The Reënchantment Project


Copyright 2012 () Freeman Presson, all rights reserved

I think that modern physics has definitely decided in favor of Plato. In fact the smallest units of matter are not physical objects in the ordinary sense; they are forms, ideas which can be expressed unambiguously only in mathematical language. (Werner Heisenberg, as quoted in The New York Times Book Review of 8 March 1992)

Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real. (Niels Bohr)

In the introduction to his Druid Magic Handbook, John Michael Greer cites Max Weber’s concept of the disenchantment of the Western world, and goes on to deliver a simultaneously stern and entertaining rebuttal of it. This led me to think of the many evidences I have seen of how deeply-embedded a certain kind of 19th-century thinking has become (to show only a few):

  • Richard Hinckley Allen’s Star names, their Lore and Meaning has been criticized on many grounds, but I have not seen anyone call out the obvious fact that it tries to explain old star lore with almost no reference to astrology; and without this, I contend that the lore has no meaning.
  • Look at the Wikipedia article, or other mainstream references, on Thabit ibn Qurra. They discuss his contributions to mathematics and astronomy at length; they completely fail to mention that he was the last of the truly great Sabian astrological mages, the author of De Imaginibus.
  • Similarly for Newton: some sources will mention his esoteric interests in passing now, since they have become so abundantly obvious, but few make it clear that this founder of the Enlightenment, one of the first “modern” scientists, was also very much a Hermetic natural philosopher, who spent about half his waking hours pursuing alchemy and theology. Kepler and Copernicus? Astrologers.
  • Pagans tend to love the movie Agora, since it has a strong Pagan heroine (Hypatia of Alexandria) trying to resist the ineluctable tide of Christianity. The historical Hypatia was known to be a Neoplatonist, and so would have been very spiritual and pious. The Hypatia in the film is a materialist-atheist and a scientist with a completely modern outlook. Basically, the filmmaker ripped us off, and we cheered about it.
It is easy enough to understand how people in the late eighteenth through the early twentieth century could be captivated by the vision of a predictable, rational clockwork Cosmos, especially when the science that drove this vision was showering the citizens of the developed world with the products of ever-evolving technology and the promise of unending progress and economic expansion. It is less easy to understand how people are still operating under these premises:
  1. Even in the infancy of the Newtonian paradise, there was a worm in the apple1, in the form of the lack of a closed solution to the three-body problem. One wonders what good it is to theorize that given enough information and enough computing power, one could accurately simulate the entire history of the Cosmos, if it is that easy to show that the computation requires more matter and energy than the Cosmos itself contains? Ah, well … there are always approximate methods, yes? But see §7 below.
  2. In 1905 – 1915, Einstein showed that not only is the Newtonian-mechanical Universe a special case, for a certain range of masses and velocities, and that there are some fundamental limits  that Newton could not have seen, but that it isn’t even a Euclidean space.
  3. Based on the work of Boltzmann, Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, Heisenberg, and others, the various branches of quantum physics simultaneously explained and obscured the subatomic world. Heisenberg uncertainty and quantum indeterminacy definitively destroyed the vision of the computable Universe, while the various results showing quantum entanglement and non-locality re-introduced “spooky action at a distance.”.
  4. As if that weren’t enough, Kurt Gödel‘s famous 1931 Incompleteness Theorem exposed cracks in the foundations of axiomatic mathematics itself.
  5. Current cosmologists, in an effort to encompass both Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, have been forced to go all-in in the strangeness game, with parallel worlds and multiverses becoming perfectly normal models to discuss.
  6. The confidently-expected “Theory of Everything,” the quest for which occupied most of Einstein’s later career, looks further and further away the more patches and workarounds are applied to strings, superstrings, p-branes, and whatever other imponderables occupy the theorists.
  7. At the dawn of the computer age, some of the mysteries of non-linear dynamical systems were explored, producing what we now call “Chaos Theory,” leading to a better understanding of the nature and limits of stability in systems like our solar system and the Cosmos itself, and also demonstrating that long-term prediction of such systems is inherently impossible, not just computationally difficult. So much for the 1950’s vision of global weather control!
So the Enlightenment vision of a predictable clockwork cosmos fails, not just in one way, but in every possible dimension. The real world is vastly stranger and richer than that.
Many of the people who rejoice in this fact also jump to the conclusion that the spooky quantum Multiverse neatly explains Magic and the paranormal. It does nothing of the sort: it leaves room for it if you squint just right, but that’s the strongest statement we can confidently make. Most attempts to fit the Mysteries back into Physics appear to work, to the extent they do, on the strength of analogical thinking that isn’t actually backed up by the science. Frankly, quite a few of these attempts don’t show an expert working knowledge of mysticism, either.
One of the toughest problems in explaining Magic, Mystery, Psi, etc., is the need to explain why the para-Cosmos seems to take imprints. Philosophical metaphysics, at least since Plato, has offered abstract models of this, but scientific proof of anything of the sort is just not there yet: not for lack of anomalies, but for lack of hypotheses and widely-accepted replication of the occasional suggestive experiments. The answer is probably hiding in some of those extra spatial dimensions that cosmologists throw around like candy, or in some as-yet-undiscovered quantum state vector shenanigans, but I don’t know how to do an experiment to show this. I suppose we’re fortunate that that’s not my job.
Philosophical idealism has actually made a resurgence among the more advanced sort of working scientist; today it is primarily among the “merely educated” that 19th-century mechanistic thinking still prevails. There is currently no scientific ground upon which one can stand to propound materialistic principles.
This means that our world is ripe for reënchantment, and not only in a direct, child-like, starry-eyed way, but philosophically as well. We are fully justified in bringing back Hermes Trismegistus, and re-Paganizing him while we’re at it. Saint Giordano Bruno? In my church, yes! However, we’re not holding our breath on scientific validation; I may not see that in the longest scientifically-enhanced life span I can currently imagine.

