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On Optimal Disenchantment

March 26th, 2003 · No Comments

Will had a great post a little while back on “optimal disenchantment,” where he asks, in effect, how unflinching we really want to be in the quest for truth. Aren’t there, after all, some illusions we could use? Brink’s thoughtful reply, though, makes clear that there are at least a couple of distinct senses of “disenchantment” we might employ, and they deserve to be treated separately.

First, there’s the simple case of factual myth; the belief that, say, karma or various forms of afterlife reward the good and punish the wicked. There’s some reason to think that we can be happier with some false beliefs. Studies have shown, for example, that people who have a slightly (not wildly) inflated estimate of their own abilities, and of other people’s opinions of them tend to be more satisfied and successful than people with a more strictly accurate view. One quite recent study found that religious belief among teenagers can serve as a “buffer” against difficult circumstances, and lower the incidence of drug or alcohol use. But then, it’s not necessarily the case that only such beliefs can act as successful coping mechanisms; they’re just one very prevalent one in contemporary America. Any number of other attitudes or beliefs might serve as well.

Talking with a once-religious friend recently, I began to think that “disenchantment” is far more of a problem when there’s initial “enchantment.” People who’ve had faith and lose it find the “disenchanting” process difficult, and feel it as a loss. But then, someone who’s been accustomed to riding around in a wheelchair might find it difficult to begin walking, even if their legs are perfectly healthy, minus whatever muscle atrophy occurs because of their reliance on the chair. I think a lot of the problems people envision coming about as a result of “disenchantment” are really part of the process of dis-enchantment, as opposed to the mere absence of “enchantment.” The misguided expectations religion instills are still latent in the culture, and that leads to a certain amount of tension when they can’t be satisfied. People who’ve never had even a muted, in-the-background religious upbringing don’t, as far as I can tell, seem to miss it. Also, since the term “optimality” is a little vague, it’s worth noting that plenty of people don’t want happiness above all else; under many circumstances they might prefer to believe what’s true (no, not just have the “sense of satisfaction” of believing what’s true, but actually want to have it be the case) rather than what will make them happier.

Some people worry about the general social effects, as opposed to the psychological ones, of “disenchantment.” That is, don’t some people need (say) the threat of hell to make them behave well? Again, I think Brink gets it right here. One of the things Wittgenstein used to stress was that religion, like ethics, was not primarily a matter of believing a certain set of doctrines, but rather of living your life in a certain way. We cook up explanatory “superstructures” for our core values, but at the end of the day, I think the values are (or can be) freestanding. Now, again, there might be a transition problem. Someone who’s good because they fear hell (or seek heaven) has ultimately been taught an egoistic morality: the only reason to behave well is self-interest, either the fear of punishment or the promise of reward. With that kind of background set of values, little wonder that when the factual belief about the afterlife is pulled away, those people might come to believe that “everything is permitted.” But here, the gradualness of the transition can be a benefit. Religion isn’t going to disappear all at once, after all: it’ll be a gradual process taking place over at least a few hundred years. That allows plenty of time for the inculcation and practice of values without a supernatural base to be established in the interstices. The only danger there is that belief is a “tipping point” sort of phenomenon, where as unbelief and pluralism increase, the number of people in a given community of belief dips below the threshhold required to sustain it and there’s a kind of rush of disenchantment. That’s a real concern: studies have shown that new converts to religious groups first adopt the belief, and only later learn the doctrines of the (primarily social) group they’ve joined. They later, of course, cite those doctrines as the reason for their conversion.

An excellent New York Times Magazine article points out one pitfall of what we might call disenchantment decompression sickness. There, the problem arises from the influence of a more secularized West (infinitely more secularized in our practices and daily lives, even if people profess belief at high levels on surveys) on cultures still heavily religiously charged. The “schizophrenia” occasioned by that tension can produce pathological reactions, the horrifying nature of which we’re already far too familiar with. So maybe what we need is not so much a theory of optimal disenchantment, but a theory of optimal disenchanting. That is: how to ease the transition from a world of widespread mythic “enchantment” to a secular one? Of course, such a theory might not be terribly helpful, since it’s not clear that massive social trends like these can be even partially subjected to any kind of rational control. But it would at least be nice to understand what’s happening with greater precision.

Anyway, the other kind of disenchantment is normative: we can imagine stripping away, not only false beliefs, but also all values. Again, as Brink observes, this is a distinct matter since our values don’t necessarily depend on any factual beliefs. The problem is that if we take that seriously, what would it meant to develop a theory of “optimal” anything? You could, of course, define “optimal” in some technical way, say by talking about Pareto optimality. But even that seems dodgy. Given a fixed set of values, we can talk about how changes in my circumstances might make me better or worse off. But it seems almost nonsensical to apply that language to changes in my values themselves: those, after all, are the criteria I use to evaluate how well or badly off I am. There’s also multiple dimensions of “enchantment” in this sense: is someone who abandons their moral values more or less “disenchanted” than someone who, instead, ceases to believe that his own self-interest or his own desires provide him with any reason for action? A theory of “optimal” disenchantment of this kind seems like a hopeless project.

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