Human Being in an Inhuman Age

04-05-2019

By Roger Berkowitz
The revolution in technology over the last 30 years and the promise of the singularity seem to have very little to do with Hannah Arendt, but let me tell you a story.

The revolution in technology over the last 30 years and the promise of the singularity—a merging of humans and machines into a common species—seem to have very little to do with Hannah Arendt, a chain-smoking German-Jewish émigré who stood far from the swift currents of popular culture. Arendt is best known for her writings on totalitarianism and the banality of evil, and one can hardly imagine her reading Wired magazine. But let me tell you a story.

On October 5, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite into space. Scientists dreamed that the launch represented a new era of human achievement. Military experts assured Americans the satellite could not drop nuclear bombs. The Radio Corporation of America broadcast to a rapt nation the “pinging sound” emitting from the satellite. The Soviets declared, “The new socialist society turns even the most daring of man's dreams into a reality."1 The United States vowed to win the space race.

For Hannah Arendt, the launch of Sputnik meant something very different. It was, she wrote, an event “second in importance to no other.”2  Sputnik meant that human beings had taken a real step toward actualizing a long-wished-for goal: to escape the earth. In Arendt’s telling of the story, earth alienation is part and parcel of the all-too-human dream of freeing ourselves from our humanity. Sputnik’s launch thus signified not simply the lowering of humanity’s stature, but humanity's destruction of humanity itself.

By destroying humanity, Arendt does not mean the replacement of working people by robots or even the possibility of nuclear Armageddon. The danger Sputnik poses to humanity is something else. She names the danger “earth alienation.”

At the core of Arendt's concept of earth alienation is her imagination of earthliness as an inextricable part of the human condition. As Arendt writes, “The Earth is the very quintessence of the human condition . . . ” (HC 2).

For Arendt, to be human is to be earthly. We are born. We die. We make our way in a world that is mysterious. While we humans can also make and remake our human condition, our earthliness remains as the simple fact that our lives on earth are ultimately subject to fate and fortune beyond our control. The earth is Arendt’s name for that one condition of man’s world—his being a free gift from nowhere—that has been part of the human condition since the beginning of human history.

When Arendt names the Earth to be the quintessence of the human condition, she means, first, that only on Earth can human beings “move and breathe without effort and without artifice.” The earth and its natural environment—its oxygen-rich atmosphere, its abundance of water, its temperate climate—allow humans to live without artifice. The word human is derived, at least in part, from humus, the rich ground soil from the decay of organic matter. From dust to dust, mankind is born of soil and will return to the soil. To be human means, or at least has meant, to be of the earth.3

Arendt, however, is not possessed of a strange nostalgia for nature. “The human artifice of the world,” Arendt writes, is not in any way inhuman. On the contrary, our ability to make and remake the world in which we live is what “separates human existence from all mere animal environment . . . ” (HC, 2). Simply to live naturally, as do plants or animals, does not constitute a fully human life. To be human is to create things. Humans build houses and erect dams; we also tell stories and build political communities that give us a humanly created world in which we live. We humans, in other words, are artificers. Builders. Creators.

As earthly beings that build upon, form, and organize the earth on which we live, humans are paradoxical. On the one hand, humans are artificers and live only in an artificial world. On the other hand, we are living creatures and life itself is not artificial. Humans thus are split beings, at once created and creating.

For Arendt, human existence as earthly and living existence is not something humans make or control. Unlike the artificial world we create, we ourselves are a free gift. In a religious register, that gift can come from God. In Arendt’s secular world, the free gift of human existence is a matter of fate, chance or fortuna. We are born. We die. We make our way in a world that—while we may alter and humanize it—is predominantly foreign and mysterious. In both religious and secular terms, the human condition is one of finitude.

