We are not alone

In recent years the Slovenian rock-star philosopher Slavoj Žižek has been delighting audiences with an anecdote about the renowned Danish physicist Niels Bohr. A guest to Bohr’s home noticed a horseshoe above the entrance, traditionally mounted above doorways for good luck, and asked the eminent scientist whether he really believed in the power of the horseshoe. Bohr said something like, “No, of course I don’t believe in it. But I’m told that it works even if you don’t believe in it.”

One source puts it the other way around, with Bohr as the visitor, but no matter.

Žižek uses the anecdote to illustrate how ideology permeates culture and society. In the realm of speech, the rational physicist cannot explicitly accept the idea that a horseshoe over the door might affect one’s fate. But the physicist’s action, putting the horseshoe over the door, belies an underlying acceptance of ideology in the form of inherited magical beliefs.

But there’s another way to look at Bohr’s statement: as a tacit acknowledgment that all thought and behavior is social. That is, Bohr himself doesn’t have to believe that the horseshoe will have the power to bring him good luck. It’s enough that the society around him historically holds that belief. It may be enough, in fact, if only a few other people believe in the horseshoe. Bohr is saying that he doesn’t know everything, and he is willing to accept that his knowledge is merely part of a larger system of knowledge in which he is embedded. He accepts that wider knowledge by placing the horseshoe over the door. Knowledge is social and contextual, he implies, and so is being. His beliefs may not be the only important ones. The larger context of each individual life matters. In the case of the horseshoe, the larger context of its history and meaning in European society is not something that Bohr can dismiss readily or completely.

You may be asking yourself, What does any of this have to do with the environment? In my view, as I explain in the book I am working on, context is everything, and modern efforts to remove context in thought and practice are ruining the planet. Our tendency to think of the environment as an inanimate, passive sphere out there, waiting to be known and molded by science and technology for human benefit, resembles treating the horseshoe as merely an inanimate metal object with no historic meaning or power that could possibly be relevant to the present. This way of thinking takes the magic and power out of nature and the horseshoe both, reducing to them to mere objects to be used.

There are many other ways in which the loss of context is harming the environment. In modern life we are radically cut off from the outcomes of many of our daily choices. You flip on a light and add demand to the electrical network. More coal may be burned, releasing greenhouse gases that are mucking up the climate. Sulfur and other pollutants are released as well. But we are so disconnected from all of that, which happens out of sight, that our daily actions can continue unchecked.

The good news is that we still accept some possibility of magic in the horseshoe, even though it’s a manufactured metal object. So perhaps we also accept some possibility of magic in nature, that nature is not an inert and passive realm to be exploited but rather a power to be in partnership with.

One thought on “We are not alone

  1. Your thoughts on context remind me what I heard Brian Swimme talking about last week – that we see nature as a resource; ourselves as divorced from nature. This leads not only to the expendability of nature, but of humans too. I think the direction you’re going in is brilliant and helps to bring together the fragmentation we all experience in our lives – in the way we view the natural world, and also in the ways we interact in the social and political realms. I look forward to reading more!

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