The Dethroning of Man in the Western Worldview

Whatever its faults, religion is anthropocentric while science isn’t (though, for public relations considerations, it claims to be). Thus, when the Copernican revolution dethroned Earth and Man as the twin centers of God’s Universe it also dispensed with the individual as an organizing principle and exegetic lens. This was only the first step in a long march and it was followed by similar developments in a variety of fields of human knowledge and endeavor.

Consider technology, for instance. Mass industrial production helped rid the world of goods customized by artisans to the idiosyncratic specifications of their clients. It gave rise to impersonal multinationals, rendering their individual employees, suppliers, and customers mere cogs in the machine. These oversized behemoths of finance, manufacturing, and commerce dictated the terms of the marketplace by aggregating demand and supply, trampling over cultural, social, and personal differences, values, and preference. Man was taken out of the economic game, his relationships with other actors irreparably vitiated.

Science provided the justification for such anomic conduct by pitting “objective” facts versus subjective observers. The former were “good” and valuable, the latter to be summarily dispensed with, lest they “contaminate” the data by introducing prejudice and bias into the “scientific method”. The Humanities and Social Sciences felt compelled to follow suit and imitate and emulate the exact sciences because that’s where the money was in research grants and because these branches of human inquiry were more prestigious.

In the dismal science, Economics, real-life Man, replete with emotions and irrational expectations and choices was replaced by a figmentary concoction: “Rational Man”, a bloodless, lifeless, faceless “person” who maximizes profits and optimizes utility and has no feelings, either negative or positive. Man’s behavior, Man’s predilections, Man’s tendency to err, to misjudge, to prejudge, and to distort reality were all ignored, to the detriment of economists and their clients alike.

Similarly, historians switched from the agglomeration and recounting of the stories of individuals to the study of impersonal historical forces, akin to physics’ natural forces. Even individual change agents and leaders were treated as inevitable products of their milieu and, so, completely predictable and replaceable.

In politics, history’s immature sister, mass movements, culminating in ochlocracies, nanny states, authoritarian regimes, or even “democracies“, have rendered the individual invisible and immaterial, a kind of raw material at the service of larger, overwhelming, and more important social, cultural, and political processes.

Finally, psychology stepped in and provided mechanistic models of personality and human behavior that suspiciously resembled the tenets and constructs of reductionism in the natural sciences. From psychoanalysis to behaviorism, Man was transformed into a mere lab statistic or guinea pig. Later on, a variety of personality traits, predispositions, and propensities were pathologized and medicalized in the “science” of psychiatry. Man was reduced to a heap of biochemicals coupled with a list of diagnoses. This followed in the footsteps of modern medicine, which regards its patients not as distinct, unique, holistic entities, but as diffuse bundles of organs and disorders.

The first signs of backlash against the elimination of Man from the West’s worldview appeared in the early 20th century: on the one hand, a revival of the occult and the esoteric and, on the other hand, Quantum Mechanics and its counterintuitive universe. The Copenhagen Interpretation suggested that the Observer actually creates the Universe by making decisions at the micro level of reality. This came close to dispensing with science’s false duality: the distinction between observer and observed.

Still, physicists recoiled and introduced alternative interpretations of the world which, though outlandish (multiverses and strings) and unfalsifiable, had the “advantage” of removing Man from the scientific picture of the world and of restoring scientific “objectivity”.

At the same time, artists throughout the world rebelled and transited from an observer-less, human-free realism or naturalism to highly subjective and personalized modes of expression. In this new environment, the artist’s inner landscape and private language outweighed any need for “scientific” exactitude and authenticity. Impressionism, surrealism, expressionism, and the abstract schools emphasized the individual creator. Art, in all its forms, strove to represent and capture the mind and soul and psyche of the artist.

In Economics, the rise of the behavioral school heralded the Return of Man to the center of attention, concern, and study. The Man of Behavioral Economics is far closer to its namesake in the real world: he is gullible and biased, irrational and greedy, panicky and easily influenced, sinful and altruistic.

Religion has also undergone a change of heart. Evangelical revivalists emphasize the one-on-one personal connection between the faithful and their God even as Islamic militants encourage martyrdom as a form of self-assertion. Religions are gradually shedding institutional rigidities and hyperstructures and leveraging technology to communicate directly with their flocks and parishes and congregations. The individual is once more celebrated.

But, it was technology that gave rise to the greatest hope for the Restoration of Man to his rightful place at the center of creation. The Internet is a manifestation of this rebellious reformation: it empowers its users and allows them to fully express their individuality, in full sight of the entire world; it removes layers of agents, intermediaries, and gatekeepers; and it encourages the Little Man to dream and to act on his or her dreams. The decentralized technology of the Network and the invention of the hyperlink allow users to wield the kind of power hitherto reserved only to those who sought to disenfranchise, neutralize, manipulate, interpellate, and subjugate them.

%d bloggers like this: