The technological Sphinx

By Andreas Luckner, August 2021

There are enviable strokes of luck in publishing: the comprehensive and very readable book by the Stuttgart media teacher Edwin Hübner – Menschlicher Geist und Künstliche Intelligenz. Die Entwicklung des Humanen inmitten einer digitalen Welt (Stuttgart 2020) – was published just in time for the outbreak of the pandemic, even though it is the fruit of decades of reflection.

Not only has a virus spread worldwide since last year, but the digitalisation of all areas of life has also experienced an enormous boost worldwide, not least through working, teaching and ordering from home. Even if this process seems uncanny, it is, as Hübner shows, only the consequence of a certain way of thinking in terms of problems and problem solutions, stocks and resources to be managed, effectiveness and efficiency, in short: technical thinking.

What constitutes being human turns dysfunctional

Such thinking is no longer in control of itself, at the latest, when it turns back on itself to the thinking entity called the human being, as has become increasingly evident in the rise of so-called transhumanism over the past few decades. Transhumanism, one of the main subjects Hübner deals with in the book, wants to advance the development of humanity by striving to technologically improve its allegedly inadequate physical form of existence. Age, illness and death appear through the transhumanist lens as dysfunctionalities to be ultimately overcome; the solution to all associated problems would ultimately consist in detaching oneself from the nuisance physical body. This is envisioned most explicitly in the wild fantasy of the immortality of mind-uploading, the “uploading” of consciousness into a technical hypersystem, as predicted by Ray Kurzweil, one of the leading transhumanists and technical director at Google, for the middle of the twenty-first century.

This singular event of the emergence of a universal artificial intelligence, in which the individual human spirits attain immortality by being absorbed into this intelligence, is, however, as Hübner clearly shows, nothing other than an “immortality of what is dead”. In truth, this singularity is the end point of an enterprise directed against all rejuvenation and renewal, as if we wanted to “embalm the living individuals in data storage for eternal life”. It is only half the truth that “everything” is changing so rapidly through technology. In fact, and this is the other half of the truth, technical mechanisms and systems at all times have been the depository and material manifestation of human forms of life and action, and thereby immobilised them: “Human thoughts congeal into the [...] machine”, says Hübner, and confront us as independent entities.

We humans stand here before technology in its modern, challenging manifestation like before a Sphinx and must let it ask us who we actually are in our essence. And just as the Sphinx in Greek mythology tears apart and destroys anyone who does not know the answer to this essential question, so too here and now: the much-vaunted power that the machines, systems and hypersystems of digitalisation have over us is granted to them by us, and it grows the less we are able to give an answer to the question about the essence. As Hübner explains in knowledgeable and extensive observations on the history and philosophy of technology, transhumanism is only the last consequence of materialistic-technical thinking which, through the algorithms of artificial intelligence, is directed towards a mechanisation of thinking itself (also and especially in the neuronal networks, the functioning of which Hübner explains in a way that is comprehensible even to the technical layman). If thinking were to be reduced ever more to its technical nature, the human being would lose their essence as an individualised spirituality, and would not even need to upload or download themselves anywhere.

Mechanistic thinking

It is the narrowing of thinking purely to problem-solving strategies that leads to the loss of the human being and it is precisely in this loss that the basic danger lies, of which the many obvious crises in ecological, medical, economic and social respects are only an expression. The crises of our time reveal a crisis of thinking. It is necessary in the truest sense of the word to come to our senses about this.

“The essence of technology is nothing technical” wrote Martin Heidegger three decades after Rudolf Steiner’s insights into these connections, which Edwin Hübner makes very comprehensible in the courageously esoteric parts of his book and therefore also connectable to a philosophy of technology. In general, it can be said that Hübner succeeds in this book in presenting anthroposophical insights into the nature of the human being in a new and accessible way; they will mean something even to non-anthroposophists.

Anthroposophy as a counter-image

Starting with the presentation of the phenomenological method (the bridges to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body are very interesting and promising), the presentation of the human constitutional elements, i.e. the distinction between body, soul and (independent) spirit, of the topics of reincarnation and the immortality of the spiritual being, and of the higher levels of thinking of imagination, inspiration and intuition to be developed, an anthroposophical counter-image to transhumanism emerges here.