  1. Apple. Newton. Come ON, are y’all paying no attention whatever?
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About freemanpresson

Celto-Cherokee Pagan, Priest, Frater of the Church of the Hermetic Sciences, sometime writer, etc.
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13 Responses to The Reënchantment Project

  1. Andrew says:

    As John Michael Greer has argued, magic’s real power lies in the buildup of layers of influence from multiple sensory perceptions and mental processes. This is exactly the opposite of what science does, which is strip away all but one or two variables. The reënchantment of the world is really about accepting that those accreted layers — of music, of history, of waving banners, of roadside shrines to car accident victims — matter, that they should be attended to, and that they help us make sense of the world.

    • That reminds me of something else that was originally supposed to be in this essay, if it didn’t attempt to turn it into a book. Also that I was too lazy to look up the keyboard code for e with a diaresis :-)

      • Andrew says:

        I don’t know that a diaresis is required for a word like reënchantment. But since we mean something very specific by this in a magical context, maybe we should start using the diaresis. After all, using a diaresis in reënchantment is reënchanting. :-)

        This is part of what my post late, late last night was about, with regard to Barbiel and travel on a difficult day. You might enjoy it.

  2. americanmage says:

    excellent subject and analysis! I have interviewed JMG for my show several times and find his work approachable and inspiring!!! Keep up the GREAT WORK!!! FX

  3. By the way, I see I made it sound like Einstein had nothing to do with quantum theory. It was actually his 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect that first defined quanta. I will have to see about rewording that part.

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  8. Thisica says:

    I have the opinion that your depiction of the Enlightenment is a little bit simplistic. True that we’ve been bought up into what i call the “Enlightenment mythology”–of the overarching importance of reason over any other human values and the ridiculous claims about what science can do in our understanding of the world…but I consider the individuals of the Enlightenment to be people, first and foremost. By not deifying them, we can gain a much more nuanced picture of what happened and so we can become more sober about the sorts of things we would like to carry over as legacies of the Enlightenment. This has been quite an acute matter for me as a researcher, who was infected with the Newtonian mythology…and want to escape from it! I don’t consider Newton to be someone who was a carrier of ‘Reason’, but a person who lived in his own times, preoccupied by things like theology and chemystry–just like a lot of people who were educated back in those days were. That much I agree with you.

