Human or machine?

Andre Bartoniczek

“I am a robot – my soul has been taken from me.” With these words, the 20-year-old German dramatist Georg Büchner put a mood into words as long as 180 years ago which today could be expressed in exactly the same words by many of our contemporaries.

As long ago as the eighteenth century there was already a fascination with machines (de La Mettrie 1748) but with Büchner a whole new dimension was added. He had intensively studied the nervous system of the barbel for his dissertation in 1835/36 and thus joined the ranks of an ever growing number of scientists who showed an interest in the nerves as the starting point for an explanation of human behaviour. In his drama Danton’s Death, it says right at the beginning: “Know one another? We would have to break open our skulls and drag the thoughts out of the fibres of each other’s brains.” If I seek the human being in their material nerve cords, their actions must appear to me as the result of a stimulus-reaction pattern in which logically there can be no freedom.

It is surely no coincidence that Büchner in the famous letter to his bride writes of the “horrible fatalism of history” which plunges him into profound resignation. A few years previously, the Italian Luigi Galvani – also an anatomist like Büchner – had discovered by a curious accident that the frogs legs he was preparing jerked when he touched them with a scalpel and an electrical spark, in other words that there had to be an electrical connection with the nerves. This led him to assume “animal electricity” which he interpreted as a “vital force” (Basfeld 1992, Schlüter 2005). Even if Galvani’s interpretation was subsequently corrected, the focus had turned to the connection between nerves and electricity and the latter was now being made increasingly manageable.

Soviet power plus electrification

There was a puzzling but crucial phenomenon that the increasingly rapid electrical discoveries repeatedly occurred by chance! Maxwell succeeded in the late nineteenth century in describing electricity mathematically but that did not enable him to explain it. We always observe its results but never electricity itself. Thus it is also remarkable that many different researchers regularly declared that although there was not yet any knowledge about where it came from, this was not all that important to begin with as it could nevertheless be deployed.

In the nineteenth century, electricity thus became a civilisational force without, however, its reality as such being visible – only the activity of the human will lured it out of hiding: by around 1900 there was a widespread electricity supply network distributed across Europe. Since 1901 there had been wireless telegraphy. In 1902 the first underground started to operate in Berlin powered by electricity. Ultimately it became the basis for all processes in the digital world.

Its reach is not just restricted to technical products but relates to social processes worldwide. Lenin famously defined communism as: “Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country”. Is communism not actually about a spiritual ideal of “equality” in the sense of justice and solidarity? Here it is turned into enforced conformity which is produced by political and ideological power and electricity – with the well-known catastrophic consequences for millions of people. What would capitalism be? With Lenin we might say: entrepreneurial power plus electrification of the whole country… But seen positively, capital is nothing other than the foundation on which the power of individual initiative can be released because with accrued assets which are not turned into directly essential products I create the opportunity to develop my talents.

This principle was able to assert itself particularly well on the north American continent because here the plethora of state regulation of the old European world held no sway. In the expansion westwards the courage for initiative arose at the “movable frontier” in the permanent confrontation with the wilderness – it was, however, strongly oriented towards material success and from the beginning came at the cost of others, here the Native Americans. At the west coast – above all in California – this development reached its peak in the gold rush to Sacramento and later on in the “dream factory” of Hollywood which to the present day uses technology to manufacture the dreams of humanity on an industrial scale, and most recently in “Silicon Valley” whose companies dominate the Internet worldwide.

In “social networks” and the consumption of films and products in apps with fast thumb movements, the caricatures of social behaviour and individual initiative and satisfaction of needs flow together – and thus all the unresolved tension between eastern and western world since 1917.

Presciently Günther Anders in his work Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Obsolescence of Humankind) diagnosed as long ago as 1956 that humans had created products which they no longer understood themselves and which dominated them. Using weapons technology, he shows how our emotional development has lagged behind technical development: we can no longer realise emotionally what the actual effect is when we trigger a bomb.

Technology was not a neutral means to an end but ultimately it made itself independent and determined the actions of its creator. Work was losing its purpose, practical constraints dominated and the media were blurring the lines between reality and reflection, preventing judgements based in reality ; and reality was, in the end, adjusted to fit in with the reflection: “The lie has been repeated often enough to become the truth,” Anders wrote.