It is this finite aspect of our humanity that Arendt adds as a second sense of humanity's earthliness. We are of the earth and, like all other earthly creatures, we live according to a fate that is beyond our control. While a merely earthly life absent the equally humanizing capacity to create and bring new worlds into being is not human, so a purely artificial and technical existence is also inhuman. Humans require both earthliness and worldliness, and our humanity is threatened by both earth and world alienation.

The earth, then, is Arendt’s name for that one condition of man’s world—his finitude—that must remain if man is to remain human. While humans may cultivate crops and domesticate animals, while we may build dams and form polities, we cannot, as humans, shed our mortal coil. To be alive, man, like animals and plants, must be born and must die, and this life process is an organic and natural event that must remain free from the artifice and fabrication that humans bring to all other aspects of earthly existence. The mortal course of human life, Arendt writes, “is outside this artificial world” (HC 2).

Earth alienation, Arendt writes, is the process “underlying the whole development of natural science in the modern age. . . . ” (HC 264). As the “hallmark of modern science,” earth alienation is epitomized by Galileo's invention of the telescope. Earth alienation is experienced when mankind succeeds in making all things on the earth (including the earth and mankind himself) subject to human mastery and control. When all human beings and human events can be made and remade by human invention, we humans will have fulfilled our rebellion against our fateful birth on this planet. In this sense earth alienation challenges the quintessential human condition of being earthbound.

The danger Arendt confronts with the launch of Sputnik is that technological know-how has finally caught up with man’s inexhaustible drive to tame and order his world. Sputnik reveals in an actual event that science and technology threaten to fulfill humanity’s desire to overcome its earthly limits. If man can flee earth, what stands in the way of actualizing the even more forceful drive to fully master all elements of the earth, including humans themselves?

Over two millennia ago, Sophocles, in his “Ode to Man,” named man Deinon, a Greek word that connotes both greatness and horror, that which is so extraordinary as to be at once terrifying and beautiful. As man invents and gains ever more control over the world, he threatens to extinguish the mystery of his existence, that part of man that man himself does not control. As the Greek chorus sings: Always overcoming all ways, man loses his way and comes to nothing.4

If man so tames the earth as to free himself from toil and uncertainty, what then is left of the mystery that is being human? In other words, to overcome all obstacles is to be a god, not man. This ancient insight into the paradoxical wish to overcome our humanity is itself part of what it means to be human.

When we launch Sputnik into the heavens, we humans reach for the stars. And yet in the very act in which we display our human striving to move beyond our mortal limits, we renounce the very human distinction upon which our striving stands. The reason for this renunciation of human pride is that science—the very pride of man that allows him to escape from and master his world—is incompatible with humanism. It is science, particularly modern science with its roots in the 17-th century scientific revolution, that Arendt sees as having its dangerous actualization in Sputnik, cloning, genetic manipulation, and now the emerging trans-humanist belief that humans are simply machines that can be enhanced and reprogrammed.

Let me emphasize that Arendt is not a Luddite. She never condemns science and she never argues that we should limit or censor scientific knowledge. She is not antiscience. And yet, she has no doubt that science is at war with humanity. Science, she insists, changes our sense of things.

For instance, I first spoke these words at Bard College, alongside the Hudson River. I hope you’ve had the opportunity to walk along the Hudson or another river whose ebb and flow, whose meanderings and curves, and whose depths and eddies recall the winding and unpredictable course by which we make our way. But what is the Hudson River? Google tells me it is a 315-mile (507 km) river that flows from north to south through eastern New York. But what is it? It is today a waterway of commerce. Or it is a garbage dump for PCBs. We can make it part of the tourist industry by cleaning it up and making it safe for fish and people to swim in. We talk of diverting it, damming it, or getting rid of it entirely. Can we even experience the Hudson as a river—a powerful, living, natural body of water?

I fear the answer is no. The Hudson is today a human creation, even to the extent that we decide to let it be or to restore it to its “natural” condition. To look at the river today is to look at something that we create.

