Climate crisis, refugee crisis, pandemic. Systemic racism, xenophobia, increasing health and socioeconomic inequalities. State surveillance, drone warfare, robotisation, the rise of AI during an epidemic of mental illness. At the heart of our global nexus of disaster is a terrible sickness: a materialist world view that drives not just science but also the global economy, a narrow vision of reality in which human beings are reduced to isolated and competitive bundles of genes; the mind, self, and God to hallucinations and delusions; and the Earth to a resource to be plundered at the grave expense of the biosphere itself. Covid-19 has revealed just how illusory and lethal are these narratives of radical separation, and to ensure that our post-pandemic world does not return to this warped and toxic status quo, new scientific and political paradigms are required: paradigms of unity, paradoxically multiple, that acknowledge our interconnectedness as human beings, not only to each other but also to the ecosystem and, ultimately, a cosmological force best described as love. This emerging paradigm shift is taking many names and forms of expression: postmaterialist, holistic, complementary, ecological, feminist, intersectional, decolonial, Blakean, polyvagal even, after the vagus nerve that connects the brain to the rest of the body. I would like to honour the lungs of the planet and propose the ancient motif of the World Tree as a living symbol of a post-pandemic new world order worth constructing.
First though, to inspect the axe. Since the Enlightenment, dominant social and political institutions have violently hacked at religious, spiritual, and Indigenous beliefs in the unity and mystery of creation, cultivating in their place a reductive materialism with an outright or implicit contempt for faith and myth, the unseen and the unknowable. The result has been enormous and rapid technological progress, including modern medical miracles, but very slow moral development: while hopeful data explored in the recent BBC documentary The Violence Paradox indicates that our species is gradually becoming less physically violent, torture, slavery, and war are nevertheless still integral to the functioning of the global economy, while, as critics of the theory argue, less bloody forms of violence –xenophobia, racism, intolerance, poverty, hunger, and other cruel inequities – are on the rise in our Trump-stamped Brexit era. Science, many would argue, is a neutral tool in this arsenal of evils, capable of generating nuclear bombs or solar panels, dependent on political will. But belief in science has, in many quarters, become scientism – what Habermas described as ‘science’s belief in itself – that is, the conviction that we can no longer understand science as one form of possible knowledge, but must rather identify knowledge with science’. And both views – of science as tool and science as saviour – mask the extent to which modern science and the global economy share a materialist worldview, limited in scope and potentially hugely damaging in consequence.
I have written elsewhere about what philosopher Mary Midgley called ‘the strange, imperialistic, isolating ideology’ that has grown up around science, a process she traces and critiques in her classic text Science and Poetry. In brief, over the last five hundred years the world has moved from Frances Bacon’s declaration that the role of science is ‘to put nature to the question’ – that is, to torture ‘her’ – through Isaac Newton’s ‘Clockwork Universe’, in which God creates the cosmos and then simply sets it ticking, to a thoroughly materialist understanding of reality in which God has been evicted from the building, consciousness is considered an ‘epiphenomenon’, or mere by-product of the brain, and biologically speaking only genes are considered fundamentally real. Our entire perception of reality is simply a ‘hallucination’, Will Storr tells us in his The Science of Storytelling, an application of the insights of neuroscience to narrative techniques in which writers and readers are referred to as ‘brains’, fictional characters as ‘neural realms’, and an ancient myth as a ‘classic piece of human bullshit’. This hugely depressing reductionism is entirely of a piece with the language of scientism: ignoring the many ways in which genes and organisms in fact co-operate, for Richard Dawkins and others of his ilk, human beings are just ‘robot vehicles’ or ‘wet computers’, slaves to the blind selfish genetic imperative to reproduce. I will return to the broader question of consciousness in a moment, but for now let us just consider the implications of this worldview for economics. The materialist rejection of free will, Midgely wryly notes, would seem to be rather at odds with the rampant individualism and competitive economic and political practices of neoliberalism. More recent research, however, concisely summarised by Joan Walton in her article ‘The Entanglement of Scientism, Neoliberalism and Materialism’, indicates that in fact Western economics has marched in step with scientism since its inception.