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The Constituents Of Social Life












   






 

The scholar Sean Desmond Healy has observed that in modern history there has been a process “first of dedivinizing man, then of dehumanizing things, and finally of derealizing things…With the removal, or gradual erosion, of a center, there has come into being a vacuum, and this has given rise both to anxiety and to boredom.”

Imagine a vacuum without the concomitant anxiety and boredom; a completely despiritualized, desacralized world, but without consciousness of the fact, or remembrance.  No tension or alienation anymore, no philosophers or intellectuals around to point out everything that has been lost on the way to building a new world.

Perhaps in the years ahead, the utensils of the technological imagination would have wiped out reflective cerebration altogether and substituted it with total passivity and a giddy nod to all things new. Perhaps technology will arrive at the point where the non-existence of God will be seen and felt universally as self-evident, in much the same way that the roundness of earth is accepted today. [1] This irrepressible feeling might be accompanied by the “discovery” that there is no ultimate ground of truth and morality, that human existence in the cosmic sense is ultimately meaningless. These conclusions will not arrive by way of scientific research but by some ensemble of technological contraptions pointing the way to a new nihilism.

Nobody will be around to ask, “What is the meaning and point of human life?” For there will not be one, except of course to upload one’s brain to computers, to download the millionth app, to explore even further the frontier of techno-nihilism. The triumph of the mundane over the sublime, of the machine over the soul, or as the writer William Buckley once put it, a finality in which “the eschaton is immanentized.”

Life as axiological void. Existence without a contemplative, affective dimension, without a dissenting intelligence, without poet or philosopher; teeming, nevertheless, with possibilities, such as the 3D printing and assembly of everything, bodies and minds engineered in cyber environments, surveillance systems which can not only read and decode minds but forecast the future as well, and budding markets for this new outpouring of “goods”.

The crowning glory of humanity has always been the capacity to pass judgment on the forces of society and nature, to challenge Power rather than to prostrate oneself before it. [2] But it is this very capacity which is threatened in the complete technologizing of life, in the exodus to a virtual realm and beyond.

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Reversibility?

As mentioned above, a post-derealized, post-desacralized world, one breaking the nihilism barrier, awaits humanity. A generation from now the appellation homo sapiens may no longer obtain in light of our radically altered ontology.

Can anything interrupt the process? Might there be a moment or fortuitous event which conjures the human mind back to its beginnings and re-acquaints it with its finitude, re-acquaints it with the basic moral and metaphysical questions of life? There is at least one reason to think that a caesura is possible.

After so many hundreds of years of science in the modern period, after Darwin, Faraday and Dalton, one would think that the guiding philosophy of science would be some version of materialism, something much closer to Democritus’ thinking than to Plato’s. Yet because of quantum theory, this is not so. As Werner Heisenberg observed, modern physics is closer to Plato in world-view than to Democritus:

For the smallest units of matter are, in fact, not physical objects in the ordinary sense of the word; they are forms, structures or – in Plato’s sense – Ideas, which can be unambiguously spoken of only in the language of mathematics…

If we wish to approach the ‘one’ in the terms of a precise scientific language, we must turn out attention to that center of science described by Plato, in which the fundamental mathematical symmetries are to be found. In the concepts of this language we must be content with the statement that ‘God is a mathematician’; for we have freely chosen to confine our vision to that realm of being which can be understood in the mathematical sense of the word ‘understanding,’ which can be described in rational terms.

What naturalist, materialist, atheist is not the least bit chagrined to be reminded by someone of the stature of Heisenberg that underneath all the matter of the universe — all the cells, molecules, quarks – there lie not Democritean atoms but Platonic ideas? Not matter but transcendent non-matter?



One wonders whether technologists might not experience a similarly embarrassing moment far into the future. Could there be a brain experiment in which suddenly, unexpectedly, something akin to a soul is posited by analysts to account for some discrepancy? Or perhaps there is a moment of lucidity in which the entire experiment in cyber life is seen as a violent construct whose aim all along has been to destroy the I-thou dimension of life, the dimension of unity and presence. Perhaps an AI program malfunctions somehow and turns out to evince an imaginative philosophical intelligence rather than a technical-instrumentalist one.

The eras and orthodoxies of history eventually pass and are succeeded by new, often contrary, ones. The dark ages gave way to medieval life, which gave way to the European renaissance and enlightenment. The Ptolemaic worldview was eventually overtaken by the Copernican worldview, which was later revised by relativity. The same antithesis is seen in the various stages of human development, where adolescence is an updating and revising of childhood, and early and middle adulthood is a revising of adolescence, and late life is a modification if not transcendence of all earlier stages.

Will the same process of correction and updating occur in our late-virtual world? Or are we dealing here with what Baudrillard has referred to in his writings as a Final Solution, a point of no return?






Notes



References

Baudrillard, Jean. Passwords. London: Verso, 2003.

_________The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Healy, Sean Desmond. Boredom, Self, And Culture. London: Associated University Presses, 1984.

Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near. New York: Viking, 2005.

Wilber, Ken, ed. Quantum Questions. Boston: Shambhala, 1984. For Heisenberg’s thoughts on Democritus and Plato, see pp.45-55.


      

Looking at the world today, is there anything to suggest a yearning on the part of humanity to return to a pre-simulated, pre-virtualized existence? Is there even nostalgia for the modus vivendi and axiologies of old? Is it still too early to answer Baudrillard’s third question in the negative, to say that no point of return to the “historical real” is possible and that humanity is condemned to wander ever aimlessly in what Nietzsche called an “infinite nothingness”?

That this collective technophilia might be called to account in some public arena, that it might be interrogated by reflective thought and made to justify itself – such a prospect, if once expected of an enlightened society, would now be seen as chimerical. [3] There is no public anymore, and there are relatively few citizens left who attach any value at all to the examined life. Enough time has passed that only a paucity would even know what Canetti and Baudrillard had in mind by the “disappearance of the real.” An ever-growing population of the young has only ever known the “real” as virtual reality, as the sum of so many screen effects, neural spikes, online experiences, and fragmented and fleeting social encounters.