Omniscience/Omnipotence: Modern Utopia, Human Condition's Dystopia?

The Centrality of Control in Knowledge and Action

In scientific terms, humans are treated as mere scientific objects, i.e., they are elucidated with a view to predict and/or to manipulate them[1]. As pointed out by Arendt, the scientific discourse is indexed on necessity: “what science and the quest of knowledge are after is irrefutable truth, that is, propositions human beings are not free to reject—they are compelling” (Arendt 1978, p. 59). In scientific terms, contingency is just another name for “epistemic failure”, a not-yet-known. By denoting contingency with the term uncertainty, i.e., as a negative, certainty is made the norm or the ideal. And scientific knowledge is paired with certainty of facts, even after several decades of quantum mechanics, which rather teaches us that uncertainty and indeterminacy are intrinsic to scientific knowledge as well. This scientific register positions humans as an object of enquiry, a “material”, inherently heteronomous i.e., as fully determined by external materials, forces and processes.

When considered in ethical terms, as Arendt put it ironically, “attemps to define human nature almost invariably end with some construction of a deity…” (Arendt 1959, p. 12). Furthermore, she reckons that freedom has wrongly been identified with sovereignty in political and philosophical thought: “If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same, then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality. No man can be sovereign because not one man, but men, inhabit the earth—and not, as the tradition since Plato holds, because of man's limited strength, which makes him depend upon the help of others” (Arendt 1959, p. 210). Understanding freedom as sovereignty has a huge price, the price of reality: “sovereignty is possible only in imagination, paid for by the price of reality” (Arendt 1959, p. 211). Ethical/philosophical narratives of what it is to be human contend with the need to escape from, or at least to balance with, a set of “things to-be-avoided”: the scientifically-induced heteronomy as set out above with the second categorical imperative of Kant[2], and the Hobbesian “state of nature” and “war of all against all”. “Humanity” in ethical terms is defined as a common opposite to these stance-to-be-avoided: human-as-a-machine, human-asa-self-defeated-violent-and-careless-individual. This violent and careless aspect is by the way strangely referred to our animality, as if being human was defined as being different from animals.

A common feature of these scientific and ethical/philosophical approaches of what it is to be human is “control”: when in scientific terms, control by others (including by myself-subject on myself-object); when in ethical terms, self-control (including with the help of God-as-a-reference) or control on the future course of events (freedom-as-sovereignty). But control, when decontextualized and pushed beyond its relevant remit, has more to do with destruction than with anything else, while action is precisely characterised by its unpredictability, hence the inherent impossibility to control its consequences: “Whereas men have always been capable of destroying whatever was the product of human hands and have become capable today even of the potential destruction of what man did not make –the earth and earthly naturemen never have been and never will be able to undo or even to control reliably any of the processes they start through action” (Arendt 1959, pp. 208– 209). Hence, seeking control beyond what can reasonably be predicted has also a high price, the price of plurality and freedom!

  • [1] In passing, no wonder machine will end-up being like humans, since we have patiently paved the way for that by thinking of humans as machines: “Thought itself, when it became 'reckoning with consequences', became a function of the brain, with the result that electronic instruments are found to fulfil these functions much better than we ever could.”—HC, p. 294.
  • [2] “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
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