This essay was written some five years ago. Obviously my views have evolved since then…
It occurs to me that this paper may seem anti-science. I assure my reader that I do not have a problem with science per se. My issue is with the way it has been interpreted and the troubling ideas that it has been used to excuse.
As such, my issue is primarily with scientific culture. The basic idea of using controlled experiments as a device for interpreting the manner by which things operate is unimpeachable. In any case, it far predates our modern scientific establishment.
Perhaps we should also consider whether the rise of modern technology is perhaps more to blame for the problems I see than science. Not because technology is in-itself bad, but because it happens to have allowed the mistaken assumptions of scientific culture to penetrate almost every part of our existence.
I am at risk of starting in the middle and charging feet-first into the beginning. Without further ado, let me unfurl my ideas.
Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, first published in the 17th century, brought about a revolution in our world. It marked a turning point in our basic understanding of our place in the world, of the character of the world, of our relationship to the world.
Unfortunately, it seems this change was largely for the worse.
For Descartes, the world was simply an impersonal, life-less, three-dimensional grid. The only conscious beings were humans, and they were but flickers of soul, locked away in inescapable subjective cages. Descartes believed that there was an unbridgeable gap between subjective and objective worlds, making absolute doubt about the external world a serious problem (never mind the absurd character this doubt has to us in our everyday context).
Descartes tried to solve this schizoid relationship between the fundamentally quantitative external world and the fundamentally qualitative internal world by invoking God. God, he felt, would always assure that we are more or less connected to our world, even if for some reason he also permits us to get it wrong now and then.
The problem is that none of Descartes’ arguments to this effect actually work. Every one of them has a flaw that renders it invalid. The idea of ‘proving’ that god exists by the mere exercise of logic seems to miss the point anyway.
No one in the western philosophical tradition since Descartes has been able to fix his metaphysics. Officially at least, nobody takes his views seriously any more.
But ideas have a way of transforming the playing field in ways the players are not aware of. Even though no one believes in Descartes’ metaphysics, his ideas subtly determined the direction of philosophy, science, and broader Western culture in damaging ways.
Descartes believed that humans were unique in having souls. Indeed, he performed the most monstrous experiments on animals, believing that they were but complex machines with no sense of pain. But, because his philosophy started by making an impossible cleavage between the subjective world and the impersonal external world, he could never situate humans in that world.
The history of science and philosophy shows that most theorists subsequent to Descartes have unconsciously internalised this view of the world as an impersonal matrix with neither absolute nor relative meaningfulness. As such, they have tried to get out of Descartes’ fix by deciding that there is no soul.
The ‘no soul’ view has turned out to be about as unprovable as Descartes’ view that soul exists. Although it rejects Descartes’ dualism, it retains the flawed thinking that first led to Descartes’ dilemma, and as such it collapses under its own problems.
Nevertheless, many scientists and philosophers seem to operate on the pre-empirical assumption that the world can be treated as though it were but a huge deterministic matrix, a giant machine. While recent work in physics may have shown that this machine works much more subtly than once thought, the basic continuity from Descartes to quantum physics remains (but see below, where I sort of contradict this claim). Of course, this way of thinking assumes that humans are meaningless machines like everything else.
God – by which I mean anything that is mystical, holy, meaningful, or conscious – is locked away from this reality, or else does not exist. This way of thinking has deeply affected the popular mindset, even if its rejection of the soul has not done so to the same extent.
Sadly, the fact that science works has given currency in broader society to scientific culture’s unconsciously held Cartesian preconceptions – despite their falsity.
The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche railed against this nihilistic worldview. In his estimation, science and philosophy had killed God. They no longer permit it a place in the world. The religious instinct, which Nietzsche took as being a strong aspect of human nature (contrary to the usual misreadings), was being denied more and more. As such, he felt that the west was clinging ever more desperately to Christianity, political extremism, etc., in a desperate attempt to hold at bay the meaninglessness of the Descartes-inspired world.
