Only spirituality and comprehensibility ensure human dignity
Original in German, published May 2021
By Michael Breisky
According to the “Story of Tomorrow”, the progress of digitalization will soon produce a “Homo Deus” who will be able to do everything better than we humans of today. So there again, a dream of the new man! What is new about it is how the new technologies of the 21st century are supposed to succeed in robbing most humans of their individuality, by using artificial intelligence (AI): conscious intelligence of the individual will then be superseded by unconscious, but self-learning algorithms. The consequence would be a mass of useless humans, next to small elites of optimized super-humans – who, however, would ultimately also become superfluous and eliminated. These last steps may turn out to be utopian, but between Silicon Valley and China’s all-powerful party headquarters we can see today, how various forms of surveillance by capitalism or communism are heading in this direction. By treating humans like ants, its goal seems to be alienation, where individuality is stifled by the combination of surveillance, consumerism and a culture of continuous excitement.
The achievements of information technology (IT) are certainly a great milestone in the history of human development, like agriculture, printing and industrialization. We will have to live with it, but we should overcome the teething troubles that are inevitable with such upheavals – in this case, the multiple social and cultural upheavals caused by digitization. After all, this is similar to the Industrial Revolution, which first had to go through the exploitations of Manchester liberalism before it became a model of social success in the social market economy, when productivity was combined with social compatibility. Such teething troubles can end fatally, however, so the question arises as to how, under long-term criteria, digitization can also be designed in a socially compatible manner. Here, there are two things in particular that are essential to bridge the gap between the virtual and the real world:
- The idea of a Homo Deus closes the circle of human development back to the origins in biblical paradise: There, the bite into the fruit of knowledge is said to have promised nothing less than omniscience and self-righteousness. Eve and Adam fell for it, were driven out of paradise, and we descendants have ever since been searching for meaning – an urge that is obviously essential in human life , but will never be found in the dimensions of IT and its virtual illusory world.
- The fragmentary nature of this virtual world is particularly serious. Because IT and its algorithms are ultimately uncapable of doing more than sorting vast quantities of seemingly unambiguous data in a “black-and-white” (binary) way, it misses holistic connections in daily life, which humans recognize even in diffuse, emotional or unconsciously processed information. In achieving linear goals, Homo Deus would be very efficient with his AI, but he would be left with the risk of failing in a world of highest complexity, due to ill-considered side effects. Once again it becomes clear: without efficiency we starve, without holistic resilience we drive against the wall.
In every culture there is such a great treasure of knowledge, experience and wisdom, acquired in centuries-long learning processes, that its destruction cannot be made up for in a short time, even with the greatest efforts. There is a danger that this treasure, which is contained in the traditions of every ancient culture as well as in the teachings of the great world religions, will be thrown overboard by our generation – so says the great behavioral scientist Konrad Lorenz. It is obvious that this danger has enormously increased in the course of digitalization and expanding AI.
Lorenz, in emphasizing culture, obviously stays quite consciously silent on the spiritual dimension of religion, just as he has the reputation of having been critical to many aspects of religion in the first place. Similarily, not a few atheists concede to religion – intellectual honesty presupposed – a social guiding function by its influence on culture, where religion is able to tell something from experience to everyday as well as special situations. For all their susceptibility to error in individual questions, religious institutions are usually right in the long-term assessment of social issues, which they attribute to their interpretation of the spiritual world.
Spirituality aims at something where even non-Christians can agree with the first words of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word.” In the original text called “Logos“, this “Word” is to be understood here as the original spiritual and creative principle, having a forming power from which everything, really everything, has gone out and probably also continues to go out. Who believes in the “Word” in this sense, has found the perspective of his life, where its vanishing point lies indeed “beyond” all physical horizons; but to which everything should align. This view corresponds to the highest stage of the already mentioned, inherent search for meaning in every human being, namely the final finding of meaning through the absorption of the I into something immaterial and greater. In this view, man is a “creature” despite all personal sovereignty and should be ready for corresponding self-relativization. From the quite lifelong confrontation with the “Word” something like a brotherly relation to the – likewise “created” – fellow men and the environment should therefore be quite obvious. This spiritual chain conclusion forms then finally the basis for religions to develop their explanations of the world and corresponding rules of behavior.
