The philosopher David Abram wrote a book called Becoming Animal (2011), which was, in part, an exploration of shamanism and an attempt to understand what that means from outside a culture in which that term and practice are still central to human life.
What he found was that our fascination with what we call magic in Western civilization is utterly rooted in the mysterious (to us) transformations that take place in quotidian fashion in the living world. He described how our perceptual and cognitive apparatus hinder us from knowing that world intimately, as full participants, and yet give us a unique window on those transformations: imagination.
In the wake of a first-ever mass march to defend and elevate the scientific method, the most transformative legacy of the fading Enlightenment, it seems worth remembering that the person held up in the contemporary world as the epitome of the Man of Science told us that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”
He made a lot of other pithy statements too, some of them about socialism, also an Enlightenment project whose rationalism has underscored the depth of our irrationality, and whose implementations have shown the inadequacy of mechanistic models to do justice to human existence in a dynamically complex living world.
If we still recounted our history in mythic terms, Einstein would be a highly ironic progenitor god or hero: he believed that the whole universe was governed by rationally intelligible laws, but his theories produced a model of nature that is radically discontinuous and breaks down when we attempt to unify it. He believed in the peaceful coexistence of peoples – and gave us the most viable means we have had to annihilate ourselves through organized violence since there were less than a hundred of us shambling across the savannah, occasionally clubbing one another to death.
His equations give us transformations that appear magical too: mass becomes energy, light becomes time, time becomes space. But where do we humans live in that world, which looks nothing like our own? It is a world in which our life – or any life – is a kind of freakish little side show, and elegant mathematical equations are the sine qua non. Einstein did not overthrow Newton’s clockwork universe; he gave its clocks a Dalian ability to melt and morph and finally vanish, but in that timeless universe experienced by a beam of light, there is no life, no possibility of biology at all.
Such a faith in the universal primacy of reason now seems increasingly desperate, considering the unintended consequences. Without emerging from the nuclear shadow, the new millennium has deepened its dystopian shades ever since its first regressive year: when those two great pillars symbolizing its triumphant mercantile economic system were toppled in minutes (an image straight out of the Major Arcana) by men wielding the crudest of weapons. And the empire began the historically inevitable and endlessly vitiating process of striking back. As a counterweight to these times, I recently picked up David Jennings’ book Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism (2016), about the wave of utopian social experiments that swept the nascent U.S. beginning in the late 18th century, another age of apocalyptic fervor in the West.
I was struck by those contradictory creatures, the Shakers, who hated and feared our animal nature, epitomized in sexual congress, and yet believed passionately in gender equality, communalism, pacifism and good craftsmanship. Besides producing the furniture and structures for which they are still famous, they also became expert seed breeders, elevating the power of sexual reproduction in plants even as they despised it in humans. Their experiment was ultimately self-limiting: it was driven by end-times fever, but the world did not end, not even after the culminating slaughter of the Civil War. Jennings quotes a later commentator of Marx (who was critical of utopian socialism) to this effect: the 18th and 19th century millenarians “mistook ‘the birth pangs of capitalism for its demise,’” and misread industrialism’s ravages of landscapes and social norms as signs that the establishment of the New Jerusalem was nigh.
The Shakers were also limited, of course, because they could only recruit, not reproduce, members. On the other hand, even in communal experiments where reproduction isn’t taboo, it’s a commonplace that the second generation doesn’t want to stay in utopia, with its restrictive proscriptions, but tries to make its own way in the broken world. That’s what happens when the world outside, however chaotic, appears to offer more personal freedom and fulfillment than the cloistered community. But as I read I wondered: what if there came a time when that wasn’t true? What if the dominant society no longer enticed with superior material comfort, freedom of movement, and the chimeras of leisure and power? What if place-based communities sustained by pooling limited resources simply offered a better life than the extant alternatives? Perhaps that time will never come, or perhaps it is not so distant now. There is no way to know, except in retrospect.
A world is ending in my time, and while it is not anything like the end foreshadowed in the West since the emergence of Christianity, it is nonetheless apocalyptic. The scale is far larger than the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire or the thousand-year reich or the Soviet Union. Yes, all is change and worlds are always ending, their ends only to be understood as such after the fact because the edges of ages are rough, and what persists is just as much part of any immediate experience as what is changed. But the consequences of upending global dynamics that have been around for longer than our species and causing the system-wide domino-effect of a mass extinction will unfold in geological time, which, for all the equations in the world that purport to show otherwise, is not an illusion to the living things on this planet.
