In his edited book, The Reenchantment of Science1, David Ray Griffin introduces the idea that “mechanistic” science, the science of the modern era, the science given to us by Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, and more, led to the disenchantment of the world, of nature. He notes the sociologist, Max Weber, “used the term Entgotterung, when discussing the disenchantment of nature, which literally means the dedivinization of nature. For these early scientists God was not immanent in the world. God, as understood by them, operated from a distance, taking any magic or power from nature. Griffin continues:
In these ways, nature was bereft of all qualities with which the human spirit could feel a sense of kinship and of anything from which it could derive norms. Human life was rendered both alien and autonomous. (3)
From this understanding of nature and modern science, Griffin adds that if nature / the world is “disenchanted” then experience plays no role in nature or the world. The disenchantment of nature, moreover, excludes “purposes, values, ideals, possibilities, and qualities, and there is no freedom, creativity, temporality, or divinity” (3). This predicament leaves the world, the very universe, meaningless and human beings alone.
Griffin continues his essay by discussing the implications for science in a broader context, a context in which I cannot always follow, being weak in the field of scientific knowledge. However, Griffin’s comments have stimulated in me a return to the works of Loren Eiseley. As most of you know, Eiseley wrote extensively on the beauty, the tragedy, the intentionality, the aliveness, and yes, on the enchantment of nature.
In fact, experience – memories fill Eiseley’s writing. And his past experiences in nature fill his work with enchantment. One example comes from “The Flow of the River.”
“As it leaves the Rockies and moves downward over the high plains towards the Missouri, the Platte River is a curious stream. In the spring floods, on occasion, it can be a mile-wide roaring torrent of destruction, gulping farms and bridges. Normally, however, it is a rambling, dispersed series of streamlets flowing erratically over great sand and gravel fans that are, in part, the remnants of a mightier Ice Age stream bed.”
So, begins Eiseley’s description of the Platte River in northwest Nebraska and his experience floating in its waters.
Eiseley spent a great amount of time in his early years in Nebraska walking along the Platte River in search of fossils – human and otherwise. He had never gone beyond wading in the shallows, however. When he was a young boy, Eiseley almost drowned while swimming and of course was frightened of the water. Yet on this particular day while wading in a shallow pool, Eiseley was struck by “the sight of sky and willows and the weaving net of water murmuring…on its way to the Gulf stirred me…” The thought came to him (from where?) that he was going to float in the Platte. A great adventure awaited him, he thought. As he stood in ankle-deep water he slowly decided to lay back and float out into the stream. He describes feeling the pull of the warm Gulf waters on his feet and the cool tingle of mountain spring water on the tips of his fingers. He imagined he was flowing along an ancient sea-bed and the trails of nineteenth-century prairie schooners. “I was water and the unspeakable alchemies that gestate and take shape in water…” he imagined. Once Eiseley emerged from the water he noted the pull of gravity and the difficulty our bodies have to “break contact with that mother element which…brings into being nine tenths of everything alive.” Water for Eiseley, “touches the past and prepares the future.” If there is “magic on this planet,” he writes, “it is contained in water.” For Eiseley it was images or deep memories of the ancient past that come flowing into his consciousness as he floated along the Platte. It is a flow of experience – it reads like stream of consciousness.
As Griffin explains, the disenchantment of nature excludes purposes, values, ideals, possibilities, qualities, freedom, creativity, temporality, and divinity. I hope what I have added of Eiseley’s poetic prose underscores the tremendous enchantment that nature possesses. Rather than having no purposes, values, ideals, possibilities, qualities, freedom, creativity, temporality, or divinity, nature contains all of these and more. Griffin says that this group of essays is a response to the call made by Stephen Toulmin2 “to think about the universe as a cosmos, ‘in which, all things in the world – human, natural, and divine – (are) related together…’” (30).
Moreover, The Reenchantment of Science provides a blueprint for “reenchanting” both science and nature. The essayists in the book are biologists, physicists, philosophers and theologians. These authors provide a unique view of what the world could look like if it were once again enchanted, if we were able to find mystery surrounding us once again. (*This reminds me of a song from “Godspell” – All good things surround us, they come from heaven above.”)It is too bad that Eiseley was dead at the time Griffin’s book was written, an essay or two from him would have added his unique poetic prose to an otherwise excellent book.
David Ray Griffin, editor, The Reenchantment of Science, 1988.
Stephen Toulmin, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature, 1983.