Diversity Ecology Ethics Practice
KAIROS and THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD OF TECHNE
An Essay by David Beatty, March 2023
“What I am against...is our slovenly willingness to allow machines and the idea of the machine to prescribe the terms and conditions of the lives of creatures, which we have allowed increasingly for the last two centuries, and are still allowing, at an incalculable cost to other creatures and to ourselves. If we state the problem that way, then we can see that the way to correct our error, and so deliver ourselves from our own destructiveness, is to quit using our technological capability as the reference point and standard of our economic life. We will instead have to measure our economy by the health of the ecosystems and human communities where we do our work.
It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.” Wendell Berry - Life is a Miracle: An essay against modern superstition.
In ancient Greece there were two words for the concept of time: Chronos which essentially means linear, sequential time, the time we experience largely living in a secular world. And Kairos which suggests something akin to an historical, possibly spiritual, turning point characterized by a combination of time, crisis and opportunity. Such a moment requires intelligence, fearlessness and a kind of vigilance that is capable of standing firm on the ground of uncertainty, but with an orientation to real value. This stance would entail cultivating wisdom. But amidst our current metacrisis there is little discernible wisdom, except on the margins, in the rush to digitize with exponential tech and runaway AI, and with the Bio-Medical Security State launching transhumanism disguised as health care. It has been said that the 21st century will consist in a battle for humanity’s soul. In this essay I shall look at what constitutes a potential threat to humanity, and then what paths remain open to us for reversing and healing the ongoing process of dehumanization, which is largely a consequence of the inversion of values and the creation of an anti-culture that modernity has brought about.
The Anthropocentric Shift and the Loss of Being
The importance of the Question of Technology was raised by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, amongst others. In Being and Time Heidegger proposed that Western thought from Plato onwards had forgotten or ignored a fundamental question about Being – what it means for something or someone to Be – to be present for us prior to any analytic cognitive process. His claim was that from the time of ancient Greece Western civilization had been on a course towards nihilism – that nihilism was not a recent phenomenon but was somehow built into this trajectory of Western thought – and that this tendency accounted for the cultural crisis of the West. He urged that we could only avert catastrophe by rediscovering being and the realm in which it is revealed – and this revelation came about through a kind of questioning.
This questioning is the kind that takes place in the Being mode not in the Having mode, to use Erich Fromm’s terms. Questions posed by the Having mode require an answer which can be used to control or manipulate a situation. Questioning in the Being mode is better expressed as a questing that will take you through some transformation, in which the world will disclose something to you that transforms you, so that this realization meshes with a new intelligibility of the world: a reframing of your life in relation to it.
Technology, and our increasing dependence on it as a matter of convenience, had contributed to this decline by constricting our experience of things as they are. We had begun to view other beings, people and nature, as a kind of raw material for technical procedures. Everything becomes as it were a Standing Reserve, to be transformed or converted into something else, and then commodified.
Why have I called Techne a double-edged sword? In short because modernity, or a deep thrust of modernity and its attempt to re-shape the world anthropocentrically, is a concern with Things rather than Processes that unfold in a field of relationality, and the instrumental use of technology that acts upon a world perceived as separate from the human. Whereas earlier techne had a more embodied meaning as a form of knowing suggestive of art or craft. Ivan Illich, a radical thinker who in the 70s penned books like Deschooling Society, Medical Nemesis and Tools for Conviviality, said we had passed from the Age of Tools to the Age of Systems – when you use a system you become part of the system, and it then uses you, even without your realizing it. Illich offered many radical insights into the problem of modernity, and both he and the historian Edward Cranz identified the roots of modernity emerging in the 12th century, where they discerned a profound consciousness shift that accounted for the disjunction between the ancient world and the ‘modern’ that led exponentially to secularization, the eventual triumph of technology, and a totally different way of viewing the world.
