In the post-modern era – or rather ‘super-modern', according to the neologism coined by Marc Augè – we feed on radical feelings and ideological preconception towards technology. The followers of Habermas and English analytical philosophy claim to be the epigone of the Light and they generally show great trust in scientific rationality. On the contrary, the heirs of ‘active nihilism' show great scepticism about the ability of technology to escape the net of power and cultural industry. The author – making explicit some implicit premises in Heidegger's thought – postulates the possibility of a ‘third' way that doesn't indulge in easy demonizations or optimistic compliances, but proposes to grasp the relations between the virtual world of cybernetics and the creating imagination of mysticism. |
Metaphysics and Cybernetics (part 1)
by A. D'Alonzo
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In this day and age very few people show interest in metaphysics. We are used to label metaphysics as a kind of dated, anachronistic, obsolete thought in its claim to universalize the ‘truth'. In post-modernity we define reason not as a mirror able to reflect an alleged objective, hypostatic, intelligible or phenomenal truth, but as – this is a definition by Richard Rorty, an American philosopher recently passed away – a ‘net', a fallible instrument that sometimes allows to grasp some meaning (in this case the target has been hit), but that quite often leaves empty-handed. Philosophy can't aim at rekindling the splendor of the past; it must restrict itself to being considered one of the many ‘voices' of the world that articulate the interpretation, to operate a choice between presenting itself as a kind of amateurish know-all subject or, on the contrary, to subordinate its role and ancient prestige to the ancillary service of human science, which, with updated methods, are better qualified to inquiry the various aspects of society or individual behaviors. Human sciences – psychology, anthropology, sociology – are dictatorial because in their process they always try and analyze individual and collective differences through the conceptual grids of ‘socially usefulness', trying to bring back eccentric, heterogeneous and deviating elements to the doctrine of a unique thought and to the chrisms of ‘pseudo-normality' established by the social system. They try to bring difference back to identity; this operation is totalitarian but functional to the mechanisms of cultural industry. The counter-cultural excess can become socially dangerous, as we have seen during the years of protest in 1968; it must be reintegrated in the ‘mythopoeic thought' of politically correct. Human sciences become also and mainly an instrument for repression and social normalization of eccentric personalities.
It is not even a matter of glimpsing at the ‘end' of philosophy, something different from a destiny that comes to an end, as Heidegger says, as oblivion of the being and final deployment of nihilism, going from the Greeks to the gestell , the technical structure. According to Heidegger this is an accomplishment that starts with the descriptive-normative attitude of Greeks who ‘place-in-front' the entity, opening the progressive oblivion of the being that ends with the gestell , the technique thought as a Promethean mastering of the whole Earth. In this perspective ‘metaphysics' wouldn't be anything but a particular form, a historical-contingent attitude elaborated by the human mind to cover the gap between the Greek world and modern technology. It would be a diachronic arch that embraces the history of the West, exhausts the possibilities of metaphysical, if not ‘philosophical', thought. On the contrary of Guénon, who sees western nihilism as oblivion of ‘Tradition' and of ‘true' metaphysics, for Heidegger metaphysics itself, in its essence, is nihilism and oblivion of the being in favor of the entity. For the German thinker metaphysics is an essential misunderstanding that confuses the present-entity, the becoming, what-appears, with the being that should be thought of as a-lethéia, un-veiling , what is behind and sends what-appears. Western metaphysics, on the contrary, stop at the contemplation of the present-entity, hypostasizing time in the only dimension of present and excluding the other diachronic aspects of past and future. The Greek view as well postulates the ‘truth', the being, as something that can be described and ‘manipulated', starting from the way we decide to place it in front of the subjectivity. The essential misunderstanding starts in the myth of Plato's cave, when the prisoner comes up to the surface and he is blinded by the light of the Sun.
Heidegger thinks that western metaphysics – since it is metaphysics of presence – has always failed to think the being which in its essence is rather an ‘ereignis' , an ‘event' not continuously available to the human eyes, but something that ‘wanders', that opens itself as a ‘gleam' behind the hypostasis of the entity. The being is a light that flashes and hides behind the presence of the becoming; here is the ontological difference between becoming and entity. Western metaphysics finds its perfect accomplishment in modern technology, as total manipulation of the entity and oblivion of the being; let's think about the Faustian dimension of science of the twentieth century, to the neo-positivist attempts to plan the control of earthly forces.
