Science, Imagination and Animism

I recently gave a presentation on ‘Embodied Imagination and New Animism’. I explored my usual themes, but from a different angle and concluded that imagination can open the Western mind to a deeper awareness of the animated world.

As part of my preparation, I read Allan Frater’s Waking Dreams: Imagination in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life, which combines theoretical chapters with practical exercises. While the theoretical chapters were helpful for the presentation, it’s the practical exercises that prompted this post.

I’d just finished his chapter about the Waking Dream Walk and remembered that I needed to get some groceries. I decided it was a good moment to take a break from studying and get some shopping in.

It started as I was walking to the supermarket; the clouds loomed, dark and mysterious over the roof of the nearby University building, which had a distinctly mythic look. The trees were unquestionably watching my progress. I smiled. ‘It’s working then!’

Back home, what struck me was how quickly and dramatically my awareness can shift. I didn’t deliberately try the Waking Dream Walk on the way to the supermarket; it just slipped in. Evolutionary psychologist Bruce Charlton suggests that animism is “spontaneous, the ‘natural’ way of thinking for humans”. It takes “sustained, prolonged and pervasive formal education to ‘overwrite’ animistic thinking with the rationalistic objectivity typical of the modern world” (2002).

Bee feeding on yellow flowers

We’ve benefited enormously from such rationalistic objectivity: Thanks to a vaccine, I barely noticed a recent close encounter with Covid. But Max Weber suggests that such progress comes at a cost. Science tends to describe the world through a “process of disenchantment” that banishes “mysterious incalculable forces”. Weber claimed that meaning and value must also be relinquished in such a scientific worldview: “the belief that there is such a thing as the ‘meaning’ of the universe” must inevitably “die out at its very roots” (1962 [1917]).

Animism and science seem to be in opposition, but if we step back from an ‘either/or’ approach, there’s space for both. The pioneering work of Barbara McClintock is a classic example. McClintock won a Nobel Prize for her pioneering research on the genetics of maize. She came to such profound understanding by becoming “part of the system” and developing an intimate “feel for the organism” (Keller). McClintock didn’t think of herself as an animist, but arguably the same quality of relationship with the more-than-human informs her work.

Imagination is a fundamental part of McClintock’s genius. As the philosopher Peter Strawson notes, this kind of imagination is involved in activities ranging from a “scientist seeing a pattern in phenomena which has never been seen before … to Blake seeing eternity in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower” (1974).

What if Weber was wrong? Maybe animism need not be opposed to scientific objectivity: Perhaps imagination, a fundamental way of knowing that informs them both, can open a fruitful dialogue.

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