Last week we played a tune that goes something like this: The Enlightenment is exhausted – and exhausting us. Many recognize it but want more lyrics – songs, books, and films that decry Descartes. Here are the first few in a long list.
As I suggested last week, the tune is our times. Over the last 500 years, Westerners have become mollified inside the Matrix of Modernity, or the Enlightenment. This is Iain McGilchrist’s tune in his provocative book, The Master and His Emissary. The same melody is heard in “The Matrix” as well as the Wachowski’s new film, “Cloud Atlas,” coming out this week. This tune is being played everywhere, albeit with different lyrics.
Take U2’s “Numb.” Their 1993 song is about sensory overload. Watch the video. The lyrics are about being unable to distinguish between the wise use of technology and overdosing on it. Neuroimaging reveals it is only in the brain’s right hemisphere that we can make these distinctions. In a lead-with-the-left world, we’re numb to reality.
These are the lyrics in Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society. Technology is inherently good but the Enlightenment fostered a society where we rely primarily on “rational methods” to achieve “absolute efficiency,” writes Ellul. This creates “an artificial world” (i.e., left-brain) illustrated in Jacques Soustelle’s assessment on the atom bomb: “Since it was possible, it was necessary.” Neil Postman sings the same tune in Technopoly: The surrender of Culture to Technology – another book with lyrics worth reading.
These are the lyrics in many of C. S. Lewis’ works. In The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Lewis notes how the Middle Ages was an era that made sense of the world, leapfrogging the Enlightenment. According to neuroimaging, making sense of the world is a function of the brain’s right hemisphere. No wonder Lewis warned his students that, as a Middle Ages man, he was the last dinosaur.
I’d also recommend Lewis’ essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes.” In it, he wrote, “All our truth, or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor.” Metaphor is a right hemisphere function. It’s imagination. Lewis believed imagination precedes reason – the same tune McGilchrist plays. In Selected Literary Essays, another worthwhile read, Lewis writes, “reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
More lyrics are found in Lewis’ space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra,, and That Hideous Strength). Late in his life, Lewis admitted these books were an attack on scientism – a naturalistic outlook on the world fostered by the Enlightenment. Science originally included the supernatural – a Creator and an ordered universe that can be comprehended. In The Discarded Image, Lewis wrote: “The mass media have in our time created a popular scientism, a caricature of the true sciences.”
More lyrics are available in Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe. Einstein’s brilliance, he writes, was in believing imagination is more important than knowledge. “I very rarely think in words at all, “Einstein confessed. “A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards.” His thinking started in the right but included the left.
I also like the lyrics in Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking: Fast and Slow. Lead-with-the-left societies are analytical, thwarting paradigm shifts. This is the same tune heard in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn studied the Copernican Revolution, noting how established institutions resist paradigm shifts. If you reread last week’s column (http://www.doggieheadtilt.com/the-harder-they-fall/), you could consider today’s exiles to be Copernicans – seeing how the universe actually rotates.
Same tune, different lyrics are found in James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Calling his book a “biblical anthropology,” Smith debunks the central paradigm of the Enlightenment, how we are fundamentally thinking or rational beings. This paradigm permeates much of the Western church. Smith counters that we operate primarily by desire – the same tune heard in neuroscience.
More lyrics are available in Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. Crawford debunks the Enlightenment’s take on human nature as exhausting. Same tune, different lyrics in Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth: Why The Experts Keep Getting It Wrong. Stewart debunks modern management because it’s based on Enlightenment ideas that were advanced by life-sucking social Darwinists like Frederick Winslow Taylor. Read it, and you’ll appreciate Robert Burton’s On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. He debunks the Enlightenment notion of certainty as a rational function. It’s not. Certainty is a feeling.
The Enlightenment’s beguiling enchantment is individual liberty – absolute freedom from institutions and authorities. This has created an anti-institutional, individualistic American culture, with “its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness,” writes David Brooks.1 He recommends reading “On Thinking Institutionally” by Hugh Heclo. It’s the same tune others are playing – just different lyrics.
You’ll also hear the tune in Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Regarding the Enlightenment, he wrote: “The one thing that can be certainly said about this chapter of human history is that it is over. For more than two centuries it has provided the framework in which the Western churches have understood their missionary task. To continue to think in the familiar terms is now folly.”
It is folly, but the truth is, lead-with-the-left cultures can only think in familiar terms. They cannot see the big picture. They’re like music producer Bruce Dickinson – yes, The Bruce Dickinson. He couldn’t see the big picture after hearing Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” In the memorable Saturday Night Live skit, “more cowbell” is funny but folly. The tune didn’t need tweaking. Neither does this one: modernity is madness. That was Lewis Carroll’s tune in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” But Alice had to go down the rabbit-hole to hear it. That’s what we’ll continue to do in next week’s column.
1 David Brooks, “What Life Asks of Us,” New York Times, January 27, 2009.