This is the epochal picture from which originated the thought of the ‘end' of metaphysics and of a certain way of practicing philosophy, which we can call ‘foundational'. If we add the Wittgensteinian thoughts on the ‘linguistic games' and the disillusion for the defeat of the great utopias of the twentieth century, we can understand why it is not possible any more to look at meta-narrations or meta-theories with trust. Reason can only interpret, certainly not transcend its condition or outline the sense of history. Heidegger, though, in this context of epochal defeat of thought, invites to look back to the moment preceding the metaphysical decision made with Plato's cave. He invites to find another word to think the truth of the being, to go back to pre-Socratics, in particular Anaximander. To rewind the film of history and analyze what remained in the shadow, the unthought-of.
In this perspective we can try the recovery of the esoteric thought, true Karsts river that crossed the history of the West. We can try and go back to the ‘other-thought', the other ‘path' that Parmenides didn't travel, to mysticism, compared mythology, etc. We can try and ‘squeeze' all that hasn't been ‘squeezed' yet, to think the un-thought of and the un-thinkable, to say the un-speakable. We can try and conceive a kind of ‘un-philosophie', ‘other-philosophy', so called not because it refuses the hermeneutic turn or claims the right to elaborate new meta-theories, but because it tries to recover the removed, the uncanny, the Shadow; all that has been left out, relegated to the borders of despotism of the ‘official' metaphysics.
But we can go a step further. If the recovery of ‘esoterism', of ‘mysticism', of ‘myth' is an attempt of re-integration of survivals that looks at the past, we must not overlook the possibilities that open on the present and future, in view of a new desirable synthesis of knowledge and human mind. It is not a matter of re-proposing other meta-narrations or meta-theories, because this time the field of enquiry to try and elaborate new accumulative-descriptive forms of knowledge doesn't coincide with the noetic intellect or the dialectic reason, but with cybernetics. Mind must not seek the principles in itself, try and elaborate what can't be elaborated, but project its own cognitive dynamics in the virtual reality to grasp the synergy that has never been grasped before: the integration between rational thought and mythic-symbolic imagery. It is not a simple depth analysis – which after all tries to re-create rational contents for the archetypes – but the fusion between logos and mythos. By the latter expression we mean the world of the ‘Angel', the mundus imaginalis , skillfully described by Henry Corbin.
It is clear that if we use the term ‘imagery' – or more precisely ‘imaginal' – to define the dimension of the inter-world, or meso-cosm, which opens between the sphere of sensitive perception and the categories of the intellect, we can't mistake the first environment with the subject of metaphysics. The latter is a thought of the being – or even better of the oblivion of the being – and it concerns pure transcendens , whilst the imaginal must be identified with the subtle world, the ‘animic' production, angelical theophanies or the state of dream presented in the Upanishad.
Imaginal is the middle and medium dimension that joins transcendent to sensitive perception. The imaginal structure is the means, the instrument, the path that leads to transcendental opening. In the scheme I have intentionally omitted discursive reason, logos, because I think that ration and noetic intellect, despite having different functions – logic arguments the former, transcendental opening the latter – are both related to the human mind (of whose abilities the Homo sapiens sapiens uses only a minimal percentage). Many mystic traditions identify the noetic intellect with the ‘heart' as focal center of the spirit, different from the ‘brain' as the organ of discursive reason. I don't think that the distinction is appropriate, because we should then circumscribe the field of action and subtraction of the ‘spirit' of man, stumbling in the aporias that have confused many Christian mystics. The perspective doesn't change if we identify the spirit-heart with the soul because at this point we should define better the second; this is a slippery action in the western culture, which has always remained inside the Cartesian dualism between res extensa and res cogitans . In other words, what do we mean when we talk about the ‘heart' as the spiritual fulcrum of transcendental individuality? If we don't refer to terms diluted with Catholic catechisms, such as ‘faith', ‘purity and simplicity', ‘gift of the feeling', etc…, if we want to carry on the path of gnosis, we must lead the logocentric ratio and the noetic intellect to two distinct functions of the mind, included as unexpressed potential of the human brain because of the little use of the right hemisphere. The right and left hemispheres are distinct functions of the same faculty.
