All the minds of all the brilliant thinkers that the world has ever known will still come up pathetically short when compared with the grandeur of the universe. Technology, if it is to soberly measure its own capabilities and power, must approach the questions of the universe with a certain degree of humble modesty.
“Until twenty years ago, a trip from Europe to the States took seven hours; at a cost of eighteen billion dollars, that time was reduced to fifty minutes. It is known, now, that, given the expenditure of further billions, this flight time can be cut in half. A passenger, sterilized in body and mind (lest he bring into our great land either Asian flu or Asian ideas), pumped full of vitamins and videotapes, will be able to move from city to city, from continent to continent, and from planet to planet—with ever-increasing speed and security. And the vision of all this phenomenally efficient, solicitous machinery is supposed to take our breath away, so that we never get around to asking what exactly is gained by these lightning-fast peregrinations. Such speeds used to be too much for our old, animal body; travel from hemisphere to hemisphere, when too sudden, would disrupt its circadian rhythm. But, fortunately, a drug has been found to nullify that disruption. True, the drug sometimes causes depression, but there are other drugs to raise your spirits. They do cause heart disease. But, then, one can insert polyethylene tubes into the coronary arteries to prevent them from clogging.”—From His Master’s Voice, Stanisław Lem
Man is a creature that wonders. He asks questions. From his earliest years, he sees the world around him, and tries to understand, make sense, of the things that he sees, hears, feels. A child intuits the rational nature of not just the world, but himself, and as he begins to learn a language, he realizes that he is able to put his thoughts and experiences into a vocabulary, and transmit these ideas to others. In the beginning is the Word.
The Greeks had a name for this kind of elementary experience: Theoria. Theoria can roughly be translated as contemplation, and implies a kind of rising above our corporeal sensations and considering those abstract concepts and connections that we perceive written into the universe, and which issues from the spiritual, immaterial, and rational part of our being. It was considered one of the hallmarks of man, compared with the beasts of the earth in which he shared his home. There was something angelic—divine—about it, and indeed Plato and Aristotle saw in it a kind of foretaste of the heavenly realm.
Theoria implied an openness, an abandonment, to what was outside of our usual human experience. The Greek etymology of the word is telling. It is a combination of thea (θεα) “a view” and horan (όράν) “to see”. From it, the Greek word for spectator (theoros, θεωρός) is derived, as well as our English word theater. So fitting is this comparison of contemplation with that of a spectator at a theater or game, that the fourth century B.C. Greek philosopher Heraclides of Pontus uses the analogy to explain the purpose of Theoria:
As we go to the Olympian festival for the sake of the spectacle (θεάς), even if nothing more should come of it—for the theoria (θεωρια) itself is more precious than money; and just as we go to theorize (θεωρούμεν) at the festival of Dionysus not so that we will gain anything from the actors (indeed we pay to see them) … so too the theoria (θεωρια) of the universe must be honoured above all things that are considered to be useful. For surely we would not go to such trouble to see men imitating women and slaves, or athletes fighting and running, and not consider it right to theorize without payment the nature and truth of reality. [*]
When we become “spectators” of the world around us, we observe certain aspects of life and existence that would be overlooked if we were always “part of the game” on the field. A spectator at a football game, for example, has an expanded vision of the game from his vantage point, and can analyze certain plays, in a way a player on the field is not able to do. The spectator sees the “big picture”, so to speak, while the player, although essential to the game, will be more focused on executing his own part well, than considering the whole.
This analogy could be stretched too far, but I think it is useful in trying to come to a better understanding of why Theoria or contemplation is an essential part of human development and maturity. If we leave the spectator’s seat and join the game, without ever considering the whole, we are bound to be trapped in a myopic vision of the man, the world, and the universe. We see it through the bits and fragments that come our way, but fail to see how these bits and fragments relate to the meaning of life and of man. Without contemplation, not only do we begin to treat the world as if it is merely a problem to be solved through Techne, or technological means, but we treat the human person in the same way. Stanisław Lem, the famous Polish science-fiction writer, in his novel His Master’s Voicet, poignantly makes this point:
The means of civilization replace its ends, and human conveniences substitute for human values. The rule whereby corks in bottles give way to metal caps, and metal caps to little plastic lids that snap on and off, is innocent enough; it is a series of improvements to make it easier for us to open containers of liquid. But the same principle, when applied to the perfecting of the human brain, becomes sheer madness; every conflict, every difficult problem is compared to a stubborn cork that one should discard and replace with an appropriate labor-saving device.
The means of civilization are the Techne of the world. They are, as Lem states, the little plastic lids, that snap on and off. They are computers, smartphones, the internet, gigantic transport ships and ports, automobiles, and even medicine and biomedical devices. A pacemaker is an extraordinary piece of equipment—there is no doubt about that. It has saved countless lives. But for all that, it still remains one of the many “means of civilization”, and is not an end in itself. Why are the lives worth saving? Why is it a good thing to prolong human life? This kind of question, the answer of which seems self-evident, is more difficult to answer than it appears at first glance. Why not allow nature to simply take its course and let the person die “when their time is up”? What if the person whose life we are prolonging is an entirely wicked sort, whose presence on the earth does more harm than good? Would it not be a better use of the pacemaker to save it only for those whose lives are truly worth saving? This kind of questioning appears absurd, but only because we are still the “players” on the “field” and have not viewed the scenario from the perspective of the spectator who is asking the bigger questions.
