Oh Mirror Mirror on the wall – Who is the fairest of them all?

For the longest time in history, this question was rather easy to answer. The highest prestige was enjoyed by people who explained the meaning of world and life. These were mainly priests and wise men, because such meaning lay in the decree of the gods or the eternal orders of nature, which in turn conditioned correct moral action on the part of man. Secular rulers could enjoy an equally high reputation only if people were sure that they, in turn, acted according to divine rules. Not infrequently, secular, and spiritual power coincided. Theocracies claimed to directly implement the directives of higher powers for the benefit of the ruled.

We find this reference to morality and the will of higher powers in the three largest civilizations of Eurasia, in China as well as in India and in Europe. In India it was the Brahmins, in China the literati-governors, in Egypt the priests who enjoyed the greatest prestige. In the Christian Occident, until the French Revolution, it was the Church that not only gave people a world view and an understanding of reality, but even prescribed it. Its aura of prestige and power was based not least on the fact that until modern times it was mainly priests and monks who had mastered the magical art of reading and writing.

But nowhere in the world were this understanding and its mediators accepted without reservation and contradiction. There have always been doubts and dissenting voices, but they never achieved a lasting breakthrough during the past ten thousand years. This was to happen for the first time in human history only after the fossil-industrial revolution. Then, however, the breakthrough happened overnight, so to speak, with the consequence that from then on the magic mirror gave a completely different answer: entirely new men were now supposed to be the most capable.

But this revolution was not completely unexpected. Explaining the world in moral and religious terms though claiming eternal validity, had already lost much support among intellectual through increasing relativization. Since the end of the 15th century, trade, travel, and wars had brought the different cultures of Europe, Asia, and the New World closer together. People looked beyond their own borders and had to recognize that other people worshipped other gods and sacred scriptures and obeyed different moral codes. Hindu polytheism relativized the atheistic belief in spirits of the Chinese elite, and both together relativized the ideas of Christians or Muslims. Each culture, so it seemed, presupposed its own understanding of the world and its own moral precepts. How could one still believe the claim of a Brahmin to absolute knowledge guaranteed by the Vedas when his Muslim or Christian colleague made the same claim based on the Bible or the Koran? At the latest since the 16th century, this mutual relativization caused the belief in their respective representatives in Europe to rapidly dwindle – especially in Renaissance Italy (see Jacob Burckhardt).

Soon, a different kind of knowledge emerged that for the first time awakened in people the hope of being able to concretely change and improve the existing world without having to rely on any of these conflicting beliefs. This was a rather new kind of knowledge that did not depend on moral convictions or philosophical principles, but on nature, and nature was the same across all borders, its laws could be recognized and used by all people in the same way. The magic mirror now revealed a completely different kind of highly gifted people, namely the inventors of technical gadgets – people who until then had been considered just as insignificant as all other craftsmen who merely pursued practical activities. The explainers of meaning lost their prestige they were suppplanted by these practial men. 

It is no coincidence that Francis Bacon explicitly formulated this vision of a man-made new world for the first time in his unfinished utopia “Nova Atlantis”. In the age of Shakespeare (about whose godlessness, i.e. unconcern with meaning, Leo Tolstoy complained so much), he evoked in an uncannily modern way the coming paradise of industrial society – almost two hundred years before its actual emergence! “We have also engine-houses, where are prepared engines and instruments for all sorts of motions. There we imitate and practice to make swifter motions than any you have, either out of your muskets or any engine that you have … We imitate also flights of birds; we have some degrees of flying in the air. We have ships and boats for going under water, and brooking of seas; also swimming girdles and supporters. We have divers curious clocks …” (Bacon, 1638). In Nova Atlantis, a whole new world has indeed emerged. No longer are statues of stone or bronze erected for people who explain the meaning of life, but excellence and greatness are measured by the many little technical gadgets they have invented. It took almost half a millennium for this new conception of meaning to be summed up and satirized by a great American economist in the following way. John Kenneth Galbraith says: “If a man seeks to design a better mousetrap, he is the soul of enterprise; if he seeks to design a better society, he is a crackpot.” So it is. The explainers of meaning were first pushed aside, finally they were considered not merely superfluous but harmful crackpots.

But Francis Bacon and even the French Revolution still had quite a hard time with “mousetraps”. Material progress through more knowledge and mastery of nature remained a mere thought experiment for the time being – energy sources were simply too sparse. Although there had been water and wind mills in large parts of Europe since the beginning of the second millennium AD, while in England coal had been mined above ground, these were the only sources besides the ancient muscle power of man and animal. This meager energy potential was just enough to imagine another world in Bacon-like visions – not to actually bring it about.

The real breakthrough came not from these prophetic musings but from the fossil-fuel revolution of the late eighteenth century. Only then, underground energy reserves were tapped: the stored solar power of billions of years. That was the decisive turn. In a very short time, man was able to claim for the first time in history an almost unlimited dominion over nature, at least over his own home, the planet. The results were spectacular. Within merely two hundred years the face of the earth and the coexistence with other species were changed far more drastically than even by the Neolithic revolution ten thousand years ago. No wonder that the magic mirror now gave a completely different answer. It was no longer the guardians of meaning but the agents of change: scientists, engineers and inventors who set the tone in new fossil society and occupied the coveted positions of the most capable. Two centuries after his time, Bacon’s prophecy finally came true. Statues were erected to technicians and inventors, to basic researchers and in general to all those who referred to the new doctrine of salvation, the natural sciences, and on them the highest honors were now bestowed. The Nobel Committee in Sweden does not honor philosophers and priests but primarily people who decipher the laws of nature in order to change it. In contrast, art and religion are reduced to a secondary role. This also applies to their secular offshoot, philosophy and the humanities. “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).