After this digression, let's go back to the main issue of the relation between metaphysics and cybernetics. We have seen that the imaginal aspect coincides with the inter-world, intended as the middle dimension and the means to achieve the noetic-transcendental intellect. Granted that the latter can be considered as the grail of human condition, the pencil that escapes our efforts, we must better explain the reasons that would identify cybernetics as the ‘prince' instrument of contemporary imaginal reality. A few years ago an illuminating essay by Elèmire Zolla titled ‘ Uscite dal mondo' ( Go out of the world, Note of the Translator) was published. In this book the scholar saw in the first programs of virtual reality – a device that included a glove and a pair of glasses to project the astral body in the program – the possibility to reawake a kind of shamanic Self, which the abuses of logical and mathematical thought had completely obliterated in the western man. Through virtual reality it was possible to transcend the subjective categories of space and time – the three-dimensional use of utensils – and enter another dimension, in the same middle space that the shaman travels during the astral journey that joins the physical with the spiritual world, the earth with the sky, the top with the bottom. According to Zolla's forecast, the virtual reality would make possible the arrival of a new era – a new way of thinking and perceiving entities – which would lead to the accomplishment of the old humanistic knowledge based on the Cartesian cogito. During the nineties a couple of films came out, which tried to draw attention on the risks of virtual reality: ‘ The Lawnmower man' and ‘ Strange Days' . In both the attempt to push the human mind beyond its limits led to madness and social deviancy. This is a very critical view of virtual reality and technology in general. But is it still possible to think of tèchne as of something extraneous and alienating for the human condition? Or must we re-think the tèchne as something that is not simply an application of modern science, but that characterizes, from the start, the human essence itself?
Philosophic anthropology of the twentieth century has verified that the main elements of the Homo sapiens sapiens are the prehensile thumb and the ability to organize his drives. On the contrary of other animals, man doesn't have an instinct that guides him in hunting or in escaping; neither he has the biological potential to be a predator or a prey. He lacks claws and strong jaws, or strong limbs to escape being caught; he had to make up for his natural inferiority through culture. He learnt to defer the immediate satisfaction of drives, organizing them in structured behaviors. The prehensile thumb allowed prehistoric man to brandish the first club and to elaborate strategies for hunting and defense. The concept itself of ‘nature', as it was postulated by Rousseau and Hobbes, is unfounded. The topos of a ‘nature' as anthropological category or narrative stylistic element to oppose to ‘culture' is already a cultural construction made possible by the idealization of the idea of ‘nature' itself. It is an idea that man is ‘forced' to elaborate rationally and that can't be perceived ingenuously, ‘naturally'. The true ‘nature' of the Homo sapiens sapiens – the space where to organize the behavior – is the conscience culturally built by the time between the drive and the satisfaction of the need (2). The tèchne, far from being a derivation of modern scientism, is a proper prosthesis of the biologically inferior body of the Homo sapiens sapiens. It doesn't appear in the European seventeenth century, but it already exists in the arm of the primate who brandishes the stick turning it into a club. In other words, tèchne is not the accomplishment of nihilism, but the deployment of man's essence .
Through this interpretation it is possible to re-read the Heideggerian history of metaphysics as nihilism and oblivion of the being. After the war Heidegger's interprets highlighted the aspect of accomplishment and deployment of nihilism in the last epochal horizon of the history of western thought. In the gestell (translatable with technical ‘structure') the history of the oblivion of the being in favor of the entity is accomplished, preceded by as many epochs where the essential misunderstanding of the latter is concretized to the detriment of the former; idea (Plato), enèrgeia (Aristotle), ens creatum (Christianity), subject (Descartes), monad (Leibniz), spirit (Hegel), will to power (Nietzsche). Finally gestell (technology). Modern technology (3) becomes the accomplishment of the cognitive and operative mastering of the entity in the contemporary oblivion of the being. This oblivion derives from the choice and manipulation of the entity, hypostasizing it only in the temporal dimension of present, with complete exclusion of past or future. In other words, metaphysics tends to hypostasize the temporal dimension of present, fixing as a becoming (present-entity) what must be re-thought of in its full temporal articulation of present, past and future. The present-entity becomes what is offered to man's eyes. But what is really fundamental is the being thought as ereignis (‘event'); what wanders and escapes from revealing itself behind the presence of the becoming (present-entity). What is really fundamental it is not the ‘present-entity', but the ereignis (being), thought as full temporal articulation of present-past-future.
