Scholar says modern society needs faith to battle ‘disenchantment’

Scholar says modern society needs faith to battle ‘disenchantment’

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David McPherson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He spoke to Crux about "disenchantment" in modern society.

[Editor’s Note: David McPherson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, where he lives with his wife and their four children. He is the author of Virtue and Meaning: A Neo-Aristotelian Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2020), and the editor of Spirituality and the Good Life: Philosophical Approaches (Cambridge University Press, 2017). He is currently working on his second book monograph titled The Virtues of Limits. He is also currently serving as President of Philosophers in Jesuit Education. He spoke to Charles Camosy about “disenchantment” in modern society.]

Crux: Many have likely heard rumblings in various corners about enchantment, dis-enchantment, and even re-enchantment. Can you give us the Reader’s Digest condensed version of what these kinds of discussions are about and what you believe to be at stake?

McPherson: A lot of these discussions have centered on the problem of disenchantment, which, as I understand it, primarily has to do with a perceived loss of meaning or value, or at least a perceived threat of such a loss. The term “disenchantment” was first coined by the German sociologist Max Weber in his essay “Science as a Vocation,” and it has been used by many subsequent thinkers, including, notably, by the well-known Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor in his influential 2007 book A Secular Age.

The problem of disenchantment is a distinctly modern problem because it is thought that questions of meaning and value have become more problematic with the rise of modern science. In particular, modern science has tended to sideline teleological explanations of things (including human beings) where they are understood in terms of their purpose (telos in Greek), where realizing this purpose means achieving their good as the kind of thing that they are. This sidelining of teleology has led to what is called the fact-value (or is-ought) problem, where there is thought to be a problem of how we can derive value from facts about the world. This informs subjectivist accounts of value, such as the view that our value experiences are just projections of our personal feelings onto the world. By contrast, an objectivist account of value appeals to intrinsic values (for example, human dignity, the nobility of virtue, etc.) that are thought to be there anyways whether or not we are responsive to them, but to which we ought to be properly responsive.

The most extreme form of disenchantment combines value subjectivism with a reductionistic understanding of human life where our experiences of meaning or value are understood as merely the product of our genes, or our brain “wiring,” or a stimulus-response mechanism, or something else of the sort. The problem of disenchantment, I think, arises in large part because of the prevalence of various forms of scientism in modern intellectual life, which privilege a disengaged (or third-personal or observational) standpoint that prescinds from our engaged (or first-personal or participative) experiences of the significance of our lives and the beings around us.

I should note that those who embrace disenchantment often also embrace an impersonal or atheistic view of the universe; we see this, for instance, in the following remark from Richard Dawkins in his book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

What’s your general take on these discussions? Where do you situate yourself?

I am definitely on the side of “re-enchantment.” However, as I discuss at the outset of Virtue and Meaning, this term can be misleading. It can seem to suggest that we are trying to return to a premodern worldview, but this is not viable. It can also seem to suggest that the world is completely disenchanted (that is, devoid of meaning or value) and so we must create, bestow, or otherwise bring about meaning or “enchantment.”

Re-enchantment, as I understand it, is rather a matter of discovering (or recovering) something that is already there to be discovered in the world: namely, objective values to which we ought to be responsive. The world is precisely not completely disenchanted and so seeking re-enchantment is a matter of defending the validity of objective values against the disenchantment view.

David McPherson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. (Credit: Courtesy to Crux.)

Part of the task here is to overcome the ways in which objective values have been neglected or occluded by the prevalent forms of scientism that privilege a disengaged standpoint; what we need, I argue, is an engaged approach that is properly responsive to objective value, or what I call “strong evaluative meaning,” that is, meaning or value that involves qualitative distinction and specifies that with which we ought to be concerned and toward which we ought to orient our lives: for example, the higher, the noble, and the sacred. However, I also think we need a worldview in light of which these strong evaluative meanings can make sense, and I maintain that this requires a teleological worldview specifically, and I seek to show that there is no incompatibility between such a worldview and modern science, and indeed we can find support for it in discussions about the apparent fine-tuning of the universe for life and conscious intelligent beings such as ourselves. Ultimately, in the last two chapters of the book,

I seek to make the case for the most re-enchanted perspective that remains a live option, namely, a theistic worldview.

You call out, as being too “flat,” the dominant approach to contemporary Aristotelian ethics, and to which several important recent Catholic philosophers – namely, Elizabeth Anscombe and Alasdair MacIntyre – have contributed. In essence, you think this approach gives too much ground to the dis-enchanters. Can you say more about that critique?

Yes, that’s right. I have been drawn to the Aristotelian tradition of “virtue ethics” and find much that is congenial in the revival of this tradition in the last half-century or so. However, I have also been dissatisfied with a flatness in the dominant approach. Although contemporary Aristotelians have sought to respond to the fact-value problem and defend ethical objectivity (and so seek a kind of re-enchantment), I believe the dominant approach has acceded too much to the scientism that is prevalent in modern intellectual life.

This approach emphasizes an observational (or disengaged) standpoint rather than a participative (or engaged) standpoint, as seen in the stress it puts on an analogy between human flourishing (which the virtues help us to achieve) and the flourishing of other living things, and thereby it overlooks many of the meanings by which we live and after which we seek, including what I have called strong evaluative meanings. In other words, the dominant approach fails to account properly for our distinctive nature as the meaning-seeking animal. It has thus offered an overly disenchanted understanding of our human form of life.

