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The Future, Its Past and Present

Biblical and evolutionary anthropology

Albrecht Dürer, Apocalypsis

The cosmos and with it nature and its unceasing change were already there before they produced human beings, and they will continue to exist after human beings cease to be. So much for our future sub specie aeternitatis. For us as human beings, a perspective such as this is unsatisfying. We can live better with Pascal’s dialectic: measured against eternity we are nothing, against nothingness we are everything.

However, when – in human imagination – eternity itself (in the form of a God) places the human being in the centre of divine interest, the angle of vision shifts lopsidedly in favour of the human subject. Relative to this centre, everything else, with the exception of God as all-encompassing subject, becomes an object, dominated and subordinated: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1, 26). Genesis continues with this formula, confirmed in variant repetitions and elevated to a mission, shortly thereafter: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1, 28).

In the Garden of Eden, this dominion was still unproblematic: “And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2, 8), and provided for harmony. Only after the Fall did humankind enter upon its problematic dominion over all the earth – with the disastrous consequences already foreshadowed in the myth: humankind’s catastrophic domination over its fellows and nature leads to revelation (apocalypse) of God’s punishment and the end of the world. The reestablishment of harmony can only take place when the creation human beings have ruined is completely destroyed and replaced by a new one, divine once again: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea” (Revelation 21, 1). “Only then will the water of life flow again and the tree of life will bear fruit again forever and ever” (Revelation 22, 5). The New Testament ends where the Old Testament began, in Paradise.

But beforehand, Revelation describes a doomsday scenario in images that to this day have lost none of their effectiveness - not least thanks to Hollywood – and therefore are being re-envisioned by preachers of revivalism and catastrophe of all stripes: droughts and floods alternate with each other; fire falls from the heavens, a giant meteor strikes the earth as the “seventh seal” (Revelation 8, 1) is opened: all of earth is a battlefield.
The great narratives of the two Testaments thus literally prescribe a suggestively anthropocentric legacy of images and imagination that to this day lends expressive form to human hopes, self-reflections and fears in ever-new guises: in a mythic cycle. It begins in Paradise or a golden age and leads – via the depiction of culture, appropriation of the world and domination of nature on the part of an imperfect being – to doomsday visions and following these or competing with them, projections of a return to a new Paradise.

The theory of evolution, on which modern identity to a large extent implicitly or explicitly rests, ostensibly overrides this anthropocentric model. Changes in the cosmos or the climate system have no influence on continued existence – in whatever form – no matter if average temperatures on earth increase by two, four or eight degrees: evolution knows no perspective, it and its processes are value-neutral. Evolution – unlike human beings, one of its comparatively late products – is completely dispassionate. But then, with humankind, a player entered into evolution that attempts to assign it a perspective and a centre. This centre is humankind itself.

Thus in the course of evolution a species arises – created by nature – that on one hand is part and parcel of this very nature, but on the other whose own nature expresses itself by actively and reflexively contraposing itself to nature, its own included. As a finite being conscious of its finitude, it is able to conceptualise distinct temporal dimensions and locate itself within them. It can imagine a time before and after its own existence, distinguishing between present and past, between facts encountered in the here-and-now to be dealt with, and future possibilities, whether desired or feared: this being posits the difference between what is and what ought to be – at first in a pre- or proto-ethical sense. And this positing of difference takes effect immediately as normative.

Pre-human evolution neither knows nor needs this distinction. It neither has nor requires an ethics. The lion that kills a gazelle does not commit murder, nor do methane – emitting herds of buffaloes or cattle sin against the climate. By contrast, there is no neutrality in terms of values or responsibility where the suffering and death caused by human beings are concerned. But how far the dimensions of responsibility and territories are defined depends critically on human beings’ stance towards values and responsibility: from near to far areas, from love of neighbour to love of what is or seems most alien, from love of humanity to love of nature, or love of humanity as love of nature.

