Animist & Quantum Worldviews

Perhaps the most salient feature of animist worldviews is the way in which they construe and construct the world in relational terms: everything is connected. I first encountered the phrase “relational epistemology” in Nurit Bird-David’s work on animism, which in turn led to a discussion of Tim Ingold’s similar work. In Bruce Charlton’s post on animism, relational ontology plays a major role, and in my post on Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, I observed:

Animist worldviews are totalizing cosmologies. They are distinctly non-dualist: there is no nature set apart from supernature or material distinct from the immaterial. Nothing is strictly inert because everything participates in everything else. All is connected. Lévy-Bruhl calls this way of conceiving and being the “law of participation.” Everything that exists – objects, events, landscapes, weather, animals, and people – participate in a world that is connected. Because of these connections or participations, nothing happens (or fails to happen) for strictly material or mechanical reasons. Given deep connection and participation, one thing cannot but fail to affect another thing. All these effects are relational, the result of enmeshment that entails impersonal agencies (i.e., powers or potencies) and invisible agents (of all varieties, including souls, ghosts, spirits, and gods).

Whenever I encounter these relational aspects of animist worldviews, I am constantly reminded of similar conceptions in theoretical physics. While I am not suggesting that animist worldviews are scientific precursors or that they reflect quantum understandings of reality, animist worldviews are eerily similar to quantum worldviews. The similarities may not be coincidental. There may be ways to experience, intuit, and conceive these workings without knowing anything about quantum physics. In The Way of the Human Being (2000), former Rutgers historian Calvin Luther Martin (what a name!) makes a strong case for precisely this kind of connection — he argues that animist worldviews have comprehended what physicists have only recently discovered. Martin links animist relationality to quantum relativity and notes that the experimental observer-effect in physics closely accords with animist ideas of participatory being. This is intriguing stuff and I recommend Martin’s book.

I was reminded of all this while reading a stellar review of Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe (2013) by Lee Smolin, a ridiculously smart theoretical physicist who argues that time is not simply a function of space but is instead a fundamental reality that we experience through consciousness. In this excerpt, the reviewer (James Gleick) explains Smolin’s heretical views:

For Smolin, the key to salvaging time turns out to be eliminating space. Whereas time is a fundamental property of nature, space, he believes, is an emergent property. It is like temperature: apparent, measurable, but actually a consequence of something deeper and invisible—in the case of temperature, the microscopic motion of ensembles of molecules. Temperature is an average of their energy. It is always an approximation, and therefore, in a way, an illusion. So it is with space for Smolin: “Space, at the quantum-mechanical level, is not fundamental at all but emergent from a deeper order”—an order, as we will see, of connections, relationships. He also believes that quantum mechanics itself, with all its puzzles and paradoxes (“cats that are both alive and dead, an infinitude of simultaneously existing universes”), will turn out to be an approximation of a deeper theory.

For space, the deeper reality is a network of relationships. Things are related to other things; they are connected, and it is the relationships that define space rather than the other way around. This is a venerable notion: Smolin traces the idea of a relational world back to Newton’s great rival, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: “Space is nothing else, but That Order or Relation; and is nothing at all without Bodies, but the Possibility of placing them.” Nothing useful came of that, while Newton’s contrary view—that space exists independently of the objects it contains—made a revolution in the ability of science to predict and control the world. But the relational theory has some enduring appeal; some scientists and philosophers such as Smolin have been trying to revive it.

This is awesome stuff that is intuitively appealing for people, like me, who take animist worldviews seriously (but not mystically). There is probably more here than meets the eye.


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16 thoughts on “Animist & Quantum Worldviews

  1. Sabio Lantz

    I am going to rant. Please understand I love your writing and acknowledge you to be far, far more intelligent than me, I want to lay out my skepticism below and I won’t be able to couch it careful enough to capture my respect for you. But here goes:

    My antennae go up any time I sense someone idealizing particular culture or a particular time period. You continually appear to idealize animists. Quantum Physics is the favorite science for every movement to make its own. I did post here about Buddhists trying to make the Buddha’s insights quantum-like. I have seen Christians, Taoists (of course) Muslims and many more do this. It is so distasteful. Now you want to make animists to have quantum insight — albeit with all sort of intellectual caveats — but it is clear what you are implying..