I seek to provide a fuller kind of re-enchantment through accounting for our nature as the meaning-seeking animal. I also try to bring out how Aristotle himself does not share the disenchanted view of the dominant approach, as we see, for instance, in the way that the strong evaluative category of the noble operates in his ethical thought, where we perform virtuous actions for the sake of the noble as constitutive of our human fulfillment, which I argue can also be understood in terms of a meaningful life.

I also show that in fact Anscombe, who first recommended the disenchanted Aristotelian approach to secular philosophers, ultimately rejects this approach, as seen, for example, in her appeal in her later work to what she calls a “religious attitude” of reverence for human life, which she thinks is available to everyone.

How does this account of human beings as meaning-seeking animals connect with your provocative move of naming human beings homo religiosus? Could you also explain what you mean by this?

The claim that human beings are homo religiosus is provocative in a sense, since clearly there are people who do not consider themselves religious in any traditional way. However, religion has had a centrally important place in human life throughout history, and most people would acknowledge something like “spiritual needs” in addition to their material needs, where these can be understood in terms of our need to orient our lives in light of strong evaluative meanings (for example, the higher, the noble, the sacred, etc.).

There are many people today who say they are “spiritual but not religious,” where not being religious means not being a part of any “organized religion.” However, I don’t think any strong distinction can be made between spirituality and religion, because when one gets serious about the spiritual life – that is, with seeking to align one’s life in light of self-transcending sources of value – this will naturally lead to “organized” practices.

I also think that a concern for meaning in life and a meaningful life leads to a concern for the meaning of life, that is, a concern with how our lives fit into the grand scheme of things and whether there is a cosmic or ultimate source of meaning to which we must align our lives. So here we can see how my account of our being the meaning-seeking animal connects up with my claim that we are homo religiosus.

The issue of the place of spirituality in the good life has been off the map for most contemporary Aristotelians. However, Aristotle himself recognized the spiritual dimension of human existence in his account of the contemplative life. Most contemporary Aristotelians have sidelined the topic of the place of contemplation in the good life. I make the case for the crucial importance of contemplation in human life, and especially for addressing what I call the problem of cosmodicy, which is the problem of justifying life in the world as worthwhile in the face of evil and suffering.

I also seek to show the draw of a specifically theistic form of spirituality, which enables us to see life as a gift and to affirm that reality is on the side of the good and tragedy does not have the final word; in other words, in enables us to affirm what my friend and fellow Catholic philosopher John Cottingham calls “the buoyancy of the good.”

One of the chapters in your book which was of particular interest to me is the chapter appealing to human dignity, especially for those profoundly disabled people who can’t in any sense “seek meaning,” at least in ways that we are able to detect. How should we think about the moral status and value of these human beings? Do we need to appeal to a more enchanted set of ideas to explain what I hope we still believe: namely, that they are our equals?

This is an area where I have thought the dominant approach to contemporary Aristotelian virtue ethics is especially lacking precisely because it neglects appealing to human dignity. Consider Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals. He argues that in order to achieve our own good – as the dependent, vulnerable creatures that we are – we have to participate in a “network of relationships of giving and receiving.”

For MacIntyre, this includes showing care for the profoundly disabled. Here he appeals to an expectation of asymmetrical reciprocity, where we incur a debt in virtue of the care that we have received, but very often we have to pay back this debt not to those from whom we have received but toward others who stand in need of our help. MacIntyre also appeals to empathetic identification where we have the thought that others’ misfortune could have been our own. Both appeals are ultimately justified in terms of his account of human flourishing through networks of relationships of giving and receiving.

These are important ideas, but what is striking in MacIntyre’s account is that there is no place accorded to the strong evaluative claim of human dignity, or the sanctity of human life, and without this there is a danger of failing to see the profoundly disabled as our equals. I bring this out by appealing to the philosopher Raimond Gaita’s discussion of his experience of observing a nun’s unconditional love for patients at a psychiatric ward at which he worked when he was seventeen.

He says that through her loving demeanor toward the patients she revealed that they were “the equals of those who want to help them; but she also revealed that in our hearts we did not believe this.” Reflecting later on the nun’s example, Gaita says: “I came to believe that an ethics centered on the concept of human flourishing does not have the conceptual resources to keep fully amongst us, in the way the nun had revealed to be possible, people who are severely and ineradicably afflicted” (A Common Humanity, p. 19). In other words, if our primary conceptual resource for the ethical life is the idea of human flourishing, then it is not clear that this can ensure that those who are not able to flourish will be regarded as our equals.

We need a kind of re-enchantment: we need to develop a sense that all human beings have equal inherent dignity or sacredness, which we arrive at often not through argument but rather through our own engaged experience and also through the example of unconditional love. Interestingly, Gaita himself is not religious, and he thinks that only a religious person can speak seriously of the sacred, but since he affirms the reality of what the nun’s love revealed about the profound worth of every human life, he thinks a non-religious person has to try to find some not fully adequate substitute for the religious way of talking, such as that all human beings are “inestimably precious.”

This raises the question of what worldview can best support a way of coming to see all human beings as fully amongst us, and here I think a Catholic perspective has something important to offer with its belief that all human beings are made in the image of God.

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