Design, Deism, and Disenchantment

Design, Deism, and Disenchantment February 22, 2019

The topic of disenchantment is directly entwined with pretty much any question that we might ask related to religion in the present day. I had been gathering links on the topic for quite some time, but was prompted to return to the topic and finish the post not only by the treatment of the subject in Robert Geraci’s recent book Temples of Modernity: Nationalism, Hinduism, and Transhumanism in South Indian Science, but also by a call for papers for a special issue of Chiasma focused on the subject. I’ve recorded a podcast with Robert about his book and his ongoing work in India (recorded while he is currently there in Bangalore) which will be released in the not too distant future.

As I have already indicated, there has is quite a bit to talk about related to enchantment and disenchantment. Richard Beck discussed the topic a while back, explaining how the design argument tricks those who embrace it into also going along with a deist line of reasoning. He writes:

The Watchmaker argument, by reducing Creation to a mechanism, tricks you into adopting a deistic view of the cosmos. And once you’ve adopted deism–a distant God who stepped away from creation and doesn’t intervene–your disenchantment radically deepens…

Here’s the question I asked the biology majors:

Is cancer beautiful?

It’s a hard question. Maybe at the level of pure mechanism you can find beauty in how cancer cells replicate. At the cellular and molecular level the intricacy of the design is beautiful.

Cancer is the Watch.

But at an existential level we recoil at the notion that cancer is beautiful. We’ve seen cancer eat away at and take the lives of our loved ones. We stand at the graveside of a child who has died of leukemia and say, “Maybe the Watch is beautiful. But I hate the Watch.”

The problem with the Watchmaker argument, I told the biology majors, is that it doesn’t account for our deep, deep dissatisfaction with the Watch. The Watch may be intricately designed, and when we look at the Grand Canyon or at the stars we might call these parts of the Watch beautiful. But there also parts of the Watch that we experience as ugly, horrible and tragic. Design doesn’t always produce wonder. Cancer isn’t beautiful.

Chaplain Mike explored the shrinking place of God in our time. Also on this topic:

Why Do We Think We Are Disenchanted?

Scooby Doo is Fun TV but a Lousy Worldview

Scooby Doo, How Wrong are You?

Can we still believe in miracles?

Why the “nones” leave religion: US and UK getting less religious

Intelligent Design Revisited (RJS)

Scientists scrutinize just two examples in Behe’s new book; find them deeply misleading

The BioLogos website had a series of guest posts on creating information naturally, related to chess and DNA, chance, and evolutionary adaptation.

Intrinsic Biochemical Intelligence

The Enlightened Luddite

Rational Faith: More working hypothesis than logical proof

Finally, let me note a possible connection to the subject of anti-intellectualism. It could be argued that the world has become a disenchanted place largely for a privileged elite, which doesn’t make that perspective wrong, but does nonetheless identify a problem with where it is found, how it is communicated, and who is disenfranchised in the process.

And here for your convenience once again is that call for papers I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

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  • John MacDonald

    Enchantment/Disenchantment in culture is one of my areas of interest.

    As Nietzsche showed, we have become better and better at distracting ourselves from ourselves (eg., cell phone addiction), but this doesn’t imply the problems of boredom/meaninglessness/anxiety have gotten any better – quite the opposite. We have just become bigger addicts. It’s like a drunk who won the lottery claiming he is more content than he used to be because now he can afford/have the free time to drink more!

