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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Man and his symbols

Outside a barber's shop in Oxford, this little wooden mannequin held a tray with hand sanitizer on it. A sign of the times!


Max Weber famously declaimed in ‘Science as a Vocation’ that:

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the 'disenchantment of the world.' Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.


This thought about the secularization of Western societies has been on my mind as I have been considering the ways in which we 're-enchant' the world. A similar idea follows on from the Nietzschean warning that the death of God places upon us the burden of finding new values, of creating our own values. Far from being a nihilist or a pessimist, like Weber, who couldn't see a way out, Nietzsche felt people could rise to the creative challenge, with passion and will. Though, he said, it might take some time.


Some fill this seeming void with a pursuit of money, consumer goods, beauty, fame or prestige, Others move into a spiritual realm, finding solace and meaning in Eastern practices or alternative means of self-transcendence. And, as I'm trying to argue in a paper that I'm struggling to write, transhumanists find it in what they feel is a rationalistic, scientific vision of utopia, where post-humans experience joy beyond imagining for eternity (which sounds to me like heaven, and by that, I mean, the Christian conception of heaven - with souls and bliss and heavenly music). Of course, there are other scientists - like Einstein and Richard Dawkins - for whom science itself confers wonder and a kind of reverence. Indeed, a few weeks ago, I spoke to a young theoretical physicist just starting his Masters and his face when he spoke of his passion for his subject was the very image of a saint beholding the sacred. I am sure that others feel the same about Beethoven or Turner's skies or Henry Moore sculptures.


I find myself unable to tap in to any of these modes of re-enchantment. I don't seem to have the kind of mind that can hold conviction, defiantly, utterly, about one thing for any protracted period. I am scatter-gun, not laser. Belief is not for me.


All that said, I can tap in to many of these paths to meaning if I attend to them deeply enough.


Recently, I've been reading up on the psychology and philosophy around awe and wonder. the two emotions are closely related, with a grey cross-over area in between. Wonder seems to have more pleasure and admiration and might lead to a loss of the sense of self. It does not seem to motivate action. What is wondered at is distinct and marvelous and glorious, but unrelated to one's plans and projects. Seeing a sunset or watching a lark ascending; relishing the colours of a Monet or the intensity of a Gregorian chant. Awe inspires something slightly different: there may be fear, a sense of the self as smaller or less significant than the vastness of the starry sky or the force of a thunder-storm. But awe can also be induces by exceptional beauty, profound truths and ideal goodness. In all cases, it seems, there is a transformative element - a need to accommodate a new understanding - of the mysteries that are beyond, the greatness that acts as a reminder of one's fallible and limited existence - yet with that realisation acting as a corrective to ego and a spur to action.


Saul on the road to Damascus experienced awe; Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita when faced with Krishna; the shepherds outside Bethlehem; Kant looking at the night sky; Wittgenstein contemplating existence; astronauts looking at Earth.


According to the research, curious people are more likely to experience awe - and it seems to increase prosocial feelings. There's even an evolutionary story behind our capacity to experience awe, in that it was inclined to bind us together, help us to co-operate, when we witnessed the majesty and scale of the natural world.


But awe has a dark side too: it's believed to be inspired by charismatic leaders. Consider the Nuremberg rallies and you start to worry about politicians getting a taste for using it as a further means of manipulation.


Still, most of what we find in life comes with a trade off, and it does appear that awe is modulated by cognition: if you are inclined to value abstract mathematical concepts, you'll be more likely to experience awe at a Fibonacci sequence than will the rest of us. So we have some control over the experiences we cede control to.


Sometimes I wish I could buy-in to a grand theory, a belief system, and be part of a group of like-minded souls. But then, well, that would involve more habit change and thought-direction than I have time for. And besides, I kind of like having a potential smorgasbord of awe experiences.

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