    By the way, the predictable clockwork universe view was something that Laplace actually wrote, as the quote below attests:

    “An intellect which at any given moment knew all the forces that animate Nature and the mutual positions of the beings that comprise it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit its data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom: for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain; and the future just like the past would be present before our eyes.”– [in "A Philosophical Essay on Probability"]

    I have little evidence that Newton would have endorsed such a strong view of determinism. He actually thought that because of the potential instability of the Solar System, the Christian god would be required to ‘fix’ it. That is far from being a clockwork universe working autonomously, in my opinion. So, in short, I disagree with the idea that the individuals of the Enlightenment uniformly endorsed such a view of determinism.

    The view of the world as something to exploit…came in part by the Christian mentality of humans as dominant over other creatures, in part by colonialism, in part by terrible economic ideologies that first sprung in the late 19th century which has now created a terrible climate of exploitation of the Earth’s biosphere. I consider such ideas to be dangerous to the future functioning of the biosphere, which includes us…as they are so contrary to reality.

    The world exists beyond the human imagination, which includes mathematics. I strongly disagree with Heisenberg, as well as a lot of physicists who can’t tell the difference between a description of the world and the world itself, on this point. A sense of humility and honesty is needed in both religious rituals and scientific research, for similar reasons, I reckon: we are small, the world is large and that we are very ignorant. This is concerning for me, especially when people attempt to explain their experiences through quantum mechanics. From what I have studied thus far in my university education in physics…quantum mechanics has no bearing on consciousness, let alone magical experiences. Ironically, this view of the universe is reductionistic…we’re trying to explain complex phenomena entirely in terms of a physical theory. What happened to the sense that things don’t have such a simple explanation, let alone our capacity to say “We don’t know”? I prefer honesty to the illusion of knowledge.

    In my opinion, mysticism is a personal affair and thus can’t be theorised about on a broad scale. And so much, in my opinion, is the case in a lot of our personal experiences of the gods/goddesses.

    Some disclosure (and passions): I’m of a materialist persuasion, but one who fully recognises the autonomy of material processes and forces, especially the fundamental interactions that modern physicists have worked out. Materiality is not a passive, but an enlivening condition in allowing all of our wondrous existence to occur. And it’s for that that I’m grateful for (but not ‘to’, since they’re not sentient). I just don’t see modern science as a massive reductionist project–if that were the case, then why so many fields of inquiry? The fecundity of material existence allows for such non-reductionism to occur.

    • You’re spot on that it was Laplace who put forward the strong form of determinism. Before Newton, no one could have made that statement with any sort of confidence.

      I can see where your idea, that I might paraphrase as “yes, materialism, but the Mystery is right there in every little energetic twinkle and particle decay,” is useful, even if it’s a partial answer. In fact, I was contemplating how it is easy for Hermeticists and our ilk to fall into the sort of dualism that looks down on matter and on the body as anchors that need to be transcended, when I can see the Divine looking back at me out of every bit of it.

      • Thisica says:

        I was getting quite concerned too, as our societies have become detuned to the world which we live in. Lots of distractions from having to reflect on our actions…This, I find quite troubling. So in the light of this, I have attempted to find some space for non-instrumental, non-rational modes of being, so that I don’t lose that sense of connectiveness to our wonderful material existence, which in some corners may be seen as aspects of the divine, as you say.

        On a different note: I do find people’s attempts to explain personal experiences by means of quantum physics rather reductionistic and pretentious. I do become less happy when people do this as well, since so many don’t seem to have enough curiosity to learn it without having to read too much into it. I would rather keep quantum mechanics (why this branch of physics, rather than say turbulence, which we actually know less about!) and personal experiences separate.

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