A Secular Age, Chapter 1, Section 3

Secular Age

[numbers indicate paras]

  1. (Pg. 29) Even if we need to tell the ‘story’ of how the West became secular, still need some analysis along the way in order to understand what is happening in the story. So, Taylor lays out some of that analysis broadly, as he contrasts the modern world with the pre-modern world (ca. 1500), and notes five changes [he will discuss these over the course of chapter 1].
  2. The first change is “disenchantment” and the removal of obstacle three (see paras 4-6 of chapter 1, section 1). [The rest of section three focuses on the movement in conditions of belief from an enchanted world to a disenchanted world]
  3. We moved from an enchanted world of spirits, demons, and invisible moral forces to a disenchanted world in which “the only locus of thoughts” and “feelings” is the mind. And our minds are bounded, so these thoughts only happen “within.”
  4. This space “within” a person has the possibility to one degree or another of self-awareness and “radical reflexivity.”
  5. [Paras 5-8 appear to be a digression]. By talking about the mind, Taylor is not trying to advance a certain theory of the mind-body relationship. He is just establishing this crucial component to how modern people construct their world. It is rooted internally and subjectively in the mind.
  6. This concept of mind is a crucial part of understanding how society went from a “naive understanding” in which it was unthinkable to doubt God’s existence, to a reflective understanding where God is, at best, only one answer among many.
  7. Taylor [over?-]analyzes the modern world’s rejection of spirit beings, saying it is not a new form of “naive understanding.” [BTW NOTE: Is this what he is saying here?]
  8. Taylor’s discussion of the mind is how he will ‘unpack’ this change in society from naive, enchanted belief in God to reflective, disenchanted uncertainty about God.
  9. So, back to the mind. It is a bounded inward space in which thoughts, etc occur.
  10. Thoughts, feelings, identity happen in the mind.
  11. This is a key difference from the enchanted world [in which the world impinges on the mind].
  12. Again, this ‘mind talk’ is not trying to wade into the deeper philosophies of the mind. It’s just establishing the point that in a disenchanted world meaning happens “within.”
  13. As an example, think of the philosophical materialist fantasy in which we are all just brains in a vat, manipulated by scientists into thinking there really is an outside world ‘out there.’ But it’s just experiments causing our minds to think we perceive an outside world. The point of the example is that meaning and perception happen within the mind (in the modern world).
  14. BUT in the enchanted world, meaning is not ‘in the mind,’ it is ‘out there.’ This is first seen in that there is believed to be something besides human minds populating the world, there are spirits and demons ‘out there.’
  15. In addition to demons, there were good spiritual agents, too.
  16. There is some contact between this enchanted view and the modern view of the mind, in that this essentially there are other minds out there to besides human minds. But there is more to the enchanted world than just spiritual beings with minds.
  17. Besides spiritual beings, there are “things” that objectively hold power  (relics, sacraments, candles, etc).
  18. So much power did they hold that, in the enchanted world, the line between personal action and impersonal force was not clearly drawn. Relics could give cures and curses could regardless of personal intention.
  19. So, in the pre-modern world, meaning is not only in the mind, but can also reside in things. These things possess power in two ways that are different from today.
  20. First, these external things can impose meaning on us. This still is true today, even in the modern world (i.e. tragedies that happen to us), but it was very different in the pre-modern world.
  21. These things may impinge in two ways.
  22. (1) We observe them and they can the way we see the world. (2) As external things that are continuous with our bodies, we are in constant relation to them, and since we are responsively shaped, our moods and motivations can be affected by what happens outside of us..
  23. In the enchanted world, the meaning is there independent of the minds perceiving it, in the modern world this is not the case. So (3) [Taylor adds a third way] in the enchanted world an object can impose meaning on us by bringing us into its sphere of power/influence. It can impose meaning on us that is alien to our nature (i.e. grace, illumination, or curse).
  24. The world does not just affect us by presenting us with various states of affair that we react to “out of our own nature.” In the enchanted world, the meaning and power exist out there, and can change us, and even take us over.