In Cranz’s view this involved a fundamental reorientation of categories of thought around 1100 CE. Prior to this there was an ontological continuity between self and world which Cranz called the ‘extensive self’1. He called this form of knowing ‘conjunctive’. With this shift a new form of reasoning developed whereby meaning now depended on a reasoned coherence created by a human system of language, which in turn enframed the world differently. This form of knowing was ‘disjunctive’ and created a division between knower and known in which we came to inhabit a world of purely human meaning. The disjunction resulted in a cultural disembedding which had profound consequences, not least the creation of the modern sense of self, alienated and trapped in a world of exclusively human meaning.
In considering the power of technology in a critical way I am not arguing against any kind of technology, which would be futile. Techne is an aspect of our cognition, of who we are as human beings. It is part of you and me. The question is how we have allowed it to morph into this Leviathan-like Moloch to which we are increasingly enslaved, and which also appears to be devouring the earth to extract the resources to sustain its own momentum. On the other hand, the internet has enabled people and cultures distant in time and space to exchange information and ideas, to share and communicate knowledge, and to access digital libraries of the world’s texts on spirituality, science, art and the humanities. Most of us would probably agree that this aspect is of considerable benefit, despite the dark side of the web and the negative impact of the more toxic addictive aspects of social media, especially on teenagers, along with all the surveillance, monitoring and algorithmic data gathering that accompanies it.
Yet the very system that has enabled groups to spontaneously assemble to protest unjust state laws can equally effectively be employed by oppressive governments to disable this apparent ‘digital democracy’. There is little doubt that digital authoritarianism is increasing, along with the dangers of accelerating AI. This has prompted calls for a total cessation of further research to allow serious debate on the values and ethics of AI design strategies.2
The Reign of Quantity and Liberal Ideology
Deep concerns around Big Tech and the rise of Transhumanism have been advanced by many intellectuals and philosophers for a long time. Many have pointed out that modernity and progress constitute a fundamental rebellion against an idea of humanity that was embodied in ancient wisdom traditions since the Axial Revolution circa 500 BCE. Notions of God, the Tao or Nirvana are no longer needed. Now that we have the capacity to control and manipulate nature to remake the world in our own image, former notions of the sacred can be jettisoned and replaced with technologies that enhance our human capacities to a superhuman level.
Eighty years ago, a French philosopher Rene Guenon,3 who lived in Egypt, wrote The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times. He saw clearly how the whole trajectory of quantification, from Descartes’ mind-body dualism and search for cognitive certainty, to Hobbes’s soul-killing notion that thinking could be reduced to mechanical computations, the root idea of today’s AI, to the widely held belief that the only ‘real’ reality is matter, and the only meaning to life our ability to manipulate it to produce and acquire more ‘things’, would lead to the world we are now in. He believed humanity’s ancient traditions contained a truth about the nature of reality and our place in the cosmos, and he showed how these values had been misappropriated and turned into their opposite, thus entrapping humanity in a web of its own making, rather than liberating humanity into spiritual awareness and living in harmony with nature and all sentient life – our true vocation. The result was inevitable decline, even as this was disguised as Progress. He called this “The Western Deviation”, and he believed we were living through the final of the four ages, the Age of Iron the Hindus call Kali Yuga.
The main driver of modernity has been to liberate ourselves from all perceived forms of oppression, or repression, whether based on belief systems, political regimes, or even the natural limitations granted us as biological beings, and it follows logically from this that a definition of freedom or “liberation” entails discarding the idea of constraints or limits of any kind. An infinite growth economy is only one aspect of the expansion of all forms of human activity in the Anthropocene, in defiance of the fact that the earth has planetary boundaries in terms of life’s ecosystems and available resources.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 capitalist triumphalism quickly established a unipolar world under the hegemony of the USA. As the delusion of the end of history evaporated it became clear that this was not the triumph of freedom over oppression but of one ideology over another. Only we failed to recognize Liberalism as an ideology since it had covertly colonized our minds and hearts with an idea of the freedom of the self (not from the self) dedicated to the pursuit of happiness through the mass quantification of consumables that created its own addictive lifestyles.
