Tuesday, July 27, 2010

#76. Modernity's Gains

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This post is part of the series I began with #73 on two important books dealing with the integration of science and religion: Ken Wilber's The Marriage of Sense and Soul and Michael Dowd's Thank God for Evolution. They go together as theory and practice.

In post #74 I focused on Wilber's description of the main stages of Western society's cultural development: Modern, Pre-modern, Post-modern. The key idea here is that the perspective known as the Great Chain of Being, common to all the world's Pre-modern religions, was lost with the coming of Modernity.

In the most recent post (#75) I focused on the three Post-modern cultural movements: Romanticism, Idealism and Deconstructionism. Each of them attempted-- and failed-- to deal with the loss of the religious perspectives of the Pre-modern Great Chain of Being.

Words like "loss" and "failure" make it sound as if Modernity is something totally negative, but it's not. As I mentioned in post #74, Wilber is especially good at presenting a balanced view of the gains as well as the losses resulting from Modernity. This post, "Modernity's Gains," is about his understanding of the positive side of the picture.


Wilber says that the very essence of Modernity is a cultural process-- first named by the 19th- and early 20th-century scholar of sociology and economics, Max Weber-- called the "differentiation of the cultural spheres." Max Weber himself described it as "one of the most significant developments in all human history."

It was a totally new idea to me. I have been interested in science and religion all my life, but here I am, 72 years old, just hearing about "one of the most significant developments in all human history." Amazing!

It may be a new idea for you, too. Both terms of the process-- "differentiation" and "cultural spheres"-- require some explanation. And Wilber's presentation tends to be a bit confusing because he needs several sets of terms to describe the three "cultural spheres" that got differentiated. But it's well-worth our efforts to follow his thoughts. An understanding of the gains of Modernity makes clear, as nothing else I've seen previously, what's needed for the integration of science and religion.


Differentiation. "Differentiation" is a familiar idea. It just means growth and development. It's a basic characteristic of every living thing and a daily experience for all of us.

We know, for example, that each human being starts as a group of cells made from union of the father's sperm and the mother's egg, and that as a zygote it has no parts. But over days and months the cells differentiate: arms and legs, bones and nerves, genitals and internal organs begin to appear.

The process of differentiation continues after the infant is born. Babies smile and cry as they learn to indicate their needs. Soon children walk and talk as they begin to be aware of the world around them and use words to communicate to others.

When children are growing up their minds and hearts are formed originally by their parents and extended family. But little by little they become separate persons: they differentiate themselves from their more or less previously unconscious mental and cultural backgrounds.

In adolescence there's further differentiation, as they venture out on their own beyond their extended families to join the wider communities of society available to them.

Even those various social groups in a society differentiate from one another. Whole segments of culture begin to see things differently from other segments. The various cultural perspectives arise naturally from the different ethnic, geographic and environmental circumstances in which the various communities live. Even the great global cultures of Asia, India and Europe originally differentiated from one another in this way.

And within each of those large cultural centers various smaller segments of society continue to differentiate. Artisans, for example, have quite different concerns than bankers, and both have different concerns from those of politicians and religious leaders.

This differentiation of fields of interest and concern-- of conscious activities in human society-- is what's meant by "the differentiation of the cultural spheres."

After many centuries of its history, sometime after the year 1000 CE-- and definitely by the 1600s-- in Western society three major areas of human consciousness began to differentiate--- just the way arms, legs and internal organs differentiate in an embryo.

These differentiations mark Western culture's shift to Modernity.


The Cultural Spheres. The three areas of culture which were differentiated can be named in many different ways. Wilber most generally refers to them as "art, morality and science."

This doesn't mean, of course that art and morality or science didn't exist in earlier times. It only means that, as conscious human activities, these three realms of human concern became separate from, and independent of, one another-- just as adolescents gradually separate from, and become independent of, their parents and extended families.

It's this differentiation-- the independence of the three cultural spheres of art, morality and science-- that is the very essence of Modernity. It's what Max Weber was referring to when he said it was "one of the most significant developments in all human history."

The separation from one another of the cultural spheres of art, science and morality has been so successful that it's difficult for us today to understand just how un-differentiated they were prior to the coming of Modernity. They were fused, Wilber says, like the parts of a potential oak tree while they are still in an unsprouted acorn.

He also points out an added problem for our understanding: that most of the history we learn is surface history. There's still little awareness in Western culture's educational perspectives that we also need to understand the inner story of our culture. We lack a sense of the importance of anything having to do with interiority-- precisely because that's what was lost with the collapse of the Great Chain of Being.

But the take-over by rationalism and scientific materialism came after the collapse of the Great Chain. So it's important to see that the conflict between science and religion didn't precede but resulted from the differentiation of the spheres of art, morality and science.

It's difficult to describe the differentiation of the cultural spheres simply because we so take them for granted today. The shift from the Pre-modern to Modern has been very successful!

So we need to take a close look at these areas of culture which were differentiated if we are to recognize the positive gains resulting from the shift from Pre-modern to Modernity.

Wilber calls the loss of the Great Chain "the disaster of Modernity." He uses the term dignities to describe Modernity's gains.


I've said Wilber uses various sets of names in describing the three areas of culture that were differentiated. All are helpful, but too many tends to be confusing. At lunch recently, a friend and I tried to list the various sets of names Wilber uses. We easily came up with a dozen.

In addition to "art, morals and science," for example, Wilber uses the familiar terms from Greek culture, "Beauty, Goodness and Truth." Sometimes he says "aesthetics" for art, "empiricalism" for science and "religion" for morality.

He also names them as the areas of the "personal, communal and non-personal" and the domains of the "subjective, the inter-subjective and the objective." For shorthand he refers to them as the realms of "I, WE and IT." And sometimes he just says "the Big Three."