So what? Is the world of technology really a danger to humanity? Nearly every technological advance has been met with cries that the world would never be the same. When the God Thoth tried to give the alphabet to the Egyptian King Ammon, Ammon rejected it; he worried that writing would lead to a loss of memory and the oral tradition. He was right, yet somehow we have survived and prospered.

The typewriter elicited fears that machines would disconnect us from the bodily experience of writing. Computers brought a new worry, that programs we do not understand would correct and supplement our writing through grammar, composing, and editing programs that flatten language in ways determined by engineers working for Microsoft, Apple, and Google. E-mail, texting, and Facebook have further stoked the flames of worry that the incorporation of our communication within 140-character snippets or on a preformatted screen would end the creativity and thoughtfulness of human discourse. And yet we have, somehow, continued to speak and write with one another. Are we less human?

The lesson is that human beings seemingly possess a nearly infinite ability to assimilate, adopt, and incorporate technological advances. We now carry around the libraries of the world in our pockets, searchable in mere seconds. This is not human. We implant neural enhancers in our brains that smooth out our movements and augment our intelligence. This is not human. We can extend life quite possibly, as Ray Kurzweil has argued, as long as want. This is not human. We can, as Sherry Turkle has suggested, create simulated realities that become more real than the once real world. This is not human. And yet, let us just recognize how incredibly awesome we humans are at adapting to technology. We can, as Nicholson Baker writes in “Machines,” his essay in this volume, draw human lines around mechanical innovations in a way that is, ultimately, deeply human. The seemingly superhuman revolution in technology has not reached a breaking point. And no limit seems to be in sight.5

Or might we approaching just such a limit?

When you call to make a train reservation on Amtrak and a computerized voice says “Hi, I’m Julie,” what is your reaction? The tinny electronic voice is there not because I like it, but because it works. It is cheaper than a human being, works longer hours than a salaried employee, and won’t get mad at you (the opposite, unfortunately, is not the case, as Julie, I am sad to say, can be infuriating).

That computer voice is there for the same reason that Ron Arkin argues that it makes sense to have robots make life-and-death decisions on the battlefield. Unlike humans who are emotional and unreliable, machines will not kill out of anger. They will sacrifice themselves without emotion rather than take a chance of killing a civilian. In other words, in warfare, machines can follow the rules of war better than humans. They can fight more justly and rationally than humans. And they can, in Arkin’s formulation, fight more humanely than humans. It is for this reason that computers are taking over more and more of the human activities of life, from war to business to health care. Let’s face the facts: all things considered, computers do these things faster, safer, cheaper, and often better than humans.6

As more and more of our world is populated by such rationally minded machines, as more of our financial system depends upon computer trading, as more of our ethical and political thinking is tested through rational-choice models, as our cars our driven by computers, as our buildings are designed and built by robots, as surgeries and diagnostics are handled by robotic doctors, and as these machines are designed, built, and serviced by other machines, the question arises: What is the space and the role of humans in an increasingly inhuman world? Will humans even be needed in this world? And if so, what will we be doing?
The question that needs to be asked—the question that the Arendt Center Conference “Human Being in an Inhuman Age” sought to address is: What does it mean to be human in an increasingly inhuman world?

Consider the event that Arendt argues inaugurated the scientific revolution: the invention of the telescope by Galileo. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, one of the great writers on the history of science, had this to say about Galileo’s telescope: “Since a babe was born in a manger, it may be doubted whether so great a thing has happened with so little stir.”7 Of course, the babe in the manger brought some changes in the world. And the argument that Whitehead makes, and one that Hannah Arendt also makes, is that Galileo’s telescope is the single most important event that defines the human condition in the modern era. So, what is it?

The telescope allowed Galileo, in his own words, to “deliver the secrets of the universe” to the human mind “with the certainty of sense-perception.” In the ancient philosophical battle between the idealists and the empiricists, Galileo is thought to have given the victory to the empiricists. Against those who might argue for the truth of an idea over reality, Galileo claimed to show that empirical study aided by technological innovation could establish a real truth.

