An enchanted world
Can you communicate with non-humans?
The New Mindscape #7–1
In many human tribes and societies, it is quite normal to speak and to communicate with plants, objects, animals and features of the environment. This is a regular and integral part of their culture. Are these people crazy?
As I mentioned in earlier essays, modern society is characterised by a naturalist (dualist materialist) operating system, in which the world is divided into two categories of beings: humans, who are endowed with personhood and interiority or subjectivity, and non-humans, who have material existence but no subjective agency.
Having material bodies like non-human beings, we are part of the world of nature; but being endowed with interiority and subjectivity, we are radically different — not only from the world of nature but from each other — since each person has a different subjectivity.
According to the dualist ontology, the human being is a part of nature. The human being has a body similar to the animal, which is made of chemicals and material substances like the other beings. However, according to this ontology, only the human has interiority — consciousness and subjectivity. Maybe the dog also has a little bit of interiority, but generally speaking, only the human has consciousness and subjectivity. Thus we have divided humans and nonhumans.
The dominant ontology or “operating system”, the one that is normal in our society, is the dualist one in which you can only communicate with other human beings. Within that ontology, if you see a plant, a mountain, the wind, the sun, animals and so on, you might try to be connected with them, to appreciate them, to respect them, to interpret things from them, but they definitely never directly communicate to you.
They don’t send special messages or signals to you, unless they’re dogs, or a few other species of animals. Although there might be a few borderline cases in which a certain animal, like a dog, a cat or another pet, can receive and understand messages or signals from humans, generally speaking, in the dualist ontology there is no genuine communication between humans and nonhumans. If you talk to the trees, to the bees and to the sun, you will be considered crazy.
In the dualist ontology, if you meet a nonhuman, except for perhaps a dog, you know how to deal with it. You won’t talk to it, and it won’t talk to you. It has its external appearances — shape, colour, structure — but it has no subjectivity. It doesn’t have any consciousness, and it only exists as an external thing. In this sense, it has exteriority. That is the world of nature in our ontology — nature doesn’t think, or have consciousness or the ability to communicate. If you think some non-humans have feelings, that would be considered to be your subjective belief, since there is no way to prove it.
Sociologists consider the modern operating system to be “disenchanted”. There was once an “enchanted” world, in which meanings were communicated to humans by nonhuman beings. But since we moved into modernity, we also developed a “disenchanted” worldview in which it is impossible to communicate between humans and nonhumans.
Sociologists and philosophers say that, as the dualist, materialist worldview has become preponderant in modern societies, the world has become “disenchanted”, like an “iron cage”. This disenchantment is contrasted to other ontologies that see the world as “enchanted”.
What is an enchanted world? According to the philosopher Charles Taylor, in a disenchanted world, all meaning is “in our own mind”. We give meanings to things, but, just as Sartre and Camus noted, there is no meaning intrinsic to anything in the world — it’s all in our minds.
But in an enchanted world, not only is there meaning intrinsic to the world, to objects or to invisible agents (such as gods or spirits), but they can communicate meaning to us, even meanings and ideas that we would not expect. In other words, in an enchanted world, we are in communication with the visible and invisible world around us, while in a disenchanted world, we only communicate with other humans.
This essay and the New Mindscape Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9014 Spirituality, Religion and Social Change, with the support of the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.