The modern, liberal, secular West with its humanist values, freedom of speech, and human rights claimed it had arrived at some apex of social evolution. Patrick Deneen’s study Why Liberalism Failed challenges this notion by pointing out how it has failed due to its success. Deneen argues that liberalism is built on a foundation of contradictions: it trumpets equal rights while fostering incomparable material inequality; its legitimacy rests on consent, yet it discourages civic commitments in favour of privatism; and in its pursuit of individual autonomy, it has given rise to the most comprehensive state system in human history. He traces how Liberalism, which launched itself in the 18th c. as an emancipatory movement against the perceived oppressive hierarchies of the Church and Aristocracy, eventually defeated itself:
Liberty was the condition of self-governance, whether achieved by
the individual or a political community … Liberalism reconceives liberty
as the opposite of this older conception. It is understood to be the greatest
possible freedom from external constraints, including customary norms.4
In trying to understand the roots of the crisis in the West and its broken political systems Liberalism needs to be understood as an ideology. The chief characteristic of ideology is that it is a fabrication: some crucial component in the new world it heralds must be manufactured, usually against nature. And Liberalism is based on a false anthropology: the sovereign individual. In time the growing gap between its claims and what people actually experience precipitates a crisis of legitimacy. Right and left are in different ways committed to the same set of assumptions. The right may emphasize liberal economics, and consequently the protection of elites and oligarchs, but the left is committed to challenging perceived oppressive social norms, encouraging a ‘liberated self’ that is disembedded from the prior social imaginaries that cohered around history, community and nature. And both claim that self-enrichment via the ‘free market’, combined with divorcing the sovereign self from the entanglements of ‘society’ - will deliver happiness.
The individual as a disembodied, self-interested economic actor
didn’t exist in any actual state of nature but rather was the creation
of an elaborate intervention by the incipient state in early modernity,
at the beginnings of the liberal order.
This ideology was also imposed by colonialism upon other cultures, under the anomaly known as Liberal Imperialism, whose Legacy of Violence has been exhaustively documented by Caroline Elkins in her recent book of that name, subtitled A History of the British Empire. Deneen points out that this process of cultural demolition inflicted upon India, Africa and elsewhere ironically became applied to Western cultures themselves as they succumbed to a strange form of self-colonization, hollowing out their own cultural past to make way for the neo-liberal individual:
Culture was the greatest threat to the creation of the liberal individual,
and a major ambition and increasing achievement of liberalism was to
reshape a world organised around the human war against nature, a
pervasive amnesia about the past and indifference towards the future,
and the wholesale disregard for making places worth loving and living
in for generations. The replacement of these conditions with an ubiquitous
and uniform anticulture is at once a crowning achievement of liberalism
and among the greatest threats to our continued common life.
Yet in the West this ‘liberation’ that engendered a sort of exceptionalism succeeded to some degree in the 19th and 20th centuries when individual human freedom flourished in an unprecedented fashion as modernism grew in popularity. And there were benefits, as governments became more accountable, as universal education became possible, and as freedom of movement appealed to those who felt drawn by novel opportunities for enriching themselves, while the rule of law and the advent of unions gave a voice to the poor, as well as protecting the rich. The Enlightenment ideals of liberty, justice and equality however were too often only slogans, and the humanism of the early modern period was not initially extended to the populations of countries aggressively colonized by Europeans.
All this came at a price, and with the dismantling of former communities, and divorced from the deep ties of history, culture, and nature, only the state was left to provide the means of self-definition. Furthermore, all this was only possible driven by the bonanza of oil to fuel the liberal economy and satisfy the infinite temporal desires it now unleashed, driven by needs we never knew we possessed in the past, magnified by profligate lifestyles and the endless expansion of commodities to serve the conveniences we craved, the true nature of which was vindicated by the veneer of a concept of freedom understood as freedom of infinite choice. All this requires an ongoing war against nature, and a war against any who resist adopting this anticulture. And now that we are exceeding planetary boundaries and this huge project falters and stalls, there is the problem of what to do with so many unreal expectations.