  25. But in the disenchanted world, for instance, if I am angry it can wear you down and eventually put you in a bad mood, but that “bad mood” was in the repetoire of your nature already, it’s circumstances that brought it out.
  26. Or even if someone were to show you a human behavior or philosophy that was entirely new to you, it would still be something that happens within the sphere of humanness; not ‘within us’ but ‘between us’ and that is much the same thing.
  27. This clarification of ‘between us’ needs to be added because of how unhelpfully atomistically the human mind can be understood.
  28. This is all different from the pre-modern enchanted view of the world in which powers beyond human minds can affect us ‘within’ and ‘between.’
  29. In the pre-modern enchanted world, power “exogenously” induces and imposes meaning on humans. These “charged” objects can affect us and other things in the world.
  30. (pg. 35) This matches the High Renaissance theory of correspondences.
  31. Things have influence and causal power.
  32. Distinctions that we make between mind and world are hazier in the pre-modern world.
  33. The pre-modern self is porous and susceptible to the influence of exogenous powers.
  34. As an example of this porousness, think of demon possession. A demon can take you over whether you want them to or not.
  35. And there are a variety of levels of influence that the ‘outside’ can have on a person.
  36. Influence does not have clear boundaries.
  37. If you worship Aphrodite, when life goes well she is the one responsible. Even good moods are a gift from her.
  38. This makes even our inside or ‘within’ more external and outside, because even the depths of our thoughts are porous and penetrable by these enchanted powers.
  39. Much the same as was said about Aphrodite’s influence could apply to demonic influence.
  40. In the modern world, we have lost this sense of danger to spirits, witches, and demons.
  41. Along with vulnerability to evil, there is the need to propitiate the anger of these forces, too.
  42. The relationship between humans and cosmic forces is more than an analogy of human-to-human relationships. It is complex, requiring its own model.
  43. This enchanted world has significant consequences for our lived experience.
  44. As an example: melancholy does not just exist as an attitude, because our emotional life is porous and extends to evil forces beyond us that have a meaning of their own independent of us.
  45. A modern is told your melancholy is tied to you: your diet, your body chemistry, your hormones.
  46. A pre-modern is told it comes from outside of him. Black bile is melancholy.
  47. The modern person has a buffered self. The pre-modern a porous self.
  48. The difference between these two selves is that a modern can distance himself from the world, achieve meaning from within.
  49. But for the porous self, the most influential forces are those that are outside the mind.
  50. The buffered self can see itself as invulnerable and as master of its own meaning.
  51. There are two important contrasted between the porous and buffered selves. 1) The porous self is vulnerable to outside forces, the buffered self does not live in this world of this kind of fear.
  52. It’s not that the buffered self is free of trouble, but those troubles are now “within” and are dealt with differently.
  53. Our nostalgia for by-gone pre-modern eras relieves how little we understand about the lived conditions and the fears bound up with a porous self.
  54. 2) The buffered self can disengage and create its own “autonomous order” to life.
  55. The boundary between agents and forces is fuzzy in the enchanted world, and this is not thought of by pre-moderns as ‘a theory’ but a fact of experience.
  56. Additionally the enchanted world did not abide by the different between science and meaning/spiritual faith. What ailed the body was understood to be bound up with matters of the soul.
  57. Though, many people still took the physical remedy without regard for the spiritual component.
  58. One also finds vestiges of the old belief that illness happens because of sin.
  59. 500 years ago, there was not a clear line between the physical and the moral. This is because of porous understanding of reality.
  60. Additionally, today we hold a Newtonian cause and effect view of the non-human elements of the world.
  61. 500 years ago, these non-human elements were understood personally as agencies of evil or good.
  62. So… how does all this relate to the conditions of belief?
  63. “First, disbelief is hard in the enchanted world.” This is because you cannot navigate an enchanted world without God and expect much success.
  64. “Going against God is not an option in the enchanted world,” because reality is perceived as porous. Thus, the invention of the buffered self removes a huge barrier to unbelief.
  65. The buffered self makes unbelief a possibility, but not necessarily a reality yet. For that we need to follow the process of disenchantment a little more, first.

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