    You try and guard your idealism by saying:

    ” While I am not suggesting that animist worldviews are scientific precursors or that they reflect quantum understandings of reality, animist worldviews are eerily similar to quantum worldviews.”

    Though you tell us you don’t take animists views mystically, you use the word “eerily”. You say you take their worldviews “seriously” but I am not clear what that means.

    I can’t read this post without the deepest of skepticism because it sounds like the generic passion of many other idealists. Mind you, I haven’t read any of these works you quote, nor will get around to them. And hearing another worldview-lover trying to make quantum their own, I am not inclined to read further.

  2. Cris Post author

    I suppose it may appear that I am idealizing animist worldviews because I often write about them. I often write about them because I am researching these worldviews and a substantial part of my book will revolve around them. These worldviews are not well understood and there is no single comprehensive source that analyzes these worldviews. I wish there were. I haven’t yet arrived at a any kind of comprehensive understanding, or assessment, of these worldviews. Until I do, I’ll continue to explore their various aspects, and ins and outs. This blog is simply a place where I record sources, ideas, and possibilities. There are just notes and are not conclusions.

  3. Sabio Lantz

    Well, as this is a sandbox for possibilities, I trust my doubt (unformed, uninformed or ill-formed) still serve as grist for your mill. As in this case, skeptical insight into the generic reflex to run to quantum physics to support our favorite worldview. Also, the caution that idealism may be a bit more than appearance. If any part of either of this is near correct, I trust it helps influence your research, and if they are totally wrong, I hope it assists to writing to head off readers like me (for there may be many).

    Keep writing — I love reading and thinking.

  4. Cris Post author

    I’m very happy that you stop in and ask questions, and critique these ideas. It helps me more than you know.

    Another thing I should have noted about animist worldviews is that they have traditionally been treated and characterized as “simple and primitive.” This treatment fits squarely within the western triumphalist idea of never ending progress, and that all things are constantly improving. The measure of all this progress is, of course, all things western, including western religious formations. This is a favorite view of theistic evolutionists, who treat animist worldviews as the first human evolutionary step leading toward the wonders of Christianity.

    One of my goals is to disrupt this progressivist narrative, or even to refute it. One way to do this is to demonstrate that animist worldviews are at least as sophisticated as other metaphysical or religious formations. So my ostensible idealization of animist worldviews is due, at least in part, to this goal. I will say that I am finding animist worldviews to be tremendously complex in ways that are hard to comprehend. So I’m not just making this stuff up when I argue that animist worldviews are anything but “simple” or “primitive.” They are the opposite. Because they compare favorably to some views in physics, it’s an indication that they are complex in their own right, and weren’t just precursors to “modern” religions. This doesn’t mean that either the animist or quantum worldviews are correct; it just means they can be profitably compared.

  5. Sabio Lantz

    You have repeatedly, rightfully emphasized the mistaken view of viewing animists as “simple and primitive”. Your correction is highly valuable. I’m not sure “Western Triumphalism” is to blame. The Chinese have done the same against the animism in their borders. I am sure there are other non-Western examples of a similar bias. Thus, it seems more interesting to see what it is that moves us (large swatches of the world) to this consensus. If animists lose to other systems of social development (Western or not) then it is natural that the victor valorizing their views and belittles others.

    I think your goal of disrupting the “progressivist narrative” is spot on and vastly helpful. Not to mention that you are a fantastic writer. But if there is any hint of idealizing an animistic world view, I think that your disruption will be rightfully ignored — thus my caution. Next, if your criticism hints of anti-Westernism, anti-capitalism and such it will further limit your audience. Crowding to many of your personal themes into one book can be counter productive — both in narrowing your audience to an ineffective echo-chamber and corrupting your own logic and argument.

    One way to do this is to offer examples of externalities of animism — illustrates abuses/limitations of the view: both traditional and those of New Agers, tree-huggers and others who give us a modernist spin with an agenda. Much like folks grab quantum mechanics. Such a move would illustrate your attempts at objectivity.