A being that on one hand knows itself to be part and parcel of nature, but on the other is characterised by “natural artificiality” (Helmuth Plessner), is neither capable of unbroken instinctive reaction, nor does it adapt purely reactively. Unlike other creatures, the relatively open drive structure of human beings, their flexibility (Nichtfestgelegtheit), make them specialists of non-specialisation, but also a being at risk – (riskiertes Wesen). Since human beings are not fixed to particular surroundings, they do not have any natural environment, but must construct one – and in the course of human history they have done so with ever-greater intensity: the environment suited – in human eyes - to human beings, their world, is becoming ever-more artificial. It is what they create from nature, from themselves and for themselves: culture.

They are responsible for this culture, their world. Although no ethics in the world can offer a way around the fact that we, whether we want to or not, on one hand must often act ad hoc and thus irresponsibly and only become aware of our responsibility after the fact, and that on the other we cannot accept personal responsibility for anything and everything, let alone for the state of the world. But just as little can some pragmatism or other absolve us of having to answer for the consequences of our actions and having to justify them ethically - where we can.

Illusion – Delusion – Disillusionment

The mythic cycle of the great narratives of the ancient world is based in almost all religions and conceptions of the world on a paradox. On one hand everything, including individual human fates, is thought to be predestined, and human beings believe in order to gain knowledge of the cyclical and cosmological course of things. On the other, their personal fates as well as those of individual peoples nevertheless remain in the dark: in a sphere that perhaps might be brightened into a twilight in which the will of the gods, of God, or the destiny of the world might be divined through magical practices, oracles, soothsayers and prophets. But the opportunity to learn about one’s own fate remains inseparable from the conviction that one’s fate as such is unalterable: the cards are held by God or the gods, even if we believe we can take a peek at them.

Along with this world view, which is still alive and well, a different conception of the world and of humanity and a different approach to the world was gradually emerging in the Occident in the period described by it as “modernity.” With the aid of new technologies and instruments (telescope, chronometer), a new type of scientist was measuring and dissecting space, time and human beings in mathematical, physical, epistemological and empirically/ experimentally objectified form.

While utopias of the Renaissance (More, Bacon, Campanella) still dealt with the rational shaping and fleshing-out of ideal spaces that were contrasted with the defects of the polity of the time, during the Enlightenment the ideal spaces of spatial utopias were transformed into ideal times of temporal utopias (Mercier, Piron): the production of knowledge, technology and the polity is linked with projection. The cyclic conception of time is transformed into belief in progress; starting with the theory of evolution, the mythically closed teleology is transformed into a scientifically based open teleology, the transcendental paradise into a secular paradise, faith in the beyond into a religion of the secular.

The old myths are rewritten accordingly. Although in the myths themselves the Golden Age still stood at the beginning, followed by inevitable stages of decline, this sequence was reversed in the mid-19th century, exemplified by Auguste Comte’s Law of Three Stages: now, “in the beginning” was humanity’s mythically obscured childhood, at the end, as the result of a scientifically supported positive philosophy – a social physics (Comte adopts this concept from the Belgian statistician Quetelet) – the industrial age. Comte’s Law of Three Stages no longer queries priests, seers or prophets, but relies instead on scientists (social physicists, i.e. sociologists). They rule the world. Comte’s motto “Savoir pour prévoir, prévoir pour pouvoir” (i.e.know to foresee, foresee to forewarn) directly links the production of knowledge with the projection of a perfected society. To this day, Comte’s motto “Order and Progress” adorns the flag of Brazil. And it looks as though his doctrine of social salvation has struck deep roots in socio-technical and political thinking up to the present.

Not only to Comte’s contemporaries, among them Karl Marx, but also to a significant segment of following generations did a dream of humankind appear to be inexorably fulfilled through the ever-accelerating development of increasingly differentiated technologies, among them modern medicine. But already in the 19th century, it became clear that in the interaction of the free market and industrial production a development had set in that could not be controlled either through national policy or scientific systems or business and banking consortiums: since then (at the latest) social upheaval, critiques of civilisation and pessimism about progress have been the constant companions of the idea of progress.