    Heidegger says:

    “Sunsets are now only for ‘poets’ and ‘lovers.’ The enchantment of the world has been displaced by another enchantment. The new enchantment is now ‘physics’ itself as an outstanding achievement of the human. The human now enchants himself through himself. The modern human is now what is enchanting (Heidegger, Heraclitus, 1943)”


    “But because human beings now concern themselves, for various reasons, with the continually new and up-to-date, whatever exhausts itself in always and only being the same is completely boring to them. It is precisely in order to ensure that this absolute (ie, the boring same) will not be forgotten through the course of the history of a people that a thinker occasionally arrives. Admittedly, this is perhaps not the sole reason, and certainly not the true reason, that the thinker arrives. (Heidegger, Heraclitus, 1943)”

    Profound boredom/melancholy allows Heidegger to distinguish thinkers from the masses. Heidegger cites a work attributed to Aristotle. We read: “Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry or the arts are melancholic?” This view of boredom/depression as both a gift and curse can be seen in the writings of later periods too. Melancholia is often described as the affliction of a deep thinker, an indication that a person engages in self-reflection and contemplation of the world. To be not-caught-up in life can grant perspective because of the distance. Such a temperament, characterized by refined sensibilities, an agile mind and superior wit, was viewed as a predisposition to greatness. As one English poet, Charlotte Smith (1749 to1806), wrote: “Those paint sorrow best who feel it most.”

    Thinkers are not close to life, not caught up in the everyday, and so escape to the realm of thought. The thinker is not so much bored by life as enviously watching the masses nurse on the presence of beings like a mother’s milk. Heraclitus says the masses are “like well fed cattle (DK 29).” The thinker has the lot in life of being nicht-da-sein, like the awkward kid at the party wanting desperately to fit in like everyone else but whose lot is to pass the time at the party pretending to be examining a plant. But it is just this lack of closeness to life that can lead to essential satiety. There is something about a flight from life into the matters of thought that can provide a gateway to a lifetime of satiety.

    In the later Zollikon Seminars, Heidegger/Medard Boss say:

    Medard Boss: “Our patients force us to see the human being in his essential ground because the modem neuroses of boredom and meaninglessness can no longer be drowned out by glossing over or covering up particular symptoms of illness. If one treats those symptoms only, then another symptom will emerge again and again … They no longer see meaning in their life and … they have become intolerably bored.”

    We see this, for instance, when we are separated from beings, such as with Cabin Fever, or a child’s Time Out facing the wall. Nietzsche said in a letter to Overbeck that:

    “terrible rain the last several days, everyone’s suffering Cabin Fever [sehr ungeduldig] – that is the way it is in this isolated place. Only I don’t share it since I am busy thinking about and finishing my new work [the third Untimely Meditation]. Engaged in that, one lives in a different place where one doesn’t have anything to do with rain any more.” – from Nietzsche Briefwechsel: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (25 vols.) ed. G. Colli and M. Montinari (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1967-2006): KGB 11.3 382

    Nietzsche analyzed “Cabin Fever” as being fundamental before it was even a phrase in language! Heidegger expresses a similar sentiment to Nietzsche’s letter in the 1943 lecture course on Heraclitus where Heidegger argues:

    “Suppose that, with one fell swoop, the modern human were to be deprived of such things as the movie theater, the radio, the newspaper, the theater, concerts, boxing matches, and ‘travel.’ Suppose it came about that the human were forced to subsist with only the simple things: he would rather’die’ than remember being ! (Heidegger, Heraclitus 1943, 63).”

    As I said, in the present age, in our addiction to cell phones/social media, our drug habit,is greater than ever, like an addict/alcoholic who has won the lottery and so is more satisfied than ever because they can afford to drink all the time. But let us not be deceived by the satiety. Take away their social media and see what is really going on with withdrawal symptoms.

    Marx said religion is the opium of the masses. We still have religion, but we now have a richer, more powerful assortment of drugs.

    • John MacDonald

      One supporting thought:

      Nietzsche says we experience beings in such a way that they sate us for a while, but then leave us wanting. Eventually, every being becomes the same, just another being, just another something else, like a warn out recording of a favorite song. What we are to see is simply what we have already seen. Nietzsche comments in The Gay Science that:

      “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”

      This reminds us of the words in Ecclesiastes which says “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Also, Ecclesiastes stresses that we, in futility, search for things to sate ourselves, but nothing will: “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”