    I am glad you can find my questions and critiques helpful. And I hope you do see that I am skeptical of my own skepticism and am ready to be wrong at any moment — or at least would like to think so. :-)

  6. Cris Post author

    I am not disrupting for the sake of being contrarian or disruptive; I’m simply trying to tell an accurate evolutionary story and allowing the facts to drive it. My personal views about these things are more or less irrelevant. Telling an accurate evolutionary story requires, at step one, a good evolutionary theory, so at least half the book will be devoted to this. The remainder will be fitting the facts into the theory. Given this organization, there shouldn’t be much or any room for my personal views about all this.

  7. Chris

    I also enjoy the blog a great deal, and will be interested in your book. But I guess I’ll toss in my two cents as to possible sources of bias (not because I think you’re outrageously biased or anything, simply because the subject is at hand here in the thread).

    You say: “One of my goals is to disrupt this progressivist narrative, or even to refute it.” That seems like an obvious source of bias: you have, as a goal – meaning that this goal is certainly going to color or lead your thinking toward itself – the overturning of a certain narrative. This means that you are already heading in the opposite direction, for good and/or ill. But what if portions of the narrative you seek to overturn – who knows which ones? – are right? (I’m not saying they are, just saying that if you discount it out of hand, then you will be biased.) By automatically constructing a counter-narrative, you risk allowing, ironically, the very narrative you seek to overturn to mislead your thinking.

    Then you say, “I am not disrupting for the sake of being contrarian or disruptive,” which is interesting in light of your previous “One of my goals is to disrupt this progressivist narrative”; so, you are going to ‘disrupt’ this narrative but not because you are being disruptive, but because you are trying to tell an ‘accurate’ story and to allow “the facts to drive it.” But that sounds naive. So-called ‘facts’ about animism don’t interpret themselves (even a coin in the ground requires interpretation beyond the ‘fact’ that it is a coin in the ground; how much more interpretation is necessary even to get at putative ‘facts’ of a worldview – it might almost be interpretation ‘all the way down,’ so to speak), and we already know that you will be interpreting them in a particular direction, however noble or necessary that direction is. The ‘organization’ of your book cannot prevent your biases from entering; you may not deliberately give your personal views as such in the book, but those views will creep in inevitably through your interpretations, since you are a subjective creature like the rest of us, and therefore cannot escape the generally intractable problems of objectivity we are subject to. So it seems to me that the best assumption would be for you to assume that you are biased – how could you •not• be?

    Anyway, as I said, I enjoy the blog, and hope my comment might be useful to you in some manner as you continue your interesting work.

  8. Cris Post author

    After 10 years of intensive study and thinking about the matter, I concluded this past year that the progressive narrative simply doesn’t work. It’s unworkable in the context of evolutionary religious studies.

    So if this studied conclusion (which I aim to demonstrate or prove in the book rather than simply assert) shouldn’t be understood as a bias. It’s a conclusion I’ve reached only after a great deal of reading, thinking, and writing. This conclusion was not automatic or reflexive, and is not born of personal preference.

    My conclusion, in turn, leads to a revised evolutionary theory of religion, one which breaks the impasse that has been causing disagreement among evolutionary theorists since the late 1800s and which continues to cause disagreement.

    As I understand bias, it’s something that is ill-considered or not considered or ignorant or a personal preference. I don’t think my conclusion is any of these.

  9. Juggernaut Nihilism

    There MAY be way to experience and intuit these connections? Let me help: take one strong dose of DMT and call me in the morning.

  10. thisica

    I consider the possibility that our animism hasn’t really disappeared–it has changed to suit the times. However, the allure of quantum mechanics as providing some sense of universal connection is quite a tempting analogy to use…which I find quite misleading, for several reasons:

    1) Quantum mechanics (and quantum field theory, its modern generalisation, which most people don’t know of) is a statistical theory, just like thermodynamics. As such, it doesn’t have much insight into our ability to cognise the world as filled with sentience. All that it can describe is a very narrow aspect of reality–that of subatomic matter and fields. No way can it adequately explain lots of other interesting things. It does find its way into chemistry–which is sort-of what Roger Penrose is banking on for his speculation of consciousness as happening via microtubules. Unfortunately, for his speculation, microtubules are dynamic chemical entities which cannot be coherent together for long before they separate out again. Penrose underestimates the amount of knowledge that is required to understand consciousness. His kind of thinking illustrates the universal danger of claiming expertise in areas where one hasn’t had much experience in.