An alien race from another planet, without any sentimental ties to Earth and therefore able to view the situation from an entirely detached point of view, may well wonder why we give pacemakers to all people, good and wicked alike. It may even wonder why a race, which is constantly at each other’s throats and seems to spend all of its time fighting, stealing, exploiting, and abusing one another would want to take the time and resources to extend the life of the species at all.
The alien race is a spectator of the situation, and is being absurd by asking these questions. How would we answer it? Would we be able to answer the question by appealing to Techne? To science? To “progress”? We speak of progress in a grandiose sense, as if all of humanity is on the same train to a futuristic utopia that will once and for all solve the problems that have plagued man since time immemorial. But it seems that the more we invent and progress, the more there grows those fundamental problems that are the perpetual bane to the human spirit such as alienation, confusion, unhappiness, anxiety, depression, and many others beside. To proffer a convincing answer to our alien interrogators, we would find it necessary to climb out of our technological mode of thinking and dwell on those concepts that can only be perceived by Theoria.
Lem explores a number of these themes exquisitely in his book, His Master’s Voice. The plot of the book is that somewhere in the Nevada desert a team of scientists have picked up on what appears to be a message sent from outer-space. The message is an enigma, but it is undoubtedly sent by an intelligent being because it exhibits certain properties that only an intelligent being could communicate. The scientists begin by trying to decipher the message, they propose theories, conduct experiments. After deriving some practical (i.e. militaristic use) of the message (though they have utilized only four to five percent of the whole message), they believe that they have accomplished a great task and stop asking the bigger questions such as “who is Sender of the message and what was their purpose in sending it? What is their civilization like?” Such considerations are deemed a waste of time, since they already have put the message to good (i.e. technological) use.
In one regard, the message from outer space is a clear indication of the limits of Techne. No matter how much time the scientific team expends on trying to decipher the message, they never achieve more than a miniscule amount of understanding of the entire message—about four to five percent. And we do not know if they have even properly “understood” what they think they have understood. Their translation of this small part of the message simply allows the scientists to create a substance that they nickname Frog Eggs, and which consists of a kind of nuclear energy hitherto unknown to man. This strange concoction is their proof of having “cracked the code”. But the overall feeling on gets from the account is that the scientists are in fact fantastically short of understanding the real purpose of the message.
The lesson from this is that Techne, by its very nature, always has limits, and rather embarrassing ones at that. First of all, it is limited because it is the work of man, himself a finite and limited being. All the minds of all the brilliant thinkers that the world has ever known will still come up pathetically short when compared with the grandeur of the universe. The idea that Lem employs—of a civilization so far beyond us that we can hardly (if at all) understand its message—is intended to put us in our place. Techne, if it is to soberly measure its own capabilities and power, must approach the questions of the universe with a certain degree of humble modesty. A self-awareness of what it can and cannot do.
But this self-awareness cannot proceed from its own laws and considerations. Techne, in itself, has no other guiding principle then its own limitless progress. Theoria, on the other hand, is able to comprehend the true nature of Teche and its role in the larger whole. Theoria considers man both with regard to his nature and with regard to the many relationships that he is inevitably a part of—material and personal. Theoria even leaves open room for something that transcends man, that is greater than man and the natural universe—the idea of a Supreme Being or God. Why? Because as a spectator man cannot help but wonder: “Where does this all come from and where is it going? What is the purpose of this game on the field I’m watching? Why are the players moving the way they are?” Theoria asks “why” and thus opens the way of a new path that Techne is incapable of unlocking.
This goes back to the passage from Lem’s book at the beginning of this article. Man has created ever faster modes of transportation. He even has created drugs to offset the ill-effects of these faster modes of transportation, and then has created drugs to offset the ill-effects of the drugs. Is it because of this that man declares he is the great victor? But what was the purpose of the faster transportation for in the first place? To get this particular man from point A to point B more quickly. But why is this necessary? So that he has more free time? More time to work on creating an even faster method of transportation?
If we keep asking these questions, we find ourselves deeper and deeper in the quicksand of Techne. This is why our culture does not dare to ask the deeper questions, the “why” questions. We may realize that what we thought was progress was nothing more than a hamster wheel that really did not get us any further to our ultimate goal. For humanity, this realization is a moment of existential crisis, because it puts in doubt everything we thought would save us in the end. Contemplation, on the other hand, which weighs and measures man and the universe more realistically, sees that the true purpose of things is not imminent, but transcendent. If the purpose was imminent, all things would suffer the same fate as the endless questioning that we mentioned above. If the movements of the football team players on the field did not find their purpose in something beyond themselves—that is, the winning of the game—then they would appear absurd to us and we would soon lose interest in the game. It is because we understand the true meaning of the player’s movements—their attempt to win the game—that the game becomes interesting to us and the actions of the players take on meaning.