They find their philosophical and literary expression in the anti-utopias (dystopias) of the end of the 19th century. Their leitmotif is the downside of utopia: progress as a nightmare in the guise of science fiction. The paradigmatic novels of Kurt Laßwitz, H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and later Isaac Asimov (among others) do not merely articulate a discontent with progress, but also the insight that technology as friend of humanity and master of nature is mutating into an adversary that can be controlled and steered less and less by its creator, if at all. Humankind had imprisoned itself in “a shell as hard as steel” (Max Weber), one of its own creation.

Arnold Gehlen (Man in the Age of Technology / Die Seele im technischen Zeitalter, Early Man and Late Culture / Urmensch und Spätkultur) not only takes up this leitmotif, but later also characterises the now indissoluble alliance of technological development and institutionalisation as a further trap in which humanity had ensnared itself – in a cage whose bars are set ever more narrowly: primary nature can be mastered initially and only as long as this alliance has not become autonomous. Since the systemically immanent dynamic of progress built into the alliance of science, technology and industrialisation apparently can no longer be checked, we must focus on – put metaphorically again – developing a third nature with which we can successfully deal with the second.

From utopia and positive philosophy to disappointed hopes and dystopias; from illusion to delusion and finally disillusionment; from the technological Fall to the apocalypses of anti-utopias and dystopias – the language in which this development, which began in early modernity, is generally described reveals that despite the entire dynamism of technical and social change, one thing is and remains relatively persistent: the continuity of thought patterns and their images. It powerfully underscores the fact that the old religions continue to exist along with the new ones, that alongside the insistently postulated new world views the old ones never died out, and that old and new have entered into a mostly unconscious, but for that very reason all the more powerful discursive alliance in the minds of their respective proponents and prophets.

Anticipatory adaptation

In Book 11, Ch. 20 of his “Confessions,” Augustine discusses the standpoint from which paradises of the past and ideals for the future are conceived: “What is now clear and plain is that neither things to come nor past exist. Nor is it properly said, ‘there are three times, past, present, and future’: yet perhaps it might properly be said, ‘there are three times; a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future.’ For these three do exist in some manner, in the soul, but elsewhere I do not see them; the present of things past is memory; the present of things present is (visual) perception; the present of things future is expectation.” In other words: past, present and future are our modes – determined by a ceaselessly moving and changing present - of approaching our equally incessantly moving and changing memories and expectations. And these modes of approach stand for a perpetual process of adaptation.

Our actions are determined by the present – the standpoint of perception from which we cannot depart. We adapt it to both our positive and negative experiences as well as to our anxiety-laden or optimistic expectations. When envisioning the future, we take recourse to the present situation both with respect to what appears to be the case at the moment and to memories of pleasant experiences or those to be urgently avoided. But above all, we know that we have a future: that something or other is in store for us, and that we will have to face and cope with this “something.”

With human beings, evolution has produced a cultural and temporal being that is compelled to a future-oriented adaptive behaviour and that senses that it must pay for this evolutionary dowry: on one hand the experience of our “natural artificiality” imposes insight into our finiteness, weakness and imperfection on us, and thereby the continual call to improve ourselves; on the other we learn, while we are trying to exercise control, that not only are we ourselves increasingly being controlled, but also are responsible for the mechanisms that are controlling us: for the ominous transformation of our attempts to control ourselves into an apparatus of external control.

From a historical perspective, the debates on climate and the environment offer excellent illustrative material for this paradoxical feedback process. While in the past it was believed that climate and the environment influenced human beings and culture (although human interventions in nature did occur early on: slash-and-burn land clearance, overgrazing, deforestation, etc.), the extent to which human civilisation alters and influences climate and the environment became increasingly clear later, until ultimately the climate and environmental feedback system created and manipulated by our civilisation retroacts on this very civilisation: wars over resources (water wars) threaten, increased migration and not least qualitatively new forms of social inequality (Ulrich Beck). Climate and environmental change does not affect all regions or nations of the world equally. Even now, a clearly perceptible climate and environmental privileging of some regions and nations on one hand and an exclusion of great sectors of the global community from these chances for survival and prosperity on the other has come into existence.