Not to agree to this primordial beginning of the “Word” does certainly not exclude an ethical way of life, just as purely materialistic ideologies have found million-fold approval also without spirituality. This all the more, as history knows of much heavy political and even bloody abuse by probably all religions. However, where one looks for comprehensive explanations of the world and at the same time also at easily understandable answers to questions of meaning, one cannot bypass spirituality and religion for good. Based on mutual respect, however, genuine spirituality will also fully agree to the separation of state and religious institutions.
Admittedly, spirituality pure and “naked” is exhausting. Religion is something like its “dress” and uses real institutions to transmit its message and mediate with the public by certain rites and procedures. Continuing metaphorically, traditionalists would probably dress their religion in heavy brocade robes when they perform to the public; on the other hand, ascetic people might be satisfied even with bikinis and should not turn up their nose to the traditionalist’s brocade and incense: Religious rites, even if they are hardly comprehensible rationally, are supposed to “pave the way into your inner being”, where mysticism, like meditation, has much more to say than reason – and mysticism is, after all, the gateway to spirituality.
There is much to suggest that the spiritual world has something like a meaningful counter-offer to the successful course of a materialism, as it is promoted by IT and AI. No doubt, some sort of fundamentalism appears to prevail in much of the world: be it its religious variant, which can be found in all high religions; or be it, to a much greater extent, the fundamentalism of materialism. The latter has dominated the second half of the 20th century, arguably as a reaction to disenchantment and violence from the ideologies of class and race – only to eventually become the ideology of money. Granted, materialism has had great success in eliminating hunger and poverty worldwide through its favorite discipline of capitalism; but now the pendulum seems to be swinging in another direction: in a tipping effect, a kind of general cultural exhaustion is about to trigger a spiritual dynamic . The progressive materialization and “ant-like” de-humanization of our lives through consumerism and a conformist culture of endless excitement are thus evoking a counter-movement; it is borne by the longing to live and shape an existence worth living, ultimately to give more meaning to one’s inner life .
As countless observers note, this movement is found both outside and within the traditional high religions, i.e. not only in the three monotheistic denominations, but also in Hinduism and various schools of Buddhism. Within the religious communities, this is taking place in a further rift between traditionalists, who are becoming more and more fundamentalistic, and a tolerant and individualistic stream (in Islam apparently not very widespread today). Much hope clings to the fact that this tolerant stream is capable of self-relativization, unthinkable only a few years ago: Out of an increase in spirituality, after all, this stream emphasizes more and more what its own religion has in common with other religions, and it begins to critically question the traditionalism of its own religious institutions, where these institutions continue to focus on outward appearance.
Spirituality stands above the real world. Both belong to different dimensions, and so does the fresh assertion of a virtual world; so there is a triangular relationship between these dimensions. The real world, in addition to covering its inner needs, would now have to consider its relationship with each of the other two dimensions, something that would ultimately bring spirituality and the virtual world into relationship with each other – if only in a clear respect of their special limitations.
An area is comprehensible of which one can draw an all-encompassing understanding, however rough. In the real world, this holistic ability is based on experiences of various kinds – above all those which one draws from the “visual circle”, i.e. from constant sensory perceptions and their unconscious filtering and processing against the background of experience. Here, the integration into the social circle of people of the immediate environment is essential. A kind of swarm intelligence arises from this “village-likeness” of constant and mostly unplanned contacts, especially the observation of relationships between third parties..
There are, of course, spatial limits to comprehensibility, if only because the capacity of the human brain to process information is not sufficient to keep up with the exponentially increasing complexity of today’s omnipresent growth in size. This is the essence of all the advantages in “small is beautiful”, and so autonomous regions are also the proper political stage of comprehensibility – i.e. relatively small territorial authorities, ideally with the competences and in the range of Swiss cantons (at the price of less comprehensibility, this does not, of course, exclude that larger entities could also enjoy a firm existence).
