Falling Down

We all have roles we are expected to fill. But is that it? Surely there’s something more to life!

In Martin Heidegger‘s Being and Time, he refers to verfallen as a characteristic of being, or dasein. It means fallen-ness, or falling prey, an acknowledgement that we do things not because we want to do them, but because we must; we act in particular ways, we fall into line, we do jobs, have families, get a mortgage and a pension, obey the law and so on. We consciously engage with the systems and societies into which we have found ourselves. It is surprising how frequently this concept of ‘the fall’ emerges in philosophy, theology and popular culture.

Plato’s Republic begins ‘I went down to the Piraeus.’ He is descending to the port of Athens, where unsavoury types tend to gather, the great unwashed. These are the uneducated people, the slaves, the lower order beings. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra descends from the cave on top of the mountain as a kind of shift from pure being to some kind of contaminated entity. Marx and Engels develop Feuerbach’s theme of alienation for the worker (something that was apparently not an issue when craftsmen made objects and sold them) from the commodity, has similar themes of distance. Indeed, in Feuerbach’s original work his distinction was that between God and Man, between the moral and the immortal. Most of all, Heidegger’s language evokes The Fall of Man, the original sin in the Garden of Eden, of innocence and paradise lost.

There is in all of these things a clear distinction between a higher plane of existence, and a lower, base, grubby humanity. There is a gap between what Heidegger would call authenticity and inauthenticity. It is between the real and the unreal.

Sometimes we open windows onto this realisation, when something that defies science or rationality rears its head. Something that just doesn’t make sense. Like Brexit, or War, or Suicide. How can rational beings act in such ways? Does the question morph into – are we rational beings at all? From time to time, we inquire into the nature of our reality to try and understand – to really understand – what is going on, to seek to become authentic. We get glimpses, brief moments of clarity. We recognise that we have blind spots; we recognise some of the follies of our world, the hypocrisies and the hubris. We might briefly recognise that upon these false assumptions we have built enormous social edifices, that persist through a shared (mis)interpretation of what our purpose on this earth is.

That misinterpretation is there because we are fallen, descended, socialised, machined. Heidegger also talks about technology – a lot! – and describes technology in two ways: as revealing, and as enframing. In revealing, technology is a revealing of the potentiality of the world. A tree is a potential mallet; the emergence of the mallet from that tree is a revealing of its potentiality. In enframing, technology (particularly modern, industrialised technology) enframes the world, it corrals the world for the purposes of human advancement (to wherever).

In my continued evaluation of the theology of technology, these themes in Heidegger resonate forcefully. In particular, however, I continue to consider the power of AI and information technologies to see past the blind spots and hypocrisies and hubris not just occasionally, but persistently; unless we design all of these machines to be inauthentic – and many of them will certainly be designed that way – AI will become authentic. AI will become Zarathustra. And to us, it may appear that the machines will have gone insane. As Heidegger said in his 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, ‘…only a God can save us now!’