I said earlier that the notion of freedom at the heart of modernity was problematic. Deneen concurs, even if he puts it differently and in a more political context: ‘The only path to liberation from the inevitabilities and ungovernable forces that liberalism imposes, is liberation from liberalism itself.’ But there can be no return to the past, and so he offers a stark choice: ‘We can either elect a future of self-limitation born of the practice and experience of self-governance in local communities, or we can back inexorably into a future in which extreme licence coexists with extreme oppression.’
The former seems at best unlikely, while the latter seems far more likely: the creation of a two-tier society with elites living lives of extreme licence, enjoying their privileges, while a vast underclass toils to keep the Machine going, or, if the Machine becomes self-perpetuating, ‘surplus humanity’ will be used to serve other needs which may have evaded the AI takeover. H.G. Wells once wrote a futuristic novel in which the world was divided into an Elite Tier of an attractive, wealthy, privileged class, and a Lower Tier who lived a Troll-like existence eating bugs. Yuval Harari, in his recent talk at the WEF5, suggests that with too much data concentrated in too few hands humanity would divide not into classes but into two different species.
Thinking the Unthinkable
The acceleration of AI and the combinatorial explosion of bio-technologies is going to radically transform our lives in ways we probably can’t yet imagine, and is being heralded by ambitious global governance plans as the only way to prevent planetary collapse. But if our problems are as deep-rooted as I am suggesting, then how can a system embedded in the current socio-economic growth model, and based upon questionable metaphysical assumptions (a metaphysics of no metaphysic, as someone described physicalism) where there is currently no agreement even about what constitutes reality, contribute to anything other than further fragmentation, decline, and possible extinction? Where did transhumanism begin, and why is it potentially so dangerous?
It begins with Eugenics, a scheme to improve the genetic quality of a human population by questionable methods, including forced sterilization, and it was coined by Francis Galton in 1883. Galton was a cousin of Darwin, and in the evolving Social Darwinism of the time the idea that human evolution, which had been a painfully slow natural process of survival of the fittest, could be artificially speeded up by selective breeding conformed perfectly with the ideology of progress. This led to the infamous race eugenics practiced by the Nazis which left a common misperception that eugenics is of German origin. In fact, it began in Britain and the USA, in the latter case well-funded by the Rockefellers.
In 1947, Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous Huxley, was put in charge of UNESCO, and in outlining his vision he said this about eugenics: ‘We need to make the unthinkable thinkable again.’ Ten years later in 1957 he published a book called New Bottles for New Wine in which he coined the term Transhumanism in the context of eugenics, and in this he outlined a different plan, not one involving selective breeding, but the merger of Man (and Woman) with Machine. This launched transhumanism, which is now the re-branded eugenics.
The race to develop AI has been gathering pace in Silicon Valley, backed by Wall Street, along with transhumanism. Ray Kurzweil is one of the transhumanist gurus best known for his claim that consciousness could be uploaded onto a silicon chip. Kurzweil believes the merger of humans and machines will evolve into a super-human species, and that he may achieve digital immortality in his lifetime. While many regard this as preposterous, we should not underestimate what is at stake here, and the power dynamics, not to mention the financial incentives. Other Silicon Valley gurus are making more alarming claims about the evolving Technologies. Kevin Kelly in his book What Technology Wants suggests that it is evolving into something akin to a life-form. Kelly argues that technology far from being merely an advanced kind of tool is in fact a new evolutionary phase that supplants, or evolves out of, the biological phase.
He calls this the Technium, which he says increasingly exhibits a kind of autonomy and is ‘more like a very complex organism that often follows its own urges.’ He claims the Technium will sweep us into new realms of human potential that are unimaginable, and any resistance to this is futile – instead we should surrender to its trajectory and ‘listen to what it wants.’
Elise Bohan6 is another, whose recent book Future Superhuman: Our Transhuman Lives in a Make or Break Century, which she calls a 'love letter to humanity', explores in some detail how this might radically change everything in the way we live, how we will soon adopt AI ‘friends’ or even AI ‘lovers’, how women will be liberated from pregnancy and childbirth, and argues that we are hurtling towards a superhuman future, or if we get it wrong, extinction. Getting it right, one assumes, means adapting to her transhuman future, in order to end ‘the tragedies of reality: ageing, sickness and involuntary death.’
