov­ered that rain­bows are created by light waves refracting inside minute airborne water droplets, the colorful atmos­pheric phenom­enon might well have lost its allure, its wonder, its magic. It had, after all, been revealed to be “just” an optical illu­sion. There was no rainbow, really.

But lo and behold: we all still love rain­bows. And we happily concede that they don’t exist as phys­ical enti­ties.

What has happened here is that even as rain­bows moved house from Mysterious Portent Ave. to Basic Optics Lane, we simply trans­ferred our atten­dant feel­ings of joy and wonder to its new address. Our newly acquired knowl­edge hasn’t made rain­bows any less “real”; it just made them wonderful in a new way.

Landscape with figures and rainbow by Roy Lichtenstein (1980) (source)

Not so, however, for many other domains of human inquiry. 

  • The well-estab­lished fact that the mind is what the brain does has not stopped multi­tudes from believing in an imma­te­rial soul.
  • No amount of evidence for biology as a gradual evolu­tionary process will suffice to convince some that all species weren’t created in an instant and in toto.
  • Despite the aston­ishing achieve­ments of astronomy, many are still charmed by the notion that the heavens regu­late our person­al­i­ties and our lives through astro­log­ical medi­a­tion.
  • The fasci­nating wealth of histor­ical and contex­tual perspec­tives has not swayed the orthodox from believing that their sacred texts are verbatim tran­scripts of a divine mind.

Our continued enchant­ment with disen­chanted notions is giving them trac­tion beyond their validity. We have become enam­ored of our own home­sick­ness for a land to which there is no return. It may be an appealing thought that even though we’re not in Kansas anymore, we could yet somehow click our red shoes and return to a world that is more familiar, less threat­ening. But some steps cannot be retraced. New insights and knowl­edge may be misun­der­stood, denied or dispar­aged, but they cannot be un-known.

Retcon, Rinse, Repeat 

If you see enlight­ened moder­nity as an unwel­come retcon to your cher­ished tradi­tions, it’s very easy to do what many die-hard fans do in such cases: dispute the legit­i­macy of the change. That’s why reframing the disen­chant­ment of the presci­en­tific world as a lamen­table fall from grace harkens back to similar legends of corrup­tion and loss of inno­cence.

Fairy tale: Garden of Eden by Martiros Sarian (1904) (source)

Adam and Eve, for example, tasted the forbidden fruit of the knowl­edge of good and evil, and were cast out of paradise and sentenced to a life of mortality and suffering in a world stained by sin. This myth is foun­da­tional to the Abrahamic faiths, which are all dedi­cated to and propelled by a similar project: the promise of a release from the ills of the sublunar realm and a return to a state of peaceful balance.

Seen in this light, the back­lash against the funda­mental trans­for­ma­tion that was the disen­chant­ment of the premodern world may well be a corol­lary to such perspec­tives. It’s a way to combine a retro­spec­tive yearning with the promise of delivery. Which makes it easy to label what­ever sits between these comple­men­tary back­ward-looking and forward-looking panoramas as an unso­licited inter­rup­tion unworthy of consid­er­a­tion.

Let’s Get Real

The reality of the matter, of course, is different. Let’s take a moment to revisit the exam­ples we saw above.

  • Even if you accept that there is no such thing as a disem­bodied eternal spirit, the work­ings of the mind still inspire tremen­dous awe. The human brain is the most complex struc­ture in the known cosmos. We are, in a very real and acute sense, how the universe knows itself across the expanse of time and space. The idea of a metaphor­ical “soul” is perfectly commen­su­rate with this reality—and the fact that such a soul or spirit or essence is symbolic does not diminish its salience in any way.
  • Seeing the web of life as an ongoing biochem­ical exper­i­ment of titanic scope—stochastic, unguided and atelic—does not diminish its majesty in any way. Darwin said it best: “There is grandeur in this view of life.” Better yet, the very fact that it isn’t ordered, regu­lated or purposeful makes it all the more remark­able. It invites us to replace hubris with humility.
  • There is no known force or particle or field that could in any reason­able way be thought to deter­mine the content of our char­acter or the flow of our fate through the motion of heav­enly bodies in space. ’Nuff said. But the very fact that we are capable of dreaming up a system of prog­nos­ti­ca­tion that seems to offer useful or rele­vant insights means that those same insights can also be gleaned in our own minds without the illu­sory mechanics if sooth­saying.
  • All texts, reli­gious or other­wise, were written down by human hands. The impulses that inspired them may have been fleeting of sustained, indi­vidual or communal, sobering or intoxicant—but the process of distilling thoughts into words is deeply, essen­tially human. Superimposing the idea of reve­la­tion onto a text is like adding a layer of varnish over a painting: it’s a way of protecting the substrate against the elements. But ideas are not brush strokes, and living wisdom is ossi­fied by such uncom­pro­mising preser­va­tion: it saps the under­lying meaning of its vitality and rele­vance. Better to see our scrip­tures as a product of their circum­stances; they are not only in need of inter­pre­ta­tion and redress, but deserving of it.
Le Philosophe by Henri Martin (source)

Rainbow Redux

Clinging to yesteryear’s views and narra­tives does them no service. Like life itself, ideas flourish when they are part of a vibrant ecosystem, when they are used, tested, revised, augmented, refuted, honed, and, yes, discarded.

So let’s not keep perspec­tives that are now “disen­chanted” around by succumbing to the enchant­ment of their nostalgic or senti­mental appeal. Instead, let’s revi­talize them by accepting and even embracing their new role in the tapestry of life. The universe is as the universe is. We under­stand a small sliver of it, and there is always room for improve­ment, for an evolu­tion of ideas. Assigning a faux patina to view­points that don’t deserve it does a disser­vice both to the people who believe in them and to the beliefs them­selves.

There’s a steam­boat leaving for a lost island where rain­bows are still real. For the price of your soul, you can buy a slice to take home with you. Tickets, anyone?

• • •

Top image credit: Rainbow by Georges Seurat (1883) (source)

Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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