(3) Shadows of the Miraculous

Every time, every people lives by ideas that they strive for, that are worth living for. Our epoch has lived for about two hundred years on the guiding idea that man, by his own intellectual power, will not only be able to decipher the world completely, but also to master it to any degree of perfection. In 1926, the German philosopher Max Scheler expressed this in the following way: “It is … a new will to dominate nature … in sharpest contrast to the loving devotion to it … which now gains primacy in all cognizant behavior. The goal and the basic value, which leads the new technology, is not that, to conceive economically or otherwise useful machines … It aspires to something much higher. It strives for the goal, if I may say so, of constructing all possible machines, at first only as thoughts and as a plan by which nature could be guided and directed to all purposes, useful or useless, if one wanted to.”

If we bring this thought down from the pedestal of grandeur on which it is usually enthroned, then we must note somewhat more prosaically that people today strive to produce ever newer, ever more amazing gadgets that make their lives easier, safer and more convenient. Little do they realize that these things then become their daily occupation and, for many, even their purpose in life. 

This observation certainly applies to the car, but it is especially true of the latest products of technology, such as computers and cell phones. The digitization of all processes is only the last trump card on this seemingly unstoppable path of technological progress. According to enthusiasts, robots equipped with artificial intelligence will not only imitate humans, but one day they will replace them altogether.

Put into a simplified formula,

we could say that in our time the miraculous is embodied in the newest technological gadgets and in the scientific thinking that underlies them. Apparatuses not only dominate those who use them passively, but they also determine the lives of a growing number of people who, as technicians, engineers, and scientists, are actively engaged in their production. The extent to which the dream of the technologically fantastic and marvelous inspires people is shown by that type of literature which raises it to ever greater heights. Of course, I am talking about science fiction. Here, technological fantasy celebrates its greatest triumphs. We imagine all the unbelievable devices we will create in the future to colonize even the farthest corners of the universe and our daily lives. We become intoxicated by the victories that the new godlike man – Homo Deus – will still achieve, namely victories over a nature we will completely subject to our whims –  a will-less slave.

The self-infatuation by the technically miraculous

is proven by its excessiveness. Although technology is nothing more than a means to an end, it is elevated to the rank of a goal – a goal for the self and for life. Since the invention of the hoe and the plow, physical instruments have proven their usefulness in making life easier and helping us create greater freedom to live in a more beautiful, spiritual world. As long as we keep this ultimate goal in mind, technology has a salutary purpose. But the moment the intoxication of technological progress turns it into an illusion of salvation and into an obsession, technology and science become a threat: they turn against man.

It seems that we have long since reached this stage. Just think of gigantic undertakings such as the flights to Mars and its prospective colonization. This planet – as well as all celestial bodies in proximity to the earth – is a desert-like sphere, on which human survival seems possible only under a bell jar filled with an artificial atmosphere. In other words, human existence would be conceivable only under conditions, which do not only resemble those of criminals in a high-security prison, but exceed them in harshness. So far, no one has thought of setting up a hut in the hottest parts of the Sahara or on the coldest icebergs in Antarctica. So where does the exuberance come from that tempts even halfway rational people to imagine a rosy future in the hostile hell of Mars?

This obsession, this strange delusion can only be explained by the fact that we wrap damnation in the seductive purple of high technology.

Nowhere do we get a clearer insight into modern man’s obsession with technology and science. He agrees to suffer like a convict under unspeakable conditions (let us be honest: the everyday life on space stations represents a similar torture), as long as this is done in the name of science, because in our time people believe in science as they once believed in God. This irrational belief still asserts itself at a time when much is preparing us for the fact that our technical civilization could soon make life on the planet a hell for us.

When an era becomes intoxicated with ideals

that seem to represent the miraculous, anything that might endanger this intoxication, i.e., lead to disillusionment, is frowned upon, derided as reactionary, or branded as “unscientific” – the latter accusation being probably the harshest of all. Disillusionment can come from different quarters. It may consist in a cautious objection to a prevailing claim to absolute certainty – or it may lead to a radical antithesis. I would like to summarize everything that falls under this disillusionment in a single term, that of the “shadow”.*1*

The shadow to the prevailing

scientific understanding of the world is represented primarily by religion, beauty, history, and critical philosophy.

That religion has become the shadow of the scientific worldview – its radical antithesis -, is a well-known fact of history. Science in its modern form is a creation of the 17th century and the Enlightenment. From the outset, the Enlightenment has placed the new rational thinking and knowledge in sharp opposition not only to irrational superstition but to all kinds of belief that cannot be corroborated by experiment and proof. In other words: the new world view developed in the struggle with and even fight against religion.

