Modern Worldview

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The modern worldview, which emerged between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, represented a radical departure from the way most previous human cultures had understood the world and the place of humans within it. This revolutionary change involved two distinct steps: the demotion of Nature from a vast, living organism to a passive, predictable mechanism and the bold elevation of humanity vis a vis the world––moves that shattered the typical premodern conviction that humans and the natural world were both part of a unified cosmos or larger scheme of things. The upshot was a dualistic vision in which emancipated humans stand starkly opposed to a Nature reduced to a storehouse of raw materials.

This dramatic shift was a response to growing tension between the organic image of nature and accelerating social, intellectual, and economic changes. The Renaissance world picture proved increasingly at odds with an expanding commercial society and with the desire, shared by early capitalists and the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution, to exploit, manipulate, and transform nature. “The new commercial empires began to demand an ideology that presented Nature only as a material system,” according to historian of science Peter Bowler. “If people were to feel comfortable when they used the earth for their own selfish ends…, Nature has to be despirtualized.”

The image of world as machine is the deep metaphor at the heart of modern culture. In the seventeenth century the French mathematician René Descartes, described the world as a giant clock, which suggests it is simple, orderly, predictable, fully comprehensible through studying its parts, and open to manipulation. Since machines are by design under human control, this metaphor made the enterprise of science and the dream of human control seem possible. Francis Bacon, a prophet of the dawning of the Scientific Revolution, advocated new technologies to give men power “not only to bend nature gently, but to conquer and subdue, even shake her to her foundations.” Guided by this overweening ambition, modern civilization has sought an extreme, aggressive, grandiose notion of dominion––Dominion with a capital D.

The narrative of progress, a dominant and pervasive faith that history is moving inevitably toward complete human mastery of Nature, has propelled the modern era onward toward this desired dominion. This modern myth has supported the ideas and institutions that have shaped our current civilization: science, technology, industrial capitalism, the imperative of economic growth, the pursuit of ever greater material wealth and comfort, freedom, and radical individualism. If medieval Europeans were obsessed with sin and salvation, their modern descendants have been obsessed with power and autonomy. They have pursued the intoxicating dream of emancipation––a revolt that began against kings and hierarchy but grew into an ever expanding rejection of constraints of every kind. Over recent centuries, moderns have yearned to be free of tradition, free of society, free as individuals of shared purposes and obligations, free of physical limits and natural constraints, free of history, and ultimately free of Earth.

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'Author: Dianne Dumanoski