He was convinced that new values and beliefs needed to be erected, and part of that project was to question the nihilistic spin that scientific culture had come to put upon the world via Descartes and company. In the same fashion, he felt scorn for modern politics, seeing it as being little more than a forum for hypocrites, degenerates, petty-souled anti-Semites (remember his context of 1880’s Germany), and absurdly idealistic revolutionary communists. All of these political ‘solutions’ he saw as being firmly grounded in nihilism.
The sociologist Max Weber spoke of the ‘disenchantment of the world’ – that our experience and understanding of the world has been deeply shaped by the view that reality is just a huge, impersonal machine, best understood by numbers. After untold thousands of years living in the world, as a part of it, we came to feel that things are just bits of impersonal stuff, and that we were barely better. The widespread acceptance of this view was brought to completion through the emergence of the industrial revolution.
I refer to Descartes’ way of understanding things as the modern worldview, and I contrast it with the premodern worldview. If Heathenism is to be what I believe it should be, it must grasp the premodern worldview and act accordingly.
The modern mentality has played a major role in driving the overbalancing greed of modern capitalism. Nor would we rape the environment so viciously if we did not see it as a mere resource to be exploited. Once, we saw it as a huge and all-inclusive system, which we were an integral part of.
I believe the simple-minded mentality of “us versus them” begins to get a foothold once we lose sight of this holistic perspective. This leads to xenophobia, violence, the manipulation of many by a few, and the paranoid sense that all cultural exchange is destructive.
Sadly, some Heathen groups have fallen into this mentality. In doing so they come to have far more in common with fundamentalist Christians or right wing extremists than they do with the historical Heathens of old.
Cross-cultural interaction does not automatically equate to conflict or in one culture being subverted and dissolved by the other. It does, however, potentially bring mutual respect and friendship. Being friendly and open does not make you a target for destruction by some epic culture-hating force.
Historical Heathenism was definitely premodern in its view of things. Heathens of old saw the whole world as filled with spirits, wights, disir, elves, dwarves, trolls and giants. These beings are part of the folk appreciation that each thing and place has a unique character and presence. All things have some form of subjectivity – it is just that humans have a very elaborate form of subjectivity. All things are ‘spirited’, even if we moderns may not choose to literally believe in little bearded men running about the roots of mountains.
The world itself had a being and spirit, expressed for example in the world tree Yggrdrasil and the fact that it was held to be made from the body of the proto-god Ymir.
Heathens of old felt themselves a part of the cycles of the seasons, the crops, the weather, the cycles of night and day. They felt a kinship with the natural world to the extent that one of the most frequent poetic kennings for ‘human’ was ‘tree’, and their myths claim that humans were made out of trees. They saw the universe itself as the tree Yggrdrasil.
They knew Nature, the world, as being whole, one grand being, not some nihilistic matrix of numbers populated by schizophrenic human robots. By the same token, they recognised each individual place and thing to be unique and worthy of honour.
Our forebears’ basic worldview had much in common with the indigenous beliefs of cultures worldwide, as well as with the intuitions that guide Taoism, Shinto, and other eastern traditions. Truth is found only in the synthesis of all extremes, in the whole – an intuition that Hegel and a small number of other western philosophers also possessed, thought most often too infected with academic pedantry to understand what sat in their laps.
There are many paths that travel from the premodern worldview. They each have unique elements that cannot be easily ‘translated’ to other roads, but nevertheless they stem from similar root intuitions.
What draws us to Heathenism? I believe that one force that draws us back to the elder troth is that we feel the nihilism that has infected our world. And we feel that our very being as human knows, at some inarticulate level, that the world is a whole, that all things have an inherent Being or spirit, that humans are not locked out of the world – that they are integral to it.
It is difficult to hold onto this sense when we live in modern, industrialised cities. We are alienated from Nature both psychologically and geographically. If the western world was still primarily agrarian in basis, you can bet that pre-modern philosophies would have a lot more currency.