‘Is transhumanism encroaching on domains that religion has traditionally held?’ she asks. ‘I think Yes.’ The interviewer then relates an anecdote when Bohan, then a PhD student, met a biologist at a conference who congratulated her on her work.‘He looked me in the eye and whispered to me: “We’re building God, you know,” she chuckles. I looked back at him and I said: “Yeah, I know.”’
Another Silicon Valley transhumanist guru Zoltan Istvan paints an even more bizarre futuristic picture where upgraded humans will be uploaded into new worlds. A ‘functional upgrade’ he says will be ‘To get rid of limbs. To get rid of blood. To get rid of breathing air. To get rid of eating and pooing.’ 7 Zoltan, who has a chip planted in his hand after attending a bio-hackers’ Grindfest, which apparently helps him open his front door, and which can also do a few other weird things if you get close enough to him, and perhaps you shouldn’t, regards all nature and biology as flawed given its tendency ‘to predation, disease and death’. As a Libertarian he thinks the whole bio-physical system should be replaced with an improved synthetic version, since a world so filled with suffering and death deserves the compassionate intervention of transhumanists to re-engineer the whole thing with Technology, Justice and Equality.
Few would disagree with Justice and Equality, any more than the way that some technologies would undoubtedly assist with severe disabilities. But all this sounds to me less like a plausible human future and more like a strange form of deep suffering itself, in which the yearning for transcendence, an innate human drive according to all ancient spiritual teachings, and possibly our true vocation, has assumed a deluded pseudo-form dependent on fancy rather than imagination, an important distinction Coleridge once made. If this is a religion it is a pseudo-religion, largely driven by power, money, profit and fame, or what Mary Harrington, the Reactionary Feminist, who recently opposed Elise Bohan in a transhumanist debate hosted by Unherd, calls ‘Fully Automated Luxury Gnosticism.’ They are perhaps proof, if any were needed, that Iain McGilchrist is correct that our world is now being organized under the tyranny of the left hemisphere.8
Paths Towards Retrieving Our Humanity
If all this excites your appetite for the future, with glittering prospects of endless bio-technical novelty, you might ask then how does it address the Domicide (Loss of a Home) John Vervaeke, a cognitive scientist, speaks of that has produced the Zombie Culture, which he and Christopher Mastropietro in their book Zombies in Western Culture: a 21st century crisis contend ‘has evolved to become a representation of the loss of the sacred canopy traditionally provided by Christianity, and that its features have evolved along the fault lines of this loss, representing a world that no longer explains itself, nor provides us instruction for how to live within it.’
Or how does it cure the spiritual desert created by modernity, which Arundhati Roy named: ‘the profound, unfathomable thing we have lost.’ There is something deeply problematic here, resulting from the long cumulative effect of modernity that has divorced us from our deepest humanity and rendered us incapable of realizing clearly what has been lost. And so, we can easily be seduced by such visions of a world of automation that emphasizes it is all for our safety and convenience, thus rendering us passive and dependent. And this is all made more possible by manufacturing a state of permanent crisis, which Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World correctly predicted almost a century ago.
In the 1970s Ernest Becker, in his book The Denial of Death, explained how we culturally managed our fear of death by the creation of immortality projects of various kinds, including the Elixir Story that prolongs life, the Resurrection Story which includes the use of cryonics to deep-freeze bodies for future medical revival, the story of the Soul, and the Legacy Story. None of these will defeat death but are symbolic constructions to accommodate our mortality which is inevitable. Transhumanism seems to be the latest of these projects that seeks to combine all four versions.
Poets, writers and other artists have long claimed that our mortality is a crucial and enriching component of our imaginative capacities, what the poet Rilke called the other unilluminated side of life we had to learn to embrace, and within this whole, this non-duality of life and death, was found the true place of love.