The hope that an as-yet-to-be founded world government will master these crises is not sustainable, since a competent world government will not exist prior to the possible catastrophe, but instead will be stymied by the mutually contradicting ad-hoc strategies of nations in conflict with each other. What is more likely is a failed globalization. We might do well to save the breath needed to proclaim a world government as “problem-solver” and use it to “cool the soup” instead (Lars Clausen).

And the other responses to the emergency situation, the new precariat of inequality and the –to date inexorable – dynamic of climate and environmental change are remarkable not only for the chain of utterly un-dynamic international climate conferences, due both to their diffuseness as well as to their fallback on old thought patterns and lines of conflict. As so often in times of real or conjectured crises, fundamentalist and/or charismatic movements are on the upswing today that define themselves as knowledge or faith elites and as accordingly as “solutions experts” for the crisis.

Since the issue of climate and environment change affects all societies and not only their industrial and technological sectors, energy production and with it the natural sciences, but also inevitably the economic, social and political condition of nations and transnational bodies, a space arises for both familiar as well as new fundamentalisms: religious, ideological, economic (market liberalism vs. planned economy), technological or ecological. They are all similar in terms of the structure of their thinking, no matter how divergent their notions of salvation, therapeutic approaches and proposed solutions may be. They share a belief in the one correct path as well as a deep-seated aversion to heretics and alternative ways of thinking that cast doubt on the one true path.

This shutting down of thinking – this refusal to envision all possible options, this fear of the categorical subjunctive (Helmuth Plessner) and its attempt to juxtapose perceived or projected facticity (Margaret Thatchers TINA: “There is no alternative”) against a realm of possibilities – is the greatest danger to a successful attempt at coping with the future. Where we fail to maintain the tension between facticity and possibility and put it to use both for thinking as well as for action, anticipatory adaptation, the opportunity granted us together with our “natural artificiality” in the course of evolution, will also fail.

In short, alignment with a future-oriented categorical subjunctive does not involve realisation of a one-and-only utopia to the exclusion of all other alternatives, but the utopian principle of the opening up of a horizon of possibilities and situations, and also of potential dangers, which we have not yet dared to think about. Here – as in the sciences – Husserl’s principle applies: “Wer mehr sieht, hat mehr Recht”.(i.e. those who see more, are more in the right).
But the sciences, whose analytic competence is urgently needed, also have no comforting picture to offer. In view of the issue of climate and environmental change and the political, social, economic and technological problems bound up with it, a systematic, interdisciplinary cooperation among the natural, economic, social and political sciences would be a necessity. Recently, appealing and well-intentioned interdisciplinary conferences and model projects have been organised, supported by foundations, cultural institutions, research communities and the subsidiary budgets of a few ministries. But overall, public discussion and in part inter- trans- and multidisciplinary cooperation as well are largely characterised by an exchange of prejudices engendered by the old mono-disciplinary paradigm. This academic sectarianism and the still implicitly effective line of demarcation between the two cultures – the humanities and social sciences on one side of the divide and the natural sciences on the other – stand for processes of shutting down the mind. They set up barriers to thinking where imagination and envisioning are called for: in the sciences, of all places, no one has a right to want to see less.

To conclude this essay, I shall take up its opening sentence once again: “the cosmos and ‘nature’ with its unceasing change were already there before they produced human beings, and they will continue to exist after human beings cease to be.” Nature as such has no interest in us: “we are so fond of being in nature,” as Nietzsche puts it, “not least because it has no opinion about us.” And we really ought to know that our mourning over the nature we have destroyed is ultimately nothing but hypocrisy and self-pity projected onto “nature.” After all, protection of nature is above all in our own interest.

If we are to perform our task of reflection on “nature,” i.e. on our own nature, with some semblance of success, and be able to protect nature in our own interest, we must grasp the opportunity nature has given us: conscious anticipatory adaptation guided by the utopian principle.

Author: Prof. Dr. Hans-Georg Soeffner
is sociologist and Senior Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities Essen (KWI) and since 2007 also member of their Board of Directors. He is head of the project “Spheres of Intercultural Contact. Societal Patterns of Dealing with the Consequences of Migration. Japan, China, Singapore and Germany Compared” in the research group “Interculture” of KWI, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

Translation: Edith C. Watts

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