The truth about truth, however, is rarely so simple. What Galileo saw in his telescope was not obvious. Recall that people before Galileo thought that the moon was perfect and thus flat. Galileo looks at the moon and sees dark spots and he notices that the dark spots are turned toward the sun and he says: “Oooh! There must be mountains on the moon.” But he never saw the mountains, just dark shadows. From these shadows, Galileo concluded that there were mountains on the moon that were four miles high. Which turns out to be pretty close to right—today, the highest one is thought to be three miles high. And Galileo did all this without seeing a single mountain.8

How did he know that there were mountains on the moon and why did he conclude that they were so important? He writes: “Anyone can know with the certainty of sense-perception that the moon is by no means endowed with a smooth and polished surface.” Now, what does that mean, “with the certainty of sense-perception”? It is certainly a paradox in two senses. First, the brilliance of Galileo's conclusion is based on the fact that he did not “see” the mountains on the moon through his telescope. Second, his conclusion refutes the common-sense notion that the moon is smooth, a conclusion itself based on sense perception. For thousands of years, by means of our senses, we thought the moon was flat; now we learn that the senses and sense perception lie to us. Galileo does not prove the certainty of sense perception. On the contrary, he proves to us that human senses are fallible (HC 259–260).

We think that the moon was flat, we see the sun move, we see the paper here in this book and yet we know that the moon is not flat, the sun doesn’t move, the earth revolves around the sun, and this paper is filled with millions of molecules alternating with empty spaces. So, what is the lesson that we take from Galileo’s telescope? It is that human sense perception is not true. Even what Galileo saw in the telescope wasn’t true; he didn’t see mountains. All he saw was light and dark spots. Truth does not come from sense perception. It comes from calculations; it comes from knowing the laws behind what governs the senses.

In other words, Galileo didn’t throw us back upon the empirical world, as many people might think; instead, the impact of Galileo's telescope and the scientific revolution it unleashed was to cause us to doubt our senses. Scientific observation actually liberates us from our senses; it frees us to the world of calculation based upon mathematic laws. What characterizes scientific truths is not that they are visible, palpable, or audible, but that they conform to hypothetical, predictable, and calculable models that we have about the way the world works.

Galileo teaches us that the truth of the world is beyond human sense perception. In other words, the truth of the world is inhuman. Increasingly, what this means is that we live in a world that we don’t understand. And here, we finally return to Hannah Arendt’s main worry about science. For Arendt, what is decisive about modern science is that it speaks the language of algebra and thus replaces common sense with an inhumanly rational language. For scientists, mathematical symbols surpass sense data as the arbiter of truth. While the senses had long been known to be unreliable, Galileo demonstrated that fact and also offered a solution: from henceforth our human senses were to be subject to the truth of our cognitions, that is, to a nonsensible, mathematical, universal, unearthly, and thus inhuman, standard. As Arendt writes, “The trouble concerns the fact that ‘the truths’ of the modern scientific world view, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will no longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thoughts” (HC 3).

The point is that increasingly, we all live in a world that is impossible to understand in normal speech and thought. What Galileo and all scientists share is a faith in an objective and scientific truth that is inhuman—beyond the capacity for the human to understand.

In one respect, our inability to understand our world is old. The Greeks and the Egyptians couldn’t understand the world, so they invented gods. That’s true, but there is a big difference. The Greeks and the Egyptians knew that they couldn’t understand the world and because they couldn’t, they invented gods.

We know in our hearts and in our minds that the world is comprehensible, that it’s understandable, and that if we are smart enough and spend enough time studying, each one of those things we could understand. But we don’t do it, we can’t do it, so the world begins to strike us as inhuman, as, in a sense, unknowable, un-understandable, and distant. We become alienated from the world. This is why Arendt names the danger that Sputnik poses to humanity “earth alienation.”