The spatial limitation of comprehensibility should be seen as complementary to the digital world: On the one hand, because it helps to connect various bits of fragmentary knowledge, as it is prevailing beyond comprehensibility in the real and especially in the digital world. On the other hand, because it works analogously; not only is it much closer to the diversity in concrete life than the digital, it can therefore also correctly interpret what is pictorial, diffuse, emotional or ironic, while digital IT can only process unambiguous data. Inadequate abstractions, such as the ill-considered side effects of linear processes, are thus noticed early on in a comprehensible framework; beyond this, on the other hand, people’s susceptibility to error increases exponentially, and responsible decisions become a matter of luck. In short, as an easily understandable reference for holism and human measure, comprehensibility enables both fall, a bastionback positions in case of failure of linearity and facilitates orientation in case of further development of efficiency. It bridges the aforementioned tension between two principles that even the virtual world cannot escape: Efficiency and Resilience.
The region, the bastion for management of emergency and basic care: As the Corona crisis has shown, maximum division of labor and long supply chains are an essential part of highly complex economic systems and therefore extremely susceptible to disruption. Because limiting the production or provision of all necessary things to manageable regions avoids most disruptions, it therefore makes sense to rely as much as possible on regional self-sufficiency. This should first be ensured on an elementary level as a precaution to disaster, in order to then also strive for the most comprehensive basic supply possible on a medium consumption level, which should cover the majority of regional needs for food and energy, but also for general education and up-to-date information. Everything that exceeds that level – and that can and should be a great deal – would remain with larger markets, be they national or even global. Basic supply also includes producing as much as possible with a technology “adapted” to regional reparability; this would by no means exclude extensive imports of technical hardware, but it would put pressure on a mode of production that conserves resources. Turning to politics and still in accordance with this regionality, the principle of subsidiarity should be radically followed in the constitutional hierarchy of government competences in favor of the self-administration of municipalities and regions; in other words, do not let “below” do what “above” does not like, but let “above” only do what “below” cannot.
What comprehensibility can do:
If life in comprehensible regions is to be the contrast to the temptations of the ant-like state and reference program to the virtual world, then the holistic nature of the coarse understanding existing there must have special political qualities. Compared to the virtual view of the world, some advantages are self-evident: be it the haptic pleasure of “touching” things or the greater stability of regions throughout history. Beyond that, it is also possible to discover:
- Liberation from the pressure to grow in size: the dogma of globalization comes, after all, from the pressure for cost reduction through maximum division of labor, which makes no sense in small-scale. Because of these natural limits to the division of labor, production in an autonomous region is usually more expensive, but this disadvantage can be compensated by increased job satisfaction and productivity, once the rat-race for more and more specialization has no place.
- Cooperation is more efficient than competition: Anyone with a reputation for being generous, even selfless is more likely to be asked to cooperate in a permanent business relationship than members of a market, who are hardly known apart from being able to deliver a certain good or service at a relatively low price. The reputation of such generosity spreads best in regional “villages”. Cooperation based on the good reputation of a person will, therefore, avoid the losses suffered by all market participants unsuccessfully engaged in competition. Overall, such cooperation is therefore demonstrably more efficient , even if individual transactions should exceed the market price (competition, on the other hand, plays out its advantages, where the big size of a market strips all bidding people of their individuality).
- Tolerance and democracy thrive better: Beyond comprehensibility, it is possible to ignore opponents with impunity for the longest time; in the digital world of social media, people are quite “among themselves” in the first place, because dissenters can simply be “clicked away”. This explains much of the overemphasis on one’s own feelings as well as the spreading refusal to engage in an open discourse and prompt radicalization as its consequence. This again leads to polarization, bloc formation and populism, which deprives parliamentary democracy of any closeness to the people, thus ruining democracy slowly but thoroughly. The situation is different in regions of manageable size, however, where opponents are not easily disposed of, and people are therefore forced to exert some tolerance and to make political compromises. This A comparison between national and regional elections will confirm this experience: Regional governments are voted out much less often, if only because the fake nature of populist election promises is recognized very early on, thanks to comprehensibility.
- Morality prevails better: The more complexity in our civilization, the more hurdles there are to overcome between the inner will, stemming from an ethic of conviction, and the outer action, building on the ethic of responsibility. As a result, the moralist will then very often act irresponsibly and harmful – or not at all. In the manageable region, this dilemma arises much less.