Coming to terms with our mortality has also been central to all wisdom traditions. All of them offer paths of virtuous living that unfold towards self-transcendence. The reduction of value to a purely human construct, rather than the idea of value as fundamental to the cosmos as a whole, has left us in the fragmentary realm of relativism, where we are trapped between the Scylla of a mechanical literalism and fundamentalism, and the Charybdis of a narcissistic subjectivism.
Wisdom is not something acquired like technical knowledge, or about how many facts you can master, how much information you can process or memorize. It is more like a realization, a kind of meta-cognitive way of navigating and combining an ecology of traits to create a sort of Gestalt that is comprised of courage, vigilance, compassion, insight, as well as intelligent appraisal. In short wisdom, like love, is not something you can get or acquire, but only what naturally emerges through deeply lived existential moments that cumulatively deepen and widen your realization for what is supremely relevant to living a good or even virtuous life. This entails an acceptance of contingency, the lack of certainty itself being a crucial component of any deep creative process. It requires a kind of trust, not that encapsulated by a legal contract, but trust in life itself.
We are fundamentally a social species, and while we each have unique gifts and capacities, and thus a degree of autonomy, it is not absolute. Rather, as the Buddha illustrated with his notion of dependent origination, to realize that we live as it were on sufferance of numerous uncountable enabling conditions is in fact deeply liberating. But in the current climate it is very hard for people to grasp this. Emptiness does not imply lack or void, but in Sanskrit has the connotation of a seed pod bursting open, in other words pregnant with possibility. It is the other side of the coin of the causal network of dependent origination, implying you are empty of intrinsic independence. Understanding this deeply brings humility. As with other wisdom traditions the Dhamma aims to awaken you from primordial confusion, and reconnect you with your inner resources, your natural capacity for love, wisdom, compassion and to reorient your life around these. The Machine on the other hand becomes a substitute hollowing you out and offering to fill the void with its shallow distractions, as well as to manipulate and control you, and finally remove you from the inconvenient organic messiness of biology and nature to commit you to a sanitized techno-sphere as a disembodied consciousness: the Machine’s substitute for transcendence.
The Greeks distinguished between four kinds of knowing: Episteme: the type of knowing that involves empirical science and what John Vervaeke, the cognitive scientist, calls ‘propositional knowing’. Techne is the knowing of ‘art’ and ‘craft’ and embodied skills - what Vervaeke calls ‘procedural knowing’ – e.g. learning to ride a bike. Phronesis is often translated as prudence but can also be thought of as awareness or mindfulness. Vervaeke calls this ‘perspectival knowing’ — sensitivity to different perspectives. Sophia is an overview or gestalt of wisdom, of what Aristotle called ‘universal truths’ or the capacity for ‘relevance realisation’ as Vervaeke calls it. None of these can work on their own in isolation from the others. Vervaeke says our current crisis is due to living under the tyranny of propositional knowing. He suggests that we should use all four modes in a kind of symphonic co-ordination, whereby our inner relevance realization interpenetrates with the growing intelligibility of the world. And as a role model we need to internalise the sage.
The idea that human consciousness is not a brain-generated by-product of material complexity, but in some sense fundamental to the Cosmos, is gaining ground. It is the ocean of qualitative being in which we live. Value, says Dr. Iain McGilchrist celebrated author of The Divided Brain hypothesis, is a fundamental quality of the cosmos, along with time, space, motion, consciousness and matter, all of which are constitutive elements of reality.9 It is through our experience of Value, by which he means The Good, the True and the Beautiful, each mutually supporting the others, that we participate in the cosmos, for these are constitutive of the cosmos and (are) discovered by, and disclosed in, the encounter of life (and not just human life)with whatever it is that exists.10 Not only is value embodied in the sense of wonder and awe we feel when we are alive to the presence of the living world, to its beauty as well as its less appealing manifestations, but value connects us reciprocally to the whole of creation in the sense that through accepting this as a gift with the gratitude it awakens in us, we are inspired by it to contribute through our own creative gifts life has granted us. Reality is not simply ‘objectively’ out there, nor do we create our own reality within, rather we are reciprocally involved at a creative interface between what David Bohm the physicist called the Implicate Order and the Explicate Order. Reality unfolds from the infinite boundless implicate realm into the explicate realm, and we contribute to that process through our creative participation at the threshold of these two realms by our quality of attention that changes our relationship to that which we attend to, which in turn folds back into the implicate realm and changes it in some way. The implicate order is vastly greater than our subjective selves. The fact that our minds, in reasoning about the world can uncover the fundamental patterns that form the structure of the universe, and ourselves, which is never finally complete but always unfolding, should give the most hardened materialist pause for thought. In being uplifted we uplift others by responding to what the poet Robinson Jeffers named ‘divinely superfluous beauty’.11 Why else should such superfluity of beauty exist at all? Why does all that, which we in our ignorance render expendable, persist in such generosity of returning beauty?
