Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Existential Cosmicism and Technology

The existential philosopher Heidegger distinguished between traditional and modern, or roughly between low and high, technologies. The former, such as windmills or hand-sewn clothing, work with nature and have aesthetic appeal as quasi-artworks, whereas the latter, such as computers or nuclear power plants, challenge the sovereignty of external forces, by storing energy to be used at our discretion. Scientific modes of thinking prepare the way for modern technology by abstracting from the individuality of everything in nature, from what Heidegger called their “thinghood”, objectifying and dissecting (analyzing) natural phenomena and thus encouraging us to adopt an instrumental, Machiavellian attitude towards them. 

When we appreciate something’s uniqueness, we’re more likely to personalize it, since people tend to be especially different from each other: our brains have different experiences over time and there are practically endless ways for our neurons to store that information, by forming unique interconnections. Thus, early forms of religion are animistic, anthropomorphizing the natural world on the basis of the perceived uniqueness shared by the likes of rivers, trees, or mountains, on the one hand, and humans on the other. Modernists would say that the ancients thereby lacked our depth of understanding of nature. The metaphor of standing under something is actually less apt than that of standing apart from it. Modern scientists gain perspective by emotionally detaching from what they studied, thus withholding their sympathy. They employ mathematics and other abstract modes of thinking to engage in extreme forms of generalization, or “unification,” treating rivers, trees, and mountains, for example, all as masses in motion. When things appear to lose their individuality, our sympathetic reflexes are no longer triggered, because we don’t feel compelled to personify them and thus we don’t extend to them anything like human rights. We thereby take up a nihilistic stance towards the objectified phenomena, using technology to overpower nature instead of incorporating nature's organic rhythms into our lifestyle.

Technology Humanizes Nature 

This Heideggerian criticism of technology is compelling but it doesn’t go far enough, in my view. There’s a deeper process at work in the use of all technologies, motivated by a more general way of thinking than just scientific objectification. Our tendency to personify is rooted simply in our inevitable resort to metaphors. When we categorize, we group things and think of them as instances of a type, thus comparing them to each other, perhaps anchoring the comparison to a simplified mental representation (a stereotype or exemplar). Our most fundamental analogies extend our common and familiar experiences--seeing, walking, eating, learning, dying, and so on--to less well-known phenomena. That extension of human experience in our confrontation with the nonhuman is the primary act of anthropomorphism, which means that virtually all of our thoughts are fundamentally anthropomorphic. If you look at the historical basis of most of our concepts, you’ll find a generalization based on an analogy between some quaint human experience and something less familiar and thus apparently nonhuman, that is, some broader natural phenomenon like a rainstorm or a stellar configuration.

Our great felicity with categories goes together with our use of even the humblest technologies, including those that Heidegger would praise for working with rather than against nature. All technologies import aspects of us to nonhuman phenomena, just as even our most primitive cognitive act, our use of metaphors, tames the unfamiliar by comparing it with everyday human experience. When we build even the simplest device, like an axe or a hut, we transform the nonhuman world and render it less forbidding and alien. As the biologist Richard Dawkins or the communications theorist Marshall McLuhan would say, we extend our phenotypes, meaning our bodies. But this isn’t just because we supply a car, for example, with a front that looks like a human face or because a gun or a camera improves on a particular body part such as the fist or the eye. The extension common to all technologies is that of our brain’s innate body plan, as pictured in the so-called cortical homunculus, with which we map out and instinctively identify most strongly with our body parts, regarding anything not so mapped as foreign, hostile, or disgusting. Thus, we don’t retreat even from our foulest body odours--or from those of people with whom we form strong emotional bonds--as reflexively as we do from those of strangers. We render the wilderness less terrifyingly strange just by leaving our footprint in it, as it were, reshaping nature somehow according to our designs so that, like proud children just released from arts and crafts class, we can hold up our pet project and say, “Look what I made!” At least if we have a hand in making something, we’re faced with the devil we know.