I'm going to try to describe each of these spheres (areas, realms, domains) of culture which were differentiated. If these ideas are new to you, as they were until recently to me, please hang in there. They make good sense and help greatly in our understanding the conflict between religion and science and what can be done to bring about their integration.

In talking about these three differentiated cultural spheres, Wilber is especially helpful in telling us which kind of language we need to describe them.

Science. The objective area of science, the sphere of Truth and the realm of IT, uses what Wilber calls "mono-logical" language. By that he means that this cultural sphere is concerned with things, and we can describe them without getting any feedback from them. To give an easy example from chemistry, we don't need the opinion of the element potassium to describe it as "shiny, easily cut with a knife, and explosive with water." We can describe the world of things objectively, using "mono-logical" language.

Morality. In contrast, we need "dia-logical" language to talk about the communal WE realm of Morals and Good. We obviously need feedback from others if we are to know what they consider to be of value and significance. Because we have to talk with people to know what's important to them, the inter-subjective moral realm of WE requires "dia-logical" language.

Art. The subjective realm of I, Art and Beauty, uses "trans-logical" language. By that Wilber means that the realm of personal subjectivity is mostly beyond words. We really can't say much about our inner experience in rational terms. Logical language isn't adequate to express our relationships with one another or to express the experience of communion with all that exists, and it is even more inadequate if we try to express in words our relationship with that "ultimate mystery out of which all things emerge." We turn to Beauty and Art, aesthetics and creativity, to express these most intimate aspects of our interiority.


The great shift in Western culture from Pre-modern to Modern is that these three realms-- each understood in the broadest sense-- become free to pursue their own concerns and interests, free to use their own methods, and free to proceed at their own pace. With the coming of Modernity, art, morality and science became independent spheres of human activity.

Wilber gives some good examples of this independence. Artists can now paint landscapes or a still life, for example; they don't have to limit themselves to depictions of the lives of the saints or stories from the bible, as they did when the cultural areas were fused "like an acorn."

Scientists, similarly, can use an instrument like a telescope to observe the motion of the moons around a planet; they didn't have to accept the word of church authority that said such motion isn't possible.

And both individuals and communities can determine what's right for them, without external authorities defining for them what constitutes proper ethical behavior.

In addition to his descriptions and examples of the three differentiated spheres, Wilber's comparisons of the cultural spheres-- each with the two others-- is especially helpful:

WE & IT. The differentiation of the communal realm of WE from the objective realm of IT results in the fact that the tyranny of the group-- either religious or political-- could no longer determine what is objectively true. WE and IT are separate realms of knowledge.

I & IT. In the same way, differentiation of the subjective realm of I from the objective realm of IT means that no individual can claim to establish objective truth. When art and science are differentiated, truth isn't determined by the wishes or whims of any individual.

WE & I. Similarly, the differentiation of the communal realm of WE from the subjective realm of I resulted in the fact that groups could no longer dominate the lives of individuals. Persons have rights that cannot be violated-- by church, state, family or communities. When morality and art are differentiated, individuals are no longer controlled by the group WE.

When we look at Wilber's descriptions of the three cultural spheres and his comparisons between them, it's clear that the "gains of Modernity" can be described in one word: freedom.


Historically, Modernity is most often said to have started around the time of the Italian Renaissance (14th century) and to have blossomed at the time of the Enlightenment (18th century). An important author I've referred to a number of times in these posts, Bruno Barnhart, sees it starting a century or two earlier (around the time of Francis of Assisi and Dante) and I've even heard it traced back to the desert hermits of the early centuries of Christianity.

However far back we can trace its roots, the very essence of Modernity is human autonomy. If the disaster of Modernity is the collapse of the Great Chain, human freedom is its dignity.

In a section on Modernity in his book, The Future of Wisdom, Bruno Barnhart says that as individuals differentiated themselves from religious and cultural traditions and institutions, they began to realize themselves with a new autonomy which also included a new intellectual autonomy. 

The individual person "began to think for himself or herself, and to arrive at independent conclusions."

This opened up space "for critical thought and free discussion," leading to scientific inquiry, creative innovation, and a sense of progressive dynamism-- "all expressions of a single massive historical process," the "emergence of the individual person from the collective matrix of religion, society and culture."

Wilber mentions other aspects of human freedom-- that our personal identity "is not determined by our role in a social hierarchy," for example. And among the "dignities" of Modernity he lists "political and civil rights such as the outlawing of slavery, women's rights, child labor laws, and freedom of speech, religion, assembly, fair trial, and equality under the law."

This independence from social class, economic status and religious background is one of the great treasures of American society.

The main idea in all this is quite clear. As Wilber puts it: "the values and rights brought about by Modernity such as equality, freedom and justice existed nowhere in the pre-modern world on a large scale." (Wilber's italics.) "Slavery existed in every pre-modern society," he notes, "and none of the world's pre-modern religions offered these rights and dignities on any large scale."

In the face of this failure of the Pre-modern religious perspective, human freedom stands out. We can easily see why the early sociologist Max 
Weber called the differentiation of the cultural spheres "one of the most significant developments in all human history."


I'm grateful to Ken Wilber for his sense of fairness in presenting such a balanced view of the gains as well as the losses which resulted from the shift from the pre-Modern to the Modern world view. Thanks to Wilber, I understand much better why the successes of science and the failure of the earlier religious perspectives put science and religion in such conflict.

In a way which I previously did not, I can see that the gains of Modernity provide us with the tools we need for the integration of science and religion in our day.

With the insights of the Post-modern perspectives-- about our need to recover our union with the natural world, our task to be creators of our human world, and our recognition of the value of cultural diversity, where "no single perspective is privileged"-- Modernity's gains open the way for an everyday, down-to-earth practice of the New Cosmology.

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1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.