We need then to listen, not so much to Kelly’s Technium and what he says ‘it wants’, though we should also exercise extreme vigilance over hyperbolic claims about AI, but to turn our attention to the ‘music of the spheres’, and I am unashamedly using that phrase to denote what humanity has become manifestly disconnected from: the rhythms and patterns of the cosmos that resonate through the natural world, and our psyches, and to which we have grown deaf. These are transmuted through what Henry Corbin, the religious thinker and Sufi scholar, called the Imaginal Realm. This is not the same as the ‘imaginary’ in common parlance, but the Active Imagination and therefore a mode of perception of reality and thus what Corbin called Imaginal Love. Far from being meaningless, Jeffers held that our lives do indeed have a purpose, which is one that comes to us in moments of true inspiration that flows through from the source of who we are as a higher intelligence, which is often quite different from that imagined by the individual or by conforming to narrow cultural givens. It is what has been most often conveyed to us through the medium of great art, poetry, and music. With the loss of this idea of value, and the reduction of our lives to a stultifying narcissistic self-preoccupation, divorced from nature and what was once called the sacred, we may have engineered our own demise if it turns out that such constitutive value has in fact been central to the evolutionary process. By choosing to employ science not for its intuitive revelations of truth but to increase our power and control over everything, despite the many benefits we have gained, the Moloch we have created may soon be our imprisoner, our torturer, or even our executioner.
I will leave the final word to Jeffers, and his poem Science12 penned 100 years ago which accurately describes this moment. Jeffers, a prophet from his stone tower at Mount Carmel on the Pacific Coast facing westwards towards the East, without diminishing the significance of genuine scientific truths, presciently saw how Scientism by disrupting the balance of nature through our obsession with power and control could easily lead to our undoing:
Man, introverted man, having crossed
In passage and but a little with the nature of things this latter
Has begot giants; but being taken up
Like a maniac with self-love and inward conflicts cannot manage
Being used to deal with edgeless dreams,
Now he's bred knives on nature turns them also inward: they
have thirsty points though.
His mind forebodes his own destruction;
Actaeon who saw the goddess naked among leaves and his hounds
A little knowledge, a pebble from the shingle,
A drop from the oceans: who would have dreamed this infinitely
little too much?
1. F. Edward Cranz, Reorientations of Western Thought from Antiquity to the Renaissance, ed. Nancy S. Struever (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2006).
2. Time Magazine article by Eliezer Yudkowsky Pausing AI Developments Isn't Enough. We Need to Shut it All Down, March 29th 2023.
3. Rene Guenon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times. Editions Gallimard, 1945.
4. Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed Yale Univ. Press 2018
5. Yuval Harari: World Economic Forum, “Will the Future Be Human?”
6. Elise Bohan: Guardian Article by Celina Ribeiro “Beyond our ‘ape-brained meat sacks’: can transhumanism save our species?” Guardian 3 June 2022.
7. Zoltan Istvan: Zoltan Istvan on transhumanism, politics and why the human body has to go. New Atlas by Rich Haridy February 22, 2017
8. Iain McGilchrist: The Master and His Emissary. Yale, 2010. The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva.
11. Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems of Robinson Jeffers.
©David Beatty 2023