This article first appeared in the January, 1997 edition of First Things and is reprinted with permission. © 1997
Note from John Abbott, Initiative President
This article comes as close as anything I’ve read about the need to find a coherent life-philosophy which respects both scientific and spiritual ways of understanding. In attempting to answer the question, “education for what”, many people see the need for a resolution of such viewpoints.
The principal spiritual problem confronting those of us who live in a technological age was spoken of some years ago in a prophetic poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her collection Huntsman, What Quarry?
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts… they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric.
What Millay speaks of here is a great paradox. Beginning in the nineteenth century, humanity creatively addressed the problem of how to eliminate information scarcity, how to overcome the limitations of space, time, and form. In the early nineteenth century, for example, a message could travel only as fast as a human being, which on a train was thirty-five miles per hour. Language, either written or spoken, was very nearly the only form in which messages could be codified; and, of course, most people did not have access to the expanding knowledge being generated in many fields. And so we attacked these problems with great vigor, and triumphed over them in spectacular fashion.
As a result, in the nineteenth century we remade the world through technology, unleashing a meteoric shower of facts, with telegraphy, photography, the rotary press, the telephone, the typewriter, the phonograph, the transatlantic cable, radio waves, movies, the x-ray, the computer, and the stethoscope–not to mention the penny press, the modern magazine, the advertising agency, and modern bureaucracy. We continued addressing the problem of information scarcity into the first half of the twentieth century, when we added some important inventions so that the burdens of information scarcity were removed once and for all.
We may congratulate ourselves on our achievement, but we have been rather slow in recognizing that in solving the information problem, we created a new problem never experienced before: information glut, incoherence, and meaninglessness. From millions of sources all over the globe, through every possible channel and medium–light waves, airwaves, tickertapes, computer banks, telephone wires, television cables, satellites, printing press–information pours in. Behind it, in every imaginable form of storage–on paper, video and audiotape, on disks, film, and silicon chips–is an even greater volume of information waiting to be retrieved. Where information was once an essential resource in helping us to gain control over our physical and symbolic worlds, our technological ingenuity transformed information into a form of garbage, and ourselves into garbage collectors.
Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we are awash in information, without even a broom to help us get rid of it. The tie between information and human purpose has been severed. Information is now a commodity that is bought and sold; it comes indiscriminately, whether asked for or not, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume, at high speeds, disconnected from meaning and import. It comes unquestioned and uncombined, and we do not have, as Millay said, a loom to weave it all into fabric. No transcendent narratives to provide us with moral guidance, social purpose, intellectual economy. No stories to tell us what we need to know, and especially what we do not need to know.
Without such narratives, we discover that information does not touch any of the important problems of life. If there are children starving in Somalia, or any other place, it has nothing to do with inadequate information. If our oceans are polluted and the rain forests depleted, it has nothing to do with inadequate information. If crime is rampant on our streets, if children are mistreated, it has nothing to do with inadequate information. Indeed, if we cannot get along with our own relatives, this, too, has nothing to do with inadequate information.
What we are facing, then, is a series of interconnected delusions, beginning with the belief that technological innovation is the same thing as human progress–which is lifted to the delusion that our sufferings and failures are caused by inadequate information–which is linked, in turn, to the most serious delusion of all: that it is possible to live without a loom to weave our lives into fabric, that is to say, without a transcendent narrative.
I use the word narrative as a synonym for “god,” with a small “g.” I know it is risky to do so, not only because the word “god,” having an aura of sacredness, is not to be used lightly, but also because it calls to mind a fixed figure or image. But it is the purpose of such figures or images to direct one’s mind to an idea and, more to my point, to a story. Not any kind of story but one that tells of origins and envisions a future; a story that constructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and above all, gives a sense of continuity and purpose. A god, in the sense I am using the word, is the name of a great narrative, one that has sufficient credibility, complexity, and symbolic power so that it is possible to organize one’s life around it.
I use the word in the same sense, for example, as did Arthur Koestler in calling his book about cornmunism’s deceptions and disappointments The God That Failed. His intention was to show that communism was not merely an experiment in government or social life, and still less an economic theory, but a comprehensive narrative about what the world is like, how things got to be the way they are, and what lies ahead. He also wished to show that for all of communism’s contempt for the narratives of traditional religions, it relied nonetheless on faith and dogma. It certainly had its own conception of blasphemy and heresy, and practiced a grotesque and brutal method of excommunication.
It has not been a good pair of centuries for gods. Charles Darwin, we might say, began the great assault by arguing that we were not the children of God, with a capital “G,” but of monkeys. His revelation took its toll on him; he suffered from unrelieved stomach and bowel pains for which medical historians have failed to uncover a physical cause. Nonetheless, Darwin was unrepentant and hoped that many people would find inspiration, solace, and continuity in the great narrative of evolution. But not many have, and the psychic trauma he induced continues barely concealed to our own day. Karl Marx, who invited Darwin to write an introduction to Das Kapital (Darwin declined), tore to shreds the god of nationalism, showing, with, theory and countless examples, how the working classes are deluded into identifying with their capitalist tormentors. Sigmund Freud, working quietly in his consulting room in Vienna, bid to become the world’s most ferocious godbuster. He showed that the great god of Reason, whose authority had been certified by the Age of Enlightenment, was a great impostor, that it served mostly to both rationalize and conceal the commands of our most primitive urgings. The cortex, as it were, is merely the servant of genitalia. For good measure, Freud destroyed the story of childhood innocence, tried to prove that Moses was not a Jew, and argued that our belief in deities was a childish and neurotic illusion.
Even the gentle Albert Einstein contributed to the general disillusionment. Einstein’s revolutionary papers led to the idea that we do not see things as they are but as we are. The oldest axiom of survival–seeing is believing–was brought to heel. Its opposite–believing is seeing–turned out to be at least as true. Moreover, Einstein’s followers have concluded, and believe they have proved, that complete knowledge is indeterminate. Try as we will, we can never know certain things. Not because we lack intelligence, not even because we are enclosed in a prison of protoplasm, but because the universe is malicious.
The odd thing is that though they differed in temperament, each of these men intended to provide us with a firmer and more humane basis for our beliefs. And some day that may yet happen. Meanwhile, humanity reels from what has been lost. God is dead, Nietzsche said before he went insane. He may have meant gods are dead. If lie did, he was wrong. In this century, new gods have rushed in to replace the old, but most have had no staying power.