The nature of electricity

This development gives rise to many questions: what is the meaning of the crucial discoveries in electricity always having been so curiously accidental? Can an object world itself turn into a force which changes objects? How can a machine act on humans in this way when it is, after all, their creation? How can an object turn into a subject?

Let us here recall a biographical situation relating to Rudolf Steiner’s life: in the autumn of 1924 Steiner was seriously ill, had to stop almost all his activities and was tied to his sickbed. Every morning at five he now wrote very short, extremely condensed texts to the members of the Anthroposophical Society – the so-called “Letters” connected with sets of “Leading Thoughts” – in which he referred once more to the most important civilisational issues. When his condition noticeably deteriorated in March 1925, he for the first time did not put the concluding sentence: “To be continued in the next issue” (Selg 2012). Steiner died on 30 March.

What were the final words which he still addressed to the members a few days earlier? What was the motif to which Steiner wanted to refer in the last moments still left to him for writing? In this last letter for the “Leading Thoughts” entitled  “From Nature to Sub-Nature” we find the words: “By far the greater part of that which works through technology in civilisation today, and in which the life of human beings is so intensely interwoven, is not nature at all but sub-nature. It is a world which emancipates itself from nature in a downward direction. […] Sub-nature must be understood as what it really is. This can only happen if human beings rise in spiritual knowledge at least as far into extraterrestrial super-nature as they have descended in technology into sub-nature.

“The age requires knowledge transcending nature because inwardly it must come to grips with a life content which has sunk beneath nature and whose influence is dangerous. […] Electricity, celebrated since its discovery as the soul of natural existence, must be recognised in its power of leading down from nature to sub-nature. Only human beings themselves must not slide downwards with it.”

With a water mill I can see all the factors by observing the water and the mechanics of the wheel as power is transferred to the milling process. With electricity and the processes it enables, the causal forces come from an invisible layer which cannot be observed in nature itself but which is nevertheless dominant. They do not lie above but below nature because they do not create out of its laws and intentions but act destructively.

If there is indeed a force that emanates from these mechanisms, and if to this extent they have to have a subject, then something must be at play here which can only be actions of a being. Steiner gives this being a name: Ahriman.

He emphasised repeatedly that this was a given which could not be wished away – but the important thing was to deal with it properly. That might mean, for example, not demonising the Internet but asking ourselves about the developmental task with which it confronts human beings.

It offers infinite possibilities for exploring knowledge – but are these unlimited “networks” and the mass of content identical with the context which is needed to turn data into cognition? Is the existence of facts alongside one another already the matter itself? Isn’t it rather the case that it requires the independent activity of the thinking to create the context? We can give ourselves over for all time to the illusion of context through the electronic availability of information in the expanses of the Web; or we can wake up to ask ourselves what actually creates the connection between concepts. Then in turn – with the conscious clarity we have acquired about what we are actually dealing with in the “Web” and what not – we can access the diverse support offered by Internet content very productively instead of “coasting along”.

Learning happens in sleep

This is where the task of education starts. Just as the forces of sub-nature act out of non-sensory invisibility, so education must also take account of the night side of existence. After all, our soul leaves its connection with the body every night and enters the sphere in which it is fertilised by the spiritual connections of the world.

If I exclude this process, I cut the pupils off from the forces which act on them from the supersensory instead of the subsensory sphere – with the corresponding consequences: “Because if we take no account at all of the fact that human beings also sleep […] and that in some way what we do in lessons continues to work there in human beings, then that has a very specific effect: by failing to take account that something has left the human being during the night, we turn the human being into a robot” (R. Steiner in the teachers’ course 1921).

If after a stirring story its impressions do not immediately have to be “conceptualised” but can continue to work and be processed during the night, then time is slowed down for a moment and the automatic rush to judgement is avoided – in view of the time-absorbing action of computers and the frequently much too rapid judgemental reactions, a healing process in which the spiritual origin of a thought can gradually be sensed and planning and predictability are replaced by a question, by intuition, in other words by life. If the teacher gives the child real pictures to take away which fire the imagination, then spiritual formative forces can pick up and consolidate these inner movements during the night.

These processes vitalise the activity of the soul which ultimately also contributes to stronger sensory perception. Such perception will in future be crucial for answering a question which is already the subject of many films and books today: am I faced by life or a machine?

About the author: Andre Bartoniczek was an upper school teacher of German and history at the Stuttgart-Uhlandshöhe Waldorf School and is today a lecturer at the Academy for Waldorf Education in Mannheim.