Existential Cosmicism and our Masks and Mirrors

And so all technology indicates the truth of the philosophy I’m calling existential cosmicism. Existentialism emphasizes the need for a nonrational choice of how we respond to the chilling facts of our natural position, and cosmicism tracks the cultural implications of modern science in a Nietzschean fashion. (For more on this philosophy, see Lovecraftian Horror, Postmodern Religion, and Aesthetic Morality). Most animal species use either no technology at all, besides that fashioned by their genes in response to their environment, which is to say the physiological traits that each species evolves, or else a handful of tricks to make life easier. Chimpanzees use sticks to pull ants from their colonies, while certain octopi use coconut shells for shelter. With so little of themselves in their environment, you might think most animals would be horrified and incapacitated by the strange otherness of what lies so obviously at nearly their every turn, just on the other side of their sense organs. But, of course, most species lack the self-destructive curiosity or intelligence to recognize that otherness for what it is, since most species lack the self-awareness to distinguish themselves definitively from everything else.

By contrast, we create our human identity at an early age when we learn to draw that Cartesian distinction between mind and material world. We appreciate that we’re born into a pre-existing, nonhuman world that’s often hostile and peculiarly indifferent to our plight, and we cope by humanizing that world, populating it with ghosts, goblins, and gods from our imagination, shamelessly projecting images of us onto natural forces as though we were in any sense central to the cosmos. The cosmicist insists that our horrifying and tragic absurdity consists in our peripheral metaphysical status, in the abyss between our self-image as VIPs and our natural identity as practically trapped and cursed parasites, feasting on our monstrous host which is the undead god, the mindlessly evolving and thus creative plenum that scientists call nature. Our explosion of technology is the outward manifestation of that inner, cognitive revolution: our minds explode with concepts, analogies, and projections, as we mentally dress the world in human clothes, as it were, to mask its dreadful inhumaneness and revolting monstrosity, and our busy hands put that frantic mental activity to work, turning our mere ghostlike ideas into tangible transformations of the environment.

Horrified by the complement of our vainglorious sentience, of our original sin of playing up the difference between us and the rest of the world, we rush to rectify our resulting alienation. We reduce nature’s strangeness by those inner technologies, if you like, by our mental representations which depend on anthropomorphic metaphors, but also by outer, body-built technologies which physically humanize the bizarre outgrowths on nature’s decaying corpse. For example, we don’t just let waterfalls fall, but need to get the last word in, turning them into power sources or tourist attractions; nor do we passively watch the sun’s rays sustain organic processes in the fulfillment of no purpose whatsoever, but we wear hats to protect ourselves from the spill-over effects of temporary blindness or skin cancer, we use deodorant to avoid sweating in our sophisticated cultures, and we harness solar energy to power a variety of contraptions; nor do we content ourselves with the childish mental projections of astrology, when we look up at the inhuman heavens, but we hurl telescopes into space and land robots on Mars; and so on and so forth. We make the cosmos our home by extending our minds and bodies into the outer reaches of the unknown: we give the nooks and crannies of the undead god silly names that elevate us, since our experience of what it’s like to be human anchors the metaphors, and we manually reshape our environment, physically erasing nature’s monstrous visage with reminders of our more comprehensible creativity, so that when we traverse any of our villages or cities, we walk through a House of Mirrors. We look at a hut or a skyscraper instead of a cave or a mountain, and we replace our fear of the cosmic creation of patterns from quantum chaos, with the homeliness of intelligent design, of a person’s mind-controlled body which purposefully tames and beautifies its surroundings. 

We preserve our self-esteem by pretending that technology has merely the practical function of efficiently achieving our goals, whereas the existential significance of technology betrays that lofty pragmatism. Before we can be gods who magically recreate the world in our image, we ought to be panic-stricken, all-too-clever critters that have opened Pandora’s Box just by opening our eyes and beholding the alien landscape. Technology, then, is a source of what existentialists call bad faith, but a source that ironically has the potential to undercut the delusions that restrict us to an aesthetically inferior way of life. We fuel our pride when we revel in the technoscientific proof of our supernatural creativity, but when we reflect on technology’s primordial role as a mirror that permits us to look out onto anything and see so many traces of humanity instead of wild nature’s bloodcurdling monstrosity, that is, its undead complexification, we’re steered away from pragmatic secular humanism, not to mention anachronistic theism, and towards existential cosmicism.

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