The danger of earth alienation is that we humans begin to look at ourselves the way that scientists look at rats. In her essay “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,” Arendt writes:

Seen from a sufficient distance, the cars in which we travel and which we know we built ourselves will look as though they were, as Heisenberg once put it, ‘as inescapable a part of ourselves as the snail’s shell is to its occupant.’ All our pride in what we can do will disappear into some kind of mutation of the human race; the whole of technology, seen from this point, in fact no longer appears ‘as the result of a conscious human effort to extend man’s material powers, but rather as a large-scale biological process.’9

If you look at man in a scientific way, as a scientist would, you look at man as just another being, like rats. From the perspective of the scientist, people go to school, take care of 2.2 kids, live in a certain zip code, buy certain kinds of products, and vote for certain kinds of politicians. The social sciences—economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, and psychology—seek regularities and “normalities.” They look at large numbers of people and ask, how do people behave? And they treat people largely as we treat rats.

Arendt’s suspicion of social science underlies her concern with the law of large numbers. The more people one studies, the more likely it is for individual actions to “appear only as deviations or fluctuations” from a norm (HC 42). In the late 17th century, Leibniz showed that all activity could be plotted on a scatter graph, a graph in which no matter how random the individual data points, you could create a mathematical curve to map them. Leibniz’s is an extraordinary insight, with profound political implications. It means that all human action can be fit into a “mathematical web” so that even human action is reduced to calculable behavior by means of a “modern reductio scientae ad mathematicum” (HC 267).
 
The reduction of science to mathematics means also, in our scientific age, the reduction of human action to behavior. Not only are machines becoming more human and taking over more of our human tasks, but also we humans are becoming ever more calculable, rational, and machine-like. It is now not unlikely that in near future the boundary dividing humans from machines will disappear. The question then presents itself, what will it mean to be human in an inhuman age?

Arendt refuses the conceit that there is a human nature. She does not believe that there is one, or one group of characteristics that are “essential” to humanity. Human beings are creative and adaptive creatures, and it is only human that our humanity will change and evolve. And yet, Arendt does understand that since the beginning of human beings, certain conditions have defined the human condition. These include labor, work, and action. They also include earthliness.

Arendt begins The Human Condition with the launch of Sputnik because that event encapsulates the threat that science poses to the earthly aspect of the human condition. The human condition—that man as deinon is both wondrous (the doer of great deeds) and terrifying (because he threatens to so remake the world as to leave no room for human innovation)—has been replaced by the one-sided worship of man’s wondrous technical powers. In the age of Sputnik, man is rational, understandable, predictable, knowable, and, ultimately, neither interesting nor surprising.

Does this mean that such a rational humanity is inhuman? Not necessarily, since there is no essential human nature. It does mean that such humans would lose their connection to the earth. First, we will increasingly live in rational, mechanical, and virtual realities divorced from earthly conditions. Second, we are coming to imagine ourselves as masters of our collective fate to an extent unimaginable just one century ago. What is lost in such a way of being human is the connection to the earth as that planet and these bodies onto and into which we were born, beyond our control. The great danger we face today is that humans will fatefully and forever sever our tether to the earth. This danger is a fact. The only question remains: What ought we to do about the fact that our human condition is changing?

1. Harry Schwartz, "A Propaganda Triumph," New York Times, October 6, 1957.
2. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1958,1.
3. I borrow this insight from remarks made by panelist Thomas Dumm at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference, “Human Being in an Inhuman Age.”
4. Sophocles, Antigone v. 360, trans. Philippe Nonet.
5. Lectures on these topics by Ray Kurzweil, Sherry Turkle, Nicholson Baker, and others can be viewed on the Hannah Arendt Center website at http://www.totalwebcasting.com/live/bard/archives/20101022/
6. Ron Arkin's lecture at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference can be viewed at the Hannah Arendt Center website http://www.totalwebcasting.com/live/bard/archives/20101022/
7. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1925) 2-3.
8. Galileo, "The Starry Messenger," Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (New York: Anchor Books, 1957). 38 ff.
9. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 274.