Contemplation, then, is the key which unlocks the otherwise unsolvable riddle of human life and society. Technology, when posed with the question of “where do we go from here?”, in the final analysis, can neither provide an answer or solution. Technology can, in fact, lead us farther, rather than nearer, our goal. Human values such as tenderness, compassion, friendship, generosity, education, peace, understanding, consolation are beyond the reach of a merely technical mode of thinking. These values neither lead to technical progress nor are dependent upon it. Certainly, technology has and continues to be a means in which these transcendent human values are practically put into effect, but that says more about the superiority of the values than it does about the role of the technological.
Theoria, however, must be relearned, because somewhere along the way we have forgotten how to do it. Very young children are perhaps the greatest contemplatives on earth. For them, the world is a place of wonder and adventure, and they do not bring their preconceived notions to the phenomena that they encounter. One moment they are cradled in their mothers’ arms, the next they are sitting on the floor playing with blocks. Each moment is born anew in them and they are not so narrow-minded that they can only engage in the world on one level. Learning would, in fact, be impossible if at least at the beginning of our lives we were not contemplative beings. It is their wide purview of human existence that allows children to learn about human relationships, language, the physical world, and their own abilities and limitations. They are not “students” of any particular school of specialization, but are students of life.
Modern man, however, in his pride, has put away what he considers childish games, and sets himself to “real” work, which usually means the ultra-specialized work that he has been trained in: his Techne. He believes that he excels as a person because he can take one area of expertise beyond that of the masses. But in the process, he mistakes the forest for the trees. The scientific team in His Master’s Voice faces a similar conundrum when faced with a message from outer-space that is beyond their training and specializations. They realize that to understand the message properly it is imperative to look beyond just the few facts and fragments that they comprehend and ask what the purpose of the message is in the first place—a question that the author admits is usually the domain of philosophers and theologians, not that of scientists. And yet the whole mission of the project will collapse if they can not rise above Techne and see the message through the lens of Theoria:
But at the same time the leadership—the Big Four—began to realize, if somewhat dimly, that they were falling into the situation where the forest became harder and harder to see for the researching of the trees; that the established routine, now finely tuned and quite efficient in its performance of systematic operations, could engulf the Project itself, dissolving it in a sea of isolated facts and findings; and that in this way the chance would be lost of ever grasping what had taken place. Earth had received a signal from the stars, a message so packed with content that the few crumbs pecked from it were sufficient to nourish a multitude of research teams for years on end; and yet the message itself was wrapped in a haze whose impenetrability, veiled by a swarm of tiny achievements, grew less and less provoking. Perhaps at work here was simply a psychological defense mechanism; or perhaps it was the habit of people trained to uncover the laws behind a phenomenon and not pose questions as to what brought those and not other laws into the world.
To such questions philosophy and religion are traditionally supposed to supply answers, not the natural scientist, who severs himself from the temptation of trying to divine the motives behind Creation. But here it was just the opposite: the approach of the guesser of motives, so discredited in the historical development of the empirical sciences, became the last hope offered for victory.
Here the team of scientists come to realize the limits of Techne. No amount of research, development, or invention will solve the riddle of the message, because the question of the purpose of the message lays on another level of human intelligence altogether. If anything, an improper use of Techne may lead them further and further from the goal. Think of someone trying to use a hammer to screw in a screw, or a blender to wash their socks.
Theoria requires silence, wonder, humility, listening, and solitude. Remember, we must become the spectator of the game, not the players. We must resist the temptation of requiring immediate answers, or believe that the answer for everything is mere action. Prayer, meditation, contemplation, stillness, and unplugging ourselves from a rampant technological existence are essential prerequisites to returning to a life of Theoria. This does not mean that we sever ourselves from all our technological accouterments. This would be a kind of human defeatism, an admission that the technological is more powerful than us and, therefore, cannot be tamed. But it does mean a reorientation—a conversion if you will—of the fundamental direction of our lives. This is a return to childhood, in a sense. Returning to the school of life, not just the school of some specialized knowledge. Children live in a beautiful simplicity: in the present moment. They relate to the world and others in a way that is personal, intimate, and natural. Techne is ultimately a cheap substitute when it is used as our primary bridge between ourselves and the world around us. When we do use Techne in this way, the result is both grotesque and destructive. Techne is that which is made by man. But that which is made by man cannot substitute for man, or redeem him. Only man—man open to the transcendent—can embody and develop human values. Theoria places man back at the center of the universe as the measure and end of all things: man in his dignity, his excellence, and his irreplaceable nature. In a sense, he is the Techne of God.
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[*] Andrea Wilson Nightingale, Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy: Theoria in Its Cultural Context (Cambridge University Press, 2004)., p.18.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay. It has been brightened for clarity.