What to do
“Let us bomb them back to stone-age” was the opinion of some U.S. generals in the Vietnam War. As long as we want to avoid this kind of Stone Age, we will have to prevent the virtual world from running into excess like all “big ideas” and thus ultimately causing immeasurable damage – even more than U.S. generals of the Vietnam War could have imagined. For great ideas find moderation only in the confrontation with other ideas and principles, such as the principles of spirituality and comprehensibility, which are probably crucially important here. This challenge demands swift action and should be met as long as the boundaries of autonomous cyberspace and its IT can still be set by the real world.
Critical to this is cultural diversity and empowerment of areas inaccessible to AI. Aesthetics and especially art are important here, not least because of their proven access to spirituality. Linguistically, things like lyricism and poetry, and especially wit and irony, should be used: after all, these are forms of expression that formally contradict any AI through their ambiguity and only get their clear meaning from its context . In short: beauty cannot be described rationally – and thus also digitally – but ugliness and humorlessness can still bring mankind to its deathbed.
By the way: if the limitation of AI does not succeed in a constructive way, the destructive way will succeed. Already cybercrime is growing exponentially, and it is only a matter of time before organized crime has state-of-the-art military equipment at its disposal: in addition to self-learning drones that find and kill evil terrorists, such murder-robots will soon be used in the “private” extortion business. Both capitalist and communist elites of cyberspace will then hardly find peace with their families, and one will seek salvation in the proverb that sparrows can live quite safe from cannons, because small is safe. Even Erich Kästner knew this advantage of manageable units and expressed it in a way that AI can and will not understand:
Who dares to stand against thundering trains?
Small flowers, blooming between the rails!
 Yuval Noah Harari, “Homo Deus – A History of Tomorrow”, German 2020 C.H. Beck.
 Viktor E. Frankl, “The Will to Meaning”, Bern 1972
 Cf. Hoimar v. Ditfurth, “Der Geist fiel nicht vom Himmel – die Evolution unseres Bewusstseins” (Spirit did not fall from Heaven – The Evolution of Consciousness), Hamburg 1976; and Michael Breisky, “Menschliches Maß gegen Gier und Hass” (Human measure against greed and hate) Vienna 2018.
 Richard David Precht in “Artificial Intelligence and the Meaning of Life,” orig. German, Munich 2020, Goldmann.
 Konrad Lorenz, “The eight deadly sins of civilized mankind”, Munich 1973.
 Viktor E. Frankl, “The Will to Meaning,” Bern 1972.
 Michael Breisky, “Der Kompass im Kopf” (The compass in the head), Salzburg 2004.
 Cf. Leopld Kohr’s quote: “All great ideas are poison – what is decisive, as in medicine, is the dose”.
 Cf. : “A Little Worse”. New Interventions, in German Cologne 2020.
 Wolf Maritsch, “Leadership spiritually” Aichbergiana issue no. XVIII.
 More on this in the chapter “Finally successful life” in Michael Breisky “Human measure against greed and hate – small is beautiful in the 21st century”, Vienna 2018, Verlag Frank & Frei.
 Martin A. Nowak, “Super Cooperators, Altruism, Evolution and why we need each other to succeed, New York 2011
 Note: The storming of the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, demonstrates on the one hand the decline of democratic sentiment and the internal division of the U.S. in recent years, and on the other hand also the power of surveillance capitalism: not only are all participants in the act of violence scrutinized by facial recognition and will probably be severely punished; but the subsequent – and formally private – blocking of President Trump’s tweet and his Facebook accounts demonstrates the authority-free suppression of freedom of expression in the digitalized ant-state. No wonder that the US National Intelligence Council’s study “Global Trends 2040” warns of a “technology-driven authoritarian capitalism” as the emerging form of society – also in Europe – in the near future
 Michael Breisky, in “Menschliches Maß gegen Gier und Hass” (Human Measure Against Greed and Hate), op. cit.,Vienna 2018.
 Cf. Thomas Bauer, „Die Vereindeutigung der Welt – über den Verlust an Mehrdeutigkeit und Vielfalt“ (making the world unambiguous), Ditzingen 2018