In technology, viz. in gestell , there is the complete realization of the fundamental attitudes that characterize metaphysics as oblivion and nihilism of the being; the ‘placing' ( stellen ) and its derivates, such as ‘representing' ( vorstellen ), ‘producing' ( herstellen ), ‘setting up' ( bestellen ). In ‘placing' of technology there is the accomplishment of the destiny of western thought which hasn't corresponded to the un-veiling of the being, the un-veiling that in giving-itself-whilst-escaping to the catch of the eye. For Heidegger, though, it is not thinkable – and this is another difference with the so-called ‘traditional' thought – to return to a mythical age of ‘gold', to an uncontaminated and uncorrupted nature where the truth would show itself without veils. It is not possible to escape nihilism considered as history of the West. On the contrary, since technology helps the accomplishment of a necessary stage of the western thought, precisely because in it there is the exhaustion of the possibilities of metaphysical speculation, it becomes possible to think of a ‘new' start, a new way for man to relate to the ‘being' (at this point seen as ereignis, ‘event', to escape the hypostasis of presence):
‘The more we get close to danger, the more clearly the paths towards salvation are lighted, and the more we ask. Because asking is the mercy of thinking '. (4)
Two fundamental aspects emerge from these passages of Heidegger's thought:
a) Contemporary technology is the accomplishment of a process that starts with Greeks (Plato) and reaches this day. Technology as final realization of metaphysics is not a produce of the modern world, but rather the essence itself of man . The action of the primate, which in Kubrik's ‘2001: A space odyssey' brandishes a club, explains the moment when ‘technology' replaces ‘nature' in man (it is not accidental that in the following sequence there is the cosmic waltz of spaceships on Strauss' notes). In this perspective it doesn't make any sense to back the ‘classic' dichotomies that oppose the golden ‘beginning' to the present iron age, ‘metaphysics' to ‘science', ‘traditional knowledge' to ‘profane culture', etc… We can only distinguish between an initial stage of ‘metaphysicizing' technology and a present stage of ‘industrial' technology (now ‘post-industrial' or ‘super-modern', which finds its highest expression in ‘virtual reality').
Technology is a new start . Metaphysics represented a season of thought where man wondered about the sense of existence and being. But this dimension has been fulfilled, having expressed all its possibilities. There is the need for a new thought or another way of thinking that can overcome metaphysics. This ‘other' reason can't be separated by vision, Imaginal as Corbin saw it. But in this day and age the thought that should re-unify the logos to the mythos has a support, a medium, still unthinkable at Corbin's times: the virtual world.
But the possibility to think technology as a new start must not be considered as a break with the esoteric or mystic thought; we must try and go back up to the ‘other-thought', the other Parmenidean ‘path'. What is in question is the possibility to escape the Kali-Yuga, to restore, as nothing ever happened, the original golden state. The reintegration can't start from the beginning, but in the hic et nunc of super-modern or post-modern condition. The mythologem of the Fall is a myth of foundation necessary to direct thought and praxis, but it can't be considered as the final stage of an eschatological meta-tale. In other words, its importance is in it being a symbol of the inner perfection that must be achieved. But all apocalyptic doctrines on the end of the world or on the cosmic cycles don't refer to anything but a collective spiritual change; which by the way has been disowned by the Next-age, the evolution of the New-age. The Judgment Day must be considered as the individual realization that drives to change. The ‘new' start must be seen in our time, in the age of contemporary technology.
(1) Cf. E. Zolla, Uscite dal mondo ( Go out of the world, Note of the Translator) Adelphi, Milan , 1992.
(2) Cf. U. Galimberti, Psiche e tèchne, (Psiche and tèchne, Note of the Translator) , Feltrinelli, Milan, 1999.
(3) Cf. Heidegger, The question concerning of technology , in Essays.
(4) Cf. Id.