In the same way, our sense of family and community is becoming more and more dissolved. The ‘nuclear family’, an absurd caricature of family relations, is touted as an admirable norm. Every problem we see, we see as ‘someone else’s’. ‘Community’ is not something that can be created out of nothing, in the way that political parties attempt. It takes time, experience, mutual affection, the shared experience of good and ill. We would do well to attempt to recover the extended family patterns we once had.
For thousands of years our ancestors experienced the world in the premodern way, and I believe that our collective unconscious remembers and pines for this understanding, this real understanding, not the superficial misunderstanding of Descartes. For the premodern understanding is a healthy way of relating to oneself as well as to the rest of the world.
The premodern worldview sees mystery as central to everything. It has a deep appreciation for ambiguity, for not-knowing. It recognises that the world escapes our finite human grasp. This stands in distinction to the ‘control freak’ mentality that modern technology has in some respects lead to. Modern science tends toward the view that we can know everything. The pre-modern view sees that this is both impossible and undesirable.
It is an arrogant conceit to think that Nature would be so obliging that a bunch of experiments performed by vastly fallible creatures can lay open her every pore for ogling.
Although science is an accurate describer of the world, it is not a true one. Truth is more than just accuracy. Truth is a reciprocal relationship, which scientific culture struggles with by virtue of its Cartesian birth certificate.
That said, quantum physics is making inroads to resisting Descartes’ worldview. But whether it will ultimately succeed remains uncertain. It is heartening that its holistic approach is having a major impact on the thinking of all kinds of academics, decision makers, etc.
Unfortunately, it does not seem to appreciate the other, more qualitative, aspect of the premodern perspective – that each thing has its own character or being, by virtue of its place within the grand structures of Being.
The Tao of Physics< is probably the best attempt to elucidate the holistic thinking of quantum physics. Martin Heidegger’s essays “The Question Concerning Technology” and “Building Dwelling Thinking” are the most powerful illustrations of the Being of each place and thing that I have encountered. John Ralston Saul’s On Equilibrium is the most complete statement of this way of thinking I have yet encountered.
In the last few centuries, then, we have sought to impose our understanding on the world. We have come to believe that the world is but a collection of stuff, of things, mere things, sitting uneasily side-by-side.
But the world is so much more than this. In Heathen ceremonies, we honour the being of gods, wights, Nature, one other, our selves. We again give respect and love to the very world around us, as all balanced cultures seem to do. We recognise that we have a place in the world, and that the world has a place in us.
By living ‘true to the gods’ – Ásatrú – we live true to ourselves and to our world. That said, we would do well to remember that merely calling ourselves Ásatrú or Heathen – indeed, even acting out the practical and cultural aspects of Heathenism, is insufficient. We must strive to act in accordance with the holistic perspective as well. The trappings of tradition are vital, but they are no substitute for the values of that tradition. If one does not appreciate the meaning of one’s actions, then one is merely a self parody.
On reflection, I realise that modern Heathenism has a definite bias towards the Aesir – the gods of consciousness, wisdom, human society, war, and nobility. But it is the Vanir who are the nature pantheon, the gods of agriculture and farm folk. They are perhaps more deeply connected to the premodern worldview. This is not to say that the Aesir, Odin in particular, do not appreciate the premodern perspective.
But it is to say that Heathenism must reconnect with its Vanic roots if it is to become a serious spiritual philosophy and meaningful cultural perspective. I challenge all Heathens to dwell deeply on the nature of the premodern worldview.
Capra, Fritjof, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (25th Anniversary Edition). Flamingo, London, 1992.
Hedeigger, M., “Building Dwelling Thinking”, in Basic Writings, ed. David Krell. Second edition. Routledge, London, 1993.
Hedeigger, M., “The Question Concerning Technology”, in Basic Writings, ed. David Krell. Second edition. Routledge, London, 1993.
Saul, John Ralston, On Equilibrium. Penguin, Camberwell, 2002.