The designation of this new doctrine of salvation as “science” is, however, misleading. It would be more correct to speak of an action-creed. For it was precisely the priests and philosophers who considered their knowledge as a mere science with no relevance for any change of nature. Nature appeared to them as a finished work, which man should accept as unquestioningly as God had created it. From their point of view, it was downright presumptuous to change God’s work (Francis’ strange doppelganger, the monk Roger Bacon, was punished by his superiors for his experiments as late as the 13th century). But the new action-creed aimed from the beginning beyond mere knowledge: It aimed at change. Practical success, that was the highest and actual aim of the new action-creed, as recognized by the great Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann: “It is not logic, not philosophy, not metaphysics that decides in the last instance whether something is true or false, but deeds. That is why I do not consider the achievements of technology as incidental byproducts of natural science; I consider them as logical proofs. If we had not achieved these practical achievements, we would not know how to conclude. Only such conclusions which have practical success are correct.”

Such practical success was in principle open to everybody. Unlike the Holy Scriptures, accessible only to the initiated and literate, the book of nature is open to all, everyone could read it and learn from it. In other words, all people were now called upon to participate in the constant changing, reshaping, and revolutionizing of the physical world. When, after the end of the 18th century, the cornucopia of fossil energy began to pour first over Europe and then over more and more nations, the exploration and mastery of nature became a collective human project that displaced all previous ones with incredible speed. Measuring with Darwin the success of a species by its rate of reproduction, we may say, that humanity has never been so successful. Since the end of the 18th century, its number has increased sevenfold – and by the end of this century, it is expected to increase tenfold.

Why has the new doctrine of salvation, the new action-creed been so much more successful than all previous ideologies? I think that we should put two characteristics at the top. First, the feature of potentially infinite extension: the exploration of the laws of nature and their practical application knows no limits – it can be extended and continued indefinitely, even far beyond the limited habitat of man far into the boundlessness of the cosmos. Secondly, this new action-creed can be adopted by all previous cultures and even by deadly hostile ideologies. For its second essential feature is the absence of aesthetic or moral criteria. By its very nature, the exploration of nature is extra-moral and trans-aesthetic, hence it can spread unchecked across all cultural boundaries. Mongolian shamans, Indian gurus, the followers of ISIS and Jehovah’s Witnesses are equally uninhibited in using modern gadgets such as cell phones and computers.

Thus it could happen that seven and soon ten billion humans see their highest purpose of life in transforming the first nature grown in billion years into a second artificial one: the world of machines. We are the witnesses of an exponentially accelerated process of the transformation of nature, we may also say of its digestion, where growing amounts of natural resources are being transformed first into countless machines and then into garbage – garbage that poisons the air (CO2), the oceans (plastic) and the soil (pesticides).

Until half a century ago, this process was celebrated as a liberation from the constraints of nature, a constant advancement and celebrated miracle of never-ending growth, at the end of which paradise was assured: a guaranteed better life for all. Only today do we realize how illusory this hope was and that instead of paradise, we may rather be heading for hell. Fossil revolution has set in motion an exponential avalanche, the inevitable effect of which, if we do not slow it down in time, could be the complete destruction of the natural foundations of life. Suddenly we realize that science and technology, precisely because morality plays no role in them, can bring about the better life as well as its exact opposite, the end of all life. To stick with just one example. We still celebrate the discovery of atomic energy as a supreme intellectual achievement (which it undoubtedly is), but the realization that humanity might be in danger of bringing about its own end because of this knowledge is treated like a taboo, as if it were sacrilege to associate pure knowledge with its practical consequences.

But exactly this is the failure of the new action-creed. We close our eyes to its consequences, as if we would desecrate our great mental achievements. In this way we created a world where in millions of laboratories and even in private garages and attics research is constantly being done not only on useful mousetraps but also on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction. The expansion of our knowledge of nature and its control has become a goal in itself – as once the knowledge of God. The most capable, the pioneers, the role models, whom the Nobel Prize Committee annually rewards with the highest prizes, are, according to today’s understanding, all those numberless followers of our modern action-creed, who – without realizing it or even wanting to – are about to make our globe increasingly uninhabitable by countless encroachments in the natural cycles of life, or even create the instruments to destroy all terrestrial life…

To be sure, we can no longer do without technology, but with technology, as it engulfs the globe like an uncanny mega-octopus, we are ruining the climate, destroying the soils, devouring landscapes, and finally killing all natural life on land and in the seas. Shouldn’t this uncanny progression motivate us to ask again about the meaning of it all and to redefine competence? Certainly, it is not the inventors of “mousetraps” who can save us – on the contrary, they maneuver us further and further toward collapse – but only those supposedly »crackpots” who persistently ask about the meaning of this out-of-control enterprise.

Yes, the sciences invoke truth and have thus set new, irrevocable standards, but truth must no longer refer only to the extra-moral, trans-aesthetic knowledge of nature; on the contrary, it must ask what research and technology really mean to man and nature. If, like armaments, they conjure up the extinction of the species (even by mere accident), they lose their value for man. Being more than just extra-moral, they turn out to be simply amoral. And they lose their value for nature when they ruin the balance of the globe: biological cycles and beauty. It is time, that the magic mirror provides us with a better answer. No, we don’t wish them back, priest and monks, the old clarifiers of meaning, but we hope for a new generation of people with an eye for the whole, for the wisdom of life and the love of nature.