Nor are those consequences reversible – humans may seek to reverse them, but what will result from their efforts will still be radically different from what was before. Here science can be as blind as religion: under controlled experimental conditions, of course, many basic processes are reversible. In quantum physics, time is theoretically reversible. Even extinction is theoretically reversible, chant the eco-modernists. Only chaos theory sits there winking at us from the corner, telling us that highly complex processes are irreducible to such binaries, that even most non-linear equations are so reductive as to be useless for prediction in those systems, never mind the linear ones. Only a tiny number of physicists even want to investigate the idea that time, the time we experience as humans, the time that enforces the law of mortality over all of life, is real, and fundamental.
At the crossroads where we stand, the world’s more comfortable classes are being enticed to put their embattled faith in the machine, at the root of which you can see the old contempt for our animal nature, which drove Western civilization to its fundamental break with the living world. This has been self-fulfilling prophecy from the get-go, used to justify the domination of other animals and humans with less technologically sophisticated weaponry (cf. the Politics of Aristotle, tutor to that most efficient mass killer of his time, Alexander the Great).
In a radically degraded and no longer abundant living world, self-fulfilling prophecy could reach its apotheosis: machine life could be presented as our only salvation. Those who remain animal will be evolution’s losers, according to those ultimate technophiliacs, the transhumanists. They will be the new Neanderthals, still interbred with for a while but ultimately out-competed, unable to cope.
And yet… just as the Mayans’ temporal calculations and architecture and statuary seem to have become more and more elaborate right up until the hour and minute when their cities were abandoned, so ever-more rarefied technologies, or rumors of them, are proliferating almost hysterically now. And the gap between them and the life most humans experience is already a chasm. Every day there are new promises of how we might strengthen ourselves by extracting substances from other living things (before they vanish), synthesizing and incorporating them. There are promises of revolutionizing transportation, energy generation, crop production, labor – but the distribution of actual benefits is very vague. Far from being denigrated, science and technology are being marketed to the elites as an unqualified good, when in reality, they are no more monolithic than religious practice. As with any production, ownership is still the definitive question: whose technology? Whose science?
The other thing the Mayans did, up until their historical vanishing act, was maintain extremely rigid social hierarchies and conduct incessant resource wars. None of the revolutionary technologies being promoted in our time has as its core motivation the desire to eliminate war or reduce the power of elites. When science gives us a Mother of All Bombs, and the richest country in the world drops it on one of the poorest, the cheers go up to heaven. (I’ll save the irony of the “mother,” life-giver, metaphor for another time; there’s a large territory to be explored there; a lifetime’s worth, perhaps.)
The minority report in this situation is the old earth magic: the idea that our only fulfillment as human beings lies in re-situating ourselves in our animal bodies and learning from other animals and plants – and most importantly, the complex systems in which they participate – how to be ourselves more fully: physically, socially, psychologically. That belief system may be teetering on the edge of extinction, but it is not yet extinct. And as long as things retain a coherent presence in the living world, they offer the promise of influencing its norms. Witness those small, insignificant mammals that survived the mass extinction of the great reptiles.
The greatest Enlightenment myth (in the modern sense of a widely propagated and accepted untruth) is that this posture is fundamentally at odds with a scientific worldview. Some causal connections that pantheistic or animist cultures have made may be disproven, or be “purely” metaphorical, but others are empirically valid, just like many of the assumptions that we confirm or disprove through controlled experiment. The deeper difference is ideological – what is the ultimate goal of knowledge? Of human existence? Or, if you prefer, the difference is one of imagination. Can we still imagine ourselves to be a part of the living world?
In fact, it is possible to conceive of a scientific practice that respects living systems and holds them to be fundamentally different from their elements in isolation. When that science began to emerge in the 1970s it was called ecology: the science of “home.”
Immersing ourselves in this science might teach us that the living world which we can attempt to flee or rejoin is not reducible to a utopian peaceable kingdom or a Darwinian battle royal. Those of us who have grown up as domesticated animals may be capable of envisioning nothing better than a garden, but it is not a garden either. If we can’t all become place-based people or full-time ecologists, we can at least try thought experiments: simply noticing and appreciating the attributes of living things, and trying to imagine how human societies might approximate such complex patterns as we can perceive in the living world without outsourcing all their abilities to mechanical devices. Ecologist and literary scholar Joseph Meeker said that if a human society were to reproduce the dynamics of a climax ecosystem, it would have to be “far more complex than anything civilization has yet produced.”
Care should be taken, then, not to reactively elevate some generic notion of science, shoring up the tattered banners of the Enlightenment instead of trying to envision the Enlivenment that might supersede it. The scientific method leaves no room for it, but at some point, every person makes the choice for some kind of actionable belief, from the cosmic to the trivial, without overwhelming empirical evidence. No existence with our kind of complex interiority is possible otherwise.
Does human life have meaning? Is our species capable of existing without abasement or hubris among millions of other species in a complex living world? The empirical evidence is inconclusive. Our answers will come from a different place.