At the same time, these sections of the book are also in themselves a pleasingly fresh introduction to anthroposophy. With “Ahriman” and “Lucifer”, the two essential creative forces in unleashed technological development have been named by Steiner and described in the way they work in many passages of his work, of which Hübner’s book, especially towards the end, offers a large selection. There are currently two tendencies that make it impossible to adequately define the relationship between the human being and technology, or more precisely between the human spirit and artificial intelligence: the first tendency is the demonisation of technology as a force that develops in an “independently dynamic” way; this is usually accompanied by fear and thus flight reflexes, as if this did not grant technology precisely the effective power that we would actually like to avoid. The technological Sphinx, in other words, then stalks us with its lion’s legs, through which it will always be faster than the technology-averse (“luciferic”) human being.

The second tendency, however, is at least as fatal: it consists in perceiving the dangers associated with technological development, once again, only as problems to be solved technically, thus becoming blind to the very specificity of technical thinking that generates and projects all this. To remain in the metaphor: the technological Sphinx should be quite satisfied with this second, “ahrimanic” tendency, insofar as the human being as a spiritual being takes themselves to their transhumanist end in this way. It should be clear: all these technologies do not exist without the human being; the human being is necessarily a technically thinking being, but they are not only and not fundamentally so. And they will only progress in their self-development, as shown in Steiner’s image of the Representative of Humanity, if they assign these two forces, the consolidating, materialising one and the dissolving, dematerialising one, to their respective place.

The body is part of the human being

A human being can only become aware of themselves as an individual spiritual being through their own corporeality, and since their individual corporeality is in turn nothing other than the “flow form of thinking”, organised ultimately by an incarnating individual spiritual entity, it is precisely corporeality that shows itself today, in the face of the technological Sphinx, to belong to the essence of the human being. This is what can be experienced ex negativo particularly in the technoid transhumanism of our time.

But where there is danger, there is also, to use Hölderlin’s words, rescue: thinking as a self-grounded essential activity of the human being can turn in on itself and narrow itself down, as in transhumanism, or it can expand as set out in anthroposophy: the idea of the technically induced transformation of the individual human being from the outside, as is sought in transhumanism, can be replaced by the idea of an individual self-transformation of the human being, as is characteristic of anthroposophy.

Self-transformation through art

This self-transformation takes place on the basis of art, not on the basis of technology. The more we advance the technologisation of our lives and actions, the more spaces there must be to experience the body so that a healthy balance can develop here. Probably no time before ours had such a great opportunity to develop an awareness of the importance of (physical) corporeality. “The development of the human in the midst of the digital world”, as Hübner’s book is subtitled, would therefore mean true modernity beyond affirmation or aversion in relation to technology. According to Hübner, it would consist in the activation of those forces that have been released through setting technology outside the human being and which should not in turn flow primarily into the development and use of technologies, by which these forces are, rather, paralysed. It would consist in the activation of these forces in all the arts, including the arts of healing and education, social threefolding and the development of the higher forces of knowledge.

The wealth of insights into the connection between human beings and technology that this book offers can only be hinted at here. It is convincing in almost every respect, also and especially in the successful linguistic recasting of Steiner’s anthroposophical insights. Even the apocalyptic tone it adopts towards the end seems to me to be apt, insofar as today we are dealing worldwide with a challenge to human thinking, also and especially about the nature of technology. Hübner paints a rather gloomy picture here – supported by ever longer quotes from Steiner. But we must have the courage to hope: as in the myth of antiquity, the Sphinx will plunge into the abyss when people take hold of their nature as thinkers, become composed towards technical things, develop their creative powers in art, meditation and conceptual work and thus find an answer to the question of their own essence.

About the author: Dr Andreas Luckner is professor of practical philosophy / ethics, philosophy of education, phenomenology, philosophy of technology and aesthetics at the University of Stuttgart.

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