As already mentioned, art constitutes another radical antithesis to the techno-scientific worldview, as it not only starts from completely different premises but also pursues entirely different goals. Beauty is a human category. Why the art of Johann Sebastian Bach has become important for the people of the West, while the Peking Opera is equally important for the Chinese, cannot be derived from any law. Unlike the knowledge of technology and science, which is based on natural laws, art arises from human freedom and choice. It is therefore not surprising that it has no place in the scientific world view. What this means practically, can no longer be overlooked. Art has almost completely disappeared from everyday reality as a creative principle. Because beauty no longer counts, landscapes are turned into agricultural deserts, forests into timber, everywhere beauty gives way to utility and profit. And the same disregard for the human need for beauty applies equally to our homes and cities. At best, these fulfill the requirements of utility because they are places of industrial production and repositories for people.

Mere utility and mere beauty are indeed irreconcilable rivals: the more science and technology have advanced during the last three centuries, the more they have pushed art to the margins of our lives and out of our landscapes and cities. Beauty, in theory and practice, constitutes a radical antithesis to mere utility.

It is the same with history,

History, too, has turned into a shadow of our science-believing era. A characteristic exception is only the material, measurable research. This has, on the contrary, made astonishing progress during the last decades. With ever greater precision, all material aspects of human existence are being explored – beginning with the diseases from which Stone Age people suffered, at what age they died, what weapons they used and what they ate. Our modern historians have acquired an almost infinite knowledge of the physical facts of the past, most of which, however, are of interest only to specialists. On the other hand, interest in immaterial facts is vanishing as it cannot be measured and scientifically represented. The thinking, feeling, and worldview of earlier generations, the study of which had been the focus of interest in the nineteenth until about the middle of the twentieth century, is receiving less and less attention. As today’s research is obsessed with the material and measurable, it is as little interested in immaterial history as a young person of our time is interested in the knowledge of his parents – and for the same obvious reason. From a technical point of view, their knowledge is outdated and therefore obsolete. It no longer counts; only people who have mastered the latest state of technological progress have useful, exploitable knowledge. From the point of view of a science-believing world, the thinking and worldview of earlier times are simply irrelevant and therefore without value.

The two shadows of beauty

and immaterial intellectual history may well be understood as absolute opposites to our era. In contrast, critical philosophy stands only in a relativizing opposition. It would amount to unforgivable stupidity to belittle or even fail to recognize the achievements of science. The European Enlightenment represents one of the greatest intellectual achievements in human history. Used correctly and sensibly, science could create nothing less than paradise on earth – just as the greatest Enlightenment thinkers, above all the brilliant mathematician Marquis of Condorcet, who perished in the turmoil of the Revolution, had indeed imagined.

However, critical philosophy immediately adds a relativizing postscript to this statement. Religion, too, could have created paradise on earth if it had been understood correctly and used sensibly. If Christians had understood the love of enemies of the New Testament literally, there would be no more wars. And that would certainly have been a greater approximation to paradise than all the inventions of science and technology put together …

As little as critical philosophy

would suggest a wholesale condemnation of religion, so much does it guard against the opposite stupidity of a wholesale glorification of science and technology. Rather, it sees its goal in critically illuminating the preconditions of our bewitchment by modern science and technology and in pointing out the limits of both – an effort that I have called “democratic antignosis” in the preceding chapter.

For the time being, this critical view, this rebellious philosophy, is, however, no more than a shadow. Philosophy is neither dead nor alive. It is a zombie viewed by mainstream science with extreme suspicion. “Philosophy,” says U.S. psychologist Steven Pinker, “today gets no respect. Many scientists use the term as a synonym for effete speculation. And elsewhere, “Universities have disinvested in the humanities: since 1960, the proportion of faculty in liberal arts has fallen by half, salaries and working conditions have stagnated …” (Pinker 2003).

At this point, a critical reader might ask

Why should I bother with a shadow when the light that science has been casting on reality for more than two hundred years is shining so brightly, awakening humanity from its millennia-long slumber for the first time? But does this light really shine so brightly? If it is true that we should test our theories by their fruits, then our first question should be: What have religion, beauty, history, and critical philosophy offered us, and our second question should be: What are the fruits of science and technology? Isn’t that the all-important question?

1 C. G. Jung has given this term a special meaning. I understand shadow here as the repressed, neglected, devalued counterpart to the official interpretation of reality.