    2) Neils Bohr proclaimed that quantum mechanics was a complete theory, which as the existence of quantum field theory demonstrates, is not true.

    3) Bohr also espoused wave/particle duality, which was already resolved with Max Born’s statistical description of the wavefunction as describing the probability that, say, an electron has some property like orbital angular momentum.

    4) The wave/particle duality business fades once one realises that at the subatomic scale, we can’t exactly create a double-slit, since the minimum size of a slit has to be atomic in size. Not to forget the logistics of having to do so, hence the very cold temperatures involved in creating exotic states of matter like a Bose-Einstein condensate.

    5) The measurement problem is, in my books, a confusion in itself since we are confusing the properties of the atomic system with the equipment that we use. Of course it requires that we have to amplify the tiny signal of the system under question. This creates interaction effects which cannot be removed. Every experiment requires us to intervene in the system we’re interested in, so there can never be absolute precision in our measurements. One could interpret Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in this way without much mystification.

    6) Entanglement–which is at the heart of attempts to co-opt quantum mechanics for religion–is a matter of experimental conditions, rather than an intrinsic feature of atomic systems. Think of it like chemical reactions–in outer space, we have detected molecular species like H3+, which is very rare on Earth. Those kinds of reactions could only take place under very special conditions–which is the extreme radiation environment of the interstellar gas. With entanglement, we have a very similar set of affairs: these systems could only be created under very special conditions which require isolation from the surrounding environment. So I don’t think of entanglement as any more special than chemical reactions. The non-locality aspect of it may or may not be a mystery, depending on one’s perspective. But for all what I see it, this type of event isn’t as extra special than people may vouch for it. It’s not magic, as far as our knowledge goes.

  11. Randy R.

    Animism reminds me of that quote from the Gospel of Thomas…

    “I am the light that shines over all things. I am everything. From me all came forth, and to me all return. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there…”

    I do believe that our earliest, primitive ancestors “got it right” so to speak. They understood that there was some sort of animating force or “spirit” present in all things that existed, even in the rocks and the trees. What they did not know is that one day that “spirit” would come to be called “energy”.

    Randy R.

  12. Gyrus

    I love that quote Randy. But I wonder about the equivalence of animist belief and scientific “energy”. Isn’t animism as much about discerning sentience and agency as it is about perceiving a “force”? “Split a piece of wood, and I am there.” That “I” is important. Mere energy has no “I”.

  13. Cris Post author

    I think you are right Gyrus — animist worldviews seem to universally include not just ideas about impersonal force or power, but also attributions of agency and sentience. It would be hard to say which is more prevalent or important because all the ideas are twined or meshed.

  14. Juliano

    How I came to here is a consequence of yesterday someone sharing with me a talk between David Abram and Rupert Sheldrake exploring the question ‘What is Magic?’, and Abram starts off the proceedings saying how everything is very much animate, alive, having its own unique intrinsic dynamism, it is just that because somethings are slower than others it is believed they are inanimate. I IMMEDIATELY thought of my early LSD experiences when I was 15, and being mindblown to see so-called ‘solid matter’ like walls, and concrete etc not only waving, and rippling but breathing! I suddenly realized everything was truly ALIVE. Somehow psychedelics allow us to not only intellectually understand that ‘matter’ is animate, but to ecstatically experience it! And oc course connected with that comes the question ‘what is consciousness@’. Science doesn’t KNOW. But of course it is utterly interrelated with what we call by the term ‘matter’
    OK about the article, I cannot fail, but notice that ALL the authors you mention are males. I encourage you to also read women. Women are the forerunners of deconstructing the patriarchy which has in its his-story divided us VIOLENTLY (this includes its treatment of indigenous peoples it has